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But You Promised

• Greg Boyd

Greg began with Luke 1:5-7. The focus was on Elizabeth and Zachariah, both of whom where obedient to “the Lord’s commands and decrees.” The next sentence in the text starts with the word “but” and indicates something unexpected and in this case disappointing for Elizabeth and Zachariah. “But they were childless…” and “…both well advanced in years” which to first century Jewish ears would have sounded like a curse. Greg used this passage to raise a few questions: What do we do when we feel that God has not honored a promise? What do we do when it looks like God has let us down? How do we deal with disappointment with God?

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Greg began with Luke 1:5-7. The focus was on Elizabeth and Zachariah, both of whom where obedient to “the Lord’s commands and decrees.” The next sentence in the text starts with the word “but” and indicates something unexpected and in this case disappointing for Elizabeth and Zachariah. “But they were childless…” and “…both well advanced in years” which to first century Jewish ears would have sounded like a curse. For Deuteronomy 28:4 and 11 indicate that if you obey the Lord, the fruit of your womb will be blessed. This apparent lack of blessing that might easily be thought of as a curse (see vs. 18) would cause both personal and social hardship for this couple.

Greg used this passage to raise a few questions: What do we do when we feel that God has not honored a promise? What do we do when it looks like God has let us down? How do we deal with disappointment with God?

While on a trip to Cambodia, Greg experienced disappointment with God. There was a young child named Mia who’s legs had deteriorated to the point of medical hopelessness. But she believed that if she could just get to the United States the doctors there could fix her legs. When she learned that this was not true, it was a crushing blow to her spirit. Greg envisioned how beautiful it would be if God would heal this little girl. Even though there may be no hope medically speaking, this does not mean that God could not heal this girl. So they prayed in every way they knew how, but to no avail. The child remained crippled. It was a very discouraging event for Greg. Greg relayed another story to us of a mother who was distraught because her son had walked away from God, gotten involved with drugs, and then died far too young. Her misery in this situation was intensified by the disappointment she had with God because she had believed that Acts 16:31 (“Believe in the Lord Jesus and you shall be saved—you and your household.”) could be counted on literally for her and her household. It sure didn’t seem that her son was the recipient of this promise.

Greg offered four principles to remember when dealing with disappointment with God.

1. Make sure you haven’t misinterpreted a biblical promise…

In reflecting back on the passage in Deut. 28, Greg pointed out a couple of things that help us to see that even if Elizabeth never did conceive a child, God did not, in fact, fail to keep a promise. First, the promise was for Israel in a certain time of their history. They were a small and vulnerable people and God wanted to prosper them, especially through the more faithful amongst them. An important interpretive rule is: If a promise is made in the Old Testament but not repeated in the New Testament, be cautious about applying it today. We must pay close attention to historical context.

In the case of the woman mentioned above who appealed to Acts 16:31 the context is critical to the meaning of the verse. Paul was speaking to a Roman and when the head of the household converted in that society, then the whole household also converted. This is not true of every context. This promise is not for all believers, but was clearly true for Paul’s audience at that time.

2. Understand the hyperbole of the Bible…

Today we use exclamation points for expressing emphasis. That device was not available to the biblical writers and so the sentence was strengthened by making the sentence itself more emphatic. This bothers us because we feel the meaning is exaggerated, but how else are you to communicate with emphasis if you cannot use an exclamation point, underlining, or bold faced type? This “over-statement” for the sake of emphasis is called hyperbole. There is a simple way to avoid problems with hyperbole. Rather than take statements that contain apparent promises to be unambiguous statements of fact, consider them as godly principles to live by. They are not magical formulas that guarantee God’s compliance given certain actions on your part, they are general principles about how things work with God, but there are likely to be exceptions. Here are a couple of examples:

Proverbs 22:6 “Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it.” Don’t we know that some children raised well still rebel? And some from hard circumstances thrive? This is an overstatement that gives us a principle, but it is not an unambiguous promise.

Matthew 21:22 “If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask in prayer.” Again, we know that this does not always work. If you claim that it does, then do us all a favor and pray for peace in the Middle East. So again we see that hyperbole is at work here. God very much wants us to pray and fervently believe in what we pray for.

3. Believe in the possibility of miracles…

Even though it may be troubling to work through points 1 and 2 above, we still have every reason to believe in the possibility of a miracle! The point of the story of Elizabeth and Zachariah is that God did in fact give them a child who would be the forerunner for Jesus! If you believe that God is leading you to pray, by all means PRAY! Miracles were a central part of Jesus’ ministry. There is power there that demonstrates the Kingdom of God is at hand. Not only did Jesus have that power, but he extended it to us, his followers as well.

4. Keep your eyes fixed on Jesus (Heb. 12:2)…

Often, we just don’t know why things happen the way that they do. The world is far to complex for us to comprehend all the reasons for the things that happen. But there is one thing that we can know without a doubt. God is fully revealed in Jesus Christ. The character of God is manifest in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. The world may be ugly, evil, cruel, and unfair, but Jesus demonstrates that God is beautiful, good, gracious, and more than fair, God is loving. This is where we turn our eyes when we are disappointed with God. 2 Cor. 1:20 assures us that all of the promises of God are fulfilled in Christ.

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Topics: Blessings, Pain & Suffering


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Focus Scripture:

  • Luke 1:5-7

    In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord's commands and decrees blamelessly. But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both well advanced in years.

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