Matthew 27:5: [Judas] “went and hanged himself.”
Luke 10:37: “Go and do likewise.”
John 13:27: “Do quickly what you are going to do.”

That’s a little exercise I learned in seminary to demonstrate the danger in cherry-picking verses of Scripture. If you put your mind to it, you can contort verses in the Bible to say anything you want them to say.

The most egregious misuse of Scripture, I think, is the deliberate lifting of a verse from its context to prove a point in a completely different situation and with an intention counter to its original meaning. It doesn’t matter if you are the attorney general of the United States seeking to justify an unconscionable immigration policy, a fundamentalist preacher wanting to condemn as sin a social practice you don’t like, or a Christian layperson trying to “win” an argument with a neighbor of another faith. To come to Holy Scripture with the intention of using it to justify a position you already hold is always wrong. The Bible is there to lead us, not to be used as a weapon against others.

Here is the hard truth: The Bible is not easy to understand. It was written by many authors over several centuries writing in different contexts to diverse audiences using a variety of literary genres. It was originally received in at least three languages and, unless you are versed in the original tongues, it is always read through translation — which always involves interpretation. Furthermore, the meaning of specific passages is often debated and interpreted differently by scholars of formidable training and consummate good will. In other words, people who know a lot more than you and I do about the Bible often disagree regarding its interpretation and application.

And here is another hard truth: Most Christians are either unwilling or unable to delve into the relationship between biblical teaching and the complex social issues of our day. That would require careful reading of the Bible, dependence on critical scholarship, and, above all else, an open mind. I’m not saying a literate person can’t do it; I’m simply saying they often don’t.

Nevertheless, I believe wholeheartedly that the Bible contains God’s message for every generation, and can enlighten us in our relationships with others, in our personal conduct, and in the discernment of right practices in modern social situations. But it must be approached with humility, dependence on the Holy Spirit, and an earnest desire to know God’s will. Any other use is simply sinful.

Do not let this cause you to despair of being able to be guided by Scripture. Instead, let true humility lead you toward a single goal, the same one that Paul expressed as his in his First Letter to the Corinthians: to know nothing except Christ and him crucified (1 Corinthians 2:2). Immerse yourself in the reading of the Gospels. Seek to know the approach Jesus took toward people, his attitude toward the law, his practice of religion, the essence of his teachings. These will lead you to explore other areas of Scripture, but don’t go to them until you are fully conversant with the life of Christ.

A few years ago it became popular to wear bracelets with the letters WWJD — “What Would Jesus Do?” My only objection to that question, then as now, was, do you really think you know what Jesus would do or are you projecting what you want to do onto him? Open the Bible once you know you are seeking God’s will for your life, not when you’re looking to prove a point.

Just one word of caution about opening the Bible: If you are seeking to be a disciple of Christ, where your biblical exploration takes you is out of your control. It can lead you to places you never expected to go, to relate to people whom you do not know, to perform acts of love, kindness, and servanthood beyond your human capacity to conceive or perform. But it will be with the certain promise of the presence of the Holy Spirit on the journey. Bon voyage!