I have met many devout Christians who firmly believe they have received a personal promise from God but it has never come to pass. This could be about marriage, a call to the mission field or a specific ministry role, financial supply, health and so on.
The disappointment, confusion and feelings of failure suffered by these folk make this an immensely important pastoral issue. What advice should we offer these hurting ones? “It wasn’t really God you heard.”? “Just keep on waiting patiently.”? “God knows what he’s doing”? “You must have unbelief in your life so you need to repent.”?
In attempting to bring some light to this issue let’s consider a foundational truth.
God is Able
Since God “is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us” (Ephesians chapter 3 verse 20), the lack of fulfilment of God’s promises is not be due to some lack of ability on his side. No set of circumstances can thwart the plan of the Lord.
As Christians we know this, not because we believe in some abstract idea called “omnipotence”, but because we know the Father raised Jesus from the dead. While still alive in this world no faithful believer can accept that any genuine God-given vision is simply “Over” and “Out”. Scripture is crystal clear, “Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?” (Numbers chapter 23 verse 19).
The failure of a God-inspired vision must be due to some sort of deficiency in us.
The Problem of Pride
If we go back to the Bible there seems to be one basic reason why so many genuine Spirit-breathed visions never come to pass. ““God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”” (James chapter 4 verse 6). Ancient Christian teaching suggests that the root of all sin from Eden on is pride in one’s own ability independent of God.
This exaltation of self is everywhere present in our culture today, even in the Church. Those who are full of themselves cannot be fulfilled in the Lord. The Bible warns us against “empty conceit” or “vainglory” (Philippians chapter 2 verse 3). To a degree this applies to us all, but we can never accept it without turning to Jesus as the sole reference point for reality.
The Grace of Humility
In words which surely expose our selfishness Paul exhorts us, “count others better than yourselves” (Philippians chapter 2 verse 3). How is this even possible? Only through Jesus who “emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians chapter 2 verses 7-8).
The key to how the Son of God became a human being, with all his words, works and triumph over evil, is humility. Jesus perfectly fulfilled the vision of God for his life as Saviour through lowliness. Christ filled himself with emptiness in becoming human so this humanity might be filled with the Spirit on our behalf. Through the humility of incarnation and death Jesus destroys our “empty deceit/vainglory”.
The path from a God-given vision to its fulfilment is not complex, but it is exceedingly difficult. In our corrupted self-centred thinking we believe God’s vision will enhance our lives and increase our reputations. In conceiving ourselves as becoming higher rather than lower we think foolishly (Luke chapter 24 verse 25). For in exalting ourselves in our own imaginations turns to oppose us and the wonderful history we envisioned for ourselves never transpires.
When famous Christian martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer testified, “When Christ calls a man he bids him come and die.”, he meant die to even what we think we know and trust about God’s promises for our lives. Such dying with Christ is the way out of disillusion, disappointment and defeat and is more amazing than any vision God has given for marriage, ministry or material good.
If by God’s grace we are enabled to sincerely pray from the heart, “‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’”, we have the promise of Jesus that the Lord will exalt us (Luke chapter 18 verses 13-14). Resurrection power awaits all who trust exclusively in the personal promises of God to be fulfilled by his power alone. This truth is immensely uplifting.
The Rev. Dr John Yates is an Anglican minister in Perth and has 5 children and 7 grandchildren. He spends time in praying, mentoring and writing.
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