How to Make Sense of Confusing Bible Passages

What in the world?

I was reading Psalm 128 and I thought, Surely this passage is used to promote the prosperity gospel:

Blessed is everyone who fears the Lord,

   who walks in his ways!

You shall eat the fruit of the labor of your hands;

   you shall be blessed, and it shall be well with you. (vv. 1-2)

I kept reading:

Your wife will be like a fruitful vine

   within your house;

your children will be like olive shoots

   around your table.

Behold, thus shall the man be blessed

   who fears the Lord. (vv. 3-4)

Now I’m even more confused, I thought. What about homes that never see the blessing of children? Does this psalm apply equally to them?

Five Principles for Confusing Bible Passages

Let’s be honest: Scripture can be confusing sometimes. As we grow in our knowledge of the whole Bible story, we run into these passages that can feel like roadblocks on a straight-and-narrow journey. So what do we do with them? How do we make sense of confusing Scripture passages?

1. Read the surrounding verses.

From the pulpit, Pastor Colin Smith often says, “Interpret Scripture in light of Scripture.” This is sound wisdom because all of God’s Word is breathed out by him and is useful for our growth (2 Timothy 3:16). It’s perfect and without error, which means God cannot contradict himself. So, if a verse or passage seems difficult, confusing, or misplaced, we interpret it in light of what directly surrounds it. Ask the following questions:

  • What did the author say immediately before and after?
  • What did they say in the previous chapter(s)?
  • What’s the message of the book as a whole?

Seek answers to these questions, and you’ll find you have a much clearer idea of what’s intended in the initial passage. Let’s apply this principle to Psalm 128:

Psalm 128. The surrounding psalms were written upon the return of God’s people from exile. God had restored their fortunes and blessed them by delivering them from their enemies and bringing them home. What the psalmist writes isn’t, “If you’re good, God will bless you,” but “God has been good to you and has restored that which you lost when you were in exile.” It would’ve been clear to God’s people that this blessing was far from what they deserved for the very sin that sent them into captivity—yet God was faithful and kind to them.

2. Think similar and different.

Now consider the whole of Scripture and where you’ve seen similar words or themes. Ask, Where have I seen this before? You can also ask where you’ve read something seemingly contrary to what you’re reading, which will shed light on the meaning of the present verses.

Psalm 128. I read the word “blessed” and immediately think of Jesus’ words in the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). The poor in spirit are those who fear the Lord (Psalm 128:1), who recognize their sin and confess their eternal need for a Savior. Jesus says that God’s kingdom will be theirs—and to have such blessing is the ultimate way in which “it shall be well with [them]” (v. 2). So Psalm 128 isn’t necessarily about God promising earthly prosperity—although blessing does come from “the labor of [our] hands”—but eternal prosperity, the good and security of our souls.

3. Consult sound commentaries.

One of God’s good gifts to the Church throughout the centuries has been commentary on Scripture, written by learned, wise theologians who love God and his Word. We should always try to interpret what we’re reading with the help of the Spirit and other Scriptures before reading other interpretations since they can influence our thinking. (Of course, we want to be influenced for good—but we’ll grow more in studying Scripture as we seek our own interpretation first, even if it gets corrected).

Psalm 128. English minister Joseph Caryl clarifies the meaning of verse 4: God extends his goodness both in family blessing and in spiritual blessing. He says,

…the man fearing God shall be blessed more than [with wife and children]: his blessing shall come in the best way (Psalms 128:5): “The Lord shall bless thee out of Zion”; his temporal mercies shall come in a spiritual way, yea, he shall have spiritual blessings: “He shall bless thee out of Zion”; and he shall have blessings beyond his own walls: “Thou shalt see the good of Jerusalem all the days of thy life. Yea, thou shalt see thy children’s children, and peace upon Israel.”

4. Study the passage with other believers.

If a passage of Scripture still confuses you after seeking context and reading commentaries, ask a friend or small group to look at the verses with you. Share your struggles with it, pray together for the Spirit’s clarity and help, and discuss it.

Some of the most enlightening moments for me have happened with other believers, as they explained truth to me in a fresh way and guided my interpretation of God’s Word. Who might you ask to open the Bible with you? What burning questions could you bring to your small group this week?

5. Submit yourself to God’s Word.

Ultimately, the secret things belong to the Lord (Deuteronomy 29:29). We won’t be able to grasp everything we read fully, nor will all our questions be answered. If we could wrap our minds around God—all he is, all he’s planned, and all he’s said—he wouldn’t be worthy of our worship. His ways and thoughts are infinitely higher than ours, and this is the way it should be (Isaiah 55:9)!

