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Out of context:
“God’s word won’t return void.”

Presenting Out of Context, a series on scriptures which are popularly quoted, but are used in a way that has little or nothing to do with why they were originally said. They’re proof-texted to suit the quoter’s purposes, not God’s. The icon is a good example of it: It’s the “And Jesus Wept” statue at St. Joseph Old Cathedral in Oklahoma City. But you’ve likely seen it round the Internet, taken out of context and renamed “Facepalm Jesus.” In American culture the facepalm isn’t a sign of sorrow, but frustration at other people’s stupidity. (Whether sorrow or frustration is what I mean by this icon, I leave to you to determine.)

Today’s out-of-context scripture comes from Isaiah: “So shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; / It shall not return to me void.” Christians typically quote this verse under one of two circumstances.

One is when we’re laying claim to a promise of God. We found something God said in the scriptures, and we choose to believe this verse applies to us personally, regardless of what God originally meant by it, or the people he specifically said it to. Because it doesn’t matter what God meant, or who he was talking to: Any time God says something, whenever and wherever, his words are imbued with some kind of supernatural divine power. Some sort of holy mojo. It’ll work on anyone.

So if I wanna claim this verse for myself, I can. If I wanna claim it for others, I can. If my church wants to claim it for us, or for our city, or our nation, or anything, we can. We can use any bit of the bible however we wish, regardless of context. Because it’s God’s word. I can’t void its power by quoting it wrong. It’s never void.

The second is like the first. When we’ve been arguing about God to some skeptic, and the skeptic won’t believe us no matter how many verses we smack ’em with (or misquote to them), we can still feel good about whipping around those verses. Because “God’s word won’t return void.” Every quotation, at any time, for whatever reason, stupid or not, has that supernatural divine power attached to it. It’ll perform some kind of voodoo on the person we throw it at. It’ll gnaw on their consciences like a tapeworm, till it finally works on them, and makes ’em see the light.

Never mind how much this practice sounds precisely like what Jesus meant by throwing pearls to swine, or giving holy items to dogs. We can’t abide the idea that what we’ve preached has fallen on deaf ears, who chose to mock it rather than accept it. We refuse to believe it’s wasted time, and meaningless. We prefer to imagine our hard work slowly wearing them down. Certainly not that we’ve been fools.

The general idea: Bible verses are magic spells.

Sorcery.

You might not believe sorcery is real, ’cause stage magicians and fiction has made it pretty clear it’s just imaginative fiction. But believe it or not, it is a real thing: Sorcery is the gaining of wealth and power through spiritual manipulation. It doesn’t have to be real magic: If I can make you think it’s real magic, and can use my “magic” to get your devotion or cash, that’d be sorcery.

Among Christians, sorcery is an attempt to manipulate God, and often others, into giving us what we want. It doesn’t work on God, of course. He’s under no obligation whatsoever to give us anything other than what he said he would. When we’re not following him, God’s actually obligated himself to prove us wrong and come against us. So claiming out-of-context “promises” from God is likely to have the opposite effect: You name-and-claim wealth, you lose money. You demand supernatural healing, you get sicker. You insist the people of your church follow you; they’re all the more likely to look for ways to hasten your downfall.

There’s a lot of demented teachings in Christendom about God’s promises, and they’re all based on sorcery. On the idea of the magic bible. On the ability to seize divine power for ourselves, to call down heavenly forces even though God has no intention of giving the devil’s dupes any such power.

But where sorcery can work is when we get ignorant Christians to believe our magic is real. Then use it to defraud them, and spread our abominable teachings. And of course we can psyche ourselves into believing it works: All our “prosperity” came from God, and not from robbing fools, or switching our allegiance from God to Mammon. We’ll just maneuver ourselves further and further away from a true relationship with God, in favor of a rotten substitute of material goods, empty joy, power-based manipulative relationships, and more idolatry.

And the bible becomes a book of spells, which gets us whatever we wish. All I gotta do is find some prophecy where God promises some other person joy and peace, and claim it for myself. All I gotta do, to make others do my bidding, is find a spell scripture which gives me that power, and abracadabra, I have that power too. Because God’s word won’t return void. Right?

And if I have the magic words, do I even need the God behind it? Nah.

God’s word does what God wants it to.

How do you rebuke someone who quotes bible out of context? You quote it in context. You quote the whole passage. Like so.

Ask the LORD when you find him.
Call him when he comes near.
Wicked people, abandon your way.
Lawless people, quit your plans.
Return to the LORD. He’ll be compassionate.
Return to our God, who forgives so much.
“My thinking isn’t your thinking.
My ways aren’t your ways,” says the LORD.
“The skies are high above earth.
Likewise my ways from your ways,
and my thinking from your thinking.
The rain and snow pour down fom the sky.
They don’t go back up.
Instead they soak the earth
and make it grow and sprout.
It gives seed to the planter.
It results in bread for dinner.
My word works the same way.
It goes forth from my mouth.
It doesn’t go back to me, empty.
It does what I want.
It achieves what I sent it to do.”

The context of this passage is God forgives generously. When people turn away from evil, he has mercy on them, and restores them. If you don’t believe it—as many don’t; Isaiah’s listeners didn’t—God points out he isn’t petty and vengeful like we are. “My thinking isn’t your thinking.” If he says he’s gonna forgive, take it to the bank: He’ll forgive. His water comes down, not up (let’s not get into evaporation; God’s not teaching a science lesson here) and grows stuff. Similarly, God’s word comes down, not up, and grows stuff.

“It doesn’t go back to me, empty,” means empty like a hand, a sack, a jar, or a scabbard. It’s also a metaphor for “unsuccessful” or “meaninglessly.” It doesn’t mean God’s words are imbued with supernatural power, and now we can use them like mighty weapons. It’s far more basic: God doesn’t say things for no good reason. There’s always a context and purpose behind everything he says.

Ironically, taking this verse out of context, and using it to defend the use of bible verses as magic spells, violates the very purpose of this verse. It’d be hilarious if it wasn’t so twisted.

The correct idea: God’s word does what God wants it to. It prospers wherever he sends it. It doesn’t do as we want it to; it’s not our words, but his. And whenever we misquote God, it stops being his word. It becomes our word—for we’ve stolen it from him, and are using it for evil. That’s right, stolen. Made profane, made a mockery of its original intent, like when the devil quotes bible. And without God behind them, our words have no creative power; only destructive power. They drive us and God apart, and us apart from each other. They wreck relationships. Not grow them.

So: You want prosperity, growth, a stronger relationship with God, and to have his wishes fulfilled more than your own? Learn what God really means to say through the scriptures. Read it in context. In context, it won’t return void. Out of context, it’s nothing but void.