When I was young, my parents gave me a Dr. Seuss book entitled My Book About Me. In typical Seussian fashion, the book pairs simple rhyming patterns with some fill-in-the-blanks, enabling the book’s owner to create a sort of time capsule, revealing the likes, dislikes, and insights of a six-year-old mind.
I still have the book, and I recently pulled it out of my collected effects to do a little reminiscing. There weren’t any major revelations—I was a serious football fan (alas, I still am); my eating habits were apparently more porcine than avian (hopefully that has improved); my “best friend” was Essex Johnson (read here for that sad tale); and apparently I had a severe aversion to salad that I have largely overcome.* Oh, and I wanted a bear as a pet.
My trip down memory lane was actually initiated after reading a recent article in Christianity Today examining the most highlighted verses in 88 different countries using the YouVersion Bible app. (Really. Hang tight—the connection will be revealed in a bit.)
As you might expect when examining countries from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, there are bound to be some interesting responses. The most highlighted passage in Bolivia was Genesis 3 (the fall of man into sin). Israel and Afghanistan share the same favorite passage (Zechariah 14:9)—as do seven other countries as diverse as France, Sweden, and Guadeloupe. In India, King Cyrus of Persia’s proclamation of the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem is cited most often. And who knows what is happening in Bermuda, where the most popular highlight is a rather stark description of the death of David’s son Absalom at the hands of Joab. (It reminds me of a friend who once used to close all of his correspondence with the citation “Galatians 6:11,” convinced that no one would ever actually bother to look it up.)
But when examining these verses—particularly those highlighted by more prosperous Western nations—an interesting trend emerges. For most of these countries, the passages selected appear, at least on the surface, to emphasize the individual reading them, and not the One revealed in Scripture. As a result, the survey tends to say more about the readers and their respective cultures than it does about the Bible verses themselves.
Worldwide, the most highlighted verse was Romans 8:28:
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.
And the most popular verse in the most countries was Jeremiah 29:11:
For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.
Both verses are, of course, fully God-breathed and trustworthy. I myself have cited these words of assurance to myself and to others when the future seems uncertain or when the Tempter causes me to question my status as a child of the King. But to read these verses as stand-alone declarations, without concern for the context has the dangerous effect of making Christianity a very elaborate self-help scheme that downplays our fallen and sinful nature and minimizes the need for Christ’s atonement.**
Take, for example, the verse in Jeremiah. Read in isolation, the verse can be seen as assurance that God exists to support us by removing obstacles and guiding our paths. But the richness that exists in Jeremiah’s message cannot be boiled down to one sentence or phrase. Rather, it is the prophet’s foreboding message of God’s judgment on His people and the coming invasion and diaspora that gives the message its potency. Even when we fail God—and even when that failing results in punishment—we are reminded that God is faithful, and His promises are true. And we celebrate, not that our future is certain, but that the God we worship is.
The same is true for Romans 8:28. The Gospel truth the verse proclaims is powerful when read in the context of Paul’s description of the utter hopelessness of our sinful nature that he lays out just one chapter prior. It’s the apostle’s lament of his own failings (“Wretched man that I am!”) that puts the exclamation point in his following statement, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
When it comes to the Bible, it is important to remember, as Martin Luther points out, “All the stories of Holy Writ, if viewed aright, point to Christ.” Reading Scripture without acknowledging this truth opens the door to all sorts of misinterpretations and misapplications, and hinders the Church’s call to proclaim Christ to the nations.
Now certainly, it would be a mistake to read too much into a brief, non-scientific survey of online habits based on who is highlighting what on a web app. (If it weren’t, I’d seriously reconsider wanting to visit Bermuda.) I’m certain that many of the people who highlighted the above verses and others did so in the course of a broader Bible study that fully grasped the centrality of Jesus in Scripture. But current trends in worship, combined with a Western culture that is growing more and more narcissistic, necessitate that Christians be on guard for anything that might place an emphasis on self-actualization, experience, or anything else that isn’t Christ. As John the Baptist told his disciples after Jesus’ baptism, “He must increase, but I must decrease.”
The Bible was never intended to be My Book About Me. Rather, it’s all about Jesus. May we never lose sight of that fact, even as we seek to glorify Him in what we say and do.
*Although I have learned to appreciate, even enjoy, the occasional salad, I stand firm on the assertion that it is and has forever been intended as a side dish or appetizer which prepares the diner for a subsequent, more carnivorous entree.
**It is also worth noting that neither John 3:16 nor Romans 3:23—perhaps the two most succinct summations of the Gospel—appear on the list of most highlighted verses.