When God Doesn’t Promise

Nervously I asked my friend, “Is your daughter a Christian?” “No,” she replied, “but that’s okay!” I thought to myself, That’s strange. Why would a mother be okay that her college-aged daughter wasn’t a Christian?  Before I even asked, though, she began to clarify. “God promised me that if I raise my daughter in the ways of the Lord, she won’t depart from her faith when she’s older. I’ve done my part and raised my daughter as a Christian. I can rest in God’s promise that my daughter will return to the faith that she was raised in.”

My friend was referring to King Solomon’s instruction in Proverbs 22:6. “Train up a child in the way he should go, even when he is old he will not depart from it.” The key question, though, was whether my friend understood God’s Word correctly.

Imagine you’re reading a newspaper. On the front page, you notice a picture of a fisherman standing next to a six-foot-long fish. The headline reads, “Catfish Hunter Wins Big Game.” Before reading the article, you’d assume the story is about someone catching a large fish.

What if I told you that although this headline is real, it wasn’t on the front page of the newspaper and the picture that accompanied it wasn’t of a fisherman with a large fish? Rather, the headline was in the sports section of the newspaper and the picture was of James Augustus “Catfish” Hunter, a baseball pitcher who helped the New York Yankees win a World Series game. You’d think, Oh, I get it…“Catfish” was his nickname and he won a baseball game.

Notice that the exact same words (“Catfish Hunter Wins Big Game”) take on a completely different meaning when you realize they are in the sports section of the newspaper. That’s because you know that sports articles sometimes use words in a different way than front page stories.

For some reason, though, many Christians are unaware of this same principle when they read the Bible. They inadvertently ignore the different genres the Bible was written in, which can cause confusion when trying to understand what God says.

The Holy Spirit, though, inspired the biblical authors to write Scripture in different literary styles. For example, there is narrative, law, poetry, proverbs (or wisdom literature), gospel, parable, and epistle. More importantly, each of these genres has different interpretive principles. That means how you interpret a Bible verse in Romans (an epistle) will be very different from how you interpret a verse in Proverbs. Failing to apply the correct interpretive principles will result in a faulty interpretation. You’ll miss what God is saying.

When it comes to Proverbs, there’s one interpretive principle to never forget: Proverbs are not promises. You can’t claim them from God. Rather, Proverbs are basic truths of life. They explain how life generally works. Therefore, they teach probable outcomes, not guaranteed outcomes.

Take a modern proverb, for example. “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.” Is it probably true that if you eat a lot of fruit (like apples), you’re more likely to be healthy and won’t need to see a doctor as much? Sure. Is it guaranteed that if you eat an apple each day, you will never need a doctor? Of course not.

Consider Proverbs 16:7. Solomon writes, “When a man’s ways are pleasing to the Lord, He makes even his enemies to be at peace with him.” Were the apostle Paul’s ways pleasing to the Lord? Yes. We’re Paul’s enemies at peace with him? No. They beat him, put him in prison, and cut off his head. That’s hardly peaceful. Does that mean God didn’t fulfill His promise? No, because Proverbs are not promises. Solomon is giving a basic principle, explaining how life generally works out.

Therefore, when we read Proverbs 22:6, we should understand it as a general principle of life and not a promise from God. There’s no guarantee that a child raised in the Christian faith will remain a Christian or will return to their faith if they’ve fallen away.

Interpreting this passage as a promise is problematic for at least three reasons. One, it ignores the Holy Spirit’s work in inspiring the author to write in that particular literary style. When you ignore the genre of the biblical text, you end up putting words in God’s mouth. You make Him promise results He’s never promised. Two, it models a mistaken interpretive method. Others who hear this interpretation can be more likely to also misunderstand this passage. Three, it can harm a person’s faith. If you believe God has promised you something, and He doesn’t deliver, then this could cause you to doubt God’s faithfulness.

All these pitfalls can be avoided, though, by remembering an easy principle: Proverbs are not promises. Even though we lose the ability to claim them as guarantees from God, we still gain something important. We are able to receive Solomon’s wisdom the way the Holy Spirit intended us to. Proverbs is chock full of practical advice that applies to almost every area of life. Following its principles will, as Solomon writes in chapter 1, help you “to know wisdom and instruction…and increase in learning.” What a gift we have in God’s word!

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Alan Shlemon

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