So, at the end of the day, when we can’t fully understand what we’re reading, we choose to trust the One who speaks without error. We trust his invitation that when we seek him with all our hearts, we will find him (Jeremiah 29:13). We trust in Christ’s promise to give us the Helper, the Spirit of truth, who will guide, counsel, and lead us into truth (John 15:26).

And the more we hunger to know him more and treasure the infinite depths of his Word, the more we will worship.

[Post Credit: Unlocking the Bible]

Three Helps for Ministering to Women with Chronic Pain

I’m a wife, mother, and member of our church, and I’m involved in women’s ministry—

I’m also a woman struggling with chronic pain, which affects all of these roles.

At least 100 million Americans have chronic pain. This means that one in three people at your church fights a daily battle with physical issues ranging from mild discomfort to debilitating affliction. Some struggle to exercise and clean their homes; some find it difficult to work jobs; some can’t pick up their children or carry groceries; others are laid up in bed and can hardly function.

The reality? Most of the time, you won’t know about these pains and their emotional and spiritual implications—many people with chronic issues don’t look sick or weak, and we struggle to ask for help. So what can you do, as a leader, to minister to the hurting women in your congregation? How can you support us, both spiritually and physically?

Three Helps for Ministering to Women with Chronic Pain

I certainly don’t have all the answers, but because I have chronic pain, I’m familiar with what we strugglers often desire and need (even if we won’t admit it). Three helps come to mind:

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Don’t Be Introspective. Examine Yourself.

There’s a fine line between self-examination and introspection.

Self-examination is good. Scripture exhorts us to examine and test ourselves (2 Corinthians 13:5). So how might this important spiritual discipline take a turn for the worse? Martyn Lloyd-Jones explains:

What’s the difference between examining oneself and becoming introspective? I suggest that we cross the line from self-examination to introspection when, in a sense, we do nothing but examine ourselves, and when such self-examination becomes the main and chief end in our life.

Though self-examination can be rewarding for Christian growth, I’ve often crossed the line—and learned how detrimental introspection can be. It’s unprofitable because it’s an end in itself; it leaves us navel-gazing and discouraged. I’ve hung my head many times in its defeat. Nevertheless, we can look to God’s Word and see how self-examination, rightly deployed, is healthy and effective.

A look at Psalm 139 will help us grasp the power of self-examination as a tool in God’s hands for our growth.

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14 Ideas to Make Your Bible Reading More Consistent

For many Christians, reading the Bible consistently is a challenge.

In 2017, the American Bible Society reported that only 20% of Americans read their Bibles at least four times each week. This means that 80% of Americans read Scripture less frequently than that, if at all.

But God says his words are like food—“Man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 8:3). And no human can survive without food. If we’re not eating, we starve.

And if we aren’t feeding on God’s Word consistently, so will our souls.

Read Your Bible, Feed Your Soul

When our newborn baby entered the world, everything changed—especially our sleep patterns. There were mornings when my husband and I struggled to peel ourselves out of bed to meet with the Lord in his Word. But the struggle was worth it. Most mornings, we fought the temptation to keep sleeping (only by God’s grace) and were grateful we did, as it meant starting our day in communion with him through Scripture and prayer.

It meant feeding our souls.

Hearing God speak through our Bibles was a game-changer for us:

  • He hid his Word in our hearts and would bring it to mind by his Spirit.
  • He renewed our minds, setting them on eternal matters, and gave us eyes to see through this perspective moment-by-moment.
  • He gave us his armor to help us fight sin and temptation.
  • He reminded us that Christ is our highest joy and our most valued treasure.

I’ve heard it said, you don’t remember every meal you’ve eaten, but the meals you’ve eaten have sustained you. We may not recall every Scripture we’ve read, but God sustains our trust in him as we choose to consistently feed on his Word.

14 Ideas to Make Your Reading More Consistent

There’s no one way to open Scripture—everybody’s devotional time will look different—but there is a right way to pursue it: consistently.

As you seek God in his Word, begin by asking him to give you an ever-deepening desire for this pursuit. Call on him to help you put away the distractions of tiredness, tasks, and trivialities. Plead with him for eyes to see the glory of Christ in Scripture, and for ears to hear the good news of the gospel in everything you read.

Then, commit to reading every day—even if only for five minutes at first—and pursue specific ways to make this reading a habit. Here are several ideas for you, in no particular order:

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Three Takeaways from TGCW18

It was standing-room-only.

