The Dangers of Biblical Illiteracy: Inspiration or Interpretation?

I had just posted January 2016 Newsletter about the critical need to get back to basics. Almost immediately, a post appeared on Facebook to demonstrate and affirm this. Hence, I am writing this article to make an even clearer point about examining our foundations; and in particular, our knowledge and understanding of Scripture, or lack of.

Here is the Facebook post from Lakewood Church, with Pastor Joel Osteen’s ‘exhortation’ based on James 4:3…

Screen Shot 2016-01-25 at 2.14.35 pm

In case you are unable to make out the text, it reads, “The scripture says in James 4:3, “You ask and do not receive because you ask amiss…” When we ask to merely survive, to get by, to just endure, that’s a weak prayer. That’s asking amiss. God is saying, “I created the whole universe, I own it all. don’t come to me with a weak prayer asking me to help you live in mediocrity, endure the trouble, survive another month. No when you come to, ask big, knowing that I’m a more than enough God. Ask me for your dreams, ask me to do what looks impossible, ask me to heal you from that disease, ask me to accelerate your goals, ask me to show out in your life.” From Pastor Joel Osteen at Lakewood Church today.”

Let’s process this together.

At first glance, it sounds right, doesn’t it? Do we have a big God? YES! Can He do the impossible? AMEN! Does He want me to believe Him for more than just enough? INDEED! No wonder, this post attracted 10,829 likes and prompted 2,387 shares (as at the time of the screen shot)!

According to Pastor Joel, to ask amiss is to pray a wrong prayer or to pray beneath what God is able to do. And what Pastor Joel teaches must be right, right? After all, he is the leader of a mega church with an accompanying mega smile, not to mention the author of best-selling books. Even if he is a little off, let’s not split hairs because this is just so encouraging and uplifting, and it helps me trust God for all He has for me!

But wait! Is this what James 4:3 really means? To answer this question, the entire verse needs to be quoted and read in its context. We cannot infer anything from a verse in isolation, much less a truncated one! So, what does James 4:3 say? Here it is…

“You ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures.” James 4:3

Hmmmm, I don’t know about you but it sure sounds different, doesn’t it? – and you don’t even need to have attended a course on Hermeneutics to determine this. With due respect to Pastor Joel, what is amiss here is not our prayers but his interpretation of this verse! Clearly, to ask amiss is not to pray wrongly, weakly or conservatively but to pray with the wrong attitude or motive, as stated in the missing portion of the verse, “that you may spend it on your pleasures.”

As appealing and as inspirational as it sounds, Osteen’s misinterpretation is exactly what this verse warns against! Check out the next verse, James 4:4, where James rebukes (yes, rebukes!) believers, labelling them as adulterers and adulteresses because of their worldliness! That’s the difference between a true pastor-preacher and a motivational speaker.

I hope I have made a clear enough point through this exercise and illustration. There is a dire and critical need to get back to basics, and especially back to the Word of God. Biblical illiteracy does not only refer to Christians who do not know the Word. It also includes Christians who think they know the Word but actually don’t. In fact, these are most prone to deception because of a false sense of security! And if you are one who only underlines or highlights the nice stuff in the Bible, do yourself a big favour. By all means, love the blessings, but make sure you also heed the warnings!

Be careful, dear brother or sister. Be very aware of the dangers of not being able to rightly divide the word (2 Tim 2:15). Biblical illiteracy is easily satisfied with what sounds biblical and inspirational, but often at the expense of sound biblical interpretation. Get back to basics. Return to the Word.

“Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” 2 Tim 2:15

39 thoughts on “The Dangers of Biblical Illiteracy: Inspiration or Interpretation?

  1. Jabez cried out to the God of Israel, “Oh, that you would bless me and enlarge my territory! Let your hand be with me, and keep me from harm so that I will be free from pain.” And God granted his request.

    With all the “me me me” in this well known prayer, I guess you would consider Jabez’s prayer as one with the wrong attitude and motive too? =)

    1. NKJV:Now Jabez was more honorable than his brothers, and his mother called his name Jabez,[a] saying, “Because I bore him in pain.” 10 And Jabez called on the God of Israel saying, “Oh, that You would bless me indeed, and enlarge my territory, that Your hand would be with me, and that You would keep me from evil, that I may not cause pain!” So God granted him what he requested.

      Interpretation is important. Sounds very different in this translation, doesn’t it?

    2. Hey Kelvin, I think it clear that James is talking about not praying for selfish motivations. However, since Jabez cried out that prayer, I trust that he was asking for such blessings with the intentions to honor God. I don’t see any contradiction here within the Scriptures and I stand by the author.

      However if our idea of “me me me” is to walk in the same path that Mr Osteen has sought after; for personal ungodly gains. We should reconsider before asking.

  2. In all fairness, I don’t believe Joel is encouraging believers to Ask so that they can indulge in their evil pleasures (based on what he wrote on his posting). In fact in the full context of James 4, the sentence before James 4:3 states “…You do not have because you do not ask.”. A few verses down, we read in James 4:11 “Do not speak evil of one another, brethren. He who speaks evil of a brother and judges his brother, speaks evil of the law and judges of the law”. I believe our Lord wants us to ask Him and to fully depend on Him for our daily life and provision.

