Image by Send me adrift. via Flickr
In the church where I first found Christ, we used to sing a hymn called “Standing on the Promises of God.” The hymn itself isn’t bad, for it focuses entirely on our relationship with God. But in many cases, I’ve found this phrase applied in ways that express, and reinforce, a magical kind of faith. Yes, we should stand on the promises of God, but the all-important question is this: What has God actually promised us?
Over my years of ministry, I’ve discerned a tendency among conserative Christians to assume that anything in Scripture that looks like a promise is in fact something that God promises them.
For instance, many Christians who are in pain or who have a loved one in pain latch onto verses like 2 Peter 2:24 and conclude that God promises to heal them or their loved one. Similarly I’ve encountered many who stood on verses that they sincerely thought promised them wealth (Deut 5:33; 29:9), protection and long life (Ps 91), and happiness (Ps 16:11). Often loving and concerned parents, on the basis of verses like Poverbs 22:6 and 29:17, believe God would make sure their children turned out well if they raised them correctly.
There are two basic interpretive mistakes people commit when they pull “promises of God” from the Bible.
First, I’ve found that people who search Scripture for random promises tend to treat hyperbolic statements as though they were literal. This causes people to treat biblical principles as if they were magical formulas. So, for example, while it’s a sound principle that if you “start children off on the way they should go, … even when they are old, they will not turn from it” (Prov 22:6), this is not a magical formula. Raising children the right way does not take away their free will or collapse all other influences in their life. And this is why parents whose older children decide to walk away from God and/or make poor decisions need not think God betrayed them or that they didn’t do a good enough job raising their children.
Whenever we come upon unqualified promises or instructions in Scripture, we should consider it likely that we are dealing with hyperbole, especially if the promises or instructions contradict reality or are otherwise absurd.
Second, we often treat the Bible as a mere collection of revealed truths. But that’s not the case. It’s a story with a surprising twist in the final chapter—the coming of Christ—that reframes everything. Where a passage is found, and the way the passage relates to the story as a whole determines what the passage means to us.
Most of the promises that people today stumble over are part of God’s covenant with Israel. In the early stages of his dealing with humans, God had to condescend to a system of immediate rewards and punishments as a means of teaching them the importance of walking in his ways. When Jesus shows up to reveal what God is really like, however, we learn that God condescended to this way of relating to people only as a concession to their fallen, immature condition.
As a part of the surprise ending of the biblical narrative, Jesus actually turned the OT system of rewards and punishments on its head. For example, while Yahweh promised people under the old covenant that he would bless them with financial prosperity if they trusted and obeyed him, Jesus said the poor were blessed while he pronounced warnings against the rich (Luke 6:20, 24). So too, while Yahweh promised people under the old covenant that they would be blessed by being well fed if they trusted and obeyed him, Jesus said that the hungry were blessed while he pronounced warnings against the well fed (Luke 6:21, 25). And while Yahweh promised protection from enemies and even victory over enemies as a blessing to obedient people under the old covenant, Jesus taught that we are blessed when persecuted by enemies (Matt 5:10) and that we are to love and do good to our enemies and to never try to be victorious over them.
Why did Jesus reverse these Old Testament blessings and curses? There are several possible reasons, but the clearest and most important one isdirectly related to the revelation of God’s true, self-sacrificial character on the cross. While God stooped to give immediate rewards and punishments in the Old Testament, sometimes taking on the appearance of a rather typical ancient Near Eastern tribal diety in the process, Jesus revealed that God’s true character is other-oriented love. Moreover, Jesus calls and empowers his people to imitate this other-oriented love in their own lives.
We might say that the OT reflects God’s dealings with humanity when we were in the early childhood stages of his plan of salvation, while the NT reflects his dealings when we had arrived at a more mature stage of development within his plan. In this light, where a promise is found makes all the difference in terms of how a passage is to be interpreted and applied today.
—Adapted from Benefit of the Doubt, pages 224-228