What do you do when God’s promises appear to be empty?
ROBERT AND JANE Foster had been called to a small, struggling church. It was to be Bob’s first pastorate. The church offered only a small salary, well below the government poverty level. As the church grew, Bob’s salary would grow also, but meanwhile he and Jane would have to “trust the Lord.”
After much prayer the Fosters accepted the call. They believed they were stepping out on the promises of God. One verse especially summed up the basis of their faith: “But my God shall supply all your need according to his riches in glory by Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:19, KJV).
Bob launched into his new ministry enthusiastically. The people were responsive and their numbers began to grow. However, the mill that was the chief economic support of the town began cutting back. One of Bob’s best men was laid off and announced plans to move away.
Bob and Jane winced, but they had come here by faith and were not about to give up now. Still, there were bills to pay, a car to keep running, and two small children who needed food, clothing, vitamins, doctor visits, and maybe a trip to McDonald’s once in a while.
Six months later the “temporary” mill curtailment turned into a permanent closure. No longer was there any possibility of living on what the church could pay. Bob and Jane were beaten.
“It took us several years to get over that,” they said later. “Not just the hardship of being poor. Worse than that was the blow to our faith. We had counted on what we thought was God’s promise and we had been let down. How could we ever again be sure of any of His promises?”
Like Bob and Jane, many Christians have had their faith disappointed. They have believed God was promising them something but then have failed to receive it. Consider two more cases.
The healing that never comes. Francine was a delightful, warm-hearted woman. She loved the Lord and she loved people. She was the spiritual spark-plug of her family. Though her husband and two teenaged children were Christians, it was Francine who glowed for God. Even after grim doctors diagnosed her “gall bladder problem” as liver cancer and estimated that she had only ten weeks to live, Francine remained positive. She believed in the healing power of God. Far more than affirming that God could heal her, Francine believed that He would.
As she prayed and studied the scriptural promises, Francine became even more certain of her healing. It made no sense for her to die. Her family needed her. She was a key witness for Christ in a dark community. She was still young – only 39 years old. Surely this sickness was an attack of Satan.
Francine got some teaching tapes that encouraged her to “name it and claim it.” Whatever she would ask in Jesus’ name, believing would be granted. The Word of God said so (Matt. 21:22, Jn. 14:13).
The ten weeks allotted by her doctors came and went with Francine still very much alive. She reported at a church service that she’d had a vision from the Lord. In the vision, she had seen herself completely healed.
So, despite the yellow color of her skin, evidence of a diseased liver, Francine kept “naming and claiming” her healing. Then, about eighteen months after she became ill, Francine noticed one day that her stools had turned white. That meant the disease had proceeded to the point of no return. Her liver was damaged irreversibly and she could not survive.
Francine wept out her fear and disappointment to a close friend, but then resumed her “naming and claiming.” There were preparations for death that Francine needed to make but couldn’t because she was “going to be healed.” Her family, reflecting her attitude, treated her almost as if she were not sick. Longstanding problems between Francine and her children continued unresolved, just as they had for years. Toward the end, she became too weak to deal with all the questions: Why had she not been healed? What happened to God’s promise?
About two years after she became ill, Francine died. Her husband and children haven’t been to church since.
The equal yoke that breaks. Michelle is a young mother of four children. Her first husband walked out on her years ago. Since then, Michelle has come to know the Lord and has found a whole new life in Christ.
Like most other single parents, Michelle entertained hopes of one day marrying again. Her church taught that as the innocent party, Michelle was free to marry “in the Lord.” That meant she should marry a man who shared her faith in Christ, and that she needed to marry in God’s will.
“We know it’s hard to wait, but God will bless you for it,” her friends said. Michelle had made her commitment to Christ as Lord and she wasn’t about to compromise that now by marrying unwisely. She committed the whole matter to the Lord.
Two years later Michelle walked down the aisle, her heart almost bursting with joy. She had honored the Lord and now He had given her a Christian man with whom to share the rest of her life.
Today, Michelle is alone again with her four children and living on welfare. Her second husband, a Christian, walked out on her.
HARD QUESTIONS AND EASY ANSWERS
Time and space would not allow us to tell of those who have tithed and not prospered, asked and not received, trained up children to follow the Lord and then seen them depart.
What can we say about these apparent tragedies? How can we understand why some act on faith in God’s promises and then are disappointed? Let’s consider some answers often suggested. Perhaps each one is partially correct.
1. The promises don’t fail; people do. Perhaps the most common reaction people have to another’s disappointed faith is suspicion or even accusation: “Let God be true, and every man a liar” (Rom. 3:4). If your faith was disappointed, you must have failed to meet the conditions; that’s all there is to it. If a child goes astray, he wasn’t truly trained up in the way he should go. If a pastor was driven out by lack of funds, he must have given up too easily or failed somehow. If a sick person was not healed, he must have lacked faith or misinterpreted the promise in the first place. If a woman’s marriage fails twice, there must be something seriously wrong with the woman.
