Thursday, November 13, 2014

which promises are for me?

Not many things are more comforting than a promise made and kept. And not many things are more hurtful than a promise broken. Knowing we worship a God who keeps his promises is a source of deep joy. But misapplied, this knowledge can also lead us to treasure-hunt Scripture for promises in problematic ways. How can we know which promises are for us? How can we lay claim to the promises of the Bible without overstepping their application? Here are some common pitfalls to keep in mind as you study:

  • Confusing a promise with a principle. Promises are always fulfilled 100% of the time. Principles state general truths. The book of Proverbs is often mistaken for a book of promises, when in fact it is a book of principles. The principle of “train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old he will not depart from it” is generally true and is wise to heed. But it is not a guarantee that every child who is raised with godly instruction will become a believer.
  • Ignoring the context. We often apply a promise to ourselves before considering its original audience or its historical, cultural or textual context. In some cases, a promise was made to a specific person for a specific reason and has no further application beyond its immediate context. In other cases, the application can only be properly made after the promise is understood in its original context.  God’s promise to Abram of land and offspring cannot be taken to mean God will give me a house or children. It can, however, be applied to mean he will give me a spiritual inheritance through Christ.
  • Overlooking the “if”. Promises that contain an “If” require some form of obedience before we can expect them to come to pass in our lives. They are conditional. If we want to claim them, we had better be ready to act in obedience to what they require. God grants us wisdom if we ask (James 1:4). But we have to ask. Often “if” promises of blessing are accompanied by corresponding “if” warnings about disobedience. We tend to celebrate God’s promises of blessing and sideline his promises of chastisement, though both point to a faithful God. It’s tough to find a coffee mug that sports Hebrews 12:6. Which leads us to... 
  • Choosing a promise selectively. We tend to favor those promises that appeal to our own best case scenario. We quote Exodus 14:14 in a crisis: “The LORD will fight for you; you need only to be still.” But we neglect to note that three chapters later in Exodus Israel was commanded not to stand still, but to fight her enemies. In spiritual battles, sometimes we should stand still and sometimes we should fight. Better to ask God for wisdom as to which response is called for than to claim a promise that is not universally applicable.
  • Using a promise manipulatively. Sometimes we employ a verse as a promise because we want God to act a certain way. Probably the most abused passage in this category is “Where two or three are gathered in my name” (Mat 18:19-20). Not only do we use it out of context, we use it to try to coerce God into doing what we ask simply because we have gathered the requisite number of people to ask it. God’s promises to us should help us submit to His will, not bend Him to ours.
  • Limiting a promise to your own understanding. Even when we rightly recognize a promise as intended for us, we often impose our own understanding of exactly how it will be fulfilled. Or we are tempted to impose our own timeline on its fulfillment. Yes, God does have a plan to prosper you and not to harm you (Jer 29:11), but as in the case of the people to whom those words were originally written, that “you” is more likely a collective reference to the body of believers, and that  plan may play out across centuries in ways we can’t possibly predict. To recognize this does not diminish the beauty of the promise at all. It actually enhances it.

How can we avoid these promise-claiming pitfalls? Our long-term strategy must be to move from spot knowledge of the Bible to comprehensive knowledge. In the short-term, try these helps:
  • Do your homework. Before you write it on a note card for your fridge, before you post it on Instagram or shop for it on a coffee mug or declare it your life verse, make a thorough study of where your promise lives in Scripture and in biblical history.  Make sure it’s a general promise, not a specific promise to someone else or a general principle to observe. Check for any “ifs” that might change its application.
  • Check your motive. If a promise in Scripture appeals to you, ask yourself why. What fear or need underlies your desire to claim that promise for yourself? What security are you looking for beyond the soul security you are guaranteed in Christ? Does claiming that promise help you submit to God’s rule? Are you defining its fulfillment in terms of your own limited understanding? Would its fulfillment help you grow in godliness and humility?

