In my thirty years of ministry as a Christian psychologist I have talked to many people who have been spiritually harmed by their family or church community. Most commonly, they picked up a toxic faith with crazy Christian beliefs that were damaging to their relationship with God and their life. Others were abused by a Christian parent or leader. Usually the ungodly and unhealthy influence came with apparent support from the Bible.
It troubles me to see the Bible I love misused to harm people spiritually, emotionally, and relationally so early on in my ministry of counseling and teaching I began helping people with issues of toxic faith and religious abuse. Then in my work of training Christian lay counselors I developed a class called “Biblical Blunders that Bruise and Confuse.” This article is an updated version of that class and features summaries of 18 of the most common misinterpretations from the Bible that damage our souls. In most cases, I offer a saying that’s based on a Bible verse, though I quote what I hear people say and not necessarily the exact wording of the verse. Because of the limitations of space and time I’ve kept my responses to each Biblical Blunder, providing only a brief teaching from the Bible and Christian psychology for each one.
Of course, I encourage you to put my teachings next to the standard of God’s Word, but also to common sense observations of how personal life under God really works. If we understand reality accurately then we will always find that the teachings of the Bible match up with good social science. Theology and psychology are complementary disciplines that need to work together.
“The heart is deceitful and wicked” (Jere. 17:9)
I’ve heard Bible teachers build a whole theology seemingly on this one verse, teaching that the heart of all people is bad. But just a few verses later the prophet Jeremiah says, “Heal me, O Lord, and I shall be healed” (vs. 14). Then the LORD says to him: “I will give them a heart to know me, that I am the LORD. They will be my people, and I will be their God, for they will return to me with all their heart” (Jeremiah 24:7).
Ezekiel also prophesied that God would give people a new and good heart that wants to do what is right (Ezekiel 11:19, 36:26). So it’s not true to say that all human hearts are all bad. What’s true is that the human heart apart from the redemption of Christ is untrustworthy and sin-filled. We all have inherited sin from our first parents and we’ve chosen sinful ways too. But when we’re “born from above” (John 3:3) by the Spirit of God our spirit is enlivened, our heart (will) is infused with God’s presence and goodness and overtime we can grow in God’s grace, learning to live by the Spirit and not our natural self apart from God (Romans 8:1-11).
Even in the Old Testament the human heart that relied upon the God of mercy was not all bad. As just one example, consider David’s words, “I will praise the Lord who counsels me; even at night my heart instructs me.” (Psalm 16:7) The counsel of the Lord and the instructions of the heart are put side-by-side to say that one way that the Lord may guide us is through the desires of our heart. Of course, because our desires may be sinful, we need to be careful to check them against the wisdom of Scripture and godly counselors. But the point remains that God wants us to listen to the desires of our heart and consider how he may be drawing us into his good purposes.
“Deny yourself” (Luke 9:23)
Jesus’ teaching on self-denial is commonly misused to negate having any sense of self at all. God does not ask us to be selfless in the sense of becoming nonpersons who don’t know or care for their wants and needs — he created us in his image and finds great value and worth in us (Gen. 1:26-27). Self-awareness is always good and helpful to our capacity to accomplish things and relate to people. So we need to understand ourselves and appreciate our value to God and others before we can rightly set aside our own desires out of love for others. In a psychological sense, you can’t deny a self that you don’t have!
So for the Christ-follower the Bible distinguishes between the old self and the new self. I am to “put off” (deny, take to the cross, die to) my old sinful self, but I am to “put on” (live from) my new, Christ-redeemed self. (Eph. 4:22-24; Col. 3:5-10) This is Christ being formed in me by my cooperation with the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit. By nourishing my new self in God (receiving and appreciating his love for me) I am strengthened to love my neighbor as myself (as God loves me).
“You must hate your life” (Luke 14:26)
Jesus is not telling you to hate your life, much less hate your own self. This idea is not found in the Bible. But many Christ-followers struggle with self-condemnation, even self-contempt, and sometimes they spiritualize this, perhaps developing a martyr complex. What is Jesus teaching here? He’s making a contrast: in order to be his disciple our devotion to God needs to be so intense that it’s like we hate our lives in comparison. To the prove the point, in this same passage he tell us to hate our parents (Luke 14:26). Obviously, he doesn’t want us to break the 5th commandment! Jesus teaches us to honor our parents (Matt. 15:4-6) and he teaches us to love everyone, even our enemies (Luke 6:27).
