Kofi didn’t like to publicize his problems, but when an American church brought him to the USA for a speaking tour, people naturally asked questions about his ministry. One day a pastor asked him: “What do you need help with?” Instantly Kofi knew the practical answer to that question. He directed a school and an orphanage and had planted more than twenty churches across two countries in West Africa. “We need about a thousand dollars to repair our van’s engine,” he said. “It is not possible for me to cover our region on my bicycle. With a reliable vehicle, I can transport the necessary resources and co-workers.” He didn’t tell the pastor about the patchwork maintenance, the balding tires, the rusted doors, and the cracked and aging hoses.
“We’ll get you that money,” announced the well-meaning pastor. “I’ll have our treasurer send a check.”
What an answer to prayer! Kofi thought. Soon he returned to his country with the good news. Weeks passed. Then months. Eventually he sent a gentle inquiry to the pastor who had promised to help. He got an apologetic reply saying the money would be on its way soon. More time passed. The dilapidated van sat in the compound, a rusting monument to broken promises. The money never arrived.
Have people ever let you down? That question belongs in the same category as: Is water wet? But what about this question: Has God ever let you down? Before you answer, let’s put it another way. Have you ever felt that God didn’t keep his word? Have you wondered—even complained—that he didn’t come through in the way you thought he should?
We know that God has promised to protect and care for his children.
He has promised to make us strong, to fill our hearts with joy, and to give us peace. God has promised to answer our prayers. Yet at times those promises seem empty. Our prayers for a rebellious child seem to go unanswered. Inflation and bills gnaw away at our paycheck. Someone close to us dies of cancer. Neighborhood crime gets worse. Terrorists plague the world. And Jesus hasn’t returned to make things right. Joy and peace seem like dreams.
The Bible tells us, “The Lord is trustworthy in all he promises and faithful in all he does” (psalm 145:13). What happened to all the promises God has made? Perhaps we’ve misunderstood. Or maybe we’re just expecting too much.
Promises in the Bible
The way some people use the term, a promise is nothing more than a good intention easily discarded. Like the proverbial rule, promises are made to be broken. But when God makes a promise, it’s backed with more than just good intentions and wishful thinking. He is giving us his absolutely trustworthy word.
Although the promises of God are the heart of the Bible, Hebrew, the original language of the Old Testament, doesn’t have a specific word for promise. Yet we clearly see the concept throughout its pages. In the cultures of the Old Testament, when anyone spoke of what they would do in the future, the word promise fit well. The speaker’s word, honor, and integrity were at stake when making a verbal commitment.
The New Testament idea of promise follows the same pattern. God stands behind what he says. The term comes from the Greek word angelia, which means “announcement” or “message.” Everything God has spoken, every announcement, every message, is a promise based on God’s perfect, good, and trustworthy character.
Promises Are True to God’s Nature
We may have a problem keeping our promises. But God is different. He has all the power and wisdom in the universe at his disposal. He will never have to make an excuse for failing to fulfill what he has promised, and we have no excuse for not believing him.
Hudson Taylor, renowned 19th-century missionary to China, wanted little to do with the religion of his mother and sister, yet he couldn’t deny the reality of their faithful prayers. It was in his teens that he put his faith in Christ. He later wrote this about his conversion experience: “Brought up in such a circle [of faith] and saved under such circumstances, it was perhaps natural that from the commencement of my Christian life I was led to feel that the promises were very real, and that prayer was a sober matter of fact transacting business with God.”1 Simply claiming what was offered.
Yet this “business” does not mean we can manipulate or demand of God. He never advertises more than he can deliver. He’s not out to deceive us. He offers what he wants us to have, and he wants us to have the best he has to offer—the joy of a close relationship with him now, and eternity with him and those who love him.
The Creator continues to be the Lord over all of life. By his nature God is good, merciful, and true to his word. The Bible tells us how God’s promises reflect those qualities. Because he is all of those things, we do not have to fear when we hear that God keeps his promises on his terms.
Types of Promises
God’s terms for keeping his promises are clearly stated. What he promises, he will deliver. Some promises even come with an unconditional guarantee—he will hold up his end of the agreement no matter what we do. Then there are promises that carry with them directions (conditions) we must follow if we are to enjoy all that he offers. These conditional promises depend on our fulfilling certain requirements.
An unconditional promise is simply one in which God says he will do something, and nothing we can do will stop it from happening. The fulfillment of unconditional promises does not depend on the actions of people; only on God. Even if we are unfaithful, God cannot be anything but faithful to his word.
