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.

33 comments:

Lee Randolph said...

Hi Joseph,
nice post.
It think it would be neat to see you critique your old sermons from your current point of view.

Here are some prayer promises that I used to show doubt about prayer in a post from march.

A. * 2 Chronicles 7:14 "If My people who are called by My name will humble themselves and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land."

B. * Psalm 145:18,19 "The Lord is near to all who call upon Him, to all who call upon Him in truth. He will fulfill the desire of those who fear Him. He will also hear their cry and save them."

C. * Proverbs 15:8b "…The prayer of the upright is His delight."

D. * Isaiah 45:11 "Thus says the Lord, the Holy One of Israel…ask of Me of things to come concerning My sons; and concerning the work of My hands, you command Me."

E. * Isaiah 65:24 "It shall come to pass that before they call I will answer; and while they are still speaking I will hear."

F. * Jeremiah 33:3 "Call to Me, and I will answer you, and show you great and mighty things, which you do not know."

G. * Mark 11:24 "Therefore I say to you, whatever things you ask when you pray, believe that you receive them, and you will have them."

H. * John 14:13,14 "And whatever you ask in My name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask anything in My name I will do it."

I. * John 15:7 "If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, you will ask what you desire and it shall be done for you."

J. * John 16:23,24 "…Most assuredly, I say to you, whatever you ask the Father in My name He will give you…ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full."

K. * Romans 8:26 "Likewise the Spirit also helps our weaknesses. For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered."

L. * 1 Peter 3:12 "For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and His ears are open to his prayers."

M. * 1 John 5:14,15 "Now this is the confidence that we have in Him, that if we ask anything according to His will, he hears us. And if we know that He hears us, whatever we ask, we know that we have the petitions that we have asked of Him."

Joseph said...

Lee, I didn't get turned on to DC till sometime in June, so I missed out on your very thought-provoking article. I hope everyone will go back and read it.

LevBronstein said...

Of course, the promises go both ways, and are thus contingent not unilateral.

Mark Plus said...

Suppose you pray to god as follows:

"Lord, I ask that you ignore my prayer."

What does god do? And how does the result differ from praying to a rock?

Regarding prayer in general, the bible makes it clear that praying to god works like a supernatural version of OnStar. But how does that claim match reality? Consider what happened in the Roman world when millions of people stopped praying to nonexistent pagan gods, which couldn't answer prayers, and started to pray to an allegedly real god that promises to deliver the goods. Because people have always prayed for tangible things (good health, good harvests, fertility, physical protection, etc.), how do christians explain the fact that the material conditions of life around the Mediterranean began to deteriorate after the time the population changed its praying habits?

Joseph said...

"Of course, the promises go both ways, and are thus contingent not unilateral."

Lev, care to elaborate?

Joseph said...

Mark, you make some valid points. Though my article was focused on the efficacy of "God's" promises to Christians, the questions could be validly asked, "How are Christians 'blessed' any differently than non-Christians? What can Christians point to as tangible evidence that God is fulfilling distinct promises to them?" More than one Biblical writer has recognized a tension with this belief. The suffering of the just and the prosperity of the wicked is an age old complaint. I know that Jesus said that God makes his rain to fall on the just and the unjust, but that just seems like it begs the question.

GordonBlood said...

If one looks at the early Christian writings youl quickly realize that most of the early-Christian did not believe that prayer constantly delivered what you asked for. One of the earliest sources in Christianity, Tertullian, makes that massively clear. As I have said before, if Jesus's prayers were not answered and the martyrs prayers were not answered, yet the gospels are written after those events occured then we should read them in the context of that episode.

Joseph said...

If that's true, then writers of Scripture should have been more careful making such generous promises.

A. Thinker said...

"Lord, I ask that you ignore my prayer." -- Mark Plus

That was perhaps one of the funniest things I've read all month so far. That's awesome. Thanks.

Shygetz said...

If one looks at the early Christian writings youl quickly realize that most of the early-Christian did not believe that prayer constantly delivered what you asked for.

So you're saying that it's an obvious falsehood in the Scriptures. And yet, this "Biblical literalist" movement won't die.

As I have said before, if Jesus's prayers were not answered and the martyrs prayers were not answered, yet the gospels are written after those events occured then we should read them in the context of that episode.

