The other day, Joel J. Miller offered some helpful insight into what he calls the “most highlighted verse” in the Bible, Philippians 4:6.
Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.
The problem, he observed, is that highlighting and reading this verse in isolation yields a rather different meaning than the one Paul intended. Arbitrarily placed verse divisions, none of which were original to Paul or the other biblical authors, have conditioned us to ignore the surrounding context. In this case, the immediately preceding statement: “The Lord is near.”
Which, it turns out, was Paul’s whole reason for not being anxious in the first place.
Severed from its original context, Philippians 4:6 sounds more like a self-help guide to stress management than what it truly is: an affirmation that God is presently at work doing away with all cause for anxiety.
But this isn’t the only example of how reading one verse at a time can cause us to hear something different from what Scripture is really trying to say.
We do not experience God in ways that take us out of this world, but we experience him in ways that root us even more deeply in this world.
I came across this quote the other day while reading The Compassion Quest, a great new book by a friend named Trystan Owain Hughes.
This idea, that our relationship with God is rooted in this world, flies in the face of how some of us — especially those of us who grew up in the evangelical subculture — are accustomed to thinking.
This world is not for experiencing God. This world is for “just passing through” on the way to God. This world is overdue for judgment, burning, destruction.
We don’t wait for God to meet us here. We wait for him to evacuate us from here.
After all, “the days are evil.” Just like Paul said in Ephesians 5:16.
I hear this verse (half a verse, actually) quoted a lot. Often with an air of resignation. As a rationale for why the world doesn’t turn the way some Christians wish it did, for why it doesn’t always cater to their expectations.
The days are evil.
So what’s the point in bothering with this world?
As it happens, that’s the precise opposite of what Paul argues in the passage we now know as Ephesians 5. Here’s the fuller quote:
Be very careful, then, how you live — not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil.
“Making the most of every opportunity” can also be translated as “redeeming the time.”
Redeem. As in, buy back. Reclaim. Make good again.
Time. As in, this present age. Otherwise known as “the days.” Yes… the same days that are “evil.”
The days are evil is not an excuse for resignation, abandonment, or escapism. It’s not an invitation to retreat into some religious bubble… or to check out, sit back, and wait for the apocalypse to commence. It’s an invitation to engage, connect, restore, rebuild. The days are evil is why Paul admonished his readers to make themselves useful.
“Sure, the days are evil. So do something about it. Redeem them. Make them good again.”
Near the end of Genesis, there’s a story about a man named Joseph who was sold into slavery by his older brothers. Through a series of unlikely events, Joseph wound up in Egypt, where he was elevated to the rank of second-in-command, just as famine struck the entire region.
Everyone turned to Egypt for food, including Joseph’s brothers. After a somewhat tense reunion, the brothers worried that Joseph would seek his revenge. But Joseph assured them there would be no reprisal. What his brothers meant for evil, Joseph explained, God had used for good.
I think Genesis 50 is a picture of what Paul describes in Ephesians 5. But notice how bringing good from evil isn’t God’s responsibility alone. It’s ours. We have a part to play in the story. We’re meant to be God’s agents for bringing good into this world. We are his best plan for “redeeming the time.”
The days of Joseph’s brothers were evil. They were marked by jealousy, betrayal, oppression, and violence. But with God’s help, Joseph redeemed them, “making the most of every opportunity.” In the end, Joseph redeemed not just “the time” but his own family, rescuing them from starvation and slavery.
We too are called to redeem the time. Checking out early isn’t an option. Writing off this world as a lost cause isn’t an option. To do so is to read only half the verse and miss the whole point.