This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 29, number 4 (2006). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal go to: http://www.equip.org
Christians, as do all humans, have understandable concerns for protection and provision, but some believers allow their wishes to cloud their understanding of God’s promises in these areas. God’s promise of protection, for example, is not a guarantee that we will be immune to every physical danger or sickness, and God’s promise of provision is not a guarantee that we will have financial success, even if we are faithful to Him. If we strip away all false presumptions from our view of the biblical promises, however, then what remains that Christians truly can hope for?
The Christian hope consists of three things: that Christ will someday return and set everything right, that spiritual blessings are available to us this side of heaven, and that living according to the realistic wisdom of Scripture generally yields a better outcome than does ignoring it. This real hope offers much more than either pessimism or naïve optimism.
A correct understanding of the Christian hope relieves the Christian apologist of having to defend false claims, as though the Bible guarantees believers’ health and wealth. Further, all Christians are called always to be ready to explain the basis for the Christian hope (1 Pet. 3:15), which primarily is the resurrection of Christ. Correctly distinguishing between real promises and wishful presumptions will help us to answer anyone who asks about that hope, that we are hoping for the right things, and for good reason.
It was not an unreasonable request to make. Valerie’s doctors had given her some cause for concern about the child in her womb, so she immediately came to us, the elders of her church, for prayer. We laid hands on her in keeping with biblical precedent and prayed for the baby’s welfare. We did not presume to “claim” a healing from God, as though we could force his hand, but we begged Him for it with all reverence and compassion. Here was a close friend, one whose spiritual maturity I very much admired, casting her unborn baby on the mercy of a Lord she knew personally and had served with a whole heart. It seemed as though the preservation of that precious life within her was certainly not too much for us to ask of our great God. l I left that prayer meeting with an overwhelming sense of peace about Valerie’s prospects, fully confident that her baby would be born healthy. What a story that child would grow up with! What a walking testimony to the care of the living God he would be! My optimism about asking for God’s healing for this child was as unreserved as the typical optimism of asking for God’s blessing before a meal. Within a few weeks, however, Valerie’s baby had died in the womb.
It would be an overstatement to say that the shock of that one experience changed my life forever, but I can safely say that my prayer life has been peppered with enough experiences of a similar nature for it to have taken a certain turn over time. I never, in my estimation, had presumed to make extravagant demands of God. I was not in the habit of praying for luxuries such as golf clubs, for example. I had, however, thought that I could tell what would be reasonable to expect of a good God. It turns out that the Bible does not guarantee the satisfaction even of what seems to be a humble, reasonable request. We may pray earnestly about our perceived needs and our God-honoring plans, but we must keep this lesson from the school of hard knocks in mind: we cannot specify visible answers to prayer in advance.
Life goes on. Valerie has kept the faith and, thank God, since that experience she has had her share of children. The question, however, keeps returning to me: “What are you hoping for?” This causes me to wonder whether the Bible guarantees any blessings, and, if so, what they are. To those who have ever had occasion to entertain the question at all, to the tested, such occasions call for a clarification of the hope that Christianity really has to offer.
The following reflections are intended to explore the content of the Christian hope. Our aim is to distinguish between what commonly is offered as part of the package of the Christian life and what is an actual promise of blessing from God. Having guarded against our tendency to claim benefits that God has not guaranteed, we will then be in a position to embrace the benefits that God has guaranteed.
Three apostles traditionally have been associated with the Christian virtues of faith, hope and love: with his emphasis on justification by faith, Paul has been characterized as the Apostle of Faith; because of his declaration that God is love, and his frequent use of that word, the beloved disciple John has become known as the Apostle of Love; and to Peter has fallen the mantle of the Apostle of Hope. Consulting Peter’s first epistle (letter) with the question of hope in mind, we find that the designation is no accident. Peter stands out as the obvious person to set the tone for all subsequent discussion of the Christian hope.
In the opening verses of his letter, Peter describes his readers first of all as enjoying a certain hope, “born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Pet. 1:3).1 He goes on to describe them, however, as “distressed by various trials” (v.6). It takes a mature encourager to acknowledge both the cause for hope and the experience of suffering, to do justice to the positive while being completely honest about the negative. Those who have been tested and are weary of one-sided, unrealistic dismissals of their pain should find Peter’s comprehensive treatment quite refreshing. Here is someone who has real hope to offer.
