The Most Misused Verse in the Bible

Why do we twist God's promises—and how can we stop doing so?

Editor's note: This week, we're taking a look at some of the
"Best of RELEVANTMagazine.com" from 2010. This article was so widely read when it was first posted that it took us by surprise. And the comments stayed pretty insightful. Some of you took issue with the description of Jeremiah 29:11 as the "most" misused verse—and provided your own opinions as to what verse that actually is! Others said that Chris missed the larger point of the Bible, which is that God does bless and grant favor to those who follow Him. So revisit this article, and chime
in to the conversation below.

“Jeremiah 29:11 is one of the most misused promises in the whole Bible!” a teacher of mine once proclaimed. I nodded in agreement when I first heard my teacher say that, but to be honest I couldn’t tell you what he meant. “For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope” (Jeremiah 29:11, ESV). What’s wrong with applying that to our lives?

Here’s how I learned the hard way: I first had the promise of Jeremiah 29 offered to me in a greeting card at my college graduation. Two “Precious Moments”-type figures prayed on the front of a card, and on the inside was God’s promise to give me a future and a hope. Naturally, I knew exactly what God’s future and hope meant for a person in my situation: a job. I had already begun looking for work, and the verse from Jeremiah was a boost to my confidence.

I spent most of the next year trying to find work. I sent hundreds of emails, revised dozens of resumes and cover letters. I perfected the “just checking to see if you received my application and would like to set up a time to talk” phone call. I had a few good interviews but no offers.

In this rather pitiful way, my job-seeking failures evoked a crisis. What was God waiting for? I asked. Where was my future and my hope? And why was God not providing for me? As I waited for answers to these questions, I learned how to read Jeremiah 29 differently and, even more importantly, how to recognize the subtle ways that my view of God had been twisted out of shape.

The real story

Learning to re-read Jeremiah 29 required me to back up and understand the story of Jeremiah, especially chapter 28. That earlier chapter records a confrontation between the prophet Jeremiah and another prophet named Hananiah. They are standing in the Jerusalem temple—which is empty because the Babylonians had ransacked the city—when Hananiah makes a bold promise: God is going to restore Israel in two years. (Two years!) All the things that were stolen, all the people forced into slavery, everything will be better in two short years. The tens of thousands of people living in exile will be coming home soon.

Jeremiah recognized exactly what kind of promise this was. It sounded good in the short term and would make Hananiah and his supporters very popular. Hananiah may even have believed the promise himself. But it wasn’t true. God had no plans to make everything better in two years. Speaking through Jeremiah, God says to Hananiah, “You have made these people trust in a lie.”

Then comes Jeremiah 29. Against the backdrop of false promises about prosperity—about God’s wonderful plan to set everything right in the near future—Jeremiah sends a letter to Babylon that says, more-or-less: "All of you people are going to be in exile for 70 years. You’re going to die in Babylon. Your children are going to die in Babylon. Settle in."

We often read Jeremiah 29 like it is good news, plain and simple. But to the first people who heard those words, they were a tremendous disappointment. God’s people had suffered terribly. They had lost their land, their throne, their temple. Before Jerusalem fell in battle, the people had given in to cannibalism. They were then force-marched 800 miles and paraded (literally) through a pagan city in which they were now considered as the living symbols of the power of that city’s god.

It was into this kind of despair that Jeremiah offered God’s promise: “I know the plans I have for you … plans for your welfare and not for your harm, to give you a future and a hope.” They were not easy words to hear. Jeremiah promised that God had a plan that was certain and inevitable. But it would not unfold on Israel’s timetable. It would not simply undo Israel’s hardship. Yet the promise stood: God would fully restore His people and bring them out of their desperate situation, but He would not do it in the way any of them would have planned it.

All along I had heard Jeremiah 29 like I was listening to Hananiah—as if God would work out everything for my benefit in the near future and in ways that made sense to me. This is what my teacher meant about misusing God’s promise: we take Jeremiah 29 out of its context and hear in it the promises we want to receive.

God the vending machine

When we realize our interpretation of Jeremiah (or any passage) has given in to such a misreading, we should step back and consider how we arrived in a place where God more closely resembled a vending machine than our creator and savior. It was Martin Luther who quipped, “What the heathen had in their wood, we have in our opinions.” He meant by that saying to remind us idolatry still exists. The form of it changes in every generation, but the tendency for us to exchange the truth of God for a lie continually confronts each person. We have a startling capacity for self-deception.

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With that in mind, it's noteworthy that God speaks in Jeremiah 29:13–14 and says, “You will find me, if you seek me with all your heart … and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you.” The blessing (the restoration) is directly tied to being in right relationship with God. And being in right relationship flows from seeking “with all your heart.”

There are many ways to keep in check our subtle tendencies to twist God’s promises and plans into caricatures of what they really are. We can read the Bible with a greater sensitivity to context. We can open our thoughts about God and Scripture to others. Perhaps the most important way, however, is it to recommit ourselves to seeking God. Seeking God will not always result in fixes for life’s problems. Instead, it will cause us to realize we live within a much bigger story—one in which God resolves the disappointments of life in ways that far exceed our shortened sight.

Chris Blumhofer is a freelance writer and lives in Durham, NC, and is pursuing ordination in the Presbyterian Church. He has written for Out of Ur, Leadership and Faith & Leadership.