The Bible teaches self-love, loving the self that Jesus gave his life for to reconcile us to God. But self-love is not a self-help project! Strictly speaking, we can’t love ourselves unless we’re joining in with God loving us, often through another person, especially in the Body of Christ. This is such a big deal that Jesus commands us repeatedly to “love one another” (John 13:34-35; 15:12, 17). As children we’re completely dependent on being loved personally in order to mature psychologically and socially. As we internalize love, then we can remind ourselves of our belovedness and care for ourselves under God. If we do not have healthy self-acceptance and self-nurture then our neighbor will suffer greatly when we love our neighbor as our self (Mark 12:31). Furthermore, the people who love us will be hurt if we do not love ourselves and appreciate their love when they offer it.
“Forget the past” (Phil. 3:13)
Paul says, “Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal…” Many times I’ve seen this verse used as a way of justifying the idea that we should not reflect on or talk about, or perhaps even remember, our past problems and related emotional pains. Yet, in the context of this verse Paul is actually remembering emotional events from his past! He’s not suggesting we develop amnesia about our past, but he is encouraging us to deal with these burdens and let them go instead of getting stuck in pride, resentment, guilt, depression, or self-pity. The Bible itself airs the dirty laundry of the patriarchs and many of our heroes of the faith, modeling for us the importance of not covering up our sins or struggles, not pretending that we don’t have any personal problems, but instead being self-disclosing and vulnerable with God and trustworthy people. The Psalms of Lament and books like Job and Lamentations are powerful, divinely inspired examples of this honest expression of emotion that teach us how to pour out our hearts to God while putting our confidence in him.
It’s important that we become aware of how our experiences in our family of origin and other significant relationships have effected us personally. Every family has some dysfunction in it and none of us have been loved perfectly. We’ve all been sinned against by others and we’ve sinned against others. When people talk about forgetting or these painful or sinful events from their past what they really mean is burying them. They impatiently tell themselves, “Get over it!” This is unwise and unhealthy. The only way to get over emotional distress is to release it to a person of compassion and receive their comfort to soothe our wound or fill in our emptiness. The way to freedom is to know the truth, to feel it and confess these hurts and sins in order to receive mercy and grace for ourselves and to share with those who have wounded us.
Jeremiah spoke the obvious and named the elephant when he said, “You can’t heal a wound by saying it’s not there!” (Jere. 6:14, TLB)
“You should feel guilty” (Job)
Basically, Job’s friends put him on a guilt trip. They started off good by sitting with him in silence for seven days (Job 2:13), but once they spoke up they kept telling him it was his fault that he was suffering and they gave him “proverbs of ashes” to fix his problem (Job 13:12). They took general truths from the Bible and applied them to Job in ways that were unloving and untrue. Time and again I’ve seen Christian leaders quote Job’s foolish friends as a way of bolstering the advice they’re giving, thinking they have a Bible proof text to support their claim! This is “shoulding on” people!
Putting shoulds on people (or ourselves) is especially harmful when we use the Bible or name of God in our attempt to “fix” a complex personal problem or apply pressure for change. Jesus teaches us that when we’re trying to help people we need to be careful not to be judgmental or condemning and not to push our pearls on them. Instead, he teaches us simply to ask people for what we want them to do and pray for them (Matt. 7:1-12). The truth of God’s Word always needs to be wed with the way of God’s Word, which is the humble and gracious way of Jesus.
I always tell people, “God never wants you to persist in feelings of guilt or shame.” Some Bible teachers mock me for this, but all guilt and shame do is make us feel bad and pressure us to put fig leaves on and hide. Paul teaches that when it comes to responding to our sin, we need to avoid “worldly sorrow” and learn to develop “godly sorrow” (2 Cor. 7:8-13). Guilt and shame are examples of worldly sorry — they’re depressing, self-condemning, and based in the prideful, self-justifying thinking that says, “I messed up and so I should make up for it.” Godly sorry, or healthy conviction of sin, is to feel sad because we’ve offended or hurt God, another person, and our own selves. Feeling sad about our sin helps us to come under the wing of the Lord to find mercy and to stay clear of sin by staying in his shadow (Psalm 57:1; 91:1-4).