Ah, so we should interpret these literal passages as figurative. Then what does "literalist" mean? Is literalism just a word to make conservative Christians feel superior to their bretheren who read the Bible in the context of the world?

akakiwibear said...

I thought that by now serious atheists acknowledged that the bible is neither inerrant nor literal - certainly the largest Christian denomination in the world, along with many others does.

Perhaps it is hard to back away from the narrow rhetoric that feeds the athiest's belief that they are right?

Lee Randolph said...

Hi akakiwibear,
at the top of our blog it says
This Blog has been created for the purpose of debunking Evangelical Christianity.
Hope that clears that up.

Once the Evangelistas are cleaned up, you can expect us to reconsider our mission.
;-)

zilch said...

"Lord, I ask that you ignore my prayer." -- Mark Plus

Yes, very funny. It reminds me of this.

Joseph said...

akakiwibear, care to provide a substantive rebuttal?

Shygetz said...

akakiwibear, I noticed that while you claim that Biblical literalism is a strawman (which it isn't), you chose not to state what you think your God is. How do you ever expect someone to argue effectively against a position that you refuse to state?

My guess: you don't. Prove me wrong.

akakiwibear said...

Lee I am getting mixed messages here:
1) Site header ” With the diversity of our combined strengths we seek to debunk Christianity.”.

2) If this post is intended to attack the literal inerrant position of some evangelical Christians then that is obscured by what appears to be rhetoric based on the premise that the bible is both literal and inerrant. ” This is but one of the many extravagant promises layered throughout the Scriptures. Nowhere in the post do I see an argument against a literal inerrant bible. Rather I see rhetoric based on presenting the bible as literal and inerrant, for example ” As a Christian, God clearly promises to meet all your needs, answer your every prayer, and give you the very desires of your heart.”

joseph - a substantive rebuttal of what? Do you expect me to present a literal and inerrant defense case? Your post is based on a presumption that the bible is inerrant and literal, what I did was point out the flaw it that position.

shygwetz – I thought the idea was to stay on topic. But my you are quick to draw unsubstantiated conclusions - I missed the post you linked and I am sorry I missed it as I certainly would have responded.

Peace be with you

Joseph said...

akakiwibear, I think it's quite clear that all of the contributors here believe the Bible is a flawed work of man, not inspired by any god. It is not inerrant, though it PRESUMES TO BE. It presents a mix of literal and figurative rhetoric (not one or the other) that is presented as though it were from the mouth of God. We are arguing against such a notion by drawing attention to the absurdity of a fundamentalist interpretation of its texts, in this case the "promises of God."

If you read the context of the passages in question, it is clear that they are presented in such a way as to persuade Christians to accept them as literal truth. Granted, the "move mountains" bit in one of Jesus' promises is clearly a metaphor. But the thrust of the promise ("if you have faith" you can overcome really significant obstacles) is clearly meant to be taken literally. The other promises are much more straightforward so that it's hard to see how you could interpret them metaphorically. Your only motivation for doing so, in my mind, would be to avoid the embarrassment of the extravagant nature of the promises themselves. To be clear, though I don't believe in the substance of them, you will be hard pressed to demonstrate that they are all meant to be taken figuratively (certainly many Protestants and Catholics would disagree with you).

Shygetz said...

akakiwibear said: Lee I am getting mixed messages here:
1) Site header ” With the diversity of our combined strengths we seek to debunk Christianity.”.


When quote mining, it is suggested that you selectively quote a source that at least takes some effort to dig up, not the same f*#king website that you're commenting on!

The FIRST LINE of the header:

"This Blog has been created for the purpose of debunking Evangelical Christianity." (emphasis in original)

This is deception on your part. You missed a point, and rather than concede that this is the case, you instead choose to selectively quote a passage that clearly states (with emphasis) that we seek to debunk Evangelical Christianity.

If this post is intended to attack the literal inerrant position of some evangelical Christians then that is obscured by what appears to be rhetoric based on the premise that the bible is both literal and inerrant.

No, the argument is that the Biblical passages quoted are simply untrue when compared with reality.

If A then B
Not B
Therefore, not A

Simple logic.

