God controls the future. You do not. This critical difference in abilities is what turns your promises to God into such negative things. You see, when you promise that something will happen in the future to the One who controls the future, what you’re really doing is telling God what to do. God doesn’t like it when His own creatures boss Him about, hence God wants us to stop with the vows and the promises and start acknowledging our limitations.
Picture yourself riding along in a car which someone else is driving. You have no idea where the driver is heading because he hasn’t told you. But he obviously has a plan in mind because the car is in motion and he’s making turns at certain intersections. Now suppose you suddenly announce, “We’re going left at the next corner.” Isn’t that rather rude of you? Since you’re not the one driving, and since the driver already has a destination in mind, shouldn’t you instead ask, “So where are you taking me?” Or, if there is some shop you want to stop at, it would be far more appropriate for you to politely ask, “Would you mind if we turned left at the next corner so that I could pop in to such-and-such?” But instead of doing either of these things you simply command the driver to turn left at the next intersection. Well, when that intersection comes up, the driver turns right instead and gives you an annoyed look for being so disrespectful.
When you make a promise to God which only He can fulfill, you’re actually commanding Him. There’s absolutely nothing you can promise God without adding on an unspoken “Make it happen.” So when you say, “I promise to go to church on Sunday,” you’re telling God: “I’ve decided to go to church, so make it happen.” And while you’re busy thinking only of what you want, you don’t even appreciate how many things God has to coordinate to get you to church on that day. What if God has plans for you to be somewhere else on Sunday? What if God has plans for you to fall ill or be visited by a friend? Your tiny mind can’t begin to grasp the infinite possibilities that God might have in mind for your life on Sunday, yet you’re telling Him, “What You want is irrelevant. I’ve decided what I want to do on Sunday, so make it happen.” When we really stop to think about these sweet promises we make to God, they start to sound rather rude and snarky, don’t they?
IN THE BIBLE
In the Bible, we find several fascinating passages that address this business of humans telling God how to run the future. Promises, vows, manmade prophecies—they all boil down to the same thing: us bossing God about. Us deciding for God what He will do in the future. Well, God doesn’t like being told what to do, which is why He intentionally messes up our plans. In the book of Isaiah, we find Yahweh boasting of how He makes false prophets look like idiots by causing their future predictions to fail.
“I am Yahweh, the Maker of all things, who stretches out the heavens, who spreads out the earth by Myself. I foil the signs of false prophets and make fools of diviners.” (Isa. 44:24-25)
In the Old Testament, Yahweh claims that He is the only real God among all of the idols being worshiped in the world. Then, He backs up His claim with these impressive credentials: He knows the future, He controls the future, and no one can override His will.
“Surely, as I have planned, so it will be, and as I have purposed, so it will happen.” (Isa. 14:24)
Listen to that confidence. God never says “This is what I’m hoping to achieve.” He says, “This is what’s going to happen because this is what I want. If you don’t like it, you can lump it. No one tells Me what to do.” You see, when you’re God ALL Mighty, not just sort of mighty—and when you’re the Sustainer of ALL things, not just some things, nothing ever happens that you don’t want to happen. Nothing ever surprises you. Nothing ever goes south on you, because you’re GOD. So when the ancient Jews tick Yahweh off and He hauls in the Babylonians to mow them down, He doesn’t just say, “The Babylonians will destroy you.” He says “I will destroy you using the Babylonians.” Yahweh takes credit for everything in the Old Testament, because He is the Controller of all things. He doesn’t just say, “When the Babylonians attack, a lot of you will die.” He lets the Jews know that He’s already predetermined who is going to die how and when. And He lets them know that His plans will not be altered by them. Listen to the language in this passage:
“This is what Yahweh says: Those who are meant to die will die. Those who are meant to die by the sword will die by the sword. Those who are meant to die from hunger will die from hunger. Those who are meant to be taken captive will be taken captive.
I will send four kinds of destroyers against them,” declares Yahweh, “the sword to kill and the dogs to drag away and the birds and the wild animals to devour and destroy.” (Jer. 15:2-3)
So then, who flattened Jerusalem and slaughtered the ancient Jews? The history books say the ancient Babylonians, but Yahweh would consider that a very inaccurate answer. Listen to how many times Yahweh uses the word “I” in this passage.
