Have you ever known someone who showered you with promises but rarely kept any of them? Did you learn not to trust that person from that point on, or did you instead make excuses for him, insisting that he is still trustworthy? If you’re a reasonable person, you would learn from such an experience. Sadly, however, many do not. Some will go to their graves defending the integrity of those who have failed them time and again, and this is truly tragic (Poor Linus, that Great Pumpkin really isn’t gonna show, okay?). Speaking for myself, I must confess that I have been guilty of not keeping my own promises, and I have seen how that can hurt the people I love. As a consequence, I am learning to only promise those things which I am quite sure I can accomplish. To my mind, this is the best we can offer one another. I believe we should strive for as much integrity and authenticity as we can manage. And we should expect honesty from one another. We should furthermore learn to distrust those who make promises that they cannot or will not keep. This is what reasonable people do.
But not when it comes to religion. When it comes to matters of “faith,” reasonable people behave in very unreasonable ways. They learn from their youngest years to expect certain things from the Object of their worship. They are told that they will be cared for, provided for, protected, and even blessed by their deity because they are his children. Well-oiled systems are in place to reinforce these ideas from the earliest years of a person’s life. But the process of growing up forces them to reconsider what they were taught again and again, and each time a crisis of faith occurs, they are encouraged to redefine and reinterpret everything they were told in order to make reality somehow match what they were told to expect. No matter how clear or specific those promises were, when they fail to materialize, these often highly intelligent people become experts at tweaking the meaning of everything promised so as to preserve the unimpeachability of their deity.
A few months ago an Indiana pastor named Nate Pyle wrote a gut-level honest blog entry entitled “Confronting the Lie,” defending the biblical God’s reputation by disputing a common adage which asserts that “God won’t give you more than you can handle.” His words went viral (more than 2 million views) and clearly touched a nerve with many a Christian the world over. He assures his readers that pain, suffering, and loss do indeed befall the faithful, and that those who deny this are misreading a promise which in reality states that God will not allow you be overcome with temptations too great for you to bear. On the surface this may seem to resolve the issue, but I see two problems with his thinking on the matter: 1) If the verse as it’s actually written were true, then Christians would consistently resist those “temptations” from which this promise says God will keep them. Twenty years’ experience in the faith plus four more outside of it confirm that this verse is just as deserving of Pyle’s criticism as is the phony adage which he impugns. But more importantly than that, 2) There’s a good reason why Christians are under the impression that God will keep them from loss and harm: They were led to believe that is the case by numerous other biblical promises which fail to materialize on any regular basis.
It would take a terribly long time to address every one of these promises individually and honestly I have neither the free time nor the expectation that doing so would make much of a difference for those already committed to believing the Bible against all empirical observation. Besides, a book as internally inconsistent as this contains verses saying completely opposite things on almost every issue. For example, Pyle cites another statement by the apostle Paul which illustrates that grave harm comes upon the faithful to the point of almost complete despair. Like a slippery politician, the Bible talks out of both sides of its mouth. In one place, believers are led to believe that God will deliver them from harm’s way, and in another, they are clued in to the complete erroneousness of such expectations. But instead of walking away from such a book, shaking their heads, the faithful are taught to dismiss any inconsistencies with the magic words “his ways are higher than our ways, his thoughts higher than our thoughts.” Isn’t the biblical God fortunate to have such willing subjects, ready to make excuses for him at the sight of every failure to deliver?! In reality, of course, I believe this character is just as much a fiction as Linus’s beloved Great Pumpkin, and when someone is living on a false hope, reinforcing their delusions does them no good at all. With so many ordering their lives (and even the policy decisions of a nation) around a trust in the claims of one religion, I feel it necessary to illustrate some examples of failed promises and to point out the many ways that we were taught to make excuses for this character in order to keep him above reproach. Reasonable people should know better.
1) If you give me money, you’ll get even more back in return (see Malachi 3:10). This popular verse is one of the most concrete, specific, unequivocal promises of the Bible. While many promises easily lend themselves to metaphoricalizing (it should be a word, okay?), this one speaks in measurable terms. When the apostle Paul promises that “my God will meet all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus,” he speaks in context about material provision, yet this becomes quickly spiritualized so as to excuse the biblical God from supplying material needs when the provisions fail to occur. When the money runs out and you have to go on credit cards, people will assure you that the “provision” intended by promises like this are spiritual provisions. “Maybe he just meant that he would give you courage to endure your financial hardships.” But shame on you for expecting actual money—even though that’s exactly what Paul’s statement meant. And you can’t say this is just an Old Testament idea, because Jesus reiterates the same promise when he says, “Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap.” More importantly, the Malachi verse (which gets recited in churches all over the world every single Sunday) expressly encourages you to “Test me on this,” which means you have the Bible’s permission to use this as a test case for your faith. Never mind the fact that in one verse it says “Test me” but then in another it says “Do not put Yahweh your God to the test.” As I’ve already said, if you expect the Bible to be self-consistent you will be disappointed.