Top Comments

Michael Hildebrand

1

Michael Hildebrand commented…

Thank you for this article. So many people well-intendedly use these verses to encourage others, and often it works... if people like what happens next. For each person like the commenter here who has grown through the trials of heart attacks, there are those who love Jesus but aren't commenting because their loved one, or even themselves, have died. As Christ-followers are martyred daily, and disease and violence causes suffering in Christian homes and lives as well as the lost, we need to learn to manage our expectations of God .. to truly know Him ... and really studying and understanding of Scripture does just that. Scripture is Truth. God's Truth is absolute. There are intended meanings to God's inspired Word that we are supposed to study, learn and apply. While using verses like this, Romans 8:28, 1 Cor. 10:13 or even Phil. 4:13 to encourage people in times of suffering CAN lift them up in the moment, what happens when He doesn't do what they're hoping for? What if they're child dies? What if their mom suffers horribly and painfully from cancer for years and slowly dies? These things happen daily as well. Job was so faithful God bragged about him, and God allowed Satan to kill his kids. Elisha died of a disease, even with his "double portion" of the Holy Spirit. All the disciples were persecuted, tortured and most died horribly. Just because a scripture might make someone feel better in a moment, doesn't mean that's what it was intended for, and in fact it could cause them to fall away, become even more confused about God, or even give Him up all together. God's end game is eternal, and it is in this light he promises all things will work together for good ... His good ... eternal good. Many will understand that only when we are with Him in glory, but it will be worth it. THIS is what we need to teach and understand. Thanks again.

Mc. Donald Richards

1

Mc. Donald Richards commented…

In November 2005 the Holy Spirit awoke me just about midnight and I heard this verse ringing in my ears. When I awoke next morning I marked it in my bible with the date and time. Exactly three (3) years after, to the date, I got a heart attack. I did not see that entry in my bible until some time after. What transpired during the time is difficult, but 1 month and a half after I got another heart attack. This time I was close to death. Lying in my bed some time after, with a bleak future: work, not able to do (and eat) the things I love, among other things, I saw where I made that entry. You are right, one cannot read that verse and keep it in a vacum. The verses that follow opened up a new vison of hope for me especially V12. That's the turning point and place of entry into God keeping His promise. I have to act first. Praise God that almost six (6) years after I can say that God has certainly made that verse totally alive in me. His Plans NEVER fail.
God Bless.

207 Comments

Michael Hildebrand

1

Michael Hildebrand commented…

Thank you for this article. So many people well-intendedly use these verses to encourage others, and often it works... if people like what happens next. For each person like the commenter here who has grown through the trials of heart attacks, there are those who love Jesus but aren't commenting because their loved one, or even themselves, have died. As Christ-followers are martyred daily, and disease and violence causes suffering in Christian homes and lives as well as the lost, we need to learn to manage our expectations of God .. to truly know Him ... and really studying and understanding of Scripture does just that. Scripture is Truth. God's Truth is absolute. There are intended meanings to God's inspired Word that we are supposed to study, learn and apply. While using verses like this, Romans 8:28, 1 Cor. 10:13 or even Phil. 4:13 to encourage people in times of suffering CAN lift them up in the moment, what happens when He doesn't do what they're hoping for? What if they're child dies? What if their mom suffers horribly and painfully from cancer for years and slowly dies? These things happen daily as well. Job was so faithful God bragged about him, and God allowed Satan to kill his kids. Elisha died of a disease, even with his "double portion" of the Holy Spirit. All the disciples were persecuted, tortured and most died horribly. Just because a scripture might make someone feel better in a moment, doesn't mean that's what it was intended for, and in fact it could cause them to fall away, become even more confused about God, or even give Him up all together. God's end game is eternal, and it is in this light he promises all things will work together for good ... His good ... eternal good. Many will understand that only when we are with Him in glory, but it will be worth it. THIS is what we need to teach and understand. Thanks again.

Ross Rucker

1

Ross Rucker commented…

I would say it is number two. Number one would be Matthew 7:1 "Judge not, that ye be not judged." it is about hypocrisy not judging...

Ong Wee Kee

1

Ong Wee Kee commented…

This is the reason why I "left the faith" almost 3 years ago. Too much cherry picking and "self interpretation" of basic bible facts. I was a "church leader" once and I shared this exact story to a group, saying that this is not a happy promise from god but I was later discouraged from sharing similar things again. Guys, open your eyes and study the bible properly, and you'll know that half the things in there are non-sense.
This verse has been shared a billion times as a positive promise verse and now suddenly it has been misused all the while? So we're all reading the bible wrong for the past trillion years?
SIgh, I'll be down voted anyways.

Bruce Umpstead

1

Bruce Umpstead commented…

Thank you for contextualizing one of God's important promises that does apply to every believer. While it maybe misused, it is more often misunderstood. God's definition of prosperity is much different than ours. Macomb Gladwell, in his book "David and Goliath," explains hardships and disabilities like a 70-year captivity as "desired challenges" that can make us stronger. God prospers us by letting circumstances, often a result of our choices, try us. If we turn to him and rely on him and make him our center, we will prosper by God's definition (see Rm 8:28). The entire process of the captivity was to turn his people's hearts back to him. Jeremiah 29:12-13 (NIV) - "Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart." That is true prosperity and a promise we can all hold on to.

Charles Bundschu III

1

Charles Bundschu III commented…

Great story! I agree that it is enlightening to do the deepter story, but I also look at old testament prophecy through the lense of new testament truth. Your contextual viewpoint is accurate, but who wrote 'All Scripture is living and powerful and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction in training in righteousness.' (2 Timothy 3:16) -- That the man of God, may be adequate, equipped for every good work. (verse 17) . . . that helps me to see Jeremiah 29:11 in a hopeful light -- having substance, as we are in Christ (Messiah) who is Jewish, and therefore in Him we can apply all prophecy as having Messianic perspective for us despite contextual dilemmas.
I say 'Yes' to life inspite of everything. (http://wp.me/p3swQR-aW) My recent post explaining a resounding philosophy of hope.
By the way. What job did you finally get? Is free lance it?
Thanks.
Charles

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