“Who will have pity on you, Jerusalem? Who will mourn for you? Who will stop to ask how you are? You have rejected Me,” declares Yahweh. “You keep on backsliding. So I will reach out and destroy you; I am tired of holding back. I will winnow them with a winnowing fork at the city gates of the land. I will bring bereavement and destruction on My people, for they have not changed their ways. I will make their widows more numerous than the sand of the sea. At midday I will bring a destroyer against the mothers of their young men; suddenly I will bring down on them anguish and terror. The mother of seven will grow faint and breathe her last. Her sun will set while it is still day; she will be disgraced and humiliated. I will put the survivors to the sword before their enemies,” declares Yahweh. (Jer. 15:5-9)
Who’s doing the destroying? God is. Who’s bringing the grief and heartache? God is. Who’s turning wives into widows? God is. Who’s bringing down anguish and terror? God is. Who is chopping down survivors with swords? God is. So the next time you hear some Christians say that God has nothing to do with evil or that He didn’t want something bad to happen that already happened, you need to realize that such talk is extremely insulting to God.
God isn’t pleased when we talk like He’s some limited Being with very limited control over this world. In the Bible God says time and time again that He is the One doing all things, and then He emphasizes that His absolute control over past, present and future, is one of His defining God credentials. So don’t be rejecting God’s credentials. Don’t be mocking something God is proud of. God boasts in the Bible of being the Source of all good and evil. When we say He’s just the God of the good, we’re grossly insulting Him and minimizing who He claims to be.
Okay, so now that we’ve learned what it means to have a Sovereign God, you should be able to see why there’s no such thing as you or demons or other people messing up God’s plans. No one can possibly mess up the plans of a God who controls the future. This means that when you promise to do something and you’re prevented from following through on that promise, it’s because God intentionally blocked you. Why does He do this? To get you to stop promising things that you can’t deliver.
You don’t control the future. God controls the future. So don’t be telling God what He’s going to do because you don’t know what He’s going to do. We aren’t respecting God when we start making Him a bunch of promises that we have no way of keeping. We’re just bossing Him around. But now let’s talk about motivations.
Humans have been promising God things for thousands of years. The Old Testament is filled with examples of ancient Jews vowing things to God, and God became quite fed up with the entire vow package. By the time we come to the New Testament, Jesus was telling everyone to knock it off.
“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to Yahweh the vows you have made.’ But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is His footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.” (Matt. 5:33-37)
Taking oaths was a very popular Jewish activity. They were constantly making promises to do things, and then they’d try to act like those promises were extra binding by swearing in the name of various things. Swearing in Yahweh’s Name was of course a popular choice, and of course Yahweh found it very irksome when His people were constantly flinging His Name around like this. And by the way, we modern day Christians have a similar bad habit going on with Jesus’ Name. Everything is “In the Name of Jesus.” Why are we always slapping Jesus’ Name onto the end of everything? It’s time to stop with the Name abuse. It’s hardly respectful to our Gods when we turn references to Them into some meaningless tag.
Now in His lecture to the Jews, notice how Jesus says that as soon as we start making a bunch of meaningless guarantees, we’re cooperating with Satan. Well, yes, Satan can always be counted on to encourage us to engage in irreverent activities and trying to control how God runs the future is certainly irreverent. So Jesus tells the promise addicts of His day to knock it off and be content with simple yes or no answers. This is a good rule for us to go by today. When your friend says, “Will you meet me for lunch on Thursday?” Just say, “Yes.” Don’t say, “I promise to be there.” You can’t promise to be there because you don’t know what God has planned for you on Thursday. It’s our refusal to acknowledge our dependency on God and our great limitations as humans that’s gotten us into this habit of always boasting of things we can’t deliver. No, you really can’t guarantee that you’ll always honor, love, and cherish your spouse, and if you vowed to do so on your wedding day, then by now you’ve realized how meaningless that vow was.
In life, there are times when something super important comes up. Fidelity is not a trivial issue, it’s a very serious thing. So should we make it a priority to stay faithful to our spouses? Absolutely. Should we view it as very important to treat them well? Yes. But can we guarantee any of these things? Of course not. Only God controls the future, which is why He’s the One we need to be talking to whenever the future is being discussed. Your wife wants to take that trip to Hawaii. Your financial advisor says you really need to start saving for your child’s future college fees. Is someone trying to engage you in a discussion about the future? If so, then you need to be talking to God. Pray about it. Be open to God giving you a different direction. It doesn’t mean we go through life being utterly noncommittal because that’s just rude. In this world, there is a certain degree of planning and preparation that needs to happen. God is not anti-plan. But He insists on being involved in those plans, and He says that no one’s plans are going to happen without His approval and cooperation. So if we’re trying to plan without God, we’re being pretty stupid and just begging for discipline. After all, why should the God who we depend on for our every breath just sit there and smile while we act like He’s a non-factor in our future? God defines the future.