“Our conscience bears witness” (Rom. 2:15)
I’ve often heard Christian leaders teach that our conscience is the voice of God. This is a very dangerous teaching. Your conscience is part of your internal psychology. It may sound more like a harsh parent or coach than God in his Word. Paul teaches that our conscience is not infallible, it is not a perfect channel for tuning into God’s voice. Our conscience may be “weak” (legalistic, as in 1 Cor. 8:12) or seared (overrun by sin, as in 1 Tim. 4:2) and so our consciences may need to be retuned to, if not overhauled by, the grace and sincerity of God (2 Cor. 1:12).
Normally when God speaks to us it’s in a “still, small voice,” a whisper of his Spirit (1 Kings 19:11-13) in which he impresses his thoughts into our minds. To hear God’s voice accurately you may need healing from past sins and wounds that have damaged your conscience. Also, you’ll need to learn how to use our GPS: God’s Word, Providential circumstances, and Spirit-impressions. Godly counsel from people in the Body of Christ helps us learn to read our GPS properly so that we can discern the leading of the Spirit of Christ as we navigate our way in this world.
“God predestined some” (Rom. 8:29)
Has God predestined some people to enjoy eternal life and others to go to hell? Some Christian theologians, especially those in a Calvinist tradition, teach this. For instance, they take Paul’s statements about divine foreknowledge, predestination, calling, justification, and glorification and develop a detailed theory that implicitly presents God as controlling the spiritual lives of all people (Rom. 8:29-30). Yet, the emphasis of Romans 8 is on our personal responsibility to live by the Spirit. We have the opportunity to learn to depend on God’s grace as we do whatever we’re doing and grow to experience the glorious destiny he has prepared for us in his kingdom. God takes the initiative to reach out in love to all people for them to be saved and to come to know him through choosing to put their faith in Christ, the mediator (1 Tim. 2:4-5).
But some point to Jesus saying, “Apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). Again, read the context of John 15. Seven times in two paragraphs Jesus tells us to “abide” in him and his word like a branch abides in a grapevine. Clearly, this is something for us to do! We’re to keep choosing to abide in Christ and this is how we grow to live fruitful lives that honor God and bless people. Of course, we can’t accomplish anything of eternal value without Jesus’ help, but it works the other way too in that if we do nothing we’ll find ourselves apart from Jesus, like the branch that’s cut off from the vine. So in our thinking and our teaching about life with Jesus we need to hold together the both truths that God is sovereign over all and we must be responsible, God is always the initiator in the spiritual life and we have real choices on whether or not to follow Christ in our daily lives. We need to avoid making two opposite mistakes: making the spiritual life a self-help project or rendering people passive before a controlling God.
“We’re justified by faith” (Rom. 3:28)
It’s a great gift of God’s grace to us that we can be justified by our faith in Christ. Because the Righteous One went to the cross to sacrifice his life for us and rose from the dead we can be treated by God as if we’d never sinned when we put our confidence in Christ. Though we are sinners we are forgiven and declared by God to be righteous! But this is not God pretending that we’re something we’re not — it’s him calling us to become like Jesus and providing the way for that to happen not just in theory but in our day to day living.
The other thing we need to say is that justification is only one part of salvation. Another part is regeneration: God puts his Spirit in the hearts of us who believe and we’re “born from above,” which gives us the power to participate in eternal living through our interactive and intimate knowledge of Jesus and his Father (John 17:3). That process is called sanctification and is also part of salvation. Another word for salvation as it’s used in the Bible is deliverance: to be saved from sin is to be delivered, not only in the sense of initial justification, but also in the larger and ongoing sense of sanctification. Some Christian preachers and teachers focus so much on justification that people are left with little understanding of what their part is in spiritual growth. God says, “Work out your salvation… For it is God who works in you to will and to act” (Phil. 2:12-13). God acts in grace, moving upon our will and empowering us to act, but it’s up to us to work out what God works in.