Peter touches on two familiar concerns: protection and provision. Among the various trials his original readers faced, persecution certainly loomed large, and Peter directly addresses their desire for safety. He describes his readers as “protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1:5). In other words, since the One protecting them is more powerful than their oppressors, the faithful may look forward to a final deliverance from all oppression, and ultimately to outlasting their pains.
Peter goes on (in 3:8) to encourage good behavior by commenting on a passage from the Old Testament (Ps. 34:12) to the effect that those who want the blessing of a long life should do good. This leads to the rhetorical question, “Who is there to harm you if you prove zealous for what is good?” (v. 13), to which Peter adds the beatitude, “But even if you should suffer for the sake of righteousness, you are blessed” (v. 14). This is certainly a curious combination of statements. What can Peter mean by suggesting that long life awaits the righteous, that no one can hurt them? He was acutely sensitive to the losses suffered by the persecuted, so he must have had the big picture in mind. He reassures us in closing, “After you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself perfect, confirm, strengthen and establish you” (5:10). The saved go unharmed in the ultimate sense that, whereas all experiences of suffering are temporary, their existence in a state of perfect joy will be endless.
Peter’s view of protection also goes beyond the obvious interest in protection from human violence. Persecution was the occupational hazard of those who confessed Christianity in the first century AD, including Peter’s readers, yet he described them as having been tested in a variety of ways. This would appear to allow us to apply the promise of protection to a variety of felt needs. One of the most broadly appealing (and top-selling) of its possible applications is to the need for physical healing. Peter in fact states that Christ “bore our sins in His body on the cross, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed” (2:24, alluding to Isa. 53:5). Some would take this statement as indicating that all rightly informed believers will be spared those health crises that afflict the rest of humanity seemingly at random, or at least that they are guaranteed to recover from any such crises.
We may grant that Christ’s atoning work on the cross makes a difference to our physical health in that it is His work on the cross that gets us to heaven, where all of our health problems will be over. In our interpretation of the healing associated with the cross in this passage, however, we must pay attention to what Peter does and does not say. He says that Christ bore our sins on the cross, not our diseases. We are “healed,” therefore, in the sense of being spared, at the very least, God’s condemnation. Peter also says that Christ bore our sins on the cross, not that we might evade injury and live painlessly, but that we might die to sin and live righteously. Finally, we need to bear in mind that Peter was making this statement to mistreated slaves (2:18). He intended, in context, not for them to expect exemption from suffering, but for them to handle suffering like the Innocent One who had gone before them to the cross. The expression, “By his wounds you were healed” is therefore meant to be not so much an assurance of health as a commendation of Christlike humility.
What, then, can we conclude is guaranteed regarding our protection? The hope we have drawn from Peter’s input boils down to one sure thing: the hope of heaven.
We may expect Peter’s encouragement to take a similar approach as we turn next to the concern for provision, particularly for financial need. This is, after all, the apostle who said, “I do not possess silver and gold” (Acts3:6). Peter does mention gold several times in his first letter, but in each case only to contrast it with something of higher value; namely, the Christian’s faith (1:7), the redeeming blood of Christ (1:18), and inner beauty (3:3). The closest that he comes in this letter to addressing the concern for provision in financial terms is when he assures his readers that they have “an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven” (1:4). The promise of provision, therefore, like that of protection, translates into the hope of heaven. Should we leave it at that, we might say that God provides, no matter what happens in this life. Once we get over the assumed need to survive, we come to realize that fundamentally all we need is heaven—God’s company forever, His provision of Himself.
Peter puts all of the encouragement he has to offer into one exhortation: “Fix your hope completely on the grace to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1:13). This is the key to grasping the substance of Peter’s—and indeed of the Christian’s—confidence: Jesus is coming again; then He will set everything right. That fact is even more certain than death and taxes. The Christian hope of heaven is not simply to die and escape this world while it grinds along forever; rather, it is the hope that the King of heaven will come and perfect the universe. “But according to His promise, we are looking for new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells” (2 Pet. 3:13). To invest one’s hope entirely in this prospect, however, is in principle to put oneself in the position of saying, for now, “I will hope in the Lord, no matter what.”
Let us take our lead from Peter’s principle. We then can go on to factor other biblical and practical considerations into a balanced description of the Christian hope, responding to the concerns for protection and provision in turn.
