Now I am about to go the way of all the earth. You know with all your heart and soul that not one of all the good promises the LORD your God gave you has failed. Every promise has been fulfilled; not one has failed. (Joshua to the people of Israel–Josh 23:14)
Have you ever heard someone talk about claiming the promises of God? I have. The phrase itself doesn’t appear in Scripture, but the idea, I think, is that God can (and must) be taken at His word. That is, His word must be believed, even in the face of seemingly contradictory evidence. Abraham provides a perfect example of that type of confidence in God’s promise.
Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead–since he was about a hundred years old–and that Sarah’s womb was also dead. Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised.” (Rom 4:19-21)
Abraham was accordingly commended for his faith. I want to be cautious here. There is a fine line between faith and presumption. And I want to avoid both of two unhappy mistakes—encouraging presumption; or worse, discouraging vibrant faith, because “without faith it is impossible to please God. (Heb 11:6).
Unfortunately, Abraham’s example of faith has often been misemployed, with the result that Christians sometimes ‘claim’ promises which in reality may not apply to them; they simply pluck, out of context, a particular passage of Scripture that seems relevant to their need. Not surprisingly, that kind of misappropriation almost always seems to occur in the areas of health or prosperity or other physical blessings. In fact, from listening to some folks, you’d think those were the only kind of promises the Bible contains. There are actually a variety of promises in Scripture—some conditional, some not—ranging from blessings to curses, from answered prayer to ignored prayer, from persecution to protection, and so on.
Before I go on, let me clarify a couple of things.
First, I know that God delights in lavishing His love and goodwill on His people. “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the LORD, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.'” (Jer 29:11) What’s often overlooked, though, is that throughout Scripture the road to “hope and a future” is paved with suffering. Even Jesus had to suffer and die before being highly exalted; no less will be required of us.
And second, I know that God still speaks to His people. Sometimes He addresses specific needs through specific Scripture passages, and we should cling tenaciously to what He says. My intent is not in any way to detract from either of those truths.
When I think of all the priceless things God promises His people, one towers above all the rest, and that is the promise of His presence. What, after all, could be more desirable than the companionship of God? “Whom have I in heaven but thee? and there is none upon earth that I desire beside thee” (Psalm 73:25) “…you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand” (Psalm 16:11b)
If our desire for God Himself was stronger, our craving for the temporary comforts and pleasures of earth would most certainly weaken. David, described in Scripture as a man after God’s own heart, knew (when he was in his right mind) what was supremely valuable and sought it with all his might. For him, nothing in heaven or on earth could compare to the soul-satisfying presence of God Himself.
Despite the fact that the Bible is full of promises (even some of health and prosperity), there’s one I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone ‘claim’: “…everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” (2 Tim 3:12) Can you imagine someone quoting that promise and praying “Oh, Lord, I thank you for this great and precious promise, and right now, in the name of Jesus, I claim it and believe that it’s for me!”? That’s one prayer you’re not likely to hear.
The truth is, at least here in America, that we have no use for persecution—or suffering of any kind, for that matter. We have ‘rights’ here in America, and by golly, no one had better infringe upon them. Our embrace of persecution and suffering is much more tenuous (and far less noble) than that of the early Hebrew believers:
Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. You sympathized with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions” (Heb 10:33-34)
Insult… persecution… confiscation of property… most of us know little or nothing about things like that. One possible explanation for that is that we don’t meet the condition in the promise of 2 Timothy 3:12 of being “one who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus.”
I can only shake my head when I read about those Hebrew Christians, and wonder where disciples like that are today. That carefree attitude toward suffering and persecution is one mark of a true disciple, which leaves me once again asking myself a tough question. Do I so clearly see and grasp the superiority of my eternal possessions that I could joyfully accept insult, persecution, and plunder? That takes real faith. I think most of us have a lot to learn about being a disciple.