“Blessed are the peacemakers” (Matt. 5:9)
It’s common for people to think that appeasing people to avoid conflict is being a peacemaker. That’s a false, dishonest peace. There are many ways that we may avoid conflict: telling people what they want to hear, hiding our true feelings, accommodating to what other people want as though our wants do not matter, telling lies, or being passive-aggressive (saying yes, but doing no). True peace requires that we “speak the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15). Elsewhere, Jesus explicitly teaches that he hasn’t come to bring superficial peace, but a sword of division to facilitate true peace with God and one another (Matt. 10:34).
In his beatitude Jesus is not telling us to avoid conflict. But neither is telling us to be a true and healthy peacemaker, though that is a good thing to do. In fact, he’s not telling us to do anything in this or any of his beatitudes! All the beatitudes are routinely misinterpreted. He’s not saying, “Be like such and such so you can be blessed.” He’s saying, “Even if you’re in a bad situation, you’ll be blessed if you receive the Kingdom of the Heavens.” He’s not giving commands or instructions, he’s pronouncing God’s blessings upon people who don’t think they’re eligible to be blessed. Just ask a police officer if it’s a blessing to be a peacemaker! Jesus would say, “Even when you’re police work takes you into the middle of domestic conflict the blessing of being a child of God in his kingdom is available to you” (Matt. 5:9, par).
“If you believe you’ll receive whatever you ask for in prayer” (Matt. 21:22)
New or overzealous followers of Jesus may latch onto his promises to answer prayer and think if they just “have faith” or “pray in Jesus’ name” then they’ll get whatever they ask for. But what does it mean to have faith or to pray in Jesus’ name? Prayer and the life of faith are not like a contract where if we do something good then God has to bless us. Praying in Jesus’ name or believing a Bible promise are not formulaic devices or magic incantations! In the Bible names of people refer to their character so to pray in Jesus’ name means to pray in a way that is consistent with his character. When we pray “in Jesus’ name” we’re praying the way he prayed, with faith in God. Certainly, that means our prayers would not be self-absorbed or manipulative, rather they’d be loving for the Father, other people, and also ourselves.
To pray like Jesus means to be submissive to God (John 5:19). It means trusting that God knows what is best for us and so we accept that sometimes, though we may not understand it at the time, God doesn’t answer our prayer how or when we want him to. Even though this doesn’t feel good we trust that God is good and loving toward us always and eventually we’ll see that even in our situation of unmet need, grief or injustice. In conclusion and to be precise, we need to realize that there is no power in our prayers — no matter how fervent they are! — the power is in God and his Son Jesus. The power of prayer is not by our might or our praying “the right way” it’s in the power of God’s Spirit at work (Zech. 4:6).
“Redeem the time” (Eph. 5:16)
As a college student I used to quote this verse with pride to endorse being super-productive, always in a hurry, and workaholic! After all, “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.” That may be true sometimes, but it also can be true that “Busy hands are the devil’s workshop.” I was living without regard for my human limitations and this caused me problems with anxiety, arrogance, and diminished my ability to be patient and kind with other people.
Jesus was never in a hurry — except to go to the cross for us (Mark 10:32). He was never too busy to care for people and never too busy — even with caring for other people! — to pray. Not only did he spend time in quiet prayer, but often he enjoyed a meal or a walk with friends and he normally got plenty of sleep and rest. Paul himself was an ambitious, angry workaholic before he met the risen Christ, but he learned to “Rejoice in the Lord!” and enjoy God’s peace (Phil. 4:4, 7).
“Don’t be anxious about anything” (Phil. 4:6)
Paul says, “Don’t be anxious about anything.” We may put a period there, but Paul does not! If we tell ourselves or others not to feel worry or anxiety we’re denying our emotions, pretending that we don’t have them. This is self-deception. Ironically, repressing feelings like fear, anger, or sadness puts these stress responses into our bodies and eventually causes anxiety! Denial of emotion drains our energy, greatly reduces our energy, and hinders our ability to have empathy for others.
