God And His Promises

_estes_parkI’ve been thinking a lot about God and His promises of late. Some are unconditional and some are contingent upon the response of the people to whom He made the promise. I think a lot of misunderstanding comes from not recognizing 1) to whom God made the promise and 2) which kind of promise He made.

I’ll start with the one that gets thrown in the faces of Christians quite often by those who wish to call into question God’s existence: Mark 11:23-24.

Truly I say to you, “Whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and cast into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart but believes that what he says is going to happen, it will be granted him. Therefore, I say to you, all things for which you pray and ask, believe that you have received them, and they will be granted you.”

Sure, people who don’t believe in the power of God, will say, mountains cast into the sea! Happens every day.

A few scholars address this issue, first by saying what the passage is not, then giving their views on what the passage is, based primarily on the context. First, what the passage is not:

This passage has been “fodder” for many sermons on “Mountain-Moving Faith.” I have heard sermons on “a mountain of debt,” “a mountain of worry,” “a mountain of problems,” “ a mountain of sickness,” on and on ad nauseam. Time and again this passage [Matt, 21:21-22], along with Mark 11:23-24, becomes the “launching pad” for a “faith rocket” aimed in any direction we want it to go. This is a clear example of “a text taken out of context becoming a pretext for just about anything.” (“The Mountain Cast Into The Sea”)

Next, what those of this mindset believe the passage is:

In the context of the passages, Jesus has been interacting with the scribes and chief priests (Matthew 21:11-15; Mark 11:9-18). They are critical of him because he is receiving the praise of children, who call him the Son of David and the Prophet of Nazareth. It seems that Jesus and his disciples are visiting the temple on essentially a daily basis, returning at night to Bethany.

In both passages we are told as well about a fig tree. From the passages we learn that Jesus came on the way from Bethany to Jerusalem and found a fig tree that had leaves but no fruit, and he cursed it. On the following day, returning along the same path, the disciples noted that the cursed tree had completely withered, and they marveled.

It is upon this occasion, the marveling at the withering of the fig tree, that Jesus [answered] . . .

Notice a word that is frequently overlooked. Jesus does not say simply, “say unto a mountain,” but “say unto this mountain.” What mountain is he speaking of? There is the possibility that it is any mountain between Bethany and Jerusalem, but in the context of both accounts, the very next thing that Jesus does is to enter into Jerusalem and specifically the temple (Matthew 21:23; Mark 11:27).

Thus, it is reasonable to view Jesus’ remarks as being directed toward the mountain to which they were approaching, namely Jerusalem, and especially the temple mountain. With this in mind, what Jesus is speaking of is of the destruction of Jerusalem. The destruction of Jerusalem, and especially the temple mount was complete. (“Mountain Cast Into Sea”)

Jerusalem_(22)All well and good. Except for the “therefore” part of the Mark 11:23-24 passage: “Therefore I say to you, all things for which you pray and ask, believe that you have received them, and they will be granted you.”

The verse seems to say, in the same way that you can ask for the mountain to be cast into the sea, you can ask whatever else.

But praying and asking is something that a number of different passages in Scripture address. Jesus said to ask in His name (John 16:23), to pray in secret (Matt. 6:6), to persevere in prayer (Luke 11:8-9), to pray according to God’s will (Luke 22:42), in agreement with two or three others (Matt. 18:19-20), upon abiding in God’s word (John 15:7); Paul says we are to pray in the Spirit (Eph. 6:18) and without wrath or dissension (1 Tim. 2:8); James says we are to ask, but if we ask with wrong motives we won’t receive (James 4:1-4), that the prayer offered in faith will restore (James 5:15), and that the prayer of a righteous individual can accomplish much (James 5:16); Jude says we are to pray in the Holy Spirit; John says we have what we ask for if we keep God’s commandments (1 John 3:22).

Quite a list, but I suspect there is more. The point here is this: there’s no one thing that we can do to insure that God will—in fact, has to—answer our prayers.

I knew this even as an early teen. I read the verse about casting the mountain into the sea and thought I’d try it out to see if “it worked.” Well, I quickly recognized that by running my own little test on that verse, I was already not without doubt. In fact, I did doubt.

Then there’s the issue of God’s will. Is it His will that this mountain, or any mountain, be cast into the sea? Am I going to find two or three other Christians to agree with me on that? And is my motive right? Am I asking in Jesus’s name—not just the ritual add on we conclude our prayers with, but in the name of the Almighty who has the power over wind and waves, demons and disease, life and death—am I praying in His name?