After the great flood destroyed everything, God gave Noah (and the world) an unconditional promise that he would never again send a global flood to destroy the earth (genesis 9:8–17). Many years later, God unconditionally promised King David that his royal line would last forever (2 samuel 7:16). Because David was an ancestor of Jesus (matthew 1:1, 6) and Jesus’s kingdom will have no end (luke 1:32–33), God was faithful in this promise despite David’s repeated shortcomings and failures.
When Jesus was on earth he promised that after he ascended to heaven he would send the Holy Spirit (john 16:5–15). In Acts 2, we read exactly how that happened. He also promised that Satan’s forces would never overcome the church (matthew 16:18). And although much evil has been directed against the church down through the centuries, it still flourishes. Another promise—that he would return to earth to judge the living and the dead and fully settle his kingdom (matthew 16:27; 25:31–46)—has yet to occur, but because this is an unconditional promise, no one and nothing can stop it from happening.
Some promises are like product warranties. They will be fulfilled only if the customer meets the stipulations set up by the manufacturer.That was the case in the Garden of Eden. God promised that Adam and Eve would enjoy life in the Garden on the single condition that they didn’t eat the fruit of a certain tree. Not keeping that condition would result in death (genesis 2:16–17).
The covenant God made with Moses and the people of Israel at Mount Sinai contained many conditions. Prior to giving the Ten Commandments, God told Israel that if they kept the conditions of the covenant agreement with him, he would care for them as his special treasure (exodus 19:3–6). Several of the Ten Commandments state the results of missing or meeting God’s conditions. The Lord said he would punish all who worshiped idols but he would show love to those who loved him (exodus 20:4–6). He promised to declare guilty anyone who spoke his name in a disrespectful or contemptuous way (exodus 20:7). He promised long life in the Promised Land to those who honored their parents (exodus 20:12).
In Exodus 23:20–33, God told Israel he would wipe out their enemies when they entered Canaan. He would take away sickness, and give long life and no miscarriages. However, the conditions included paying attention to and obeying the angel of God, worshiping God, and not making a covenant with their enemies or allowing them to live in the Promised Land. Later God promised success, prosperity, and protection if the people obeyed the Law of Moses (joshua 1:7–9). Unfortunately the Israelites did not hold up their end of their agreement and these blessings were forfeited.
After the Israelites settled in the land God promised them, they became dissatisfied with judges as their rulers; they wanted a king like other nations. Even though God’s original plan didn’t include a king, he provided one, promising the people good things if they honored and obeyed God. Yet he warned of judgment if the king or the people rebelled (1 samuel 12:13–15). Their first king, Saul, didn’t last long before disobeying God. Because Saul failed to keep God’s commands, he forfeited the throne (1 samuel 13:13–14).
Many of us cling to the promise if you “Take delight in the Lord,” then “he will give you the desires of your heart” (psalm 37:4). This fits well with the promise in the New Testament: If we seek what has eternal value, God will take care of our temporal needs (matthew 6:25–34). But if we expect this to mean a large bank account, huge retirement plan, or big vacation home, we’re probably going to be disappointed. Those are our desires when we pursue the values of the world. But if we pursue what God delights in and seek things of eternal value, our heart’s desires will be significantly different.
The prophet Jonah gave God’s conditional promise to the wicked people of Nineveh. He announced that the city would be overthrown within forty days if its citizens did not repent (jonah 3:4). Much to Jonah’s surprise, the people did turn to God and the city was spared. But it didn’t last. The Ninevites eventually returned to their old ways, and God held to his promise.
Perhaps the most familiar and arguably the most important conditional promise is found in the New Testament: God will forgive if we confess (1 john 1:9). Forgiveness is free and waiting for us, the only condition to receiving it is that we must confess that we need forgiveness.We must admit that we are sinful people who need a Savior. This confession doesn’t earn God’s forgiveness. Recognizing our need is simply saying to God, “I want the forgiveness you are offering.” In our “civilized” world, we consider ourselves independent, strong, capable, intelligent and overall, pretty good—certainly not sinful. Our perception makes it difficult to realize the importance of this necessary first step to receive the free gift of eternal life.
1 Hudson Taylor’s Spiritual Secret, by Dr. & Mrs. Howard Taylor, edited and revised by Gregg Lewis, © Copyright 1990 by Discovery House, Grand Rapids, Michigan, p.7.