Can you recall a time when a friend or family member made a promise so weighty you had to stop and wonder?
I remember one such case—when Steve offered to cover almost half the cost of my hoped-for studies in London. I had all but given up on the project when he made his promise, a commitment he later fulfilled. And that changed my life.
Let me retrace part of that experience. At the time I didn’t know Steve very well—where he worked, for instance, or anything about his resources. He was just a new friend I met when he and his wife joined a Bible study I was leading.
On that evening—when he made his promise, “I’d love to help”—I didn’t know what to think. I hadn’t requested any help! Nor did he know how much I needed. It was just an open offer.
I remember being skeptical. “Thanks, Steve! But about a dozen people will need to say the same thing before I make any plans.” So he asked how much I needed and I told him. He responded, “That’s not a problem.”
Let’s step back to our first question, then, and look at three features of important promises. First, the promise itself; then the one who made it; and, finally, the one who receives it.
A significant promise speaks to a need or desire. Someone, for instance, may make a passing promise after a chance encounter: “I’ll call you soon!” If that friend is only a loose acquaintance we probably won’t be holding our breath waiting for that call. But if a physician promises to call us with his report on a biopsy we’ve just had, we’re sure to have our phone fully charged!
Second, the question of who made the promise is important. Our contrast of a casual acquaintance and a reliable doctor points to the differences between a social nicety and a professional commitment. The devoted person is someone we can trust. And the people we really trust may be a cozy few.
Finally, what about receiving a promise? In our example of the doctor and the expected biopsy report, the need to keep our phone handy is obvious. The underlying point is that a trustworthy person needs to be trusted. We reshape our behaviors in light of trusted promises.
Yet, in returning to my experience with Steve, I didn’t have any reason to trust him at first—there wasn’t enough history to go on. But his promise was so significant and my need was so real that I took steps to receive it. Yet I didn’t charge ahead; my responses came in stages. I didn’t buy the airline ticket to Heathrow, for instance, until the promise was fulfilled! But in good time he did come through and I was off to London.
So what about God? When he makes promises what difference do they make?
Let’s retrace our three features of a promise, but this time with God as the promise-maker and ourselves as the recipients.
First, what kind of promises does God make? Some possible categories come to mind.
One is the “Whatever you ask in my name” sort of promise. This seems like an open door to every sort of happiness: to personal health, wealth, and security!
Another is the “Whoever believes in Jesus will have eternal life” category. This sounds fine, too, since eternal-fire-insurance—as some would present it—seems like a great arrangement: who won’t want to sign up?
Other promises may seem a bit narrower as in the case of my own conversion verse in Matthew 6:33, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all [your life concerns] will be added to you.” The “seek first” item has some complexity in it.
Now to our second question: how reliable is God—are his promises trustworthy? This one gets tricky. Most of us who are churched will affirm him in theory, but in practice we may find him wanting.
I can think of one friend, for instance, who years ago set up a test for God—with the “whatever you ask” promise in mind—and God didn’t seem to respond to him. So until today this man attends church with his wife but he refuses to believe in the God who didn’t come through in the test. He’s a successful businessman and refuses to work with anyone, God included, who doesn’t fulfill contractual commitments.
Many others, like my friend, aren’t fully convinced by claims about God. So they take a pragmatic approach: not ready to trust him even if continued listening is still an option.
This is, I’m sure, linked to the efforts of God’s most creative enemy who is forever trotting out his favorite device: skepticism. This is the serpent who asked, “Did God really say?” and who tried three times to get Jesus to doubt his Father as he was being tested in the wilderness. By now most academics are captured by themes of doubt; and many entertainers and politicians promote upside-down moral values rooted in denials of God. And even ordinary folks doubt God’s goodness.
This brings us to the final item: receiving God’s promise. The Bible call to love God with all our heart is behind all his promises. He has just one real ambition and that comes to us in a huge promise: we are meant to be part of his Son’s wedding feast, as the bride!
All who respond will turn out to have been chosen. Yet in a parable Jesus tells us that at first no one responds! So God has to pursue a very unlikely lot and convince them to come. I’m one of these.
It’s a breathtaking promise. And—using the terms of Romans 4—all of us who are “fully convinced that God was able to do what he promised” in making this possible will be counted as righteous. Amazing!