However much you like the Bible as a whole, there are bound to be verses that make you squirm, cringe, or simmer with rage. Or all three. Those verses about women. Those verses about homosexuality. Those verses on genocide or rape or hell or slavery.
But there are some that you’re just not allowed to question. It’s an unwritten rule. Mainly because they’re the sort that are permanently quoted in tattoos or left as handwritten encouragements in the front of friends’ Bibles, so it would be rude to have a problem with them.
If you have a tattoo of the verses I’m about to spout off about, apologies.
So here’s the thing. When something minor in our lives goes wrong, the Christian response is this:
“Don’t worry. God has a plan for your life.”
When someone misses out on a job they really wanted, when things didn’t work out with a boyfriend they were sure was the one, when the A levels aren’t quite good enough for that university place:
“God’s got something better in store for you.”
They’re platitudes which are taken from verses like Jeremiah 29:11, which says:
“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.”
And that universal encouragement in Matthew 6:
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear…. your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”
Frustrating in itself is the complete lack of regard for context when these verses are pulled out as proof texts. When people quote Jeremiah 29:11 as evidence that God has a better relationship lined up for me than whatever heartbreak I’m currently bemoaning, they don’t usually mention the verse before it, which tells the Jewish exiles they’ll have to stay put in a strange land for 70 years before God’s plan for them comes to fruition, something most of them would never live to see. All of a sudden, that promise of something better in the end doesn’t seem to solve my immediate romantic woes.
Even more frustrating though is the way that we use these verses from our position of privilege and comfort, as the basis of a theology which seems to have nothing to say to a massive percentage of the world’s population.
If I were to open the Bible with survivor in the Philippines right now, who has lost home and family and is struggling to survive without clean water and food, how could I possibly turn to, “do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink… all these things will be given to you as well“, when there is absolutely no guarantee they’ll be given? How could I tell the child whose parent is dying from an AIDS related illness, or the teenager who’s been raped that, “God has something better in store for you”?
How does that theology work when it’s just… not the case? And if it’s not the experience of millions of people around the world, then how dare I claim my own as the truth? It has been the case for me that my 23 years so far have worked out pretty damn well. I have had the privileges of health and education and housing and family and friends and for every minor struggle along the way, I can confidently say that I’ve seen some good out of it. I might even say I’ve seen God work through it. I don’t have to worry about what I eat, drink or wear. I don’t worry about my future and if I’ll come to prosper or harm.
That’s because I’ve been incredibly lucky about the circumstances I’ve been born into. Not because Jeremiah 29:11 promises it.
I just don’t get how it can ever be okay to gaze over from my place of privilege at someone else’s suffering, and say with a false spiritual authority, “God knows what he’s doing, it will all be fine.”
Because so often, it’s just… not.