I'm a cynic. When I hear people claim that God granted them a car park or made the rain stop, I have to wonder, did he really? Are they over spiritualising something that was going to happen anyway?
You know the type of claims I'm talking about; something good happens and you feel blessed, like vending machine God up in the clouds is dishing out cookies because you've been a good boy. Perhaps you see a sign in the clouds and attribute it to something going on in your life, like a bird landing on your windowsill and catching your attention, then flying off, and you think it's a sign that you're meant to take flight also, and plan a journey overseas!
What about when someone gives you a verse after you graduate from university and it's Jeremiah chapter 29, verse 11? The classic feel good verse that you apply directly to your current situation, and claim it as truth for the impending job interviews ahead? Before you cry heretic I will come back to this verse.
The danger of misinterpretation
I can't help but think that if God is out there finding people car parks and making peoples' picnics in the park fine and sunny but at the same time praying people are still getting persecuted, or dying from cancer, things start to get a little confusing. Does God only answer some prayers? Do particular bible verses only apply to some people?
When things don't go the way we thought they would we can become disappointed and disillusioned, and then blame God. With all the information our world bombards us with, telling us we're super important and the centre of the universe, it's easy to get our wires crossed, and to read into signs and wonders through a me-first focused lens of selfishness. We can reverse engineer what we see and hear to back up a belief already implanted in our heads. An idea like, 'God wants me to be rich,' is a dangerous example.
What I want to briefly look at in this article is that while we have a faith that God is alive in the very fabric of all things, how do we know when he's really talking to us? Is he going to make your wedding day sunny? Will he direct my next move? If so, how can I be sure it's him, and not just want I want to hear?
A commonly misquoted verse
A popular online magazine a few years ago had an article titled 'the most misused verse in the bible', and it tackled Jeremiah chapter 29, verse 11 head on.
Allow me to summarise:
The verse is: '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." What could this possibly mean, if not an encouraging pep talk for all of our futures?
As other more learned theologians and writers have discussed, the essence of this verse boils down to context in the time of Jeremiah. In chapter 28 we find a false prophet Hananiah talking to Israel, and he says not to worry guys, even though Israel has been conquered, torn apart and sent into exile in Babylon, you're going to be ok. In fact, in two years time God is going to bring you back to Israel and you'll be sorted. God has a plan, it's a plan to prosper you, and it'll happen very soon.
This is the way many can read Jeremiah chapter 29, verse 11.
After this comes chapter 29 and it's Jeremiah's turn to talk to the people of Israel. He says: hold on just a minute; don't listen to Hananiah's lies! You'll actually be in captivity in Babylon for 70 years! So not only will you never come back to Israel, some of your kids won't either.
Chapter 29 is a kick in the guts for Israel.
As it turns out, Jeremiah knew God's real plan, and I think the essence of this verse is a reminder to look at the big picture. Look outside yourself to see what God is really doing. It's so easy to apply that verse for here and now, and to assume you're going to be successful in your next venture. The words from this verse and other meaningful quotes can give us hope and confidence, but good quotes are not always true for every situation.
Maybe God's message to you is really something more along the lines of what he was telling Israel, something like: hold on, the long term plan is coming, for now, the short term is going to suck.
Seeking God's will and direction takes practice and plenty of wisdom from others. As I've slowly become aware of over the years, we live within a story much bigger than our own, one in which God can resolve the disappointments of life in ways that far exceed our shortened sight.
A brief story
When I was thinking about this very topic a week before finishing this article, I was lying awake in my bed. I had just turned out the light wondering which angle to take, and whether writing about this topic was even a good idea at all. Just in that moment of thought something fell on my lap. The light bulb dangling over my bed fell out of its socket, bounced once on my bed and then landed in my lap. This has never happened before, and will probably never happen again.
While I was still pondering about ideas for this topic, the very symbol of an idea, fell on my lap.
Now before you throw up your hands in the air with joy, I had only changed the bulb a few hours earlier, so I can't have clicked and turned it all the way in properly and maybe the cooling of the light made the metal socket expand. I didn't need to be a scientist to see that this perfectly random event could easily happen to anyone, yet at the same time I wanted to be open to the possibility that maybe the event meant something more.
Do I believe God can use any verse he likes to talk to us, and that God speaks in small random ways? I absolutely do, and I'm sure millions of people have stories of how at the right time God spoke in a small way that pointed to something really big and important. God is so much bigger than we care to dream, what's the bigger picture God is trying to reveal?
A well-known author said, 'Jesus doesn't divide the world up into the common and the sacred; he gives us eyes to see the sacred in the common. He comes to help us see things more, more how they actually are: that they matter, that they're connected and that they're headed somewhere.'
I want to be truly listening with humble discernment next time the Holy Spirit speaks to me, without being too cynical or too overzealous with my own agenda. I hope that my view of God's plan continues to grow; I believe Jesus comes to help us to see things as they truly are: moving forward with greater connectivity. Maybe that light bulb on the lap was a fluke, or maybe it meant something more? I'm still undecided, I think I'll wait and see.
Brad Mills enjoys the outdoors and almost any sport... For a day job he's a journalist who works at the Rhema Broadcasting Group in Auckland New Zealand.
Brad Mill's previous articles may be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/brad-mills.html