“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” John 3:16
John 3:16 is one of the most famous verses in the Bible. It’s written on hand-held signs at sporting events, emblazoned on clothing, and plastered on billboards. And we all assume that we know what this verse means: If you “believe in Jesus,” you’ll be saved.
As a Christian, when I’m faced with a decision, I pray for guidance. Sometimes God answers quickly and clearly—a decisive “Do this!” or “Go there!” That was the type of answer we received 26 years ago, when we God told us to move from California to Colorado. Wanting to make sure we were hearing correctly, we asked for Him to confirm his direction at least three times in the next week or so. We received six signs in three days. With that kind of verification, all we could do was obey!
Sometimes He tells me no. That’s helpful too. Should I accept this job offer? No. Should I eat that brownie? No! (Darn.) I may not always like being told no, but at least there’s no confusion about it.
I believe that God always answers our prayers—the Bible is full of examples, plus we have verses such as Matthew 21:22: “If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.”
Yet, for many of us, our life experience tells us otherwise. Does that mean God lied? Is the Bible untrustworthy? Or, perhaps, is it our lack of understanding that’s causing the problem?
Many years ago, Pete and I dreamed of moving to someplace less urban than the middle of Silicon Valley. We were tired of the traffic, fed up with the smog, and yearning for a simpler lifestyle. We prayed, and it seemed as if God was saying yes, get ready, you’re going to move. Great! We’ve always enjoyed the northwest, so Pete spent several months investigating jobs in the Seattle area. Things looked positive, but then the doors started slamming shut. We were so confused. Hadn’t God given us the go-ahead? Had He changed His mind?
“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.”
We all recognize Jeremiah 29:11. We use it to cheer those going through a difficult time. We offer it to new graduates as a sign that their future is bright. When our own circumstances seem bleak, we repeat it to ourselves. God wants me to prosper. This is just a temporary setback.
The problem is, we take this oh-so-encouraging verse out of context and apply it incorrectly. I don’t want to rain on your parade, but misapplying Scripture is never a good idea. When things don’t pan out the way we think they should, we blame God. I know people who have even abandoned their faith altogether because they had expectations that God failed to meet.
“I want to see more miracles!” Our friend pounded his fist into the table to emphasize how emphatic he was. “My biggest desire is to see God at work. I earnestly desire miracles!”
I understand our friend’s passion. Watching God do something incredible, something unexpected, something impossible, builds our faith like little else can. We hear of miracles in other places and we want one of our own.
But do we really?
I love how Pete phrased it: “What does the beginning of a miracle look like?”
You’ve heard it before:
- All religions are the same.
- Suffering is proof that God doesn’t exist.
- Christians are so narrow minded!
- Religion does more harm than good.
- A loving God would never send anyone to hell.
- Science has disproved Christianity.
- The Bible isn’t a reliable document.
You’ve run into these ideas in books or articles. They’ve issued from the mouths of friends or family members. You might even agree with some, or all, of them. Skepticism and atheism are oh, so trendy. Entire networks of blogs are devoted to dissing God and religion, usually with plenty of snide comments and a great degree of sarcasm. (I’ve often wondered why people get so snarky when it comes to criticizing other people’s beliefs.)
(Or is it the other way around?)
There’s a lot to be said for a Bible reading plan of some sort. After years of struggling to spend time in Scripture every day, I’ve finally realized that I’m more likely to be successful if I don’t have to pick a place to start reading every day. In years past, I’ve simply started in Genesis and read through to the end of Revelation. That takes me quite a while. Some days I read several chapters, other days one or two verses are plenty. I read until God speaks, then underline, make margin notes, and pray about what He’s shown me.
Thus it is that I find myself at the beginning of Nehemiah. With the blessing of King Artaxerxes, Nehemiah leads a relatively small number of Jews back to Jerusalem to rebuild the wall, which had been demolished when the Jews were taken into captivity. At first things go swimmingly, but then the workers begin to run out of steam. Even worse, opposition builds. It seems that some of the pagan officials don’t like the Jews very much. They try to intimidate the builders, threatening their lives.