When I was coming to terms with what it meant to live a Christian life, I wondered about God’s promises. I had a Teen Study Bible that highlighted “God’s Promises” in the margins, and it made me wonder. Are these promises for me, or for someone else who lived long ago? Is this Bible verse spoken as a promise in the context where it is found? How would I be able to tell if this promise has been kept? If I think a promise has not been kept as spoken, what does that mean? What would it mean if God broke a promise? What’s the point of a promise anyway if you can never verify whether or not it has been kept?
In the normal sense of a word, a promise is a commitment from one person to another to do something. Ideally, when a promise is made the recipient of the promise can assume that the other will do what they said, and so they can plan their day around the assumption that the promise will be kept. When someone makes a promise, it means you can count on them to do it.
But the idea about “God’s Promises” confused me about the meaning of promises when I was young. Believers praise God for keeping his promises even though they cannot say with clear certainty what exactly God promised to do for them, so they cannot verify with certainty if that promise was really carried out. Even if the promise was “apparently” not kept — for instance if they find themselves in a situation where their basic needs are not being met (see Philippians 4:19) — they will still say God keeps his promise. It would be as if someone promised to meet you for a date at a time and a place, but then don’t show up. But then you blame yourself because you have the idea that this person always keeps their promises. In fact they couldn’t not show up. If they ever broke a promise your entire world would crumble to the ground and that is just too horrible to be possible … it must have been you who misunderstood or got the time or place wrong. Or they must have a special plan in not showing up. Maybe they are trying to teach you something by their absence.
A promise made with no accountability for the promise-maker is not a real promise.
Just after I published this post, I decided to explore the idea further by Googling the phrase “can Christians starve to death.” If you are interested in seeing multiple examples of the behavior I describe above — all the rationalizations and excuses and reasons made up by believers for why God does not ‘apparently’ breaks his promise to take care of all the needs of his followers — I highly recommend it.