In a recent post about the communal nature of Christianity, I discussed the individualism that’s poisoning the church. Even the way we interact with the Scriptures is often colored by our “me” oriented culture.
A lot of leaders encourage me to read the Bible as if it’s a love letter written especially to me. The problem is that message of the Scripture is neutered when I read the Scripture with me as its focus. The Bible isn’t magic; it isn’t a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book. The power of the Scriptures lie within their context and the authors’ intention.
Here’s an example:
Jeremiah 29:11: For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. (ESV)
The Israelites are in Babylonian captivity. They’re distraught and hopeless about their situation questioning the words God spoke to Abraham. Jeremiah’s words come to them as a promise. God hasn’t rejected his people; he hasn’t forgotten them. This was a promise to God’s people. Many of the individuals who received this promise died in captivity. This promise was bigger than any individual Israelite, it was a promise that God’s plan would not be thwarted.
This isn’t how this verse is often read. If you go into any Christian bookstore, you’ll find Jeremiah 29:11 tacked onto all sorts of artwork. The context of this promise now becomes “me.” We take a verse like this and make it our “life verse.” God has given me a hope and a future that might have to do with any number of things from my finances to my marriage.
Does God have a hope and a future for you? Yes, eschatologically speaking, he does. In that way, we (collectively) are recipients (albeit indirectly) of this verse. We have a hope and a future for spending eternity in the presence of Christ without any more tears being shed. But in the meantime, Christians, the world over, are laborers helping to redeem this broken world to Christ. While we do so, we are captive. Christians still go bankrupt and suffer divorces, and individual Christians still suffer unspeakable atrocities at the hand of a diabolic occupying enemy.
Something dramatic happens when we begin to read the New Testament with the church in mind. Most of the epistles were written to congregations. When Paul speaks to “you,” he is often talking to a community of believers. To read the New Testament with the proper communal emphasis doesn’t diminish my importance; it puts it into context.
When Paul says to the Philippians that “he who began a good work in you will be faithful to complete it,” he speaks a dramatic promise to a struggling church. Does this mean no individual Philippian walked away from the church? No. This amazing promise was bigger than any individual Philippian. And God’s dramatic story is bigger than me—but I get the pleasure of being part of it.
And that’s just fine with me. I don’t have to be the center of the story. An invitation to be part of God’s astonishing narrative is enough.