By Nick Brzozowski
Does God always keep his promises? Why doesn't God always keep His promises from the Bible?
Maybe for you, that question alone is blasphemous and demonstrates a lack of trust in God. Yet, anyone who has read much of the Bible, as a Christian, has probably had that moment a time or two (or more) when they asked: “Is that promise really for me?”
You read things like: “We are more than conquerors” “the person who meditates on the Word will prosper” “God will protect the godly” or “he hears your prayers.” Then, you feel a sense of comfort in those words. But, then, you remember your broken-down car, your toxic partner, your failed career, or your sick daughter. As your comfort fades, you begin to wonder whether God has done anything for you.
So many promises are found in the Scriptures and, yet, your life is full of pain, suffering, and doubt. Were these promises for someone else, like the Israelites (or people who pray more than you)? Are the promises exaggerated? If they are exaggerated, then do they really offer any meaningful security? Are the promises riddled with loopholes (For example, maybe God will hear your prayers, but that doesn’t mean that he’ll do anything about it.)?
For instance, Psalm 9:9 says: “The Lord is a refuge for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble.” But, where is he for all the 70,000 homeless in just L.A. alone? As they struggle to survive another day, how is the Lord being a refuge for them?
“But, You Promised!”
Remember the first time your parents broke their promise? Mom said that if you were good, you could pick out candy at the store. So, you were good — like, really good — like, you let your brother be annoying and you didn’t even yell at him, good. All day, you were working for that candy. You did the rankings in your head…and after a long battle, KitKats won! You could just taste it. You endured the treacherous errands without one single complaint, driving around from one boring place to another for what felt like years. At each stop, you think, “this could be where I get my KitKat.”
But then, to your horror, you turned into your neighborhood. You kindly and gently reminded your mom: “Aren’t we going to the store!?” (Maybe not so gently.) Her eyes go big and she told you she forgot and you'll have to go another time.
How could that be? You thought. I did it. I was really good. I did everything right. And without hesitation, as if from instinct, from the depths of your soul, you cried… “But, you promised.”
It may not have been a promised KitKat for you. Maybe it was a missed basketball game, new clothes or the vacation that never happened, or even the distance that came with the divorce.
Whatever it was, I believe we walk around with diluted expectations of God. Unknowingly, our past disappointments follow us when we open up the Scriptures. God means well and all, but he isn’t really going to be our refuge — it’s more like a pleasant thought that gives us comfort in itself.
Back to Psalm 9:9, God can’t really be “a refuge for the oppressed,” when there are so many people still being oppressed, can he? If he was so good at it, they wouldn't be oppressed any more.
Just this last year, the Southern Baptist Convention released a report describing the explosion of sexual misconduct throughout their denomination. Not just in the Southern Baptist churches, but all over, pastors are abusing their power to violate vulnerable people. And tragically enough, spiritual leaders even continue to keep their positions, even after victims speak out.
It seems as though God’s not much of a refuge for the oppressed, even in the church itself.
Eagles, Citadels, and Severed Tongues
Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s take a closer look at a few specific examples of God’s promises. In Psalm 91, for example, two images of God’s protection are developed: a citadel and an eagle.
Psalm 91 begins with the metaphor of God as a “refuge and fortress.” Imagine at the center of your town, there is a walled fortress. That is where you go for protection during natural disasters and in case an invading army was to attack. That is the context of the readers. At the time, cities had fortified citadels where people could literally flee to in times of trouble.
He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.”
Rev. Dr. Bill Fullilove paints a picture of what the citadel meant for the people of ancient times: “The people of the town would mostly live outside the walls, but close by. They would work their farms and live their lives often in its shadow, always aware of its looming presence.”
Later on in Psalm 91, God is compared to an eagle. Here, the psalmist invites us to imagine being little eagle chicks, under the protection of our massive eagle mama’s wings. Who messes with baby eagles when the powerful, vicious flying predator is watching?
Surely he will save you from the fowler’s snare and from the deadly pestilence. He will cover you with his feathers,
These images speak powerfully of God’s care for his people. But, God doesn’t just promise to care for the vulnerable. He also has something to say about the oppressors. The psalmist, while in deep distress, cries out to God to cut off the tongue of the boastful (Psalm 12:3). It may not be that he is literally asking for God to bring violence on the oppressor. More likely, this is a figurative way of asking God to stop these liars who are spreading rumors about you, turning people against you, and impressing people with their phoniness. Solomon even writes this as a principle and not just a request: “the perverse tongue will be cut off” (Proverbs 10:31).
