"Look at the nations, and see!Be astonished! Be astounded! For a work is being done in your days that you would not believe if you were told." -Habakkuk 1:5
Eugene Peterson has said that "an enormous amount of damage is done in the name of Christian living by bad Bible reading."* I'm convinced he's right. We are often well-intentioned in our efforts to be biblical in our thinking and living. But, if the ways we go about attempting to be biblical are misguided, the result of our efforts can be futile–at best–or even harmful, as Peterson mentioned.
There are many ways that we can read the Bible badly (and Scot McKnight does a fantastic job of identifying them and proposing an antidote in The Blue Parakeet), but there is one in particular that has caught my attention lately. In a way, it's an opposite of what I have tried to point out with the Scripture Plaques You Won't Find at the Christian Bookstore. Whereas those are typically passages of scripture which we ignore because they don't fit the kinds of things we want the Bible to say, what I'm trying to get at here is how we see things we want to see in a passage and end up taking it to mean something that it never meant.
One common example of a passage of scripture you may have likely heard read badly is the story of the widow's mite, which I've already written about as The Most Abused Poor Widow in History. We isolate a passage and then think it says something (which we probably want it to say) and therefore miss what it really says.
The verse above from Habakkuk is a lesser-known example, but a pretty drastic one.
I remember the verse from a time that an inner-city ministry I visited was using it as their theme. They had nice graphics printed, with an image of their city along with the words of this verse. It appeared that they were hanging their hats on that passage as a promise, in the hopes that God would do astonishing things in their city as he had promised to do in ancient Israel through the prophet Habakkuk. I liked the verse and their graphics so much that I kept their materials and used them as a bookmark.
And then, years later, I read Habakkuk. Apparently the person who chose the verse didn't.
The preceding verses in the first chapter of Habakkuk are a plea to God from Habakkuk, essentially lamenting all of the terrible things he sees happening and that God is doing nothing about them. Then, the verse quoted above is the beginning of God's response. If God's response had ended with that verse–fine, we could go ahead and use it for our themes, and I could keep my slick-looking bookmark. The problem is that when we read the remainder of God's response to Habakkuk, we can summarize it (including verse five) as, "You think it's bad now? I'm about to devastate you so thoroughly at the hand of the Babylonians, that you wouldn't even be able to believe it if someone were to tell you."
Oops. I'm quite sure that is not what that urban ministry was trying to wish on its city.
Even though this example is a bit comical, it highlights a major difference between the ways that we often read the Bible–particularly the Old Testament–and the ways that we could read it for what it actually is, which would obviously then make it more likely to have its intended effect on us.
We like to look for verses. We like to know the book, chapter, and verse for God's promises to us. The problem with that approach is that the books of the Bible weren't written in chapters and verses, so we end up lifting a verse we like out of the story of which it was a part, and we can then take it to be something we want it to be whether it was meant to be that or not.
A better approach is to get to know the overall story. In this example, I should have started with reading Habakkuk, rather than just hanging on to the cool bookmark (which, ironically, made me feel biblical while proving me not to be). Then, if I got to know the rest of the story, I would be able to place Habakkuk in the overall story of God's dealings with Israel and the world as they're recounted to us in the Bible. And then, when I come across the more familiar verses from that little book, (like 2:20: "the Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him") I'll be able to place them in their context, rather than just thinking, "Hey, that sounds nice. Let's print it up!"
*See Eugene Peterson, Eat This Book, p. 82.