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Theology or Therapy?

According to a recent article in the Telegraph  Jeremiah 29:11 is the UK’s favourite Bible passage for sharing on social media. According to Bible Gateway, a popular Bible website, it also tops the charts in many other countries as well.

The text in Jeremiah reads:

“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.”

Rev Dr Peter Phillips from Durham University is quoted as saying “In print culture, John 3:16 has been the most popular Bible verse ever, but it has been knocked of its pedestal by the social age. People don’t want to put a verse about Jesus’ death upon the cross on social media; it’s a bit heavy.”

This is similar to findings last year from the YouVersion Bible App, whose platform has 350 million users. Their most popular verse in 2018 was Isaiah 41:10:

“Don’t be afraid, for I am with you. Don’t be discouraged, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you. I will hold you up with my victorious right hand.”

These are both verses from the Bible and we have got to be glad they are being shared at all. Many people will send them with good intentions to reassure and encourage others and will know the gospel intent behind them.

But does this apparent move towards what we might call more ‘therapeutic’ verses indicate a concerning trend?

There is a danger that we use the Bible as a source of ‘fortune cookie’ style promises that provide a very generalised comfort, but one that is not rooted in the unfolding story of God’s salvation. This sets up a false expectation and potential disappointment if the apparent promises offered by the text are not fulfilled.

Any verse of scripture needs to be understood in its context. What type of literature is it? What are the surrounding verses and chapters about? What is the theme of the particular book in which the verse is found, and where does that book fit in the overall biblical storyline?

So, in context, Jeremiah 29:11 was a promise to the Jewish exiles in Babylon that God would prosper and preserve them there and ultimately to bring them back to their land one day.

Should we therefore assume that something similar is promised to us? That, for example, God has plans to give us material possessions, success, good health and many children? Such things were a sign of God’s blessing in the Old Testament – but is that still the case in the New Testament – and today?

Reading this verse in the light of the coming of Christ, we realise that this is not a promise of material prosperity for us, but rather it points towards greater blessings that come to us through Jesus. Material blessings for Old Testament Israel are nothing compared to the hope of eternal life to come in the presence of God, and the experience of his indwelling us now by the Holy Spirit.

It is also disappointing that John 3:16 (which also needs to be read in context!) has been overtaken as the most shared verse. The cross should always be at the core of what we believe as Christians; it helps us understand the rest of the Bible – everything else only makes sense in the light of what Jesus accomplished on the cross. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 1:10, “For no matter how many promises God has made, they are ‘Yes’ in Christ.”

So, yes, we do want Bible verses shared, but it would be better if this were done in a way that recognises their true meaning – an understanding that Christ is the fulfilment and the embodiment of all that is promised in God’s Word.

Written by Graham Nicholls

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