Why I’ve Always Struggled with Life Verses
I used to belong to a Christian subculture where it was popular and fairly common for people to say they had a “life verse.” And not just say they had one. But they also quoted it, shared it, talked about it, and asked others what their life verse was.
If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, the basic idea of a life verse is that it’s a verse of Scripture that really resonates with you and speaks to you. It might even be something you strive to live your life by.
There are actually website articles to help you determine your life verse. No kidding. See here and here, for two examples that popped up when I typed “what is a life verse?” into Google.
This website article cites the Dictionary of Christianese (who knew?) and defines a life verse as, “A Bible verse that a Christian believes to be specifically representative or predictive of his or her life.”
I’ve no desire to disparage anyone that has a life verse and finds the concept meaningful. Everyone’s journey is different and different practices resonate with different people. So, by all means, if life verses have been a formative part of your experience, I’m happy for you.
It just never really worked for me. And, honestly, I always got a twinge of anxiety whenever I was with other Christians who were sharing their life verse and the inevitable question came up: “So, what’s your life verse?”
I didn’t have one.
Somehow not having a life verse always made me feel slightly less than these obviously much more devout and serious Christians that had one. I’m sure that feeling was much more about me than them. No one ever made fun of me for not having a life verse.
On the other hand, I did get some raised brows, inquisitive expressions, and general sense of astonishment more than once. After all, these well-intentioned folks assumed, all Christians should have a life verse.
But I didn’t and I still don’t. There are a few different reasons for this.
First, the Bible is a pretty big book. Actually, it’s a collection of different books that over time were put together into what we now call the Bible.
Choosing ONE verse as THE verse for your life that really speaks to you, that’s “specifically representative or predictive” of your life, that you may live your life by, and share with others seems not only daunting, but also perhaps a bit shortsighted.
Second, the Bible is a very diverse book. It was written and compiled over a few thousand years by countless (mostly anonymous) authors and editors, from different places, in at least three different languages (ancient Hebrew, a little Aramaic, and Koine Greek).
Perhaps not surprisingly then, the Bible comprises various literary genres and different perspectives regarding who this God, Yahweh is — and later in the New Testament, who Jesus is — and what it means to be his people in the world.
This diversity is complicated by different canons within different Christian traditions. The Protestant biblical canon is different from the Roman Catholic canon, both of which are different from the Eastern Orthodox canon. So which canon is the “right” one from which to choose your life verse? It depends on which community you’re part of.
Thus, the idiosyncrasy and selectivity entailed in choosing a particular life verse strikes me as militating against the diverse portrait that’s Scripture and Christian tradition(s).
For example, I’ve never heard anyone say their life verse was the refrain of the wisdom Teacher (Qoheleth) from Ecclesiastes, “Meaningless! Meaningless! Everything is meaningless” (see Ecclesiastes 1:1-2).
Or the utter despair at the conclusion of the lament psalm: “You have taken from me friend and neighbor / Darkness is my closest friend” (see Psalm 88:18).
Or the God-sanctioned genocide of the people whose land the “chosen people” were invading and taking over (see Deuteronomy 7:1-2).
And surely no one has ever claimed God’s promises for their own destruction should they fail to obey God’s commands as their life verse; something that occurs more frequently in Scripture than we might suppose (for a few examples, see Deuteronomy 7:3-4; Deuteronomy 8:19-20; Deuteronomy 28:15; Deuteronomy 30:16-18).
These verses — and others like them — are in the Bible too. And, except for that last examples of God-sanctioned genocide and God-promised destruction — I’m glad they are.
Because sometimes life does feel totally meaningless, as Qoheleth repeatedly says. Or, as other translations of Ecclesiastes imply, life is like a fleeting vapor or seems pointless.
Sometimes, like Qoheleth, we strive and achieve and accomplish and then realize that all that striving and achieving and accomplishing still left a gaping hole. None of it seems to matter.
Our lives are short, finite, and seemingly futile in the face of injustice, evil, suffering, and the vastness of the universe. And so we find ourselves going, “What the fuck?”