Trying to sort through all the “prayer requirements” can get pretty complicated. How do I know if I’m abiding in God’s word or living in obedience, particularly regarding the command to love my neighbor as myself? How do I know if my motives are pure? And if I have even faith that’s at least as big as a mustard seed?

There’s a passage in Romans that I’m finding helpful with all this:

yet, with respect to the promise of God, he [Abraham] did not waver in unbelief but grew strong in faith, giving glory to God, and being fully assured that what God had promised, He was able also to perform. (Rom. 4:20-21)

I admit, at times I want God to spell out His promises to me just as clearly as He did to Abraham. But of course, I have the Bible—I have the benefit of knowing what Abraham went through and much, much more.

The part that catches my attention is that Abraham was fully assured that God was able. Combine that with what God had promised. I’m fully assured that God is able to cast a mountain or this mountain into the sea. I’m also confident He didn’t promise such a thing just because.

So what has God promised that I am fully assured of? Everlasting life for those who believe in Jesus, for starters. There are others, but this post is already too long. Suffice it to say, the mountain into the sea reminds me of God’s power, and it serves as a check on whether or not I’m fully assured that He will perform what He’s promised.

Can He? Yes, absolutely. Will He? That’s the question.


Photo by Andrew Brown

As I drove home from doing an errand (taking my bills to the post office), I passed a man holding a sign: Hungry. Can you help? And yet last night on the news I heard for the second or third evening in a row that indicators point to a recovering economy here in the US.

What does economic recovery from the Great Recession look like? According to that latest news report, indicator of an improved economy is that consumer debt shot up in the month of November, more than it had in three years.

Yea! We’ve taken on more debt. What good news!


I understand the thinking. The real issue is consumer confidence. After all, if you take on a car payment, you must be reasonably sure that you’ll have the resources in six months, twelve months, twenty-four months to still be making those payments. So debt equals confidence.

But isn’t confidence a pretty shaky thing to stake economic recovery on? For one, confidence can be misplaced. All those loans that led to home foreclosures proved that point, didn’t it? Were all those folks who took out loans when they didn’t have the income to pay them back, confident that the banks would gladly adjust their payments instead of foreclosing? Or were they thinking they’d all get pay raises that would match their increased payments? Or perhaps they were confident they would win the lottery.

My guess is, however, they weren’t confident at all. They were ignorant. They wanted what they wanted and they didn’t think through what they were getting themselves into. Instead, they listened to the sales pitch that made the offer so enticing. They’d always wanted to own their own home. And the interest that first year would be so low. How could anybody pass up such an offer?

I’ve been there, though the stakes weren’t so high. Still, I listened to the sales pitch. I even “researched” and thought I was getting a worthwhile product, at a bargain that I couldn’t pass up. Except, when I went to finalize the deal, new terms were thrown at me and I had to decide at that minute or lose the opportunity. So I went for it. And the “good deal” ended up being a bad deal and the product ended up being nothing like what I’d expected. I’d been suckered.

So I know it can happen.

What I find troubling is that our economy has apparently arrived at a place where the financial experts think it’s healthy when we owe more than we can pay. It’s good for the banks, I guess.

That fact alone ought to make all us Main Streeters rise up and say, No more debt! How many times must the banks have their way with our money before we figure out we should do something different?

Not only did the banks approve unsustainable loans, they then got into the business of gambling over whether or not people would default. No wonder they were slow to re-finance.

The thing is, this whole debt culture obfuscates the teaching of Scripture about money and where our confidence should lie. Paul teaches that we should be content whether we have plenty or are in want. But our culture tells us contentment can only be had after we’ve purchased the Next Great Thing. Of course, in two months there will be a new Next Great Thing, so we are almost immediately thrust back into discontentment — unless we borrow and buy.

Scripture also says we are to let our requests be known to God, that we are to trust Him to add food and clothing while we are to seek His kingdom and His righteous. Our culture says food and clothing isn’t enough, that we deserve More. If that’s true, but God hasn’t provided More, then I must figure out a way to provide it myself.

I’ve been there, too. It’s a trap.

I don’t know how to fix the economy, clearly. It’s a knotty problem with ever widening global implications. But at some point, I believe Christians need to decide whose system we’re going to operate under — the debt-inducing one of our culture that depends on consumer confidence in hoped-for future income or the contentment-inducing one of Scripture that depends on believer confidence in the promises of God and in His character.

As for me and my house, there’s only one way that makes sense. 😉

Published in: on January 10, 2012 at 4:49 pm  Comments (1)  
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