Over-Promise, Under-Deliver

This evening I was driving home from work, listening to a pastor on the radio preach from a text that would be familiar to most Christians: “And my God shall supply all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:9). Paul says this within the context of the Philippians’ material generosity toward him, assuring them that God would reciprocate by meeting their every need. Like many preachers, I used to quote this verse with a confident swagger. “How many of your needs did God say he’d supply?” I’d shout from the pulpit. “ALL of them!”—to which I would received a hearty “Amen!” This is but one of the many extravagant promises layered throughout the Scriptures.

For example:

* “Delight yourself in the LORD and he will give you the desires of your heart.” (Psalm 37:4)

* “I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you." (Matthew 17:20)

* “Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.” (Matthew 18:19)

* “And all things you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive.” (Matthew 21:22)

Whenever verses like these were quoted in my congregation, I was quick to add qualifiers like, “Your desires must be God’s desires,” “God has three answers to prayer: yes, no, and wait,” and “You must examine yourself, lest sin or unbelief hinder God’s blessing in your life.” But the Bible does not necessarily include such caveats with the promises of God--most of them are very straightforward.

Occasionally, my comfortable theological bubble was punctured by instances of sincere believers being inflicted with pointless suffering. One of them, in particular, prompted me to call the Bible's extravagant promises into question. A young Christian wife became the victim of a cheating husband, who ran away with the other woman, but not before stripping the house of all the furniture and valuables. He did leave a few things behind—-two small kids, some large debts, and a trail of emotional wreckage. To add insult to injury, this sweet Christian woman was stricken with an unusual cancer during the divorce proceedings. While “Standing on the Promises” (a favorite Christian hymn), she almost lost everything. Witnessing this harsh reality first-hand made the promises of God seem absurd to me.

Promises like:

* “Whatever you ask in my name, that will I do, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.” (John 14:13)

* “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” (John 15:7)

* “And whatever we ask we receive from Him, because we keep His commandments and do the things that are pleasing in His sight.” (1 John 3:22)

As a Christian, God clearly promises to meet all your needs, answer your every prayer, and give you the very desires of your heart. One of the inherent problems with such verses, of course, is their all-encompassing and absolute nature. 2 Corinthians 1:20 says, “For no matter how many promises God has made, they are ‘Yes’ in Christ.” The Psalmist declares, “The LORD is faithful to all his promises and loving toward all he has made” (Psalm 145:13). So despite the many excuses Christian offer on behalf of the Almighty, God doesn’t give himself an out!

The “Name-it-and-claim-it Gospel” is widely condemned by conservative evangelicals. But why, exactly? Aren’t radical Pentecostals just taking their God at his word? I submit that many Christians are secretly embarrassed by the Bible’s extravagant promises because (1) they know intuitively that they are not realistic expectations, (2) they are afraid that God will fail them, or (3) they have witnessed someone else being let down by the promises.

In the business world, we’re cautioned against overpromising. “Under-promise and over-deliver” is our motto. Somebody forgot to tell the Biblical writers that in all his superfluous promising, their God is incapable of delivering.