  3. Not sure why you’re bothering with the Bible. 1) You pick and choose the verses you choose to obey – have you put anyone to death for working on the Sabbath recently? – meaning that you’re using your own morality, not that of the Bible, and 2) you’re dealing with an English-language “translation” of books for which the earliest texts are fragments which were written down centuries after the events they presume to relate. If you want to get back to basics, I suggest you start with critical thinking skills.

    1. Mike, it does appear that you don’t have any dispensational understanding of Scripture. Christianity lives under the New Covenant of Grace, not the Old Covenant of the Law. Thus the author is not picking and choosing.
      Also, the earliest texts we now have complete or near complete copies of harken back very nearly to the first century of certain books. Not only that, we have several different texts which can be cross-compared.

    2. One with critical thinking skills would avoid commenting on a topic they know nothing, being obvious by your statements that you know little if anything about the bible, it’s origins, or the interpretation or translation thereof. Contempt prior to investigation is the weakest form of criticism.

  4. We also need to be careful of not overreacting. Too many believers make it a ministry to emphasize and demonize good Christian brothers in the name of “defending purity of the Word,” and proceed to trash these servants. They build a ministry based on negativity instead of what is good and great that God is doing.

  5. Blessings to you. Yes, there is both Biblical illiteracy and Biblical misinterpretation and it is unfortunately a huge problem amongst the ambassadors as it has always been. 2 Tim 4:3-4 says it so well: For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths. (NRSV). How important it is throughout the ages for ministries like Priscilla and Aquila’s (Acts 18:24-26) to teach these ambassadors “more accurately.” I encourage you to keep it up.
    Rev. Dr. M. Vezina (ret.) DBS, MBS, BTh.

  6. Pls stop this nonsense. Pick a better fight. I hate when Christians pick on men of God. God is their master not you. If that’s what God told Him, then back off and let him preach.

  7. This was my reply whIch I replied to someone who share ur writings in the Facebook. I sometimes questioned u preachers why are u quarrel and conflicting One another. Are you envious of the more successful one? What make u think u are preaching the correct Gospel n the others are wrong. U preachers made me sick. seems Brohenson take verse 3 out of context. In verse 1-2, the same word pleasure was used in verse 1. Paul was saying that some members lack what others have so they envy, quarrel, fight, commit murder. They lack because they did not ask….pleasure in that sense?

    Also, 1 Timothy 6:17 God supplies us with all things to enjoy, rich in good works, generous, blessing to others. We can’t be a blessing to others if we have just enough.

  8. Amen! Thank you for this article! We need to get back to the truth! Now, as for Kelvin Tan Tuan Wei’s reply, Yes, the Issue for Jabez’s plead was one of motivation. We see that he acquired his name from him causing pain. I’m sure he was aware what his name meant. He didn’t want to cause pain. He wanted to bless others. This was his motivation. Notice how he was “more honorable than his brothers.” All the requests he made are for the motivation at the end of the request, “That I may not cause pain!” It is my belief that Jabez was asking for blessing so that he could bless others. Why do I think this? Because of his motivation and the mention of his honorableness! This goes back to the Psalm 67 request for blessing motivation. “God be merciful to us and bless us, And cause His face to shine upon us, 2 That Your way may be known on earth, Your salvation among all nations.” We don’t ask things of God to spend it on our own pleasure, but to bless others. This is not even bringing in the Old Testament blessing of God on his people Israel. Yes, the Church is grafted into Israel, but this is spiritual grafting. We as gentile Christians are not ethnic, corporate Israel. God is not done with corporate Israel. If you want to include many of the old Testament blessings of God to us now, then you must hold to the unbiblical replacement theology, instead of the biblical grafting theology. We, as the Church, have been given every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places. But physically, we are promised persecution and suffering all throughout the New Testament. Does this mean that God does not answer our prayers? No! I agree with the above article, but concluding that we are in the will of God based on our external temporary circumstances is unbiblical. Let us remember the Luke 18 persistent widow. She asked and asked and received, but notice what the Lord says, “And shall God not avenge His own elect who cry out day and night to Him, though He bears long with them? I tell you that He will avenge them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will He really find faith on the earth?” How can God answer a prayer speedily if he bears long with them? Jesus ties it all in with His coming again. We are to pray and pray and one day when Jesus returns, we will receive all our prayers then, that we never received now, in one fell swoop! What a great day to look forward to! This post is meant to be a blessing even in a rebuke. I love all my brothers and sisters in Christ, but we need to stand on firm ground in our theology. The prosperity gospel is shaky ground to set up for eternity. We need to joyfully embrace the true gospel. Joyfully embracing The cross of Christ’s suffering while we joyfully embrace our cross of suffering, though two different things are one and the same single act. One can’t embrace Christ’s cross, in faith, and reject our cross. Yes, our cross entails resisting our flesh to live in holiness, but it also entails joyfully embracing suffering and pain. Living for our pleasure is not how the Christian life works. We live for Christ’s pleasure alone, bringing as many people into Christ’s pleasure as possible before we die. Remember, we will be resurrected some day! If I loose both my arms now in a car crash, rejoice that I will get them back! Really! We will get a physical body again! So with that, blessings to all of you, in Christ! Stay strong! Live for eternity!

