"'For I know the plans I have for you,' declares the Lord, 'plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.'" –Jeremiah 29:11
It's June, which means we're entering both graduation and wedding season. This is unfortunate timing, because my insider sources have let me know that most of the M.Div's and PhD's over at Hallmark usually take their vacations right about now. I'm forced to believe this must be true, since I see little to no evidence of exegetical accuracy in most "Christian" greeting cards.
With the above example fresh in my mind—I don't doubt the Lord's goodness to his people in a collective sense, but I find the classic, individualized appropriation of Jeremiah 29:11 frustrating. This sacred declaration of God's faithfulness to his people is not a "promise to claim" in pursuit of the American Dream or a couple's happily-ever-after.
Snobbish though it sounds, at times, I've been tempted to buy up all of the proof text cards just to keep them out of circulation. Two things have kept me from this. First, my educator and editor's wages aren't quite as far reaching as Hallmark's marketing budget. (I feel slightly out-flanked.) Second, I know this won't stop the flood of biblical misappropriations by the "common" reader.
If you've been in ministry for any length of time, you've encountered questionable appropriations and applications of Scripture. Our reactions range anywhere from a raised eyebrow to smoldering indignation. If you're anything like me, you usually have a bit of trouble hiding how you really feel about those cards or those conversations. On the spectrum between polite nodding and "hold on, I'm going to have to stop you there," pastors and Christian leaders are faced with the difficult decision of picking their battles.
The more hermeneutically concerned among us often feel that tension. Maybe it's akin to the classic image of Odysseus, carefully trying to navigate the strait between Scylla and Charybdis. Scylla—our tendency towards rigid interpretive truth-telling. Charybdis—the swirling waters of feel-good interpretive free-for-all.
How we read the Bible matters. But how do we mesh interpretive honesty with pastoral acumen? When, and how, should we push back on well-meaning but perhaps inaccurate applications of the Bible?
Used or enjoyed?
Though he certainly did not have Hallmark's interpretive methodology in mind, I've found wisdom in St. Augustine's response to unusual uses of Scripture.
A little context: for Augustine, everything in creation is to either be used or enjoyed. While this language might seem a little funny to us, what he is really driving at is the distinction that God is the only One whom we should really enjoy. All other components of creation are meant to be used as tools towards that divineenjoyment. This includes Scripture. It is intended to point us towards divineenjoyment.
Augustine's strong stance on issues of orthodoxy is well documented. When faced with scholarly opponents who sought to undercut gospel truths, Augustine did not pull punches. But, when he encountered the well intentioned, yet perhaps misinformed, average reader, Augustine chose a more pastoral tack.
These particularly wise words can be found in his treatise De Doctrina Christiana, orOn Christian Teaching. The entire work is really an interpretive handbook:
Anyone with an interpretation of the Scriptures that differs from that of the writer is misled, but not because the Scriptures are lying. If … he is misled by an idea of the kind that builds up love, which is the end of the commandment, he is misled in the same way as a walker who leaves his path by mistake but reaches the destination to which the path leads by going through a field."
Augustine is not excusing poor interpretive efforts, but rather points out Christ's reiteration of the greatest commandment: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself (Mk. 12:30-31). (This is known as the law of the Double Loves.) If a reader's understanding leads him to a greater love of God or neighbor, then it is useful(I think Hallmark cards could be grandfathered in on this one). The implication? So long as one's use of Scripture leads her to a deeper love for God or for her neighbor, then in the interim leaders and pastors don't have to freak out about interpretive missteps.
I've started taking this to heart—especially as it concerns Jeremiah 29 and other similar passages. I've felt the freedom to not have to jump in and correct, but rather observe and see where the use drives my fellow believer. As leaders, teachers, and disciple makers, this frees us up to feel more comfortable allowing young believers to experience the journey themselves.
Of course, Augustine doesn't stop there. This is not merely "the ends justify the means" theology. As a believer grows, and as relationship is established, there is a time and a place for correction. He also says in the same work: "But he must be put right and shown how it is more useful not to leave the path, in case the habit of deviating should force him to go astray or even adrift." Eventually, the call of the Christian leader, as shepherd, is to help steer others towards not only the correctends, but also the correct route.
Long roads aren't necessarily wrong directions
I recently relocated from Illinois to Colorado. I am immensely grateful for maps and guides, which offered the most effective route. There were two primary routes I could've taken on this migration: the northern route runs through Nebraska and the southern route runs through Kansas. Both of them would've gotten me here at the end of the day. The Nebraska route was slightly faster and more direct, but had I taken the Kansas route, Siri would've had no reason to have a melt down. All this to say, there is an immense difference between taking the road through Kansas and heading completely in the wrong direction.
Conversationally speaking, leaders need to realize when they're engaging someone who is heading through Kansas (the long way) vs. someone who is driving through New York (completely the wrong direction). With a Kansas, arm-chair theologian, maybe the best approach is to let them explore a little bit. Lord willing, they'll figure out the more accurate path eventually. But, with the wrong way exegete, a firmer wake-up call might be needed.
You're going to end up at a handful of graduation parties, weddings, and various social gatherings this summer. Cards will be passed around, cliché gift books will be given, words of encouragement will be spoken. If you itch at a biblical interpretation, step back and take a deep breath. Try to focus on the use rather than perceived inconsistencies. Give other Christians the benefit of the doubt, and then, if really necessary, find ways to gently lead them back to a better route.
And honor that old law of the Double Love.
This piece originally appeared in Christianity Today's PARSE. I am so thankful for their editorial team, who consistently makes my writing better. You can find it here.