At 7am, our panel discussion had an attendance that far surpassed what we’d expected. I thought 30-50 women might come (morning people!); instead, the room was packed. This turnout spoke of the universal experience of human suffering, and more importantly, of our desire for hope in the midst of it.

This event was one encouraging part of the whole of TGCW18. The hunger and passion in our room that morning was but a tiny sliver of what had been displayed in the main hall, as a vast ocean of women from across the globe worshipped Jesus together.        

Here are my takeaways from TGCW18:

To listen to Jesus is to live.

God’s command is simple: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him” (Matthew 17:5). But obedience to it? Far from simple, for we’re naturally drawn to whatever will itch our ears and suit our passions. We’re a rebellious people who’ve wandered and turned away from listening to the truth (see 2 Timothy 4:2-4).

But our turning away is our death:

“See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil. If you obey…by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply…But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, I declare to you today, that you shall surely perish.” (Deuteronomy 30:15-18, emphasis mine)

I confess, I often want to listen to Jesus so that I can accomplish other things; in this, the Lord and Savior of the universe becomes a means to my own selfish ends. But in running after other gods—like attention, influence, comfort, or success—my sorrows only multiply (Psalm 16:4). To be drawn away to worship and serve idols yields the fruit of sin and death: discontentment, anxiety, fear of man, and an incessant hunger for what will never truly satisfy.

But to listen to Jesus through his Word is life. In seeking to love him, walk in his ways, and keep his commands, we gain more of him and, therefore, the truest, most satisfying life possible. “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).

Is my greatest desire to listen to Jesus and, therefore, to love him more and be satisfied in him? Do I trust his promised, sanctifying work to gradually expel these other loves from my heart as he gives me more of himself?   

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Faithfulness When (It Seems) No One Is Watching

I haven’t written anything in a week.

Our family is in a season of fullness, and in the midst of all this, I haven’t had the time (or mental focus) to sit down at my computer and write.

And it’s been bothering me.

For me, writing has been a public-facing act of faithfulness—and honestly, I’m struggling with its absence. Why? I genuinely love it (praise God), and I put too much of my identity in it. I wrongly see it as the way I can be faithful to the Lord, when God has placed an abundance of opportunities for faithfulness all around me, in every moment, even the seemingly smallest and most quiet ones.

Daily Faithfulness?

When you’re not producing, and it seems no one is watching, do you feel like a failure? Do you sense that maybe, just maybe, your present days are worth less than more meaningful ones?

As a new mom, I’m learning how often mothers feel this. We go from the workplace, perhaps, where our gifts are being more tangibly used and weighed and applauded, to the relative obscurity of caring for little ones who need us at every waking moment, but seem to give little in return. Or it might be the opposite situation: Maybe we’re at work full-time, but we’re drawn to stay home, wondering how we can be truly faithful if we aren’t with our kids.

For those of you who aren’t moms, I wonder if some of you are working jobs you don’t particularly care for, and it feels like your gifts have been shelved. Or maybe you’re watching others climb the ladder to worldly success while an illness or disability has benched you, making you wonder if you’ll ever be useful again.

I don’t presume to grasp God’s sovereign choice in giving some people more obvious, public-facing opportunities to be faithful than others; as Jesus said to Peter when the disciple asked him about another man’s future, “You follow me!” (John 21:22). But I do know God sees us and has a different definition of faithfulness than the world.

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The Only Way You Can Do God’s Will

I can’t.

Our culture despises those two little words. Hatred for weakness and inadequacy is why we tell our kids never to say, “I can’t.” It’s why we love the inspiring words of Thomas the Tank Engine: “Yes, you can!” The belief that we’re capable of anything, if we set our minds to it, pervades our worldview.

This “I-can” mentality also colors our reading of Scripture, specifically how we understand and respond to God’s commands. If we aren’t careful, we’ll be deceived into thinking we’ve “got this” apart from the power of the gospel motivating and empowering us.

When God’s Will Is Impossible

Consider a familiar passage. Many of us can recite it from memory. It’s one of the few answers we give to the common question, “What is God’s will for my life?” We affirm it—

But struggle to apply it:

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)

God couldn’t be clearer: His will for his people is a life steeped in rejoicing, prayer, and thanksgiving! We never have to wonder if we’re on the right and godly path with these actions. They are God’s will for us. Yet—

They’re some of the most difficult commands to obey.