It says to test this promise. So why don’t you? Over the next year, give a tenth of what you earn to the church and track your finances to see what happens. Track your income in concrete, specific terms (and no, getting paid forty hours’ wages for forty hours’ work isn’t exactly supernatural…get real, folks). If your storehouses overflow, you can breathe easy and rejoice in the knowledge that your religion lives up to its own promises. Or better yet, give twenty percent and see if that results in even greater returns, for that’s what both Malachi and Jesus promise. Is your faith up to such a challenge? Do you really believe such promises? Would you be willing to put your money where your mouth is? If not, then it would be dishonest for you to pay lipservice to a promise like this if you are unwilling to act on it.
2) If you pray for the sick, they will be healed. Not by medicine. Not by doctors. Not by the normal functioning of the human immune system. Just by praying (okay, and maybe anointing with oil, too). James says this: “Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well.” This promise is forthright and unambiguous, but that doesn’t stop people from looking for loopholes in order to explain why it doesn’t work. “You forgot to use oil!” or “There must be some unconfessed sin in your life,” or “Maybe someone in the room isn’t believing hard enough!” Linus used that last one, too. “You gotta believe or it won’t work!” Just like we were told that Santa only comes to the houses of kids who believe. The excuses are endless. I’ve personally watched prayers for healing (with and without oil) being offered on numerous occasions and it’s never worked. Those who say it does are either giving second- or third-hand anecdotal evidence or else, frankly, many are the type who also accept alien abduction stories with equal credence. For most people, it satisfies them to say, “Well, maybe God just had other plans.” If only James had clarified that, we could have saved an awful lot of oil.
But you’ve seen someone get better yourself, right? Sure, so have I. I’ve seen people go through months of chemotherapy, rounds of treatment of various kinds, and undergo numerous surgeries before they got better. Sometimes the body even just heals itself. Sometimes rest, good food, and time can get a person back on their feet. But that’s not what this promise is offering. The Bible promises miraculous healing. But smart people know good and well to hedge their bets by making back-up plans for things and qualifying all their prayers with “If it be your will, Lord…” This gives him a fail-safe way out. Very smart move—except that it makes prayer completely unfalsifiable. There is now no way to discount your belief in prayer. You have just constructed your faith in such a way that it is immune to any kind of discrediting. No wonder this belief will never die. It is impervious to empirical data. All you have to do is dismiss every instance in which the person wasn’t healed, and no matter what the antecedent causes, whenever they get better you can say that people were praying for it. This is called confirmation bias. It works like magic. But I’ve got a challenge for you, coming up at the end of this post.
3) If you pray about anything, and two of you agree on the matter, I will do it. This promise covers way more than just illness, doesn’t it? And do I really need to explain how routinely this fails to materialize? Have you ever tried it? I certainly have. In fact, I’ve been present when thousands of committed believers were praying for the same thing, and nothing happened. No one who is honest will say that this works. Their only choice (besides blatant dishonesty) is to find an excuse, a reason for which God is not obligated to do what this verse says he will do. “Maybe this verse wasn’t meant for you,” they may say. “Perhaps this only works if you’re one of the special apostles.” That’s not how this verse puts it. Go back and read it for yourself—all the way to the end of it. Exactly how committed to intellectual honesty are you with yourself? These things test that honesty; I know they did mine. Devout believers love to say that they will “follow the evidence wherever it leads,” but it is my observation that when empirical evidence points away from their beliefs, they will find a way to dismiss the evidence. They must, or else the whole edifice of their faith may collapse, and nobody enjoys watching that happen.
4) “If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer” (Matt. 21:22). This promise doesn’t even require more than one person to be present. All you have to do is truly believe that God is going to do something and it will come true. No qualifications about it needing to be a realistic request. No qualifications about making sure it’s something that was already according to the will of God beforehand. Just believe, and “don’t doubt” (boy, there’s a formula for endless navel-gazing if ever I heard one). Besides the unqualified boldness of this promise, what’s even more striking is the context in which Jesus says it. According to Mark’s version of this story, Jesus got mad at a fig tree for not bearing fruit—even though it wasn’t the right season for figs—so he cursed it and it withered the next day (in Matthew’s version of the story, it withered immediately, but of course the Bible contains no contradictions). That’s what prompted this promise. He then says the fig tree is nothing; for the one who sincerely believes, he could tell a mountain to relocate itself into the sea and it would come to pass. Hyperbole or not, this reminds me of Bill Gascoyne’s now famous line, “I’m not convinced that faith can move mountains, but I’ve seen what it can do to skyscrapers.” And now fig trees. Sometimes God hates figs.
5) If you handle snakes and drink poison you’ll be fine. Did you ever wonder where people out in the boondocks got this idea? It came from the mouth of Jesus, according to Mark’s gospel. Allow me to quote him directly:
And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.