Maybe so. Sometimes people do fail God and then blame Him for failing them. However, to assume this is true in every case can be both judgmental and cruel. It places us in the company of Job’s accusers – they were sure Job was responsible for the calamities that befell him. In their view, either God or Job was at fault. Since they were not about to blame God, that left Job as the only candidate. They were wrong.
2. The promises are “spiritual”, not literal. With a little imagination, one can explain away almost all of God’s promises. Does the Bible say, “My God shall supply all your need”? Yes, but what does a Christian really need? Nothing but Jesus, some say. We don’t even need to survive here on earth. One preacher argued that this is why the verse says God will supply your need rather than your needs, your only need is Jesus.
The many promises of answered prayer can be dealt with handily by a similar kind of “spiritualizing.” People pray for a sick person to get well; they claim the relevant promises. Then when the patient dies someone says, “He has received his perfect healing. He has gone to be with the Lord where there is no more sickness or pain.” If it’s prosperity that’s promised, one can say, “Well, we may be poor in this world’s goods but we are rich in heavenly things.
This approach is not totally wrong. No doubt some have claimed promises that God never made, at least in the way they understood them. Perhaps parents understand this best because children frequently read into their remarks ironclad promises they never intended.
“Can we go to the beach next Saturday? Please Mommy?” “Well, maybe, if it’s a nice day.”
Saturday dawns bright and clear, and before Mommy is even wide awake the child is excitedly preparing for the beach.
“We can’t go, dear,” Mommy explains. “The car is broken down.” “But you promised! Waaaah!”
It is possible to read into another’s words more than that person intended. Perhaps, we sometimes do that with God. But explaining away God’s promises in this fashion can also be a cop-out. For example, it is unlikely that Paul meant a Christian’s only need is Jesus when he said God would supply. He makes the statement in the context of discussing material gifts.
Maybe some promises are to be taken spiritually, but we also need to remember the old maxim: “Those who have spiritual eyes don’t spiritualize and thereby tell spiritual lies.”
3. The “promises” are general statements of fact or they are addressed to others; they are not personal guarantees to us.
“Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it” (Prov. 22:6). Some would say this is not a guarantee from God that your child, if he is trained properly in Christian faith, will be a Christian. It is rather a general observation about the nature of life. Childhood training will ordinarily have a lasting and decisive effect on a person.
They would point out that the saying is, after all, a proverb, and identified as such in the text (see Prov. 10:1). It is a saying much like, “A stitch in time saves nine.” Should a stitch in time prove to be wasted on occasion because the whole fabric is rotten, that would not invalidate the proverb.
Other promises, one might argue, are like the assurance Paul gave the Philippians that their needs would be met and supplied. The promise was addressed to them, not us.
While there is validity in the argument that not everything in the Bible applies directly to us, we’d lose virtually the whole Book if we never accepted any command or promise originally addressed to someone else.
FAITH IN FORMULAS
How do we know when a biblical promise or statement is ours to claim literally and personally? That’s a tough question. We don’t want to be among those of little faith who do not have because they do not ask. But neither do we want to end up doubting God – or secretly angry at Him – because we have assumed too much.
My own answer to the question is that if a humble study of the Scriptures plus the inner witness of the Spirit leads me to believe a promise is for me, then I claim it. But even when I do so, I try to center my faith in the Promiser rather than in the promise. There is a big difference.
Something about human nature loves formulas. We want predictability, regularity, uniformity. We sometimes try to put God in little boxes – we want predictable, regular, and uniform behavior from Him. Within very large parameters, even this desire is legitimate. God is love, and we may expect that He will predictably, regularly, and uniformly act on the basis of love.
However, as Paul writes, “Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable His judgments, and His paths beyond tracing out!” (Rom. 11:33). Though God’s ways are past finding out, we keep imagining that we have found them out. Based on this arrogant assumption, we proceed to predict what God will do. And sometimes even to dictate what He must do. If He fails to salute when we raise our flag, suddenly there’s a crisis. We want God’s omnipotence at work on our behalf, but not His omniscience; we know what ought to be done.
Job found that God didn’t always act according to his expectations, nor according to those of his contemporaries. Still he was able to say, “Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him” (Job 13:15, KJV). Note that he did not say, “I trust this or that will be the outcome,” but “I trust in Him.”
Isn’t that what true faith is after all – trusting God no matter what happens? We cannot be sure God will always do what we think He should. David wrote, “I was young and now I am old, yet I have never seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging bread” (Ps. 37:25). But David never knew the seven nineteenth-century missionaries to South America who starved to death when their supply ship was delayed, did he?
Nevertheless, God does take care of His own. If in His divine wisdom, He sees fit to make an exception to some general rule, we should say, “Let God be God.”
Yes, we can trust God to keep His promises. More than that, we can trust God. He is the King of the universe, the all-knowing Sovereign, the Almighty. He has said He loves us… and He sent His only Son to prove it. And that is a God to be trusted!
Stanley C. Baldwin, Discipleship Journal