The truth is that Paul is helping us to admit to and work through our anxious feelings, which are probably caused either by an overwhelming situation or a pattern of repressing primary emotions like fear, anger, or sadness. To paraphrase the entire verse Paul is saying to us, “In every circumstance that you feel anxious go to God in prayer — tell him (and others as unto him) how you feel, ask him for what you need, abandon the outcomes of those situations to him, and thank him for his many blessings. In time the peace of God will come out of nowhere to settle your soul.” This is an emotionally honest and healthy faith, which we see modeled throughout the Bible, including by Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane when he cried out to God as his Abba because his soul was “overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death” (Mark 14:34, 36). No one would say to Jesus there, “Do not be anxious!” Neither is it loving for you or someone else to say that to you in your hour of distress.
“God will meet all your needs” (Phil. 4:19)
Any earnest student of the Bible will appreciate the generosity and power of God to meet all of our needs. And yet we may spiritualize this in a way that disconnects our relationship with God from our human relationships, as if we don’t need care, guidance, and encouragement from people. The Bible doesn’t teach this sort of dichotomy. We’re to and care for those in need “in Jesus’ name” — we’re even called “Christ’s ambassadors” (2 Cor. 5:20). We may understand this as our ministry to others, but not appreciate that sometimes you and I are the “other” in need of spiritual hospitality from a servant of the Lord!
To understand and trust God’s love it isn’t enough to read it in the Bible or have it preached to us — we also need to experience it in relationships with people. This is especially true in the formative years of childhood. Years ago, research studies proved that children who aren’t held and nurtured die, literally. Many more children die to some extent emotionally because of they don’t experience a safe and secure bond with a parent. God has provided opportunity for all of us to encourage and build one another up as we love one another and exercise our various spiritual gifts for the common good in a local gathering of the Body of Christ (Eph. 4:11-13).
And we need to acknowledge that God doesn’t always meet our needs as we would define that. Even devoted followers of Christ, in Bible times right up to today, have suffered from hunger, poverty, rejection, or mistreatment. Generally, God meets our physical needs as we trust in him. Always, God meets our personal needs when we bring ourselves into the spiritual reality where he “has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ” (Eph. 1:3).
“The truth will set you free” (John 8:32)
We misquote the Bible when we say, “The truth will set you free.” In the context Jesus says, “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” But what does it mean to “know” the truth? Knowing the truth, as this is typically understood, is not nearly enough for us to experience freedom in life, much less to become like Jesus. Committed Christians, including pastors and ministry leaders, may have vast stores of “head knowledge” about the Bible and following Jesus while frequently losing their temper at people, engaging in sexual sin, telling lies to avoid conflict, or being depressed and isolated from other people.
To know the truth rightly is to have interactive knowledge with it and with the source of truth, God and his Son Jesus. Real knowledge is personal, relational, and formational. We need to go far beyond accumulation of Bible information and Christian doctrine. To experience freedom, health of soul, and divine life we need to be engaged in an authentic, intimate, devoted relationship with the Lord and his followers and we need to be learning how to obey God from our hearts. Instead of just being informed we need to be in-formed, formed on the inside to be like Christ (Gal. 4:19).
“Submit to authority” (1 Pet. 2:13)
It’s a temptation for every parent to enforce order with their children by using the force of their will or physical size to make their children comply. An authoritarian attitude and a rule-dominated culture are even considered “God’s way” in some Christian parenting programs, as well as in some churches and ministries. Of course, respect for authority and rules are important, but the Bible teaches that a heavy-handed approach to leadership exasperates or embitters children (Eph. 6:4; Col. 3:21) and tears down adults (2 Cor. 13:10).
We need to be careful when teaching morals and values that we don’t make them an ends in themselves or, worse, impose them in a controlling way. Instead, we want to demonstrate the winsome wisdom of the Bible, model it in our lives, and teach others why these instructions are good for them, rather than spouting, “Because I said so!” Then we need to do what God does and respect people’s free choice, giving them space to internalize our values — or not. If they make ungodly choices then there will be natural negative consequences that come along to teach them the way of wisdom, as generally we reap from what we sow (Gal. 6:7-9).
