Making a lot of promises

Greg Clarke on keeping our word

Christianity makes a lot of promises, in both senses of the phrase. The teachings of Christianity promise believers nothing short of eternal life beyond the grave, forgiveness of wrongs for anyone who asks, and a glorious future in a renewed universe for those who faithfully wait.

And in the other sense, promises are a really big deal in Christianity: they are the basis of faith. We make a lot of them.

Sometimes called covenants or testaments in the Bible, the promises God makes to various chosen people are to ensure a wonderful future. With Abraham, he “covenants” that his people will be as numerous as the stars and a blessing to everyone on earth. With the ark-building Noah, God covenants never to destroy the earth in flood again. And with Moses, God promises never to abandon his chosen people. And the promising continues.

When Jesus arrives, his message is that he is making a new covenant, a new set of promises from God to all people. His promises go beyond Israel, beyond the physical realm, into eternity with all of those incredible promises to those who believe in Jesus.

It’s all about trusting promises.

It’s an open secret that no one believes the promises politicians make… And yet promises are all we’ve got.

I find this sobering during election campaigns, which are also all about promises. It’s an open secret that no one believes the promises politicians make. The spin, the “walking it back,” the “circumstances have changed:” we don’t expect politicians to do what they tell us they will do. There are always exceptions, when we really do get what we voted for, but we don’t hold our breath waiting.

And yet promises are all we’ve got. Our laws depend on writing down our promises as clearly as possible (for example, in contracts). Our social practices rely on people keeping their word. “I promise you I will bring home the milk tonight,” is the basis of many a marriage. Promises are the guarantee of actions. That’s supposed to be the deal.

Alex Sheen founded the website in 2012 in honour of his late father. In composing his eulogy, Sheen realised that his father’s finest quality was that he made and kept promises. Sheen turned this into a global charity committed to helping people “bridge the gap between intention and action.” He began by sending “promise cards” to people so they could write down their intentions.

The internet has since helped record promises more instantly and broadcast them more widely; check out Because I Said I Would on social media to see the kinds of promises people are making in public in order to be accountable to them.

The record of one’s promise seems to help overcome the common human trait to stop caring. We make promises with good intentions, but our intensity of care fades with time or changing circumstances, and we find ourselves stuck in Sheen’s “gap.” Writing it down seems to help. Just ask Moses.

The whole Bible is a record of promises made and kept by God, along with promises we still cling to, waiting for their fulfilment.

In fact, the whole Bible is a record of promises made and kept by God, along with promises we still cling to, waiting for their fulfilment.

But we mortals need to take immense care with our promises. If we can’t keep them, we shouldn’t make them. The impulse of the politician is to make the promise regardless, for the loyalty it brings. Make the promise, walk it back, keep the loyalty deposit anyway. But over time and if repeated, a broken promise is worse than a promise not made.

Fortunately for us, God seems to recognise that we frail and failing human beings simply show promise. We are a long way from perfect, although we are required to give perfection a crack (“Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect,” Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount). “Showing promise” is a comforting report card for the Christian muddling through this life.

Making careful promises that we have the intention, ability and opportunity to keep is a great way to do this. They should start small, and build as we develop our moral muscle. Meanwhile, as we try with baby steps to be like our perfect Heavenly Father, we can be confident that what he has promised, he can, does and will deliver.

Greg Clarke is CEO of Bible Society Australia.