17 March 2021

Can God’s word “return void”?

Isaiah 55.11.

So one night I and my friend Jason (not his real name, and you’ll soon see why) were walking from the car to the coffeehouse. Enroute some vagrant asked us for spare change. Jason got it into his head this was a “divine opportunity”: It’s time to proclaim the gospel to this person! It’s time to get him saved.

That’s how we wasted the next 15 minutes. Yep, wasted. Because the vagrant was. Either he was drunk, or off his meds, or had recently suffered a head injury, or otherwise had some condition which made him incoherent. Jason asked him questions to determine whether he understood the gospel… and the guy would start rambling about how he believed men and women should be together. In which context I don’t know. (Hey, this article is about context, so I had to bring it up at some point.)

Jason kinda had this poor guy cornered in a doorway, pressuring him for some sorta confession of faith. Finally, after he extracted something he considered satisfactory, we went and got that coffee. And debated whether the interaction did the poor vagrant any good.

“He’s not gonna remember any of that in the morning,” I commented.

“He will so!” Jason insisted. “That’s the word of God in him now. It won’t return void.”

If you’re not familiar with Christianese you may not understand the “return void“ bit. I once had a pastor try to explain it this way: “It’s like you send someone a check, but they don’t cash it and send it back to you with ‘void’ written on the front of it.” Why anyone would do this, I don’t know. But no, it’s not what the verse means. Here’s the verse:

Isaiah 55.11 KJV
So shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it.

Here’s what Jason, and plenty of Christians like him, believes: Let’s say we share Jesus with someone, but the someone won’t believe what we tell them, no matter what. Well, take comfort in the fact God’s word—which is what we shared with them, ’cause it’s either based on bible, or contains a whole lot of bible quotes—doesn’t “return void.” It does exactly what it’s meant to, and puts the gospel in ’em. Even though it totally doesn’t appear to, ’cause the person resists it for years, it eventually worms into their soul and does something to ’em. It just does.

Why’s this? ’Cause it’s God’s word. So it’s been infused with supernatural divine power.

When God says anything, just because he says it, his words are filled with power. ’Member when he called the universe into being? Ge 1 He said, “Let there be light!” and the lights turned on as if they were wired up to the Clapper, because God’s words are full of that kind of creative power. Some sort of holy mojo which makes ’em do stuff. Like get the ground to spontaneously sprout trees, or the oceans to spontaneously sprout narwhals.

So when we lay claim to God’s word, we can tap that power too.

When we find something God said in the scriptures, and choose to apply it to ourselves and our situation, it has power: It can apply to us—when we trust it to. If God said those who wait on him will renew their strength, Is 40.31 and I’d kinda like some extra strength ’cause my barista cut me off after four extra shots, I can get strength that way: I can wait on him, and he’ll charge me up like a mobile phone charger.

If God said he’d never give people more than they could handle, 1Co 10.13 I sure wanna get my hands on that promise. If he told people to be strong and courageous, Js 1.7 okay, I will! And so on. Doesn’t matter what the original context was: God’s words never lose their power. They’re like magic! Except not, ’cause we’re never gonna call it magic. But in every other way… like magic.

If we can use these verses on ourselves, of course we can use ’em on others. Call them down upon our wayward friends and relatives. Quote them over every bum you find getting drunk in the parking lot. Smack skeptics and atheists over the head and shoulders with them. ’Cause supernatural divine power. Every quote we used will slowly but surely work their way into them like a tapeworm. Someday, someday they’ll see the light.

Christian sorcery.

SORCERY 'sɔrs(.ə).ri noun. To move, change, or create as if by supernatural forces.

Certain Christians get weirded out whenever I talk about magic, because they think magic is real. Certain “spiritual warfare” experts told ’em so. It’s done by the devil’s power, y’know.

Incorrect. Outside of fiction, all magic is trickery. All magic. Doesn’t matter if it’s religious or part of a Las Vegas stage act: It’s trickery.

Sometimes it’s done for entertainment, as stage magicians do. Sometimes to cheat, as con artists and religious magic does. And sometimes as self-delusion: You know that football fan who insists he needs to wear a certain pair of unwashed socks in order for his team to win? We call it superstition, but it’s the same nonsense. Not like humanity has been blessed with that much sense.

Among Christians, sorcery is an attempt to manipulate God, and often others, into doing as we want. Pray the right prayer, quote the right verse, do the right good deeds, and somehow we can contractually obligate God into doing as we want. Because God is faithful and true and never breaks his promises, so if we can finagle him into being bound by one of his promises, he is ours to command like an almighty genie.

