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Why Do We Need the Life Verse?

(Lisa Robinson)

I have often been asked  – what is your life verse? Variations include what is your favorite or most inspirational verse. To be honest, every time I’ve been asked, I’ve struggled with trying to limit my choice to just one.  It has occurred to me that the real problem is that I have trouble with the question and the idea that we should limit the totality of what God has given us for our life in one single verse. So it leads me to ask why do we think we need to sum the totality of Christianity and our experience into one verse. I think this forced reduction robs us in a number of ways. Here are my reasons.

1) It robs from what God has given us. We have 66 books that were composed by 40 authors over the span of 1,500 years. Throughout these 66 books, God unveils Himself, His heart and character according to what He wanted to reveal to us.  There is an intricate story of redemption being weaved and tightly sown together. It is incredibly rich! Isolating one verse from the whole thing robs God’s revelation and gives us only a very miniscule slice of Him for our lives.

2) It robs us of what we should receive.  Jesus came to give us abundant life and that life is built on a richness of promises.  These promises are not contained within one verse.  Moreover, our life is also complex and has been shaped by a variety of different influences.  To think that one verses captures that complexity is short-changing a lot of what God has done and wants to do in our lives.

3) It robs the fullness of the verse. Whether it be a psalm, a proverb, a verse in a narrative or in a letter, it is typically surrounded by a complete body of literature that gives that one verse meaning.  A verse by itself usually does not capture the fullness of it. For instance, one life verse that I have often heard is Galatians 2:20 – “I am crucified with Christ nevertheless I live but not I but Christ who lives in me”. That is a pretty solid verse, right? But when you put that in the backdrop of Paul’s argument to the Galatians it takes on a much fuller dimension.

4) It robs the meaning of the verse. I have often argued that the segmenting of our Bibles to chapters and verses has produced an unfortunate fragmenting of scripture.  Lifting one verse out of a page can easily lead to ignoring the context of the passage and the theme of the books. Verses can be so easily ripped out of their context and a variety of meanings can be imposed so that the verse can become whatever we want it to become.  This is another reason I don’t like the verse of the day type of devotionals or displays. Greg Koukl has a good article on why isolating a single verse is not such a good thing.

We should be mindful that heretics do the same thing, lift verses out of their context and impose meanings. Heretics have life verses, too. Irenaues says it best regarding the heretics of his day;

Such then is neither their system, which neither the prophets announced, nor the Lord taught, nor the apostles delivered, but of which they boast that beyond all others they have a perfect knowledge. They gather their views from other sources than the Scriptures; and to use a common proverb, they strive to weave ropes of sand, while they endeavor to adapt with an air of probability to their own peculiar assertions the parables of the Lord, the sayings of the prophets and the words of the apostles, in order that their scheme may not seem altogether without support. In doing so, however, they disregard the order and the connection of the Scriptures, and so far as in them lies, dismember and destroy the truth. By transferring passages, and dressing them up anew, and making one thing out of another, they succeed in deluding many through their wicked art in adapting the oracles of the Lord to their opinions.  (Against Heresies, 1.8)

So does this mean memorizing the whole Bible? No, but I don’t think it means we have to isolate just one specific verse.

15 Responses to “Why Do We Need the Life Verse?”

  1. While its good to have an overall knowledge of the Bible – I think its ok to have a few fav verses. I have a number which are significant to me – which caused me much comfort within my situation at the time.

    Micah 6:8 for me is a key verse as to how God calls and expects all to live within the framework of the two testaments.

    But I also agree that we are in danger of making a verse say something that it isn’t, and so context is extremely important. But this is where interpretation gets murky. How often do we read in the NT where the Apostles take scriptures out of their historical context to make them fit into their own situation at the time?

    But perhaps that’s a topic for another time ;)

  2. Thank you! My old church did a life verse thing a few years ago and said everyone ‘needed’ a life verse. I thought that I needed to understand the whole of scripture the best I could instead.

  3. One of the early issues of Discipleship Journal had an interview with James Montgomery Boice. When asked what his favorite Book of the Bible was, he said “the one I’m studying now”. At the time, I must admit, I thought it was a cop-out answer but came to think it was a good one.

  4. I understand your concern that “life verses” might lead someone to ignore other parts of Scripture. As a seminary student and someone who has always been a “thinker,” I would say my life verse would be 2 Tim 2:15, followed by 2 Tim 3:16-17 — which, incidentally therefore point me to study the whole counsel of the Bible.

  5. I don’t have anything against life verses, per se, because we have often used John 3:16 as a church as a whole to promote the gospel.

    We need to look at that too, as a corporate body before we judge those on an individual basis.

    I believe in context too, but don’t think that is all of it.

  6. I have life verses. But they’re mine. By that, I mean this – I know me better than anyone. I know the specific call God has on MY life. And I also know the specific failings I tend to have in MY life.

    I agree that everything needs to be taken in context, but within context, there are “driving principals” that fit the way I am wired, personally.

    For me, I can think of two right now …

    Gal 5:22-23a – But the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

    Why? Because a lot of people do a lot of things in the name of Christ. So do I. But FOR ME, if my life isn’t producing Gal 5:22-23a, it doesn’t matter what I DO, because what I AM is off the mark. I know me, and I need to watch my fruit, not my actions.