Your post is based on a presumption that the bible is inerrant and literal, what I did was point out the flaw it that position.

No, what Joseph did was point out the flaw in that position. What you did was falsely pretend that no on takes that position, when it is clearly the position of the vast majority of the Evangelical movement.

I thought the idea was to stay on topic. But my you are quick to draw unsubstantiated conclusions - I missed the post you linked and I am sorry I missed it as I certainly would have responded.

And yet you still haven't left your response to that post, telling us exactly what you believe God is. Nothing is stopping you now. Go on, pin your beliefs down where we can all see them, refer to them in the future, and respond to them (if we wish to leave our primary purpose of debunking Evangelical Christianity).

Or do you prefer to keep the wheels on your goalposts?

Shygetz said...

akakiwibear has left his definition of what God is at the previous referenced thread:

"I see God as a metaphysical collective consciousness acting with common purpose."

Now THERE is a testable position if I ever saw one. No mention of God being good, or a creator, or even acting in any manner on the physical realm. Even calling this a deist God would be a stretch, as there is no requirement for God to be the Uncaused Cause. Rather, just a metaphysical collective consciousness that acts (in some undefined manner) with an undefined purpose common to itself.

The only question I have is why would such a person be a Christian as opposed to, say, a classical pantheist?

Dan Marvin said...

Joseph,

Something I would like to add to this post is the attitude in these prayers. You cannot hold God hostage and say if you don’t give me what I want I will “debunk” your followers for the rest of my life. You can’t expect God to honor your prayers if you ask for something out of His plan or want someone to die right? If you ask Him to reveal more of himself to you, I am one to believe, He will if you approach Him correctly. Prideful and spiteful is not anyway to approach God, as it says in Psalms you must approach with a broken and contrite heart. I wish I could help all of you understand His majesty but that is truly up to Him to change your viewpoints. If you truly are searching for answers and want to understand God, that is. Although publicly declaring war against God is not any way to find him.

This post of yours can be answered in an analogy that my friend Ray eloquently once wrote. See if this fits your situation:

"Two men are seated in a plane. The first is given a parachute and told to put is on as it would improve his flight. He's a little skeptical at first because he can't see how wearing a parachute in a plane could possibly improve the flight. After a time he decides to experiment and see if the claim is true. As he puts it on he notices the weight of it upon his shoulders and he finds that he has difficulty in sitting upright. However, he consoles himself with the fact that he was told the parachute would improve the flight. So, he decides to give the thing a little time. As he waits he notices that some of the other passengers are laughing at him, because he's wearing a parachute in a plane. He begins to feel somewhat humiliated. As they begin to point and laugh at him and he can stand it no longer, he slinks in his seat, unstraps the parachute, and throws it to the floor. Disillusionment and bitterness fill his heart, because, as far as he was concerned, he was told an outright lie.

The second man is given a parachute, but listen to what he's told. He's told to put it on because at any moment he'd be jumping 25,000 feet out of the plane. He gratefully puts the parachute on; he doesn't notice the weight of it upon his shoulders, nor that he can't sit upright. His mind is consumed with the thought of what would happen to him if he jumped without that parachute.

Let's analyze the motive and the result of each passenger's experience. The first man's motive for putting the parachute on was solely to improve his flight. The result of his experience was that he was humiliated by the passengers; he was disillusioned and somewhat embittered against those who gave him the parachute. As far as he's concerned it'll be a long time before anyone gets one of those things on his back again. The second man put the parachute on solely to escape the jump to come, and because of his knowledge of what would happen to him without it, he has a deep-rooted joy and peace in his heart knowing that he's saved from sure death. This knowledge gives him the ability to withstand the mockery of the other passengers. His attitude towards those who gave him the parachute is one of heart-felt gratitude.