Nope, doesn’t work like that in the slightest.

Read God’s “promises” in context, and you’ll find they’re all conditional. He says he’ll act, but only after his people fulfill our end of the bargain. Oh, and by “his people,” he doesn’t always mean us. Sometimes it means any Christian, anywhere, at any time. Sometimes it’s specific ancient Christians in a first-century Roman Empire church. Sometimes specific Hebrews in the Bronze Age. Specific individuals. Specific churches with a particular job to do. Specific apostles.

Sometimes those “promises” aren’t promises. Bill Gothard was notorious for quoting Proverbs like it’s nothing but divine promises: If we do A, God’ll do B. It says so in the bible, and the bible is infallible; follow the biblical principle and you’ll never go wrong.

Proverbs is no such thing. It’s godly wisdom—which describes how things usually work, all things being equal. But sometimes things aren’t equal, as Ecclesiastes routinely points out: If Proverbs is promises, there are an awful lot of exceptions to these “promises.” If you read Job, you’ll discover Job was a big scabby exception: He did everything right! Still got crapped on. (And don’t forget Jesus. What’d he do meriting crucifixion?)

Too many Christians don’t realize this. We let our selfishness dictate our theology. This is why there are a lot of demented teachings in Christendom about God’s promises: People have turned the bible into a book of spells, activated by naming and claiming anything our selfish little hearts desire. Just disguise it as noble as best we can, on the off chance we can trick God into believing we only want these things for the best of reasons.

I’ve heard so many Christians claim, “All you gotta do is pray for anything in the name of Jesus, and you’ll get it,” foolishly assuming that “Jesus name” is the incantation which unlocks God’s heavenly treasury–regardless of the actual relationship we share with Jesus. Ever read about Skeva’s kids? They tried using Jesus as a magic spell. Didn’t work so well.

Acts 19.13-17 KJV
13 Then certain of the vagabond Jews, exorcists, took upon them to call over them which had evil spirits the name of the Lord Jesus, saying, We adjure you by Jesus whom Paul preacheth. 14 And there were seven sons of one Sceva, a Jew, and chief of the priests, which did so. 15 And the evil spirit answered and said, Jesus I know, and Paul I know; but who are ye? 16 And the man in whom the evil spirit was leaped on them, and overcame them, and prevailed against them, so that they fled out of that house naked and wounded. 17 And this was known to all the Jews and Greeks also dwelling at Ephesus; and fear fell on them all, and the name of the Lord Jesus was magnified.

Problem is, these “name it and claim it” sorcerers get plenty of ignorant Christians to believe their teachings are valid… then use it to defraud them, and spread their abominable practices. Some of them have even psyched themselves into believing their magic does work: Their “prosperity” all came from God—not from robbing fools, nor switching their allegiance from God to Mammon.

In so doing, these people maneuver themselves further and further away from a true relationship with God, in favor of a rotten substitute of power-based manipulative relationships, material goods, empty joy, and idolatry.

God’s word does as he decides it does.

The context of the “won’t return void” verse describes the way the LORD forgave Israel and promised to return them to their land. Not everybody believed this promise… and in this case, the LORD really didn’t need ’em to. This particular promise wasn’t conditional: It was gonna happen. Like it or not, believe it or not, God decreed it, and it came.

Best I quote it.

Isaiah 55.6-11 KWL
6 Ask the LORD when you find him; call him when he comes near.
7 Wicked people, abandon your way. Lawless people, quit your plans. Return to the LORD.
He’ll be compassionate. Return to our God, who forgives so much.
8 “My thinking isn’t your thinking. My ways aren’t your ways,” says the LORD.
9 “Skies are high above earth. Likewise my ways from your ways, my thinking from your thinking.
10 Rain and snow pour down from the sky. They don’t go back up.
Instead they soak the earth and make it grow and sprout.
It gives seed to the planter, which becomes bread for dinner.
11 My word works the same way. It goes forth from my mouth.
It doesn’t go back to me, empty. It does what I want. It achieves what I sent it to do.”

God forgives generously. When people turn away from evil, turn back to God, he graciously, mercifully restores us. When people don’t believe this, and many don’t—Isaiah’s listeners among them—God points out he’s not petty and vengeful like we are. “My ways aren’t yours.” When he says he’s gonna forgive, take it to the bank.

