A friend recently came to see me; her puffy eyes and smeared makeup told me she was angry and upset. “I think I’m going to become an atheist” she said.
I knew she was sincere, not by her words, but by her emotions. Emotion after all conveys far more than simple words ever could. I’ve heard people theoretically question God, but this was different, she felt this. The crack in her voice told me so.
“How did you come to such a drastic conclusion?” I asked
She said someone had died; someone she dearly loved and admired. She explained further, “I prayed for him! My whole church prayed for him! If he died, if God didn’t answer prayer and heal him, then I don’t know if I even believe in God anymore.”
She wiped away a tear and snorted a little. I felt for her, I empathized with her and prayed for her.
But I also knew immediately the root of her problem; as the emotion passed, I tenderly uncovered it. God was not unfaithful or unjust in this situation; He was just not faithful or just in the way she wanted him to be.
This is an important distinction to make.
My friend was upset because God did not act in the way she expected. But why had she believed God would act in a certain way? Because, maybe for years, she had carried a mistaken set of beliefs about God. She thought God was something He is not, and that He had promised something he had not promised.
Maybe this isn’t her fault; maybe it’s the fault of whoever gave her an unhelpful, unscriptural idea of God; perhaps an uninformed mentor or mistaken pastor. However it happened, she came to believe in a God of her own design; and when that god failed, she rejected him.
This is a hard thing, but also a very good thing. The mental construct of God that my pained friend created was never the real God. This means she is in for some hard work: now begins a task of discovery to meet the God of Scripture. He is faithful and just, but in ways strange to us.
My friend was right that God makes promises. But she was wrong about what those promises mean. For many, just as for my friend, Gods promises seem too often to result in mistaken assumptions.
We must understand what God really does promise, because it is often quite different from what we want Him to promise. To misunderstand is to risk the fate of my friend; disillusioned with a promise which was never made. The promises of God are trustworthy and reliable, but each must also be understood with a larger picture in mind and with a heart of faith.
So let’s dig a little deeper and look at three common promises made by God which, if misunderstood, can lead to mistaken expectations.
- TO BE WITH YOU IN TROUBLE (but not to keep you from it)
The person who tells you the Christian life is problem free is a liar. Scripture, history and experience all testify that Christians experience hardship. In fact, scripture explicitly tells us to expect it! “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you” (1 Peter 4:12).
But despite Scripture’s clarity, I have heard many preachers teach that to experience trouble of any kind is evidence of sin or rebellion in your life. I have heard many preach that Christianity is some kind of deliverance from the toil and trouble of this world.
God does not promise to keep you from trouble. But he does promise He will go through your trouble with you. And this is a good thing, because through our trouble He teaches us and brings us into deeper relationship with Him.
As George MacDonald said, “Jesus . . . suffered unto death, not that men might not suffer, but that their suffering might be like his.”
You will experience hardship as a Christian, but not alone.
- TO MAKE THE EARTH JUST AND FAIR (but not right now)
Theology types like to describe the age in which we live by saying, “already, not yet.” It means we live in a time in which Jesus has “already” established God’s kingdom in the earth, but we have “not yet” seen its full culmination. There is still work to do.
After Jesus’ death, Christians believe a new age began; God’s Kingdom was established! But look around, it doesn’t really appear that way . . . yet. We are promised the Kingdom of God will bring peace, justice, harmony: “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:4).
But here it is, “the old order of things” has not yet passed away; the world continues to be a tremendously unjust and unfair place – for Christian and non-Christian alike. Some Christians believe God promises to protect them from unjustness and unfairness. This is not true. We are a people of a new age, who still live in “the old order of things.”
But still, Christians hold hope that God will finish the work he started in Christ’s death and resurrection, and that his promise to establish justice will come to pass.
Here is an example: God’s promise to make you victorious over death. Though God has promised this, we have only ever seen it fulfilled in one person: Jesus. But though Christ was victorious over death, the rest of us still live in “the old order of things” and will one day (spoiler alert) die. But this does not change God’s promise to make you victorious over death; He will still keep his promise, but in His time, and in His way.
We live in the “already, not yet”.
- TO ANSWER YOUR PRAYERS (but not all of them)
Jesus kneeled in the Garden of Gethsemane and sweat blood. With the cross on his mind he prayed, “please take this cup of suffering away from me” (Luke 22:42). It was not taken away.
Not even Jesus has all his prayers answered.
We pray too, and are disappointed and disheartened when God says no; it confuses, mystifies and perplexes. But if we believe God has any interest in our good, we continue to trust even when the answer is no.
It is a hard truth that God does not promise to answer every prayer. Just as he opens doors, he also closes them. But the Christian response, when a door slams in our face, is a heart of gratitude and confidence in God’s strange providence.
There will be many times when God does answer prayer, and these are times to rejoice! But we cannot estimate the value of prayer based only on the instances when things work out as we want them to. Really, the point of prayer is more to conform our will to His. We discover in prayer, the heart of God, and bring into line our own beating hearts with His.
For this reason we must enter prayer as Jesus did. Christ didn’t want to endure the suffering, but after pleading to have the cup pass he said, “yet not my will, but yours be done.”
God’s will is often different from ours; we pray to align our will to His, even when it’s something we don’t want.
My friend nearly lost her faith because she believed in a promise not made. She believed God would protect her from trouble, that the universe would be fair to her and that God would undoubtedly answer her prayer, in the way she wanted it answered. God does not promise any of this. But as we trust Him, we know He is with us in trouble, with us in our pursuit of justice, and with us in prayerful relationship. These are great promises indeed, and we know them well. But we must use wisdom, and also know what God has not promised.