Think about it:

  • Why does God command us to “rejoice always”? Because it’s more natural for us to grumble and complain about our circumstances than to see God’s character and purposes at work in them.
  • Why does he tell us to “pray without ceasing”? Because, in an age of distraction and entertainment, it’s easier to give our focus and time to nothingness, wasting it on self-centered, temporary pleasures, than to give ourselves to eternal, Kingdom matters.
  • And what about his command to “give thanks”? We usually forget or refuse to because, somewhere deep within our hearts, we fail to remember that everything is a gift from God. We think we’re entitled to what we want and deserve an easy life.

Friends, I’m preaching to myself here. I often fail to fulfill God’s will in these particular commands. I’d rather complain about what he hasn’t given me than praise him for what he has; and I’d more quickly scroll social media for the umpteenth time than set aside what feeds my pride for the prayerfulness that will expose it. Turns out these basic commands to do God’s will are much harder to obey than they seem.

Yes, on our own, obedience to God is impossible. We need his help and power, secured for us through our union with Christ, to do his will.

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The Gaping Hole in ‘This Is Us’

There’s a reason we love This Is Us. It’s heartwarming and heartbreaking, capturing the many facets of family life and the ripple effects of loss. We laugh. We cry. We resonate and see ourselves in the characters.

We applaud it—but as much as we do, This Is Us should give us pause.

Millions of Americans, my husband and I included, have tuned in to watch the smash hit. We’ve recommended the show to friends, enjoying its compelling storyline and relatively clean content. Yet, for all the values the show explores, This Is Us is strikingly devoid of religion.

Christians shouldn’t be surprised by this. It’s a secular show created for an American culture where the primary “religion” is life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, interwoven with relativism and moralism. But we should take careful note of the gaping, godless hole in This Is Us. We can enjoy the show and be thankful for its themes, while still recognizing the absence of ultimate truth.

When Family Is Everything

Rebecca and Jack Pearson (Mandy Moore and Milo Ventimiglia), along with their three kids, Kevin, Randall, and Kate, are the picture of an all-American family. They love, they fight, they strive for harmony, and they deal with the disappointment of dreams deferred. Jack is portrayed as a model father-figure, involved and nurturing, yet tough as nails. He’s a humble guy-next-door who owns up to his mistakes while attempting to lead his family in what’s right.

While we should applaud the unique way This Is Us upholds family values (a rarity on television these days), we should be concerned about the degree to which it does. Jack’s family is his saving grace, his identity. “You are the love of my life,” he says to his wife, “and our kids are our everything.”

But what happens when a man puts his wife and kids on a pedestal, elevating them to the height of gods? We see the repercussions mainly in Kevin, Randall, and Kate in their adult years: At the root, their hardest battles revolve around their dad, the one who practically worshipped them, and the one they worshipped. Their identities are wrapped up in their father. And (spoiler alert!), as we see after Jack’s unexpected death, to lose the person you worship is to lose some part of yourself.

No human being can be or supply what only God can in Christ; to expect our family to fulfill us is a dead-end road. While family is a wonderful gift and can be a place of safety and security, it was never intended to be our “everything.” It simply can’t be.

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On Mothering with Chronic Pain

Since being diagnosed with Lyme disease about four years ago, my body has been in a daily wrestling match with chronic pain. Some days are easier than others, but my pains are usually present in some degree. Though we have every reason to believe the Lyme is gone (praise God for modern medicine!), as my husband and I often say, “The war is won, but the city is ravaged.”

The disease left me weak, and my body has rebuilding to do.

Two years ago, my Lyme doctor gave us clearance to try to conceive. This clearance came after years of strong warnings against conception because the risks were too high. We rejoiced at this good news: My immune system was strong enough, and my body was healed enough, to try to have a child!

Yet—  

I didn’t know if I could be a mom. In fact, I shrunk back at the possibility. When we were contemplating our newfound freedom to pursue children, the thought struck fear in my heart: There’s no way I can be a mom. I can hardly manage our home or do my job without pain, let alone care for another human life.

How would I carry a baby, or hoist a car seat? How would I be able to keep up with an active child? Although the thought of growing our family biologically was incredibly exciting—the idea of motherhood paralyzed me.

Since that season two years ago, we’ve welcomed our daughter into our family. God, in his kindness, has provided all that I’ve needed to carry her, deliver her, and mother her in these early months. My health is significantly improved and I’ve found ways to manage my pain, but it hasn’t gone away; the addition of the literal, physical load of a baby has only presented new challenges and with them, new opportunities to trust God and mother in his strength.

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