On a similar note, the psalmist asks for God to “break the arm” of the wicked (Psalm 10:15). Again, this could be seen figuratively, since the arm represented strength. The prayer was that God would strip away power from the corrupt.
Why would the psalmist ask God to break arms and severe tongues if he didn’t know God to do that? And how can God be an eagle mama and a walled fortress when people are still getting sick, losing their jobs, fighting depression, and burying loved ones?
Reading Psalm 91 Like a Devil
Psalm 91 promises more than just that God would be our eagle and our fortress. It goes on to say:
For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.
Do you really believe this? Are you willing to test your faith? Then, the next time you hike the Grand Canyon, try wearing a blindfold! Don’t worry. If you misstep, angels will catch you. They are guarding you in all your ways, right? They won’t let your foot strike against the stone, right?
Rev. Dr. Bill Fullilove again brings up this is the very line of questioning. The devil threw this at Jesus in the wilderness (Matthew 4). Jesus was hungry (because he had just fasted for forty days) and alone. Then Satan actually used Scripture to tempt him.
Did you catch that?
The Word of God can actually be used against you in order to lead you in the wrong direction. That means there are, in fact, wrong ways to read the Bible.
And this scene of Jesus’ temptation sheds light for us on how we might be misinterpreting the promises of God. Satan tried to convince Jesus to test God by jumping off the temple, even quoting Psalm 91 - a promise that God would catch him. But, Jesus knew that this was not the proper interpretation of Psalm 91.
Whatever Psalm 91 means, it does not mean that you can put God to the test. It doesn’t mean that in every situation God won’t let you fall. It doesn’t mean that his protection is a guarantee similar to the law of gravity.
So, just be clear, please don't go walking around the Grand Canyon with a blindfold on.
So What? What God’s Promises Mean for You
So, if Christians still suffer and if people still starve, and if the corrupt still seem to win, in what way do God’s promises apply to us? And if we shouldn’t jump off buildings because God said he would catch us, then what will God actually do? What are these promises for?
These aren’t easy questions. But, here are three thoughts that may help.
First, just because God doesn’t save everyone, all the time, in every way, doesn’t mean he isn’t busy saving. Just today, I heard this story about an atheist in special forces. One day, he was in pursuit of someone. As he was proceeding, he felt a voice whisper to his spirit: Stop. So, he did. And he paused. Then, he was shot but he was only shot in the shoulder.
Reflecting back, he knew that if he had taken that one additional step, the bullet would have certainly reached his heart. This mysterious voice saved his life. At that moment, God was an eagle to him.
When the psalmist expresses promises, he isn’t writing a physics manual, as if this is the way God is forced to act in every situation. Rather, these psalms come out of deep meditation on the ways God always seems to be working. He is the God who sees the affliction of the vulnerable. He is the God who parts seas, who elevates the lowly and opposes the proud, who miraculously provides and shows compassion. He may not heal you every time, but he is still the God of healing.
Second, just because God hasn’t saved you yet, doesn’t mean he is about to. The hope, found in the Psalms especially, is like the expectation you have when you know your paycheck is on its way. It isn’t here yet, but you are so certain that you have already spent the money in your head. In some sense, it’s as if it has already come.
Now, that does not mean that God will show protection and vindication completely in this age. The Psalms anticipate a new age with a new creation when God makes all things right. You might just see this promise of after-life justice as a cop-out for God’s negligence right now. But, I do find significant comfort in the fact that God is currently working and there will be a day when all things will be sorted out.
And third, these promises tend to be immersed in a context of pain. After the psalmist groans, “how long?” he concludes that prosperity is coming, along with joy in his heart and peaceful rest (Psalm 4). The writers of the Scriptures are wrestling with the same challenge we wrestle with today. They knew that God was strong and capable, loving and compassionate. And at the same time, they struggled to reconcile God’s goodness with the unbearable trials they were facing.
They reflect on the promises of who God is. And although the pain still comes, they find the strength to climb out of their despair through the knowledge of who they know God to be.
They trusted that God is the God who hears, saves, redeems, forgives, generously provides, rescues and vindicates. And they were comforted at the glimpse of some ultimate, yet veiled, expression of justice and love they knew was coming.
How about you? Can you find hope in a more nuanced meditation of God’s promises?
To go a bit further, I'd encourage you to read Rev. Dr. Fullilove's blog on the subject. It inspired much of my writing here: https://washingtoninst.org/when-the-psalms-promise-too-much/
Do you have more questions or anything above that you don't agree with? Feel free to email me at Nick@anchorchurchil.com - I'd love to talk more with you and help however I can.