Many of you who know me know my background. I was raised in the conservative evangelical tradition of Christianity. Instead of girl scouts, I went to AWANA. AWANA, for those of you who are not familiar with it, stands for “Approved Workmen Are Not Ashamed.” The focus was on Bible memorization. I don’t remember how many verses of the Bible I was supposed to have learned by the end of my 12ish years in the program, but it was in the hundreds, for sure.
This was not a completely negative experience. I know a lot about the Bible because of my involvement in this program. I know a lot of verses that still spring to mind with little effort. And for the most part, I even know how to find those verses because we also learned the order of the books of the Bible. But there is a danger to such programs. When we focus on pulling verses out of context and memorizing them, we tend to develop a simplistic view of the Bible. We may began to think that the Bible has an easy answer to every question if we could just find the right verse. We are also in danger of thinking that because we can quote by memory different verses from most of the books of the Bible that we somehow “know” the Bible.
Being married to someone who has undeniably fallen in love with the Bible as holy sacred writings, means that I have begun to realize how little I actually know about the Bible. I do not know things like when a certain book was written, who it was written by, and why. I do not always know the context of the verse that pops into my head unaided. I do not know the history of why the book this verse appears in made it into the Bible. I do not know all the ways in which it has been interpreted and used throughout the history of the church.
Realizing how much I don’t know, I rarely use Bible verses as readily as I used to. But I see it all over, this habit of letting Bible verses speak for us. Evangelicals in particular quote a lot of Bible verses in their social media posts and online conversations.
As an ex-evangelical, these words, pulled out of a book that I do still love, hurt. And sometimes I can’t articulate why. But I want to try. Because this is a habit that needs to be broken. So, here are four reasons that Christians should stop quoting the Bible as responses to life issues.
- Quoting Bible verses is like speaking in a particular language that only those who share your specific spiritual identity will understand. For those who were not raised in your tradition and do not know the Bible at all, your words will probably just be confusing. And to those like me, who share the same spiritual mother tongue, but are now more multi-lingual in our faith, the words present a multi-layered complexity that is hard to unravel. When we see a verse, we not only see the verse itself, but we also wonder about the context of the verse, what the verse meant to me when I first learned it, what the verse means to me now, what the verse means to you, and why you would choose this particular verse. You cannot simplify it. These layers exist and in most cases are all very different from each other. When you throw in a healthy mix of questions concerning internalized messages from our past, we are left wondering how to respond. Do I let you continue to speak to me in a way that you think is helpful, while at the same time swallowing the hurt that I feel or the damage I see these words do to others? Or do I speak up and tell you “this verse does not mean what you think it means” and risk your outright rejection?
- Verses without context can be dangerous things. Each verse exists within a larger context. If you do not understand that context, you cannot understand the verse. You are saying words that sound good to you, but you might be actually using them to say the exact opposite of what the words were originally intended to mean. With the exception of possibly Proverbs, the Bible was not meant to be taken phrase by phrase. Each verse you quote is a sentence in either a story or a treatise. Sure, you can take great quotes from stories and treatises, people do it all the time. But if they do it without first understanding the whole, they are in great danger of misusing the author’s words. Even if you know the context, if your listener does not, the meaning and intention may be lost.
- When used in place of your own words, quoting the Bible can be an unhealthy way of deflecting or defusing a conversation. If I’m having a conversation with you, I would much rather hear your particular words, your voice, not someone else’s. I’d be content with you using a Bible verse if you also at the same time explain to me why you are using that verse and what it means to you. When all you do is quote a verse, with no context and no commentary, I am left guessing at what you actually mean to say. This is not just about your response not being clear, but also about your choosing to be silent. My guess is that sometimes something I said makes you uncomfortable and so you reply with a verse, because somehow that seems safer than actually telling me you disagree with me. No matter what your intent may be, avoidance is often what the hearer sees, and the result will be a distance in the relationship.
- Random verses often come across as empty words. For the hearer, the words may feel pointless. I know this might bother you. I know that you feel like it should be full of meaning, that somehow these words should speak the truth and fill the emptiness, while also teaching what is truly important. But in my experience is does not do that. It is too easy for me to assume that there is judgment on the other side of the words, that somehow you are trying to “correct” me, bring me back to the straight and narrow path. Here’s the thing. I don’t want to hear “For God so loved the world . . .” I want to hear, “I love the world and I love you.” If you believe that these words of God are just that, then you should not rest until you live and breathe them, until they become your words. Quoting them does not make that happen. Living them, translating them into your life and your actions and yes, even your words, is what gives them life. You cannot give me an empty shell waiting to be filled. Do the work yourself. Fill it and then give it. It is not enough for the world to hear about the love of God, we must see it. Live the word of God, be the love of God, share the kindness of Christ. And sometimes this means learning another language.