    My other one is a little strange – it’s Hosea 13:6. To me, it’s the saddest verse in the whole Bible – it sums up the human condition and I WILL NOT let this happen to me. This verse is so key TO ME, that I tattooed “Don’t Forget – Hos 13:6″ on my forearm.

    Hos 13:6 – When I fed them, they were satisfied; when they were satisfied, they became proud; then they forgot me.

    In context of Hosea, this verse still works. In the context of the Bible, this verse still works. In the context of the fallen human condition, this verse still works.

    Plus, I KNOW ME. And I DO forget.

    Last thing – Paul says in 1 Cor 12:12-31 that we are a body, each member fulfilling a purpose. MY purpose is specific, and I think it’s OK to have specific life verses that drive and guide that. But it must be within the context of the whole bible, for sure! For example, there are also things the Bible says we SHOULD forget (Phil 3:13 for example). So all of scripture seasons the life verse, but the life verse is still a very nice, helpful, concise and tidy way of staying on track.

  7. It’s almost like my life verses are our gateway to scripture – all of scripture. It’s where we start, it’s not all we have.

  8. Sorry, I changed tenses there – I meant “our life verses are our gateway” I’m not all that :).

  9. Mike O,

    While agreeing with Lisa’s post that it shouldn’t be the only thing we rely upon to guide us, I do agree that ‘life verses’ can be a gateway to a deeper understanding of the Bible.

    For me that happened over 25 years ago, when I was a member of a neighborhood Bible study. I was very, very sick and diagnosed wrongly with stomach cancer, rather than a stone which was stuck in my liver and causing a massive infection. The gal that was the head of the Bible Study sent me a sweet note with verses from Jeremiah 14. it gave me hope when nothing else did, to keep to me carrying on, because my daughter was only four at the time.

    It also gave me a deeper desire to go into the Bible, which I have never lost. So, IMO, we should never discount the role of the Holy Spirit in giving us exactly what we need at the time.

    Yet, we should not make it theologically true for everyone, which some folks tend to do. I am glad you understand the difference.

  10. Well written and well thought. I have often said one of the worst things to happen to the Bible was the division of its books into chapters and verses. When one references a single verse rather than a passage, the context, thought process and “picture” of God’s word is lost. It becomes dangerously easy to twist and distort God’s word when referencing only verses.

    The life verse concept is relatively new to me; I heard about first in a Bible study with some friends. Perhaps it can be useful to help motivate people toward godly living, but it seems nigh impossible to sum one’s entire obligation and objective in a lifetime of service to Christ in a single verse.

    Could this be representative of a “dumbing down” of Christianity whereby a system for living is replaced by a single, inspirational verse? Mind, I am not suggesting those who like or even implement the idea have a weak faith, but on the whole things like this make me wonder what direction we are heading.

    — Please be gracious to me, a sinner. —

  11. @Steven, I think you’re confusing having having a few life verses with having *only* a few life verses – of “picking and choosing.” If that were the case I would agree. But having a few focal points within the whole of scripture from the scripture is not the same as having a Bible that is only three verses long.

    I agree that people do, however, pick and choose ONLY their favorites. People take a few key verses and then think *their* favorites are *God’s* favorites. That’s how you get your prosperity gospels and your “love, peace, and chicken grease” gospels and “God Hates Fags” factions. Heck, that’s probably how you get denominations.

    So you’re right. But at the same time, how do you *not* have favorites? How does one successfully apply the whole of scripture to their life? The old adage of “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time” comes to mind.

    The Bible is the timeless word of an infinite God. Frankly, I don’t know how to *not* dumb it down.

    But I say all of that with the premise that the whole of scripture is inspired, not just our favorites. Our favorites are just our handle on the whole. At least that’s my take on it.

    As with anything, there’s good and bad. There’s an upside to favorites, and a downside. But the fact that there’s a downside doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it – it just means there’s a downside to be mindful of.

    So maybe I agree with Lisa’s post after all – well, at least that her points are valid. But I still think there is great value in life verses … in spite of the downside.

  12. Mike O, I think there is a difference between a favorite verse and a life verse – otherwise there would be no need for the new nomenclature of “life verse”. The way I understand it is that a “life verse” is a single verse that guides and controls your life. Perhaps it was explained inaccurately to me, but this concept of one guiding verse, in my opinion, is flawed. I think I could support my conclusion Scripturally, too, but it would be a reasoned conclusion not a black and white prohibition (cf Romans 14.1).

    I take issue with the idea of having to dumb down God (separate topic). This may or may not be what you mean, but if God cannot explain himself in a way we can understand, then either there is something wrong with his creative abilities or his expressive abilities. We _can_ know God through both the creation (Romans 1.19-20) and the Scriptures (e.g. Gal 4.8-9); to be fair this is not a _perfect_ knowledge of God (cf Deu 29.29), but still a knowledge nonetheless.

    That being said, Christianity is an incredibly simple religion. I can’t think of one less simple than Christianity. So it scares me when we try to simplify what God has already perfected. Perhaps I am too cautious :). I appreciate your comments and look forward to continued and future conversations!

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