THE PROMISE OF PROTECTION
In August of 2004, a church bus in Florida, full of 12-14-year-old children, was returning home from a field trip. The tire of a passing SUV suddenly blew out, so that the SUV swerved into the bus and ran it into a canal. Three of the children died.
It is disturbing how frequently such accidents appear in the news. We may reasonably assume that in many cases the victims had years of life ahead of them and that at least some would have devoted those lives to serving God. We might expect, therefore, that they should have enjoyed some reasonable assurance of God’s protection, at least protection from mechanical failings that were no fault of their own. How, then, do we explain such accidents? Should we suppose that no one had prayed for traveling mercies on the victims’ behalf? Were they busted on that technicality? Or rather should our assurance of answered prayer and of God’s protection allow for the possibility of such confusing sorrows in this life?
Given these scenes of inexplicable loss, what are we to make of the Bible’s promises of protection? There is an old joke to the effect that one person can have another commit suicide by observing that the Bible says, “Judas went and hanged himself…Go and do thou likewise.” In order to truly satisfy our desire for protection, it clearly is not enough for us to rip Bible verses out of their context and stick them onto our wishes. Favorite passages on protection must be understood in light of the overall teaching of the Bible.
We would do well in this regard to bear in mind that the Devil himself once quoted a biblical promise of protection to Jesus in order to tempt him: “Then the devil…had Him stand on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to Him, ‘If you are the Son of God throw Yourself down, for it is written, “He will command His angels concerning you”; and “On their hands they will bear you up, so that You will not strike Your foot against a stone”’” (Matt.4:5–6; see Ps. 91:11–12). Jesus responded to this misapplication of a divine promise by saying, “On the other hand, it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test’” (Matt.4:7; see Deut. 6:16, Exod. 17:1–7).
God’s promises of protection are given to strengthen us to keep the faith on occasions for fear (which they certainly do from Peter’s perspective). They do not, however, constitute a license for us to take miracles for granted. We are of course completely free—even commanded—to cast all our cares on God in prayer, but we must not presume that God is bound to supply protection in any particular form that we might expect or request. The Lord of the universe is not subject to any such reversal of roles. Our assurance is rather that we are safe in the hands of the One who can keep us in this world for as long as it seems fitting to Him to do so and who, should He let us even die, can resurrect us.
This brings us to what is probably the most common expression of the concern for protection: the question of healing. It is a sad but well-documented fact that many people who have prayerful expectations of healing in this life are disappointed; even faith healers can fail to be healed. It may seem hard to reconcile these disappointments with such assurances as the promise that “the prayer offered in faith will restore the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up” (James 5:15). Many a prayer warrior has, nevertheless, found comfort in the thought that, even should the ones they are praying for die, the Lord indeed will raise them up at the resurrection of the dead. You can’t beat that for a recovery! The Christian hope includes the hope of the resurrection of the body in perfection, which is surely the ultimate healing.
Whatever our view is of passages on healing, we must allow for God’s answer to the apostle Paul’s persistent prayer for deliverance from his own thorn in the flesh: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness” (2Cor. 12:9–10) rather than in healing. Whatever our understanding of the divine promise of protection in general, we must allow for those in the faith hall-of-fame who were tortured, stoned, and sawn in two, who did not receive what was promised in this life (Heb. 11:35).
Purified of all uncertainties, the Christian assurance of protection translates into an assurance that our Lord is able to see us through whatever threatens us, and ultimately into the guarantee of bodily transformation and resurrection at His second coming. Until then we must simply trust that God is our Protector, no matter what.
THE PROMISE OF PROVISION
They say that history is written by the winners of the wars. The losers, who were killed, are of course in no position to make their stories public. The grain of truth in this generalization perhaps explains the widespread view of divine provision that is informed only by testimonies of needed money appearing out of nowhere just at the critical moment. Those to whom the money does not appear, those who starve to death, are of course in no position to share their testimonies (or to maintain their faithfulness). As we consider the Christian hope of provision, therefore, let us be honest: deep down, we know that economic downturns can affect the faithful believer as well as anyone else. Our understanding of God’s provision must account for this. The Christian explanation of provision cries out for some realism, particularly with respect to finances.