Now listen to what the modern gospel says. It says, "Put on the Lord Jesus Christ. He'll give you love, joy, peace, fulfillment, and lasting happiness." In other words, "Jesus will improve your flight." So the sinner responds, and in an experimental fashion, puts on the Savior to see if the claims are true. And what does he get? The promised temptation, tribulation, and persecution. The other passengers mock him. So what does he do? He takes off the Lord Jesus Christ, he's offended for the word's sake (Mark 4:17), he's disillusioned and somewhat embittered, and quite rightly so. He was promised peace, joy, love, fulfillment, and lasting happiness, and all he got were trials and humiliation. His bitterness is directed toward those who gave him the so-called "good news". His latter end becomes worse than the first: another inoculated and bitter backslider." (Hell's Best Kept Secret)

Does that fit you situation Joseph and Lee? The things in the Bible that God promises us is persecution, temptation and tribulations. Just look at the apostles, along with 250 million this year alone, the arrests and torture endured or will endure and you can see there is a glorious journey towards salvation, a journey that is worth every struggle. Repentance and patience, with a dose of Trust, is what the doctor ordered for the both of you. Take them and see God in the morning.

Joseph said...

Dan, thanks for your comments (even though you get a bit preachy at times and it takes away from the force of your argument).

You said: "You cannot hold God hostage and say if you don’t give me what I want I will 'debunk' your followers for the rest of my life. You can’t expect God to honor your prayers if you ask for something out of His plan or want someone to die right?"

To borrow a catch phrase from our favorite antagonist, Ego, "That's a straw man!" Nowhere have I argued that a Christian should hold God hostage to his requests. What I have done is cast serious doubt that God (if he exists or is the same God as the Bible's) is UNFAITHFUL to his promises. If he doesn't mean for Christians to have health, healing, safety, material blessing, then why did he encourage them to ask for it in the first place, with the taunting promise: "Ask and you shall receive." Why does he promise to give people the desires of their hearts when, according to you, what he REALLY has in mind is "persecution, temptation and tribulations"?


Dan: "Prideful and spiteful is not anyway to approach God."

No one is suggesting that it is. But do you really have to ask God JUST RIGHT before he fulfills one of his promises? Isn't that just a convenient way of giving him an out?


The Ray Comfort story was entertaining, but I hardly see the relevance to the bigger issue addressed by this article. Why don't you go back and read the real life story I shared and comment on it? Why doesn't God come through for the people who need it most? It wouldn't be so bad if he didn't promise he would, but he does!

BTW, 250 million sufferers is a lot! It appears that the God of the Bible like torture and bloodshed. You would think that people's faith would grow much stronger by seeing God come through for their needs and their prayers, rather than receiving the silent treatment and worsening circumstances.

Dan Marvin said...

Joseph,

The Bible says God will answer all prayers and He will. You said "Why doesn't God come through for the people who need it most?" and my question to you is who is gauging the need? YOU?

Sometimes it takes a real wake up call to get through to people, I am sure you understand this. You have heard the term "needed to hit rock bottom before one realizes his is an alcoholic" for example.

You do not know the situations that people are going through and you cannot judge their predicaments as to why they are going through it, it may be part of God's plan to get them humbled.

I shouldn't get into this publically but for your or anyone's benifit I will. My Dad is an atheist Jew and the Bible is clear in that continuing to live in sin God says he will curse your womb.(Deuteronomy 28:18) Now my brother was born with Cerebral Palsy and is very bitter and holds resentment towards God and looks forward to hell, he married a woman that admitted to me she used to worship satan so who knows the truth besides God. Does that mean God cursed my Mom's womb, possibly or possibly not. I would consider my fathers offspring as bad fruit. Do you want a back ground and an affliction list of my Dad's offspring? My Dad had two children and the second had severe brain damage of some sort but still survived but is dependant on others for the rest of his life. My Dad left that woman and ran off with my Mom and their first child, a girl, was borderline retarded, second had CP and I was rebellious run away who would be dead if it weren't for God intervening.

My Mother was into astrology and that kind of thing and had two major strokes because of her debilitating Lupus, she died painfully and very young and rejected Jesus, probably for my Dad, I assume. Did I even mention that my Dad has High blood pressure and severe heart conditions and survived a heart attack. I became a Christian and now I also have three kids like my Dad and I am at the same age as he was back when he had us. Like him I had a girl first and two boys and I would consider my Dad's life and mine almost mirrored each others like we both served in Navy, had same order of kids, was same age when we had the kids, and many other things. The only exeption is that God found me and pulled me from certain distruction and changed me forever and gave me eternal life. My three are off the charts in health and size they are very bright and my 4 year old, at the time, wanted to and did memorize the Ten Commandments and now I ask her which number is such-n-such sin and she tells me without even thinking about it. With zero ailments among the three, I would consider my children to be good fruit.