    1 Chron 4:9-10: “Now Jabez was more honorable than his brothers, and his mother called his name Jabez, saying, “Because I bore him in pain.” 10 And Jabez called on the God of Israel saying, “Oh, that You would bless me indeed, and enlarge my territory, that Your hand would be with me, and that You would keep me from evil, that I may not cause pain!”

  9. A good tree produces good fruit just like the eyes of a good man will see what is good in the world. The eyes of a bad man will see all the evil and act accordingly.
    The word of God can not be defined by words written on a page in a book. The word of God is spiritual. It is like trying to define love. Everyone will have a different definition ,yet what they are describing is the same. You can’t define spiritual words, you can only describe them.
    This leaves a lot of room for interpretation when you read the description.
    The Bible is the word of God. God is spiritual. Therefore,The word of God is spiritual and can not be completely defined. It can only be described.
    I don’t think Joel committed any sin in his description of James 4:3
    I don’t think he is going to Hell for his definition of amiss. To be fair, I don’t know what was in his heart when he wrote it, but I do know what kind of heart the people who complain about it , have.

      1. So I guess John 3:16 really can be interpreted by Pastafarians as the following

        “For the flying spaghetti monster so lusted after the hard up across time so that anyone who wanted to be like him could have as many people as they want too and never face judgment because death is an illusion.”

        That’s a completely spiritual interpretation that stands beyond definition and is the logical conclusion of your allegorizing hermeneutic ..

        It’s also bull.

  10. Osteen has never preached the Gospel in recorded History becvause he, like Schuller and Copeland are mere motovational speakers. Has no regard for the scripture and are lost to the Spirit.

  11. I don’t 100% agree with your evaluation. I’m not sure what your motivation is but it’s not clarity nor positive motivation.

  12. Bro. Henson, a link on FB led to this post. Thank you, and be encouraged to continue to speak the truth in love. Although it will will not always be appreciated, warning the saints and challenging them to search the scriptures is biblical and in itself an act of godly love.

  13. It is quit clear, You have a heart and passion for the Salvation of Pastor Osteen, as can be seen by Your passion for Our Salvation at whole. You have had much good study, I can tell by how You can divide rightly many things in Scripture. But the whole weight of Our Love for God and others isn’t measured by how We can tare down the mistakes of others Who Christ has died for or tare apart other people’s Life’s work, no, this military mindset that has been taught these past few generations to babe Christians starting after the Civil War, this pervertion of how to Love others is the same flaw We can see in John the Baptist who Jesus said had no greater office and lot in life from birth but is the least in the Kingdom of Heaven because of dishonoring the King’s office by making The King a public spectacle in front of those the Lord had placed in His care, and so bringing railing accusations upon the King’s place of offices like the accuser of the brethren does to Us all and not like Our Saviour Jesus showed the proper way to do. We have learn from childhood by talk shows of Our day and age to confront anything that We might have a problem with without considering the true remedy is in fervent Love for One another which is the Sign that We are Christ’s and in honor those God has honored We don’t invade their life trying to tare down everything evil but get them to refuse to do evil by telling the truth. Paul said to those that preach Jesus in conflict be not in conflict with them. And just as the loving Kindness of God has brought about Our Salvation to all that will ever be saved We can Believe that Our forgiving of everything They can do as Jesus has done by dieing 2000 yrs ago for Us. And then when We see what They have done or are doing We will have Forgiveness waiting on Them as Jesus did for Us before We are ever born to do any wrong and by then Forgiveness is a habit and can be easily made into a way of Life by not changing Your mind from calling the things God has promised as a inheritance into existance because of what You see the current circumstance are, and so turn your heart to use the power of belief by doubting and not expecting what You hope for Because God Who is the Love of Life can turn the hearts of mankind, if mankind will turn towards the Love of Life that beats Our hearts. And stop listening to Our true enemy telling of the doom of everything and start believing that God wants to and Will move in Our mist as He did in the days of the Prophets of old. So love beyond measure by believing that nothing can stop God’s Goodness except unbelief in the life that has unbelief, so believe for Them to changes and stand back and watch God Working all things together for Our good. LoveYa Lil1s and God Bless

  14. I think we take the words of God to create division. All someone needs is trust in the Lord with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding and in all ours ways acknowledge Him and He will direct our paths.
    People use the bible to show up knowledge.

  15. Interesting to me that you refer to the texts as the ‘word of God’, when in those texts it states that the Word was God. (John 1) I think the implication is that Jesus is the ‘word of God’. The gospels are just that; the gospels according to…
    It would be so nice to have a written rule book, wouldn’t it, called ‘The Word of God’. It would make things so much easier for us all. Unfortunately, no such document exists.

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