Well, even though Jesus told people to stop with the formal promises, swearing, and oath taking, we still do it today. So why do we? There are two main reasons why Christians make promises to God today. One group is sincerely trying to bless Him, the other is trying to manipulate Him. Let’s talk about the sincere group first.
When we’re desperate to please God, and trying to convince Him of how serious we are in our devotion to Him, we often fall into the trap of promise making. Maybe we intentionally blow off God’s convictions one time and then we end up in a big mess. Afterwards, we feel awful, and as a way of trying to convince Him of how sorry we are, we say something like, “God, I swear I’ll never do that again.” In such an instance, we mean well, but we’re also trying to prophesy a future that we haven’t seen, so this language needs improving. The better thing to do here is to realize that we don’t need words to communicate with God because He knows our hearts. This is what makes talking to God so much better than talking to humans—God is the only One who never misunderstands you. No matter how badly you phrased something, God knows what you meant to say, and what you meant is what He responds to. With God, you’re always totally heard, and totally understood.
It’s important to realize that God never demands future guarantees from us, because He knows the future is not in our control. How God feels about you right now is based on how you’re responding to Him right now, not on how you responded to Him yesterday or how you’ll respond to Him tomorrow. Because the present is what God emphasizes, the present is what we need to focus on. We don’t want to live our lives so concerned about the future that we miss God today. When we are sincerely seeking Him, God enjoys every stage of our spiritual development, from infancy to adulthood. He doesn’t want to rush through any of it. So rather than try to please Him with well-intended promises that we probably won’t be able to keep, we need to focus on learning what He wants to teach us today. Every day has lessons in it. Sometimes they’re small, sometimes they’re big. Sometimes they’re easy lessons, sometimes they’re very difficult. But today is what we need to be focused on and we need to trust that our future is in capable hands.
Speaking of the future, why is God so tight-lipped about it? Because we humans weren’t designed to handle future knowledge well. We are very good at worrying and stressing without any reason at all, and the minute God starts giving us specific prophecies about what’s coming, our stress levels instantly spike. It doesn’t matter how positive the news is, we still worry. God could say, “In ten years, you’ll be a millionaire,” and you’d spend those years anxiously wondering how the money will come to you and what you’ll do with it. Or God could say, “You’re definitely going to be married one day,” and you’d spend your time stressing and guessing about who your future spouse will be.
We’re so convinced future knowledge will ease our minds and lighten our loads, but it always does the exact opposite. God made us, and He knows how we operate, so He withholds future information from us as a general rule. Now and then He flaunts His control over the future by dishing out some future prophecy that gets fulfilled to the letter. But such events are about glorifying Himself and helping us revere Him. In the rare times that God does give us detailed warnings about something negative in our future, He always steers us away from fear by giving us positive ways to prepare. It is the lack of positivity that proves what a bunch of rot the mainstream teaching about the end times is in the Church. It’s just one big demon exalting fear fest. It’s always, “The antichrist is coming, and when he does, it’s going to be all bad.” It’s always, “Horrible persecution is in your future so just know that.” Where is the hope? Where are the positive lessons? How is all this rot about 666 and some one world government drawing you closer to God today? False prophecy is very consistent in that it always drags us away from God. We’re either encouraged to obsess over created beings who we think are going to harm us or we’re promised rewards for living in a state of spiritual rebellion. But real prophecy is from God and when God speaks, He always finds some way to encourage us in our walks with Him, even if He’s talking about scary things.
So now that we’ve talked about making promises to God in an effort to please Him, let’s talk about the far more popular motivation of making promises to God in order to manipulate Him. Here’s where we try to bribe God into giving us something we want today, by promising Him grand things tomorrow.
“Heal my daughter of her cancer and I’ll give $2,000 to the church.”
“Get me out from under this college debt, and I’ll sign up for that overseas missions trip.”
“Help me pass my test, and I’ll start going to church more regularly.”
“Give me this promotion, and I’ll start giving to the poor.”
“Give me a child, and I’ll give You all the glory.”