I’ve resonated deeply with Qoheleth at various points along my journey. In fact, Ecclesiastes is one of my favorite books of the Bible because Qoheleth pulls no punches with the severity of his indictment of the mystery of the human condition and experience.
Life’s a bitch, and then you die strikes me as a fair assessment of Qoheleth’s perspective.
Good and righteous people often suffer while evil and unrightious people often propser, Qoheleth observes. Indeed, we all — good and evil, human or animal — face the same bitter fate of death. So we might as well enjoy as best we can the few years we have of this miserable existence, because that’s our lot. And that enjoyment of life, Qoheleth says, is actually God’s gift to us.
Bleak? Stark? A touch hedonistic? Maybe.
Unbiblical? Nope. It’s right there in the Bible. See here, here, here, and here if you don’t believe me.
And sometimes we’ve experienced devastating losses, set-backs, and reversals such that we truly do feel that darkness is our closest friend as the psalmist says.
In those moments, the psalms of lament and protest speak powerfully into our lives and provide voice and language to express our disappointment, despair, and bewilderment.
Many times along my journey the psalms of lament have been the only Scripture that makes sense and feels honest about what I’m experiencing and feeling in that moment. I’ve anguished with the psalmist: “How long, LORD? Will you forget me forever? / How long will you hide your face from me? / How long must I wrestle with my thoughts / and day after day have sorrow in my heart?” (Psalm 13:1-2).
But, interestingly, those kinds of verses are almost never what someone quotes as their life verse. I guess their experience has been far less perplexing than mine.
Third, almost inevitably, life verses are wrenched out of context. And taking verses out of context is like the cardinal violation of good biblical interpretation.
For example, to directly claim Jeremiah 29:11 — an enduring favorite — for one’s life verse is to miss the point that that passage was written to a specific group of people at a specific time and place in history. Who, by the way, had just experienced the torching of their temple, the destruction, pillaging and plundering of their city, the raping of their women, and the slaughtering of many of their men, women, and children.
All the survivors were then exiled by the tyrannical political super power of the day that had unleashed all that mayhem upon them. That’s who Jeremiah 29:11 was written to and for.
I get it on some level. Perhaps someone who claims that verse as their life verse is aware of the historical context. Perhaps they think that since they too have experienced suffering, they’ll cling to God’s promise for blessings and a wonderful future, despite the terrible circumstances they’re enduring.
I’m definitely sympathetic to that. Life is hard. Terrible things happen. It can be helpful and hopeful to believe that even in the midst of pain, injustice, evil, and suffering God is still working to bring about his ultimately redemptive purposes and plans for us. So a verse like Jeremiah 29:11 can bring comfort.
But my experience has been that often people are not aware of the context and they are simply applying what seems to be a lovely verse out of the Bible and claiming it for their lives and the lives of their loved ones. They are, as the Christianese Dictionary apparently defines “life verse”, claiming that verse as “specifically representative or predictive” of their lives.
Try as I might, I just can’t do it. No offense to those who can. But I can’t. Or won’t. And I’m willing to admit that perhaps that says far more about me than them.
My own faith journey has been fraught with doubt, wrestling, wondering, and, yes, at times, wandering. I’ve deconstructed and reconstructed my faith multiple times. And even after three graduate degrees in theology and a decade as a lead pastor, I’ve not often found deep joy, gladness, and peace in my faith. More often there has been pain, heartache, and disappointment.
Perhaps that’s why the psalms of lament and Qoheleth’s seemingly existential crisis have tended to resonate more deeply with me than the standard life verse fare I’ve heard from countless good and well-meaning Christian folks over the years.
If I were absolutely forced to choose a life verse — a verse that, as I reflect on my life seems to have woven its way like a scarlet thread through my journey, I’d choose the author of Hebrews’ description of Abraham: “… and he set out, not knowing where he was going” (Hebrews 11:8b).
That’s about as “specifically representative” of my life as any other verse of Scripture I know.
So what about you? What’s been your experience with life verses? Please share your story and leave your comments below to continue the conversation. I’ve love to learn from you!