Confusing promises and the promise

One of the reasons people become disillusioned with God and walk out on church is that they believe that God has failed them, that he has let them down by failing to keep a promise.  Now, if God has not kept a promise, then there are four possibilities, either God does not actually exist in order to keep his promises,  he does exist but is weak and is unable to keep those promises, he is not a good God and doesn’t want to keep his promises or there is a problem with me and God has broken his promises because he does not or cannot love me. Each of those possibilities give us a good reason to quit God and church.

This is why I believe it is so important that we have a right understanding of what God genuinely has promised.  A lot of the sorts of promises we are talking about concern success in life and freedom from pain and suffering.  If I believe that praying hard enough and working hard enough would lead to success in my exams and I don’t get the results I need, then I may believe God has failed me. If I have been told that if I pray the right words and really believe it then my nan is going to get better but in fact she deteriorates further and sadly dies, this may leave me doubting God. If I have been promised by my church that paying my tithes will guarantee financial well-being but in fact I lose my job and my house is repossessed then, again, I am likely to be angry and disillusioned with God and the church.

So, first of all, I think that it is so important that we focus on the one big promise that we are meant to trust in. That promise is the one found right at the start of God’s great story of revelation in Genesis 3:15 when God promises Adam and Eve that he will send a descendent of Eve to be the serpent crusher. That descendent is Jesus who came to deal with the problem of sin and death. God has kept his promise.

However, we should not understand that promise in a narrow sense as though it is the only thing God commits to and all other promises are void.  In Genesis 1:26-28, God makes man in his own image and tells him to be fruitful, to multiply and to fill and subdue the earth. God blesses man. Blessing there means that the instruction to fill and subdue is not only a command but also contains a promise of fruitfulness, God is going to provide for and protect Adam and Eve in this mission. So, can’t we expect some level of material blessing?

Well, Genesis 3 answers that question because as well as pronouncing judgement on the serpent, God judges Adam and Eve, they will now experience pain and suffering in childbirth and in work.  This is now the world we live in, a world where such suffering is present. The question is whether or not believers in God can, if they have enough faith gain an exemption from such suffering.

That’s where Prosperity Gospel teaching comes in because its premise is that yes we can gain that exemption. Pain, suffering and struggle are after all, consequences of sin, so surely Christ’s death was designed to deal with them too? Furthermore, the Prosperity teacher will also argue that further promises such as the covenant to bless Abraham and the promises to Israel in Deuteronomy to heal their diseases and bless them with prosperity, power and health must surely demonstrate how God deals with his own people of faith.

So how do we respond to that. I think there are three important things here. The first is a little bit of Biblical Theology.  Throughout Scripture, we see that God’s blessing is understood in terms of people and place. God’s people in God’s place live under his rule and blessing. In Genesis 12:1-3 and in the book of Deuteronomy, place is attached to a specific post code – the land of Canaan.   The idea is that in one specific place, God once again gives a kind of foretaste of what it means to live under blessing.  The blessing is attached to physical, geographical land and is therefore physical or material because fruitfulness is about success in the specific mission given to God’s people. Just as the focus for Adam and Eve was on filling and subduing the whole earth, so Israel’s focus was on filling and subduing the whole land of Canaan and they are blessed as they do that.

Therefore, in order to understand the meaning of blessing and promise for us, we need to ask the question “What is the mission that God has given us?” The answer is at the end of Matthew 28 where Jesus sends us out to go and make disciples of all nations. The focus of filling and subduing is therefore spiritual. It is about multiplication of people who know and love God (filling) and it is about lives completely submitted to Christ, faithfully obeying all he has taught, it is about minds made captive to the word of God and lives filled with the Holy Spirit (subdue). It is in this area where we should expect blessing and fruitfulness. We can expect people to be saved in response to the Gospel and we can expect to grow in holiness.

Thirdly, when Jesus preaches the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5, he consistently talks about his followers being blessed. Although suffering, downtrodden and persecuted now, they will inherit the earth.  There is a promise there of land or place and it is physical, suggesting that we can expect physical blessings to follow too. And I believe we can. The problem with the Prosperity Gospel is  not that it offers too much but that it offers too little. The Prosperity Gospel promises a little bit of blessing for some of God’s people for a limited period of time. The true Gospel promises full blessing to all God’s people for eternity. Further, the problem with the Prosperity Gospel is a matter of timing. It lacks patience and needs instant gratification so those promises are to be claimed now.  The true Gospel points to a day when we will all enjoy those blessings together, when the curse will be banished and when there will be no more sickness, suffering and tears. 

So lift your eyes
To the things as yet unseen,
That will remain now
For all eternity.
Though trouble’s hard,
It’s only momentary
And it’s acheiving
Our future glory.[1]


[1] There is a Day, Phatfish

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