Written by Leslie Koh, Singapore
After spending a number of years in the media, Leslie finally decided to move from working with bad news to good news. He believes in the power of words (especially when they’re funny). He works as an editor in Our Daily Bread Ministries.
It happened during national service. (Don’t worry, this isn’t some boring NS story.)
I was feeling really worn out by the first few weeks of Basic Military Training—as I’m sure most guys were—and each night, I would fall asleep within minutes. I could barely throw in a brief read of a verse or two from my tiny Bible, and a quick prayer to God (for a miraculous deliverance from NS, of course).
One night, flipping through the Bible at random—NOT a recommended way to read the Bible, I must say—I came across Romans 8:18. It brought tears to my eyes and gave me the comfort I sorely needed. “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us”—Wow, I thought, this awful experience is nothing compared to what God has in store for me.
Suffice to say, that verse is still one of my favourite in the Bible. Who doesn’t want to be reminded that no matter how much we are suffering now, there is something far better and more pleasant waiting for us?
Except that . . . the apostle Paul might not have been thinking of the “sufferings” of a physically unfit teen being whipped into shape.
If you read the rest of Romans 8, you’ll see that the main struggle facing the Christians in Rome was the influence and impact of sin on their lives. They were struggling to lead holy lives in the face of temptation and their spiritual weaknesses, or suffering the result of other people’s sinful ways. Their suffering was because of their faith in Christ.
They were not suffering because they had led a sheltered, sedentary lifestyle and could not do eight pull-ups, run 2.4km in less than 10 minutes, or march in a straight line without tripping over their own feet.
That said, I can’t deny that Romans 8:18 still speaks to me and comforts me today, even though I had first understood it a little out of context. Which sometimes makes me wonder: Should I not find comfort or encouragement in this and other verses when I have misunderstood them?
Getting the Bible right
It seems like a given to say that we need to interpret, understand, and use the Word of God correctly, i.e. in context. Yet the Bible is misquoted a lot more than you might think. Google “Top misquoted Bible verses” and you might be surprised by what you see.
For example, Romans 8:28—“we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose”—is (often) used to comfort someone for whom everything seems to be going wrong, or who has made a major boo-boo in life. “Don’t worry,” the verse seems to be saying, “God will bring some good out of the situation.”
But this verse was actually said in the context of living by the Spirit. Paul was talking about us learning to become like Jesus, and it is this transformation that God is working for our “good”.
There are some obvious pitfalls of misunderstanding specific verses or reading them out of context.
For instance, if we see Romans 8:28 as promising that God would salvage a bad situation or turn it into a good one, we might be disappointed if He doesn’t. Worse, we might even become angry or disillusioned with Him, thinking He has not delivered as we had expected.
Jeremiah 29:11 might give us similar (false) hopes, if we see it as a promise meant for every follower of God. We might miss the fact that this was a promise given very specifically to the Israelites (who, by the way, were still suffering in exile because of their disobedience), and start blaming God if life doesn’t pan out well.
So. . . does this mean I shouldn’t hang on to the memory of how God comforted me through Romans 8:18?
Or worse, does it mean that I had heard God wrongly, and He was in fact not comforting me?
The answer, I believe, is no.
God’s Word, the Living Word
The Bible makes clear that the Word of God is absolute and complete. Jesus Himself said that “not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished” (Matthew 5:18).
At the same time, unlike any other book, the Word of God is a living word. It is not mere words printed on paper (or published digitally). As Hebrews 4:12 says: “The word of God is alive and active.”
For example, we are all called to serve God and share the gospel—that’s the absolute part. Yet someone might receive a special prompting to speak to a specific neighbour about God at a specific moment—proving that His living Word can touch and inspire us differently at different times, in different situations.
You’ve probably had the experience of the same verse striking or inspiring you differently at different times. I’ve scribbled or highlighted verses in my Bible when they moved me especially, only to come back years later and wonder, Why did I highlight that again?
Since God relates to each of us uniquely and differently, would He thus allow a biblical truth to strike us in a way that is different from the usual reading or interpretation? I believe so. Could He use a verse to comfort, strengthen, or inspire us, even if it’s slightly removed from the original context? I believe so, too.
The need for discernment
Undoubtedly, there are risks involved in taking this stance, which is why some believers believe that all of us should only apply verses in their actual context. They are wary about the idea of God giving us specific instructions through a particular verse, as it might lead us to conclude things like, “Oh, God just told me to change jobs, because of the prompting through this Bible verse,” when that might not be the case.
And that is why, I believe, we need to be careful when applying Scripture to particular situations that we’re in. Discernment requires godly wisdom and understanding of the principles that lie at the heart of the Holy Spirit’s prompting. Importantly, we must remember that the Word of God will never contradict itself—God will not confuse us through His own Word.
We also need to be careful when sharing with others our personal experiences of the Bible and of God speaking personally to us, whether it’s on social media or in person. “This is how verse X spoke to me at this time” does not necessarily translate to “This is what verse X means for all of us.”
A friend who is spiritually mature would understand the significance of how the Holy Spirit prompted us through a particular verse or gave us a personal insight into a particular truth. A less mature person, however, might believe that this is exactly what this verse means, and apply it to himself or herself, too.
Keeping it in balance
You might be thinking, “Are we over-thinking this?” Do we have to take things so seriously, that we need to double check even when casually forwarding a Bible verse to a friend in need?
Certainly, we can take things too far, and forget that the Word of God is a living word that is able to touch hearts and lives in ways we cannot imagine.
But, perhaps we can afford to practise some discernment, and at least briefly pause before hitting “send” or “post” to ask ourselves: Is this what the Bible is actually saying to all readers? Or just to me?
After all, as much as we want our friends to feel comforted and inspired, we also want our friends to come into a deeper knowledge of God and His Word.
So why not share a verse that they can hold on to and draw wisdom from, not just for that moment but also for the rest of their lives?
Why not help them grow a fuller understanding of the Word of God, so that they’ll see the Bible as a well of eternal and wonderful truths, and not merely a source of go-to motivational mottos?
What about all those comforting and motivational verses that you’ve highlighted in your Bible or scribbled in your journal?
If you’ve felt especially comforted or strengthened by those verses, then I believe God had meant them for you. But as you go over them again with a new perspective, you’d want to keep in mind their original context, and consider the bigger picture that God’s Word reveals to us. (And to think carefully whether or not to forward them to a friend.)
And that’s why I’ve kept Romans 8:18 to myself all these years, until now. I know what Paul meant it for, but as for its special meaning, I know it’s for me.
Some things you can do
Not sure how or where to start checking the context of your favourite verse? Try these commentaries and online Bible resources. It’s not exhaustive, but you get the idea.
You can also read different versions of the same verse, to help you put together a more comprehensive idea of what a passage might mean.
As much as the Bible can offer us motivational verses, it’s a lot more than that. It’s a story of eternal hope, told by the life, death, and resurrection of a Saviour who wants to give us true comfort, strength, and hope—not just in a particular decision or situation, but in the life to come.