You know how water comes down, not up. (Let’s not get into evaporation; God’s not teaching a science lesson here.) It waters the crops, grows wheat, which becomes bread. Similarly, God’s word comes down, not up, and gets results.

The word רֵיקָ֑ם/riqám, translated “empty” or “void,” means empty like a hand, Ge 31.42 a sack, Ru 3.17 a jar, Jr 14.3 or a scabbard. 2Sa 1.22 It’s a metaphor for no success, no results, no meaning. God doesn’t say things for no reason.

With me so far? Most people are. The “name it and claim it” sort would absolutely agree: God’s word always gets results. But here’s the thing: “It achieves what I sent it to do,” the LORD says in verse 11. What he intends. Not what we intend. God has a reason for everything he says. Ironically, taking this verse out of context ignores his reason, and violates the very purpose of this verse. It’d be hilarious if it weren’t so twisted.

When I quote God’s word, but I don’t mean what God does, it’s no longer God’s word. It’s mine. It’s like I stole his credit card, but he called the bank and canceled it. Card’s not gonna do me any good. Now, a conniving thief could still use the card with merchants who have no internet connection—who take down the card number, and take your word for it the card’s still good, but don’t immediately verify the transaction. Same’s true of Christians who never double-check the bible to make sure people are quoting it accurately. This is why people quote bible recklessly, and get away with it so often. That’s why magic Christians thrive.

Whenever we misquote God, that’s what we did. We stole his words and made it profane—a mockery of its original intent, like every time Satan quotes bible. Without God behind these words, they no longer have power. The only “power” we can get out of ’em is, like all magic, just a trick. Deception. Lies.

They drive us and God apart, and us apart from each other. They wreck relationships. Not grow them.

So: You want prosperity, growth, a stronger relationship with God, and to have his wishes fulfilled more than your own? Learn what God really means in his scriptures. Read ’em in context. In context, they don’t return void. Out of context, they’re nothing but void.

Pearls to pigs.

Back to Jason and the vagrant. Ever heard this teaching of Jesus’s?

Matthew 7.6 KJV
Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you.

There’s a verse those folks who claim “God’s word will never return void” seem to forget. What about tossing pearls to the pigs? Sacred things to dogs? Looks to me like if I give one of them the “pearl” of the gospel, and they turn around to knock me over, I’ve violated Jesus’s clear instructions.

Well, Jason argued, that can’t be what Jesus meant. Because reasons.

It’s actually very easy to figure out whether we’re talking to someone who’s worth our evangelistic efforts, or who’s a “pig” or “dog.” How receptive are they? When you share Jesus with them, do they want to listen? Or do they wanna tell you just how things are? Are their questions meant to find out more information, or are they feeling for ways to undermine your message? Are they hearing you out, or did they start scoffing the instant they realized you’re talking religion?—“The bible says? Oh come on.”

The receptive folks? Exactly who you should share Jesus with.

The mockers, the skeptics, the naysayers, or the people too wasted to be receptive? Pig-dogs. (No offense meant to any pig-dogs; I’m only using Jesus’s metaphor.)

But Christians who ignore Jesus’s instructions are pretty pig-headed themselves. Jason didn’t wanna hear it. Lots of us Christians don’t want to hear it. We’ve been guilted into told we need to share Jesus with everybody, right away, or they might be lost. Every opportunity is a divine one. Every person is a mission field.

Some of ’em really are. Some not. Use your head, wouldya?

I’ve watched too many people naïvely assume God has to do something to hardened people, to stoners and drunks, to the uninterested and closed-minded, simply because we quoted bible. They’ve heard—and share—testimonies where God did do something. So they’re pretty sure it’ll happen again.

Never mind the fact these testimonies are usually exceptions to the rule: The Christian was talking with a hardened skeptic, the Holy Spirit told the Christian, “Tell ’em this”; the Christian did; the skeptic immediately freaked out—“How could you know that?”—and believed. Jn 1.45-50 The only reason to take on a hard case is because the Holy Spirit told us to. No other reason. Certainly not because we’re foolhardily figuring God’s word won’t return void.

’Cause Christians have stepped in anyway, and like Sceva’s kids, got their asses handed to them. Ridiculed, punched, beaten, fired, ostracized, even murdered. While they might self-righteously claim these things were “persecution for Jesus’s sake,” the reality is they experienced these things because they were too stupid to smell the difference between fallow ground and a pigpen.

There’s a time to talk and a time to keep silent. Jesus clearly recognized the difference, and warned us about it. His followers need to follow his lead far more often than we do.