Updated: Nov 26, 2020
A few years back, I met with a man considering a new job in California, moving there with his family. While the job and the move sounded exciting to him, something he said set off alarm bells in my spirit.
When I asked him questions about the affordability of housing, schools for his children and his wife’s thoughts on the move, he dismissed most of them with this statement.
“I’m just going by faith, like Abraham and his family. God brought him to a new country and prospered. We’re going to just trust God to do the same for us.”
My reply startled him. “But did God specifically tell you to go to California? Did he promise you, that if you went, he’d cause you to prosper with the kind of clarity he gave Abraham?” Obviously, he admitted God had not. Then made this observation; “There are some things you should never trust God for.” “Like what?” he asked with real skepticism.
Christians should never trust God to deliver on a promise he never made to you personally, or to all believers for all time.
I sometimes cringe when I see the shelves in Christian bookstores filled with titles like, 50 Precious Promises from God. God made all kinds of promises to Old Testament people and to the nation of Israel that were specific to them, and therefore should not be “claimed” by Christians today. Promises like;
God promised Israel that he would give them the land of Canaan for their own if they were courageous enough to enter the land and claim it. But, I’ve heard pastors use that promise as God’s pledge that he’ll help them begin a new church or mission project in a hostile country.
In Malachi God promised Israel that he would “throw open the floodgates of heaven” (Malachi 3:10), if they were faithful with their tithes and offerings. I’ve heard Christians claim this promise regarding their own giving, which is only a few clicks away from prosperity theology.
God told Adam and Eve to be “fruitful and multiply” because God wanted more people to populate the earth. I’ve heard Christians use that to justify large families today. Obviously, the world no longer needs more people.
Here’s one of my favorites: “if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” 2 Chronicles 7:14 I can’t tell you how many Christians quotes that verse and claim it for the United States. I believe all U.S. Christians ought to humble themselves, pray and seek God’s face, but the U.S. was not who God had in mind when he made that promise.
Most promises in the Old Testament were made to Israel, not us. Please don’t misunderstand me. God loves it when Christians live by faith. But, I’ve actually seen people’s faith die or diminish when they claimed a promise God never made to them, and God didn’t deliver.
So what are Christians to do with these Old Testament promises? They are still important, because they show us that God was faithful to people who were faithful to him and what happened when they were not. The stories, laws and promises in the Old Testament teach us about the heart of God and the character of God, the same way when we tell stories around the kitchen table to our children. They communicate what is important to us and therefore hopefully will be important to our children. In other words, much of the Old Testament is informational for believers today, but not authoritative.
So, here are some questions I’ve found helpful to ask before I’d encourage anyone to claim a promise from God:
Did God make a promise in the Bible that you’d like to claim for yourself, to a specific person, or people, like Israel, or is it very clear that “your” promise was to all believers, for all time? When God promised the land to Israel, he didn’t extend that offer to us, Christians. When God promised he’d drive out all Israel’s enemies, that promise does not apply to any other Christian nations. These were promises to Israel, for Israel. Context is everything! Understanding why, and to whom God made any promise, is critical before claiming it for our own. Although as I said previously, we can learn a lot about the character and purposes of God from his promises to others, even if they aren’t made to us.
Is the promise you’re claiming, actually a “proverb” or wisdom from God? The Bible says “Train up a child in the way they should go and they will not depart from it.” (Proverbs 22:6). Frankly, I know many people who grew up in great Christian homes who have “departed” from the faith or lived immoral lives. The Proverbs quote isn’t a promise. It’s a general observation. Generally speaking good parents will produce good children. That’s why the book of Proverbs is listed in the genre of “wisdom literature.” Proverbs are not promises!
If God doesn’t deliver on his “promise” to you, will you consider him unfaithful? God always keeps his promises. So if he doesn’t answer or deliver on yours, are you prepared to admit it was your mistake, so family, friends and you do not blame God for being unfaithful to his promise? Here’s why this is important. I can’t tell you the number of men I’ve met with over the years who walked away from God because he didn’t cure their dying child, save their parents marriage, or take away some addiction or long standing sin. So take care, not to put words in God’s mouth that makes him look anything other than totally faithful to all his promises.
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