“I don’t think that means what you think it does…”

Posted: October 9, 2012 in Uncategorized
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I love a good running gag in a movie – a particular scene, prop, gesture, or phrase that occurs again and again, with a better laugh every time it comes. Many will recognize the line above from “The Princess Bride”, one of my favorite movies of all time, yet I find it oddly appropriate for so much of the rest of my life. (My wife and I seriously considered adding that  line into our renewal vows earlier this year – with the closer, “…but I’m gonna hold you to it anyway!” We were out-voted by our kids.)

Strangely, this line has become a running gag in real life, as Karen goes through chemo, and people try to comfort and reassure us that everything will be OK (in between telling stories about every person they ever heard of who had cancer…and was miserable all through treatment…and died anyway). They often quote scriptures meant to inspire, but…here’s the rub: I write and teach specifically about reading the whole of what the bible teaches, and not selecting only that which supports whatever point you want to make. Most people who do this are not malicious in their intent; they are simply passing on something they learned (wrongly) from someone else. If they think to check what they were told, the verse is usually quoted correctly, or “pretty close, I guess,”…and that’s as far as they go; they simply accept whatever interpretation someone tells them, if it makes them feel good; and hold on dearly to that “promise”. The problem is, “I don’t think that means what you think it does” applies most of the time.  Here’s one example I see a lot: someone in a small group will share with about some disappointment or new difficulty that has arisen, and they don’t know exactly what to do yet. Inevitably, someone will rush to tell them,”I know it’s hard right now, but remember Genesis 50:20 : “What the devil means for evil, God uses for good.” So have faith that God will turn this around and make it all work out good for you.” And once again I fight down the urge to “shot-block” that prayer right back at them. (h/t to  Jon Acuff for that awesome phrase!) So, how does “I don’t think…” apply here? Let’s look at the context surrounding the verse, and see if the popular interpretation holds up.

In the bible , we read in Genesis the story of Joseph, hated by his brothers, sold into slavery, his death faked to hide the crime. God brings Joseph into Pharaoh’s house, and blesses him for his faithfulness (even while imprisoned on false charges of attempted rape), eventually making him Vice-Pharaoh of all Egypt. So it is Joseph who the poor, starving sons of Israel must come to, begging to purchase enough grain to survive the famine which has struck the land. Initially concealing his identity from his brothers, he at last breaks down in joy at the reunion. Their surprise turns to fear when they realize they are face-to-face with the man they tried to kill – and he has ALL the power now.  He forgives them, explaining that by what he understands the bigger picture to be, summed up in the referenced verse:

“You intended to harm me, but God intended it all for good. He brought me to this position so I could save the lives of many people.” (Gen 50:20 NLT)

So, how does our friend’s proffered reassurance match up to the real verse? First, it is misquoted: Joseph says his brothers’ intent against him was evil; he does not attribute this to Satan, but allows them to be responsible for their own actions, just as God allows us to be responsible for our sin – we do not need forgiveness for things we are not responsible for, do we? Second, the blessing is misplaced: it is not Joseph that God is concerned with doing good for…reading the rest of the verse shows it is the people whose lives were saved by placing Joseph in a position of authority, and guiding him in wise decisions by prophetic dreams and interpretations of dreams. Any good that befalls Joseph along the way is entirely collateral to the purpose of God’s plan. To be sure, this is an encouragement to the believer: when the circumstances of life go against us, we have the assurance that God is aware of our suffering, and will sustain us through hardships, because we serve a part in His plan. But it is most certainly NOT a guarantee that “things will turn around, you’ll see” . They might, they might not; but getting this wrong…promising someone the wrong thing…is a faith-killing trap for anyone “going through it”, waiting for their “good” to happen… and getting discouraged when it doesn’t turn around. For me and Karen, life is not “turning around”; if anything it is gaining speed and momentum as it careens downhill. (Sorry, feeling kind of tired and cranky tonight, but I’m not going to edit out an honest thought!) We have been blessed by God, and sustained through this time of trial…but the good is being done on behalf of others – those who are encouraged that they also can be sustained, can endure whatever is happening to them, for the same reason…because God has a purpose for them and He will take care of hem along the way. That is the true promise of Gen 50:20 – that people and things will try to hurt me, and often succeed; but God is in control, and as long as I trust in Him, it will be OK in the end – as He defines OK; maybe not as I define it, but as I should define it, and as I am learning to define it.

I cringe when I hear or see this kind of lazy, false teaching being propagated. It’s the biggest reason I started writing again – to try to help people learn to read and understand the bible the way it was always meant to be: for what it really says as a whole, not sliced and diced into pleasant little sound-bites. I will probably not reach the world, and some people will never be convinced; but if even one person learns something from what I write, it was all worth it…and now we are two, and may reach one or two more; and so on, and so on, and so on…I did not intend this to be a manifesto, and it does not encompass enough to suffice for one, but it’s a start. We will visit this again.

Following hard after Him,

  1. […] Recently I wrote about how well-meaning people sometimes try to use a bible verse to comfort or reassure Karen or me, while she is doing cancer treatments and I am trying not to feel helpless or sorry for myself. These people want to be supportive, and who wouldn’t think that a favorite exhortation or encouragement from the bible would be appreciated? Well, in principle this is a great idea – the Word of God is an awesome place to find support or advice in trying times; but what usually happens is the person will take some verse out of context, or misappropriate a promise or command that was not intended for what they are doing with it. Being who I am (a word geek with an acquired taste for exegesis and hermeneutics – not one to trifle with when bible quotes start flying), I call these “Inigo Montoya moments”, after the character from one of my favorite films, The Princess Bride. Here is a clip of the classic scene: […]