Can we trust God's promises?
The words from Mendelssohn’s Elijah echo in my head:
If with all your hearts ye truly seek Me,
Ye shall ever surely find Me,
Thus saith our God.
It’s a song I like a lot (yes, still), and it seems like such a simple promise. But was it ever really true?
Using the promises of God to dismiss doubts
When I’ve seen Christians talking about how to deal with doubt or even unbelief, they often invoke Bible verses. Take for example this article: 20 Promises from Scripture for Your Season of Doubt.
Here’s the first couple of quotes:
When the righteous cry for help, the Lord hears
and delivers them out of all their troubles.
The Lord is near to the brokenhearted
and saves the crushed in spirit.
Many are the afflictions of the righteous,
but the Lord delivers him out of them all.Psalms 34:17 - 19 (ESV)
[It] is the Lord your God who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you.Deuteronomy 31:6 (ESV)
Don’t they sound encouraging? They suggest God is always there and can be relied on.
How about this passage?
No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.1 Corinthians 10:13 (ESV)
I’ve often seen this paraphrased as “God won’t give you more than you can handle”. Again, doesn’t that sound encouraging?
Similarly, the words I quoted from Elijah sound encouraging at first: God is there and can be found by us. However, that’s only part of the full song:
Note the response:
Oh, that I knew where I might find Him,
That I might even come before His presence.
I have no idea what Mendelssohn intended with this song. But to me this promise and response shows the disconnect between God’s promises and what actually happens.
When I doubted, I mostly processed the doubts by myself. And I really tried to hold onto my religion. Part of that process was begging and pleading for my God to reveal himself to me. He didn’t. The promise might have sounded encouraging, but I tested it and it just wasn’t true.
I’m not the only ex-Christian to have done this, either. Many, sincere, dedicated believers like former-me have desperately sought God, and discovered this massive disconnect between promises and reality. We were committed, we wanted to believe God - but it became impossible.
I’ve seen this online as a challenge for atheists: “Go on, just ask God to reveal himself to you! Surely it can’t hurt? Are you scared?”
And it doesn’t surprise me, because that’s exactly the kind of thing some believers said I should do when I made my decision to quit public. And the reason I didn’t do it wasn’t because I was scared of being proven wrong, or because I just wanted to be free to sin. I didn’t do it because I’d already tried it, and I already knew it didn’t work.
The problem with trusting the promises
As Neil Carter puts it in Confronting the Lies:
Have you ever known someone who showered you with promises but rarely kept any of them? Did you learn not to trust that person from that point on, or did you instead make excuses for him, insisting that he is still trustworthy?
When it comes to matters of “faith,” reasonable people behave in very unreasonable ways. They learn from their youngest years to expect certain things from the Object of their worship. They are told that they will be cared for, provided for, protected, and even blessed by their deity because they are his children. Well-oiled systems are in place to reinforce these ideas from the earliest years of a person’s life. But the process of growing up forces them to reconsider what they were taught again and again, and each time a crisis of faith occurs, they are encouraged to redefine and reinterpret everything they were told in order to make reality somehow match what they were told to expect. No matter how clear or specific those promises were, when they fail to materialize, these often highly intelligent people become experts at tweaking the meaning of everything promised so as to preserve the unimpeachability of their deity.
In this case, the quote from Elijah seems to come from Jeremiah 29:13, which is in a very specific context. We have no reason to believe it applied to Jews in the time of Elijah, and we have no reason to believe it should apply to Christians today. So yes, sometimes verses are ripped out of context. Sometimes verses are misapplied.
However, that’s not the biggest problem here. Even if it was supposed to apply to us today, how could we know whether we could trust it?
The reality is that each of the promises in the Bible are just words in a book. Someone, somewhere, thought that it was a good idea to write those words down and to preserve them. They may well have believed them to be true. But that doesn’t make them true. And those words are absolutely no help to doubters unless they’re true.
Testing the promises
I never actually set out to test the promises. I wouldn’t have been so presumptuous. After all, we were taught to trust scripture more than ourselves.
In my world, the Bible was the true and unchanging word of God, while we were mere broken humans. Like Neil describes, I’m pretty sure I tied myself in knots to figure out ways in which the proof texts could be true - even though they didn’t match my experience.
That’s just how it was. Scripture always got the benefit of the doubt. God always got the benefit of the doubt. And I? I got the dubious benefit of doubting myself.
Theoretically, though, I was supposed to be on a quest for truth. That’s what the founder of the denomination talked about, and that’s what I was told before I was baptised.
I was supposed to test everything and only hold onto what was good. Those were literally words in the Bible, and yet I gave the Bible a free pass for far too long.
This isn’t about arcane theology, but about personal experience. That matters.
The God of the Bible made promises, and in my personal experience those promises weren’t kept. That matters.
Maybe this was because that God couldn’t be trusted, or maybe this was because he didn’t exist. Either way, that matters.
The dark side of the promises
I said at the start that the promises seem encouraging, and I think that’s true. They wouldn’t be quoted by so many believers and printed on cards and calendars if they didn’t seem encouraging.
However, they have a dark side. For many of them, the failure can be twisted to make it the believer’s fault, rather than God’s fault. After all, God is never wrong. He said so - how could you doubt him?
Take the one I started with: Seeking God with all your heart and finding him. In my experience, that promise just wasn’t true. But the wording is sure to leave some thinking I didn’t really seek God with all my heart, and should have tried a bit harder before giving up.
Similar is true for the idea of never being given more than you can handle: If in fact a believer is thrown into a situation they can’t handle, maybe it’s because they did something wrong?
Our personal experience matters
Personally, I suspect many Christians have never even considered the possibility that promises in the Bible might not be true. I don’t think I did until long after I had begun to doubt. But if those Christians decide to attack the stories of former believers, they need to consider it first.
When we as former believers say that the promises didn’t work for us, we should be listened to. When we say that we were sincere, that we did truly seek God, and that we couldn’t find him, we should be believed.
So don’t tell us the solution is just to “claim the promises of God”. Don’t tell us “You didn’t quite say the magic incantation right. How about you say it this way?” Don’t tell us that God doesn’t really owe us anything anyway. Don’t tell us that we should believe without good evidence. And definitely don’t tell us we sound too angry (sometimes being wantonly misunderstood has that effect).
Because here’s the truth: We’ve seen the disconnect between words written in a book and reality. We’ve tried the promises and found them wanting. And it’s profoundly disrespectful to think that a verse from your holy book says more about our lived experience than us actually living it.
It wasn’t just Mendelssohn’s Elijah that I liked. The story of Elijah on Mount Carmel was one of my favourite stories. And I think it shows us some interesting differences between the God of the Bible and what we see now.