When the people marveled that Jesus “spoke with authority” (Matt. 7:29, Luke 4:32) they didn’t say this because he was physically strong and had a loud voice, was good at twisting arms, pressured people to do what they should, or came across as arrogant. When Jesus taught people to do certain things he was speaking from his own experience of the way life works best. In his leadership style Jesus lived in continual submission to God, only saying what the Father tells him to say (John 12:49-50), and he didn’t look to be served by people but to serve them (Mark 10:45).
“Just do it!”
Obviously, this phrase isn’t in the Bible, but you’d think it was based on how some Christians understand our call to obey the Lord. Many of Christian sermons and books implicitly teach us to try harder to love our neighbor, not sin with anger, share the Gospel with people who don’t know Jesus, or do something else that we “should” do. It doesn’t work and it always leads to hypocrisy. The “just do it” approach is the superficial, behavioral righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees and Jesus taught that our rightness needs to “far surpass” that — it needs to come from a heart that relies on God in order to become a loving person on the inside (Matt. 5:20).
Relying on God for personal transformation means, “Train yourself to be godly” (1 Timothy 4:7). Or, “Don’t just try — train with Jesus.” But we may even misuse spiritual disciplines. Reading the Bible, singing praise songs in church, or fasting and praying have no value in themselves, they simply put us in a position where there is opportunity for us to bring our hearts to God and be transformed. Sometimes we’re not even able to benefit from disciplines until we experience emotional healing or are taught Jesus’ Gospel that the Kingdom of the Heavens is available.
To “just do it” is like trying to push out fruit or buying fruit in the grocery store and hanging it on our tree. Jesus taught that to bear good fruit we need to become a good tree and that begins with tilling the soil, fertilizing the tree, and giving time for rain to reach the trees roots and for sunshine to penetrate its leaves (Matt. 7:17-18, Luke 13:6-9). We need to be like branches that are abiding in a grapevine (John 15:1-17).
“Christians aren’t perfect — just forgiven!”
That famous bumper sticker isn’t in the Bible, but many of us seem to believe it’s true and are happy to be just forgiven. We read where Paul says, “What I do is not the good I want do do; no, the evil I do not want to do — this I keep on doing” (Rom. 7:19) and we think, “That’s the way it is. I can’t help from continually falling back into sinful habits, but I thank God for his forgiveness of my sins through Christ.” But do we ever experience victory over a sin? Do we know how actually to respond to God’s grace so that we grow in righteousness and become more like Christ in our actual life?
Paul certainly learned how to overcome sin — he did not live his life hopelessly stuck in Romans 7’s pattern of repeating all of his sins over and over! Of course, he experienced this in his past and to some degree later in his life too, as we all do, but he learned to live the sanctified life in the Spirit that he writes about in Romans 8. We know this is the case because his story of transformation into increasing Christlikeness is demonstrated throughout the book of Acts and in his letters. Real progress in overcoming sin is possible for us and the people around us in our lives are desperate to be taught how to live in righteousness and to see genuine examples of ordinary, sinful people learning to follow Jesus in God’s kingdom. At the same time, if we’re living a life of worshiping God then we’ll remain humble and focused on confessing our own sins rather than judging other’s sins such that we’ll say with Paul, “I am the chief of all sinners” (1 Tim. 1:15).
“Be perfect” (Matt. 5:48)
Jesus actually said this! But he’s not advocating perfectionism! He says that perfectionists, especially religious ones like the Pharisees, strain a gnat and swallow a camel! They are like white-washed tombstones! (Matt. 23:24, 27) What does he mean then when he says, “Be perfect”? He’s saying the same thing as Paul when he says, “Being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion (Phil. 1:6). To paraphrase, Jesus is saying, “Keep relying on the Father to perfect you, to help you become whole in his love.” This is Good News! There is always more for us to learn from Jesus! Always more progress that we can make in bringing our life into God’s good government! The better we learn to love God and our neighbor as ourselves the more effective, happy, powerful, and fruitful our lives will be.
God knows that a primary way that we learn and grow is through making mistakes — by sinning — and his mercy and grace cover that. This is why the Wise Man says, “The righteous one falls down seven times and rises again” (Prov. 24:16). The perfectionist says, “The bad person keeps falling down — I need to be sure not to mess up!” Christian perfectionists are concerned about managing their image as a “good Christian,” but God is concerned about developing us into more loving people.