Editor's note: When we look out on the congregation on Sunday morning, everything within us wants to tell hurting or needy people that God is soon going to make everything better. Sometimes that impulse to encourage can tempt us to preach what people wish the Bible would say. To understand how to avoid that, PreachingToday.com editor Brian Larson called trusted advisor Haddon Robinson, author of Biblical Preaching and homiletics professor, now retired, from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.
PreachingToday.com: What can go wrong when preachers speak about God's promises?
Haddon Robinson: We can promise what God isn't promising. For instance, we can extend the biblical promise that God loves people to imply or even assert that God wants his people to be healthy, prosperous, and successful. I may throw in some examples of how that characterizes some Christians we know. But I can ignore conscientious followers of Jesus who suffer a fatal case of cancer or who have been wiped out financially. If those bad things happen to women and men in my audience, they may conclude God lied to them. Instead of my sermon enforcing their faith, it can create deep doubt.
The question we must wrestle with is, when can we say, "Thus sayeth the Lord" to particular situations? We need to consider that carefully because it flirts with blasphemy to say in the name of God what God has not said!
So the problem is our sermon obligates God to do something that he never actually obligated himself to do.
God may work in people's lives in ways that can feel like a curse rather than a blessing. Suppose God wants an individual to really hear his words, "Beware of covetousness, for a person's life does not consist of possessions." And so, instead of adding to his financial holdings, God takes them away. My listeners may not want to hear that message. They close their ears to anything negative. They are happier when the pastor reinforces all the nice things that can happen to them. My concern is how Christians respond when they go through hard times, especially if they have not been told that our heavenly father is more concerned about what we are than what we have.
We always have to be careful not to overpromise.
When is a Scripture truly an ironclad promise for everybody at every time in every place?
Of course, there are such promises. For instance, the writer to the Hebrews quotes Deuteronomy: "Never will I leave you, never will I forsake you." Based on that promise he says, "So we will say with confidence, 'The Lord is my helper, I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?'" That promise transcends a particular situation in the Bible. In preaching that assuring text, we need also to apply it as the author does when he warns, "Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have." The Scripture teaches readers in every era that they can receive the very life of God by trusting him to provide it for them.
What's dangerous, however, is to weave together some examples that sound Scriptural: "God says clearly in Hebrews 13:8, 'Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.' He will do for you whatever he has done for his children in the Old Testament: Abraham, Joseph, David, or Solomon. He made them wealthy and prominent. He hasn't changed, so what he did for them he will do for you."
The promise of God is not that we will live a prosperous life, but that it's possible to live a holy life, a life that is devoted to him.
That's a recipe for disillusionment. Not everything written or spoken to someone in the Bible applies directly to people today. In fact, the writers of the Bible never speak to us directly. They didn't know we would even exist. To apply the Scriptures takes as much skill as understanding them.
How should we preach verses that use the language of promise, such as, "Ask and you'll receive," or "The prayer of faith will make the sick person well"?
Well, I'm not going to say God can't do it. He often does. God can do anything he wants. While God is all powerful—he can do everything he wants—it's not always his will to do what I would like him to do with his power. I have to be frank about that. As long as we are part of fallen humanity, and that fall has affected us in many ways, I cannot predict that God will always benefit his people in the way I think he should benefit them.
I've been around too many people who were dying—young—who in a way were people of faith, but they felt betrayed because God did not do for them what they thought he should do. There's realism there.
The Bible isn't a book primarily about us—how to be prosperous, how to raise kids. It's a book about God. What it says about him, about his character, I can respond to. But I can't add to it.
God, who is a kind, gracious God, isn't always going to make my life easy. We are to "count it all joy" when we come into different kinds of testing, because God through his testing is going to make us mature. I have a friend who says, "I wish that wasn't in the Bible. When it comes to testing, I want to get out of it fast, and that's not what the Bible teaches." So if we're not faithful to the text, we will promise what God does not promise. That is my concern.
Are preachers obligated to encourage faith and hope? Or are we to be more concerned about the possibility of raising too much hope, which could result in disillusionment?
When I pray for friends who are hurting, I pray that God will make them well. When I pray for friends who have gone through severe financial reversals, I pray that God will give them the bread they need for the day. Even as I pray that, I know I have prayed for friends to be made well who have died. I have prayed for people who were hurting who have ended up hurting more. That's a reality, and if we don't say that to our people, we're going to undermine their faith. We must not overstate what God says.
Here is the tension I face as a pastor preaching every week to my people: I don't want to overstate or overpromise, but neither do I want to understate or underpromise. I want to raise people's hope and faith by opening the door as wide as Jesus did. Jesus always seemed to want to raise hope and faith, not to lower people's expectations. Though I don't want to cause disillusionment, neither do I want to qualify the words of Jesus to the point where they become meaningless.
There's nothing I'd rather do than assure people that if they trust God it's all going to turn out the way they would like it to turn out.
One benefit of expository preaching is that the letters have what Ruskin called "the balance of harmonious opposites." As a case in point, James begins his book by talking about trials. Trials are a common experience of the Christian's life. James provides an uncommon way of looking at them. "Count it all joy," he begins, because it is through the process of difficulties that God brings us to a richness of character that we come to in no other way.
James and the other writers have much to say about subjects that will make us uncomfortable, but I don't represent Christ well or serve my people if I don't preach through biblical books. It's not easy and not comfortable, but our commission isn't to make our congregation happy; it's to help make them godly. That's why it's worthwhile to preach through large sections of the Bible or entire letters. In that way I am more likely to preach the entire Word of God rather than the passages that happen to appeal to me.
So the way to address this tension is to preach the whole Scripture without avoiding the hard texts about suffering. When we encourage people's faith and hope, they have also heard us say things in other sermons about hard times.
That's right. We can says things like, "The writer to the Hebrews has said, 'I will never leave you nor forsake you,' so whatever you're going through you can know you don't go through it alone. God hasn't deserted you. That's great assurance. But if you think the words 'He hasn't deserted you' means he will always prosper you as the world counts prosperity, you're destined to spend your life in slippery places."
The great promises of the Bible focus on the person of God and how God deals with his people. The promise of God is not that we will live a prosperous life, but that it's possible to live a holy life, a life that is devoted to him. I enjoy good health, but I'm also well aware that I have friends who don't have good health. It isn't that God has blessed me in a particular way and hurt them in a particular way. He deals with each of us where we are, as we are, so that when those situations come we can give glory to him. And that's what it's all about.
Haddon Robinson was a preacher and teacher of preachers all over the world. His last teaching position was as the Harold John Ockenga Distinguished Professor of Preaching at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.