What’s particularly ugly about these kinds of promises is that we’re always offering to give God something that we already owe Him. We offer Him our time, attention, and obedience. Really? Did we miss the part about owing God everything and Him demanding that we love Him with all that we are? Obeying God isn’t a subject for negotiation, it’s a command that we’ve had from the beginning. God isn’t going to be moved by us suddenly offering to acknowledge His existence or act like pleasing Him is of some minor importance. It’s more like He’s going to be annoyed that we’re actually treating such concepts as bargaining chips.
The Bible has some great examples of promises turning into disasters, and the story of Jephthah from Judges 11 is a particularly fine example of this. It’s quite intentional that Jephthah is so rarely discussed in church, because his story demonstrates how dangerous it is to play “give to get” games with God.
For Jephthah, the coveted prize was a military victory. He at least had enough brains to know he needed God’s help to win, but then he tried to bribe Yahweh into assisting Him by offering Him an insulting deal. Jephthah vowed that if God gave him what he wanted, then Jephthah would reward God by making a burnt sacrifice out of the first thing to greet him when he got home. The offer was insulting from beginning to end. Jephthah lived on a farm, and he naturally figured some animal would be the first to reach him when he came back. Well, Jephthah lived under the Old Covenant and Yahweh was very clear that He wouldn’t accept any random creature as an offering. He wouldn’t accept dogs, for example, or chickens or horses. Jephthah’s offer showed no respect for God’s preferences. Instead, Jephthah was acting as if his worship was such a coveted prize that God would be glad to pull off some complex series of tasks just to have the great Jephthah roast Him something. What an insulting way to talk to the Almighty King.
If Jephthah really thought God was powerful enough to control the outcome of war, he should have shown God much more respect. But he didn’t. He just promised to throw any random thing onto an altar. Well, God took great offense at this, and decided to teach Jephthah a lesson. So when Jephthah came home from battle, Yahweh arranged for the man’s only daughter to be the first one to greet him. This was God’s way of saying, “Hey, I’m the King. How dare you try to pacify Me with some random thing that means nothing to you? Since you want to bargain with Me, I now demand what is most precious to you in return for My giving you the victory you wanted.” Yikes. What would Jephthah do now? Well, he smartened up and barbecued his daughter. Jephthah learned the hard way that you don’t treat God Almighty like some fool who is desperate for human praise. And because we’re intensely bothered by the whole idea of God demanding child sacrifice, we act like this story isn’t in the Bible. But it is, and we could all use to take its lessons seriously.
When we bargain with God, we’re asking for trouble. Far too often, our pretty promises are just greedy attempts to manipulate Him. But once we stop to remember that we don’t have anything that God hasn’t given us, we realize how obnoxious it is for us to try and barter with God using His own property. Our time, our stuff, our money—it all belongs to God. And as for our soul choices—God already commands us to love, seek, and obey Him, so when we try to offer these things as extras, we’re just being twerps.
GETTING BACK INTO ALIGNMENT
For those of you who are now feeling convicted about promises you’ve made, what should you do? Well, it’s time to do some honest examining of your motivations. God knows when you’re sincerely trying to please Him and when you’re just pulling a Jephthah. For those of you who have made promises with good intentions, realize that it’s a compliment when God helps us learn how we can improve our treatment of Him. Now that you know God doesn’t like the whole promise package, you can change course and stop promising Him things in the future. Instead, focus on the fact that He already knows your heart, therefore you don’t have to try and prove your intentions to Him with words and actions. Instead of telling God how to arrange your future, ask Him to have His total way in your life and then let Him decide what He wants. Be the passenger in the car who is respectful of the driver and eager to see where he is going. God has a plan for your life, and He wants you to align with that plan, not try to modify it with your declarations of how you want the future to go. Remember that God doesn’t blame us for trying to disrespect Him when He knows we didn’t know any better. But once He educates us, He wants us to cherish the new information and make the appropriate changes.
Now for all of you little bargainers, it’s time to own up to how disrespectful you’re being and realize that your submission to God needs some serious work. Ask the Holy Spirit to help you get back into alignment with Him, and ask Him to increase your desire to treat Him better. Bargaining with God is a very disrespectful activity, and if you’re comfortable doing it, then you’ve really lost your grip on many fundamental truths. God demands reverential submission from us, and there is nothing reverential or submissive about making Him a bunch of manipulative promises. But happily God is very gracious and He will get us back on track with Him if we are willing to repent. But if you’re not willing to repent and you keep on trying to bribe God with your promises and banter His Name about in your vows, well, what can we say? Your spanking is on its way. God disciplines His brats, and it is quite bratty to bargain with God.