G2A #3