It’s election year and promises are flowing from the mouths of politicians like coffee at your church on Sunday morning. I’ve been reflecting on the promises we can actually count on, the promises of God. But some of the ones I’m thinking of are ones I’d rather not. Much is made and rightly so of believing God’s promises, claiming them, walking in them. All his promises are yes and amen, right (2 Corinthians 1:20 )? I’ve noticed we’re a tad selective, however, in the promises we sing about, preach on, and expect to experience in our everyday lives. God has made us many promises, surely the most wonderful of which are forgiveness, his abiding companionship, increasing freedom from sin and brokenness, a secure eternity. Slightly less exciting yet just as bankable (and far less “claimed”) are the promises of earthly suffering for all Christians. Yeah.
Here are a few that come to mind. “In this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33). “You will be hated by all on account of my name” (Matthew 10:22). “Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same intention” (1 Peter 4:1). I haven’t seen any of those verses on a Christian greeting card, have you? No, they tend to thin the crowd a bit. We prefer to hear that God will give us the desires of our hearts, renew our youths like eagles, slay the wicked, etc.
Isaiah 43 reveals both sides of the coin: “I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am Yahweh your God…” (v.1-2). Oh how I wish he had said, “I have called you by name, you are mine. Stick with me and there will be no rough waters, no scorching fire. ” Instead, God has promised us that this life is going to hurt, but that we won’t be destroyed by it if we play by his rules. Pain will be plentiful, but it won’t have the last word.
Certainly the apostles experienced the full gamut of God’s promises – salvation, signs and wonders, love, joy, peace and power as well as incredible persecution, poverty, scorn, exile, execution. All Christians worth mentioning since have also been the beneficiaries of the totality of God’s promises, many of which we’d just assume skip. I keep trying to find someone I admire spiritually whose life I want, but I can’t. Sobering as it is to admit, deep faith doesn’t seem to go with an easy, lovely life. If you know someone who has both, do let me know. Until then, I wrestle to embrace one and let go of the other.
Every so often I realize the lunacy of pursuing a life that the Man I’m following did not have. I want to be fulfilled and happy – Jesus was a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief (Isaiah 53:3). I feel I deserve the American dream – yet the Son of Man didn’t have a place to lay his head (Luke 9:58). Of course, it’s natural to shrink from pain and hardship. If you’ve covered some real ground with God, you may identify with C.S. Lewis here: “We are not necessarily doubting that God will do the best for us: we are wondering how painful the best will turn out to be.” That perspective is Biblical. It’s the Gospel. The best thing was for Jesus Christ to die a miserable death. But boy was it painful, and not just for him.
As his followers we can expect some of the same – a thousand little deaths preceding the thousand new births he has planned for us. Rather than being disheartening, I find the embracing of all of God’s promises to be liberating. A servant is not better than her master, is she? If I open my eyes each morning and prepare for trouble, trusting God to use it for my good, I’ll perhaps yield and learn more quickly. After all, I know Christ won’t lead me anywhere he hasn’t gone before. It’s unavoidable that we’ll have trouble, but he finished that promise with “But take courage. I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). That's one we can take to the bank, friends, and it's the hope we really need.