"From the day that a person breaks God's Law of Sin and Death, God's greatest desire is that they will come to repentance. And we then go along thinking that we're just living life, but the reality is, that our life's experiences are filled with acts of God trying to bring us back into a relationship with Himself."

Were these struggles that my family endured part of that, it will be one of the first questions I will ask Jesus when I get a chance to see him.

I agree 250 million is a lot of people to face persecution for Jesus just this year. We all have faith that it will be worth every bit of it.

From your decoversion story: "And why didn't I always sense the presence and approval of God in my life?"

Approval? really? did you ever read Luke 16:15 maybe you were too young to understand that part of the Bible. Dude, 13-16 is still too young im my opinion. Grow a little, become a Man and repent and make a new covenant with God then meet a Christian wife and have children. You never really said if Ray's analogy fit your situation.

God never left you, but you sure left Him. Take care buddy.

Prup (aka Jim Benton) said...

Dan: Get your personal story straight. In your previous 'personal confession' it was you who had the relationship with a Satanist, this time it is your brother. And where are the stories of your father teaching you to 'lie, cheat, and steal.' Guess you decided they were too much for us to swallow.

Don't you just love 'gotcha' moments?

Joseph said...

I have a theory that Dan Marvin is actually conjoined twins (one is Dan, the other Marvin), thus explaining the apparent discrepency in stories. According to the Saturday Night Live skits I've seen, it is possible for conjoined twins to have different lives, hence different stories: http://www.nbc.com/
Saturday_Night_Live/video/#mea=2614

Dan Marvin said...

Prup (aka Jim Benton) Actually the "gotcha" is on you.

All those years ago it was my brother who introduced me to that girl Shawna, he said that he didn't know that she was like that. It was only last year when I met his wife and she looked very how would you say, dark maybe. I don't think that my brother told his wife about Shawna. So after a weird conversation, his wife said she loved church I asked jokingly what kind of church, was it "the church of satan?" She said "yea I used to be into satanism" I looked hard at my brother and he got real nervous (He uncontrollably shakes when he gets caught, because of his CP) and he said "yea but that was when you were 11 year old" She then corrected him saying "Honey, I was 17!" They left and they never answered my calls to this day. So I connected the two and concluded that my brother got involved in a wrong crowd of friends and has been with them for years (15 to be exact) There are many different things I later connected together but I was oblivious at the time. When I look back most all of his friends are these dark immature angry kids. He is very angry and bitter at the world (and me when I ask or press him about it). So I gave everything to God and prayed for the best for him, it is out of my control at this point.
There, I aired some of my families dirty laundry to the world and what ever comes of it will be up to God. I haven't deceived you once but it doesn't matter if you believe or not what matters is are you, yourself, right with God yet? Take care.

As you know I do all things....

For Him +†+,
Dan

zilch said...

Just my personal opinion: however much I may disagree with Dan's worldview, I get the impression that he's sincere. I don't think he is deliberately misrepresenting himself.

Joseph said...

You're right, Zilch. I give Dan a hard time, but I don't question his heart. We've developed quite an interesting rapport with each other.

Joseph said...

p.s. Dan, you know I was just kidding about the conjoined twins, bit. I was watching that SNL clip this morning and couldn't resist.

Dan Marvin said...

Thanks a lot Joseph now I have spent my entire day looking at SNL clips.

Joseph said...

LOL! I got NO work done this morning because of that site.

zilch said...

Man alive! All I need: another reason to goof off! Thanks a lot, guys.

Dan Marvin said...

I NEED MORE COWBELL! Gene

Joseph said...

Now that I have sufficiently derailed this discussion, it's up to me to get it back on track. I'd like to comment on something that Gordon said earlier:

"As I have said before, if Jesus's prayers were not answered and the martyrs prayers were not answered, yet the gospels are written after those events occured then we should read them in the context of that episode."

I didn't catch it the first time, but Gordon I can't believe you said that Jesus' prayers didn't get answered! This would seem to undermine his place as person #2 in the Trinity. I mean, how can God not answer God's own prayers?