Recently, while sitting in our worship services, I’ve been pondering on how many praise choruses refer to the promises of God. “I’m holding on to your promises,” say the lyrics of one song, addressing God. “You are faithful.” Another lyric says, “By faith, I see a miracle. My God made me a promise and it won’t stop now.” No doubt, you can think of your own examples.
I have nothing against encouraging the faithful to hold on to God’s promises (or for those in my generation, to stand on them). But whenever we as a congregation sing such words, I’m always left wondering: Which promises do we mean, exactly?
As believers, we have a perfectly understandable but unfortunate tendency to read the Bible in self-oriented ways. The grand biblical drama of God redeeming and restoring a broken creation is indeed filled with future promises, and gloriously, we have such promises as our inheritance.
But we tend to be caught up in our own personal dramas, and this limits our vision and imagination. Instead of asking how we can participate in God’s cosmic story of redemption, we want to know how God will fix the problems in our stories.
So when we sing of God’s promises, what do we mean? The promise that God will not forsake us? Check. The promise that God will defeat every enemy, even death? Check. The promise of resurrection, a new heaven, and a new earth? Check, check, and double check.
Or, honestly speaking, are we thinking about the things we’ve prayed for that would make our lives better or ease our suffering? Lord, give me a job. Heal my mother. Help my son. Save my marriage.
Please, don’t hear me as saying that these aren’t legitimate prayers, nor that these are prayers that God cannot or will not answer in the affirmative. I know of many such answers to prayer, and I’m sure you do too.
But what troubles me, pastorally, is that our vision of God is too small, our reading of Scripture too narrow. We are preoccupied with what we want God to do for us today, or at least sometime soon. We take things as “promises” that in fact were never promised and pin our fragile hopes on them. And when God doesn’t come through, when our hopes are dashed, we question God’s goodness or faithfulness, cutting ourselves off from the only one who can heal our broken spirit.
Does God make promises? Absolutely — and they are glorious (literally). But we need to be careful to read those promises rightly, and encourage each other to do the same.
The writer of Hebrews, for example, asks his readers to remember the stories of the great heroes of the faith, with particular emphasis on Abraham, the father of the nation. Our own memory of such stories may have been formed by the versions we were told as children, simple stories of the heroism of those who believed and soldiered on against all odds.
But chances are, the kid-friendly versions of the stories left out this important qualification: “All these people died in faith without receiving the promises, but they saw the promises from a distance and welcomed them” (Heb 11:13, CEB). It’s too hard for a kid to understand what it would mean to receive a promise, live for it, and then die before the promise is fulfilled — while continuing to trust God throughout.
Is it any easier for us as adults?
But such is the faith of Abraham, as we’ll see in the next two posts.