And remember, the Bible is full of unambiguous promises from our triune God that we can celebrate with certainty. Here is a smattering of my favorites:

He promises to give us wisdom if we ask (James 1:5).
He promises to provide a way out of temptation (1 Cor 10:13).
He promises that our salvation is secure, no matter what (John 10:28-29).
He promises to never leave us nor forsake us (Heb 13:5).
He promises to finish the good work he has begun in us (Phil 1:6).
He promises to come back (Luke 12:40)

These promises are sure and steadfast. Do you notice that they have much more to say about who God is or how He is sanctifying us than about a specific circumstance or outcome? We are not promised certainty in our circumstances, but we are promised certainty in the God of our circumstances. And that, brothers and sisters, is an anchor for the soul. 


  1. Hi Jen,
    Thanks for this helpful reminder! It is great to take time to examine our motives behind applying promises from the Bible to us. Sometimes these promises are so part of 'Christianese' that we say/claim/quote them without often even thinking about the context and whether it actually does apply to us. You are an encouragement!

  2. Thanks for this helpful and encouraging post.

  3. Hi Jen - I love this post and took the liberty of reposting it to my own wee blog giving you full attribution and links to linking it to your original post and to your website. If this is not satisfactory please let me know and I'll remove it immediately. The repost appears at: <><

    1. Thanks, Ron - I'm glad you could use it!

    2. I appreciate your kindness in sharing your gift of wisdom and writing skill.

  4. This is really good Jen!

    Do you think these same principles also apply to Old Testament commands as well? For example, how should believers understand Gen. 1:28, and God's command to be fruitful & multiply, filling the earth and subduing it?

    1. Hi Carrie,

      I think it depends on the context of the command. If the command was addressed to a culturally time-bound scenario (ie, what to do if your neighbor's ox falls in a pit you dug) it is good to look for the principle behind the command. Other commands clearly transcend time and culture, like the Ten Commandments. The command in Gen 1:28 is a little less straightforward because its context is an archetypal narrative about creation. I would say it has a literal component and a spiritual component. We can be fruitful through having a family or a productive career, but we can also be fruitful a la the fruit of the Spirit. We can rule and subdue by working to establish order in our homes and communities, but we can als rule and subdue sin in our hearts. In the case of Gen 1:28 both the letter of the command and the principle of the command are still worthy of our attention and obedience. I hope this helps. Jen

    2. That definitely helps... thanks, Jen!

  5. Such good truth, thank you for sharing, we have actually been going through proverbs for our home group and it is very apparent the distinction between promise and principle. I like what you said in response to the commenter above in regards to the letter and principle. I agree studying scripture and checking motives are something I need to do more of. I also just started your book, enjoying it so far. :)

  6. I've actually been studying through the book of Proverbs for at least 5 months now, and it is really a book where you have exercise some wisdom in understanding the proverbs held there. It's led to some interesting conversations with other women who claim some things as absolutely certain promises when I try to remind them that it's a generally accurate statement. But I greatly appreciate your post, and a friend and I are going through your book "Women of the Word". Absolutely amazing! And thank you for using your gifts to edify the Body. Blessings!

  7. I count it as providential that I stumbled across your post. I've been trying to figure out how some of the things you mention apply to something I recently read. In a well-respected book on parenting, the author says, "God makes lavish promises to the parents who learn to fear him." Then he quotes the following verses: Ps. 25:12-13 Who is the man who fears the LORD? ... his offspring shall inherit the land. Ps. 103:17 ... his righteousness to children's children. Ps. 112:1-2 Blessed is the man who fears the LORD ... His offspring will be mighty in the land... Ps. 128:1-4 Blessed is everyone who fears the LORD ... Your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house; your children will be like olive shoots around your table. Behold, thus shall the man be blessed who fears the LORD.

    I know these are not absolute promises that parents who fear God will have all their children following Him and living in prosperity or that someone who fears God will never struggle with infertility, etc. But the author doesn't flesh out how to understand these verses. Would you say they are principles rather than promises? Does their application to us differ than their application to the Israelites? I appreciate your insights above and would be interested in hearing your thoughts on this. Are there any other resources that address this that you recommend? I feel like it is a point that is often overlooked. Thanks.

    1. Hi Becky, Yes - I would say the verses you have noted are better understood as principles. We should give our energy to honoring principles, but we should do so out of love for God, not to lay claim to a desired outcome. Principles don't necessarily apply to us differently than they did to the Israelites, though our culture and place in history will make application somewhat different. I don't have a specific resource about promises to point you to, but any book that discusses general principles of Bible interpretation should be helpful. Thanks for reading! Jen