No wonder those people handle snakes in church services out in the Appalachians. They’re just standing on the promises of Jesus. No wonder people expect to speak gibberish when overcome by spiritual ecstasy. No wonder when people pray for a sick person they “lay hands” on them. These people are just following the promises of the Bible. Any efforts to make these promises metaphorical contradict both the language of the text as well as the previously established practice of praying for the sick and expecting real physical healing. It’s an embarrassing text, and even conservative scholars are comfortable removing it from the Bible altogether, although that presents what we in the Deep South call a “whole ‘nuther” problem.* Given that most Christians would probably rather not keep this verse around (like that other verse that speaks of baptizing for the dead), I could probably have left this one off my list. But I couldn’t resist Besides, it illustrates well some of the ways in which devotees to this book deal with the cognitive dissonance they feel between stuff the Bible says and real life.
6) I will validate the claims of Jesus by ensuring Christian unity. This promise comes to us in the form of a prayer of Jesus (and if anyone prayed for anything “in Jesus’ name” it would be him, right?). According to John’s gospel, Jesus staked his own credibility on the unity of the church. Here’s what he prayed:
I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
Given the history of the church, and given the fact that it has splintered into 41,000 denominations worldwide (many of them the result of bitter division, sometimes accompanied by massive bloodshed), I believe it is safe to say that Jesus’ prayer was not fulfilled. Does that count as a promise? I suppose that depends on how certain to come true you believe a prayer of Jesus should be. It seems to me that any trinitarian believer would have to concede that a prayer of Jesus is “according to the will of God.” One could perhaps try to argue that God has been delaying his answer to this prayer for the last couple of millennia, but that would also mean we should forgive all those people who have lived from then until now for not believing his claims. In my experience, the abysmal failure of this prayer rarely leads a true believer to question the claims of his religion…but it should. And finally, speaking of prayers, I’d like to offer a challenge:
A Challenge to Believers
Jesus instructed his followers to pray in private instead of doing it in front of people to be seen. Somehow this concept has been turned entirely on its head and now the preferred mode of prayer is completely public, in front of everyone. In fact, the more public and ostentatious the better. For example, if you’re in school, praying quietly at your desk isn’t good enough; the best way for students to pray, according to the governor of my state, is over the intercom. But what if people actually did what Jesus said to do? What if people only offered their prayers “in secret,” as Jesus said? Furthermore, what if the prayers they prayed weren’t for things which are likely to happen anyway through hard work, medical attention, or fishing for help from other people (that’s what making prayer requests public really does, you know)? How might that affect people’s prayer lives? Here is my challenge:
For one year, make all of your prayer requests to God alone, sharing them with no one. Don’t voice them to groups of people—in fact, don’t voice them to anyone at all except to the true addressee of the prayers. And pray only for things which only God could accomplish. By this I mean don’t pray for a job after applying and interviewing for ten of them and then conclude that your prayers are why you got the job. Don’t pray for a sick person who is already seeking the appropriate medical attention for whatever ails them. In other words, don’t pray for things to happen which may very well happen naturally, on their own, apart from divine intervention. Pray in secret, and only for things which God alone could do, keeping a written journal of what happens. No sense in doing this without making a concrete record of the experiment.
How long do you think anyone could keep this up? Do you think people could honestly do this for a whole year, keeping track of all of the prayers which are “answered,” and still have faith at the end of the year? What success rate do you expect they would have? Would they still believe the promises of the Bible by the end of the year? My prediction is that they will either leave the faith entirely (at least any faith which supposes an interventionist deity) or else they will drop this charade after a few weeks, talking themselves out of the challenge. But don’t take my word for it—try it yourself. I mean really, why listen to me, right? I’m a godless heathen
Why am I doing this? Why am I being so mean towards people who believe in and trust the Bible? I’ve gone on record saying that I am not an anti-theist but rather an anti-fundamentalist. I still hold that this is true. But God or no God, I do not believe that reinforcing false hope is a loving thing to do. I believe many of us were sold a bill of goods, and nothing good comes of that. It would be far better to speak the truth, and to confront the lies that we’ve been told, showing them for what they are. Otherwise we’ll all be like Linus, waiting all night for the Great Pumpkin to show, and missing all the best candy.
* Those who would argue that the passage about handling snakes and drinking poison shouldn’t remain in the Bible may not realize the consequences of what they are suggesting. Prior to the 1984 revision of the NIV, most Bibles uncritically included the longer ending of the gospel of Mark (16:9-20), following the traditions of Luther, Tyndale, and King James. But the earliest copies we have of the Greek text of Mark’s gospel end with no resurrection appearance at all. It ends with an empty tomb and fearful followers confused about what has happened. Considering that most scholars (both conservative and liberal) see Mark’s gospel as the earliest one, upon which the other two synoptic gospels show literary dependence, ending the story here is quite a cliffhanger. You are left with two options: 1) Reject the longer ending despite the fact that it was considered, quite literally, “gospel truth” by your religion for the majority of its history (there goes your infallible Bible theory), or else 2) Accept the longer ending and accept that Jesus taught his followers to take up snakes, drink poison, and speak gibberish. Ball’s in your court.