Nowhere is this need more pressing than in the area of tithing. The assumption of many Christians is that if one gives 10 percent of one’s income to the church, God will meet one’s financial obligations. The only disclaimer is that the tithe must be given with the right attitude (a technicality that frequently is used to dismiss cases in which tithing did not “work”). As long as one’s interest is in the support of God’s cause rather than in personal profit, ironically, the promise to the tither constitutes a guarantee of return on investment.
Malachi’s Tithe Test
We noted above where Jesus cited a prohibition against testing God. Tithing, however, is held to be the one exception to this otherwise sweeping prohibition. Allowance for such an exception is based on a passage from Malachi 3:10–15: “‘Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in My house, and test Me now in this,’ says the Lord of hosts, ‘if I will not open for you the windows of heaven, and pour out for you a blessing until it overflows’” (v. 10).
The Bible, which elsewhere prohibits testing God, here extends an invitation to test Him. Tithing (we are to suppose) is the one area in which God subjects Himself and the truth of His word to being proved or disproved by experience. On this understanding, Christian confidence in divine provision would entail the assurance that absolutely no one who rightly tithes will starve. On this we may stake the trust of our creditors and business associates, the lives of our dependents, and the credibility of the biblical hope.
One question that should immediately occur to any serious Bible student, however, is, To whom did Malachi extend this exceptional invitation to test God? We cannot simply assume that the prophet’s guarantee of material blessing extends beyond the circle of his contemporaries to us. Some Old Testament commands and promises of course apply to all generations, right down to our own. Others, however, apply literally to only a limited historical setting. Christians, for example, do not carry on the Old Testament (i.e., old covenant) practice of animal sacrifice, recognizing that the sacrificial system was but preparatory to the final atoning work of Christ. Commands and promises related to the maintenance of that system—having to do with the material upkeep of the Aaronic priesthood, for example—no longer apply to believers under the new covenant (Heb. 10).
With this in mind, we see that Malachi’s invitation was an encouragement for his readers (Israelites) to support the Old Testament arrangement, which was certainly mandatory for that time, but there is no indication that his promise of material blessing extends beyond that setting into a timeless guarantee. If, therefore, the prospect of financial gain is no longer certain, it would seem to be the case today that the tithe should be given purely out of love for the Lord and His church rather than out of expectation of return on our investment. We must have due regard for the context of Malachi’s invitation.
This is not to say that the discipline of tithing is outdated. The New Testament expectation is that each Christian contribute regularly to the finances of the church in amounts proportionate to his or her own means (e.g., 1 Cor. 16:2), and the recommendation that the proportion be one tenth (tithe means “a tenth”) is certainly backed by respectable precedent. Further, on the assumption that tithers apply the wisdom of Scripture to other financial matters, we may generalize that they tend to get by. This generalization is not, however, the same as a guarantee. We may enjoy the assurance that God will provide enough for us to do whatever He wants us to do for as long as he wants us to stay here. Beyond that, there is no guarantee of financial security in this world. Our security is invested elsewhere.
Jesus’ Priority Promise
The promise of provision also springs from the lips of Jesus Himself: “Seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things [i.e. the basic necessities of life] will be added to you” (Matt.6:33). I must admit that my interpretation of this promise has undergone a process of fine-tuning over the years. I initially understood the requirement, “Seek first the kingdom of God” to mean, “Make His interests top priority,” and so personalized the promise as, “Put the edification of the church (including the fulfillment of the Great Commission and the promotion of sound doctrine) at the top of your list, and you won’t starve. Further lessons from life and from fellowship with other believers, however, has led me to a new understanding of this promise. To seek “the kingdom of God,” as Jesus would define that phrase, is to seek for God’s will to be done on earth (Matt.6:10), to make His interests top priority in our daily lives. Those interests, however, include our growth in practical wisdom as shown in the book of Proverbs and in Jesus’ stewardship stories (e.g., Luke 16:1–13) (and later in Paul’s call for the wise use of time [Eph. 5:15–17]). I would therefore now personalize Jesus’ promise as follows: “Seek to manage your resources wisely (this being one of God’s revealed interests), and you won’t starve before doing what God wants you to do.”
Whatever our interpretation of Scripture’s promises of provision, we must again allow for those heroes of the faith who went destitute, wandering in deserts and mountains and caves and holes in the ground, who did not receive what was promised in this life (Heb.11:37). Our assurance of God’s provision is that He will provide, even if we cannot predict how He will provide, except that we have an indestructible inheritance awaiting us in the end. Until then, we must commit ourselves to trusting that God is our Provider, no matter what.
Having surgically removed the merely desirable from the actual promises of God, what are we left with in terms of the Christian hope for protection and provision? We may confidently affirm at least the following three things: First, we have a biblical guarantee that Christ will return. He will set everything right; and as a result, we can also look forward to living forever in a perfect world. The last chapters of the Bible represent the culmination of our hope in the vision of a new creation, complete with a new Jerusalem (Rev.21:1–5; 22:1–7), which beautifully symbolize the perfection of our relationships with creation, each other, and God. On those occasions when this hope seems especially vivid to us, we might imagine ourselves in heaven at last, looking back on the few years of our earthly journey there, and concluding—perhaps with a sigh of relief—“It was sure worth it.” This is where our sense of well being resides. The Christian hope is invested entirely in the hope of heaven, in the long view.
Second, we can be sure that we may enjoy a sampling of blessedness as we anticipate the prospect of heaven and as the Spirit of God makes that hope real to us. We indeed already have been healed by the wounds of Christ; therefore, we may enjoy the sense of a healthy, condemnation-free relationship with God. We have no greater treasure than the one God has given us in Himself; therefore, we may consider ourselves already rich. The healing and enrichment we have in this life are basically spiritual in nature. Such is our foretaste of heaven.
Third, we may generalize that there are practical advantages to aligning one’s future with the wisdom of God’s word. Those who are diligent generally are more likely to succeed than are those who are negligent, for example (Prov. 6:6–11; 10:4). Generalizations, unlike guarantees, allow for exceptions. Exceptions provide us with an alternative to the cruel practice of blaming the victim in hard times. We need not add a nice helping of false guilt to the burden of the person who is already facing difficulty despite his or her diligence. Even if we allow for exceptions, however, it remains true that diligence generally may be expected to work better than does negligence, wisdom than foolishness. Beyond this we have the assurance that no matter how unpredictable to us the specific forms of His care may be, we are at every moment in our Father’s care.
Cleansed of all presumption, Christian confidence reduces to three sure things: the coming of Christ, the blessings of the Spirit, and the wisdom of Scripture. The great benefits of spiritual blessings and of obedience to Scripture are already available to us in this life. As opposed to the ultimate pessimism that is all that the world honestly has to offer, then, we have much more to look forward to than the grave: the Christian life is a life of hope. As opposed to the naïve optimism of the presumptuous, on the other hand, we also have more to look forward to than promises that do not deliver: the Christian life is one of real hope. This is the kind of life that Christ uniquely has to offer.
A REASON FOR HOPE
We asked the question “What are you hoping for?” as it relates to the content of the Christian hope. There is, however, another question we might ask in this regard: “Why are you hoping at all?” If answers to prayer for protection and provision are put on hold, indefinitely spiritualized, or otherwise put beyond testing, on what rational basis do we assume that our prayers really are being heard? What justification does the Christian have for any confidence that God will deliver on those promises that the Bible, rightly interpreted, does make to us?
The Apostle of Hope himself addresses this second question. Having described his readers as born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus, Peter directs them, “Always be ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you” (1 Pet. 3:15). According to Peter, then, the basis of our hope is the resurrection of Jesus, and each of us is personally responsible to be prepared to explain the reason for basing one’s hope there. Each Christian is called to defend the faith, to engage in apologetics in this regard (e.g., to present historical or other evidence for Christ’s resurrection). The believer who is ready and able to discuss clearly the contours and credibility of that hope, when asked, “What are you hoping for?” can respond, “For the right thing,” and when asked, “Why are you hoping at all?” can answer, “For good reason.”
The primary task of the apologist is to remove obstacles to belief in the gospel. One result of the failure to distinguish between justifiable longings for protection and provision and presumed divine guarantees for those things is that it puts the Christian in the awkward position of having to defend claims that are quite obviously false, as though the truth of the Bible were at stake in those claims. Once the actual content of God’s promises is clarified, however, apologists are no longer saddled with defending the indefensible. The hope we maintain, rather, is that of the realist whose realism is informed by the plausibility of the resurrection of Christ. It is the prayer request with which the Bible ends: “Come, Lord Jesus.” This is what we are hoping for.
1. All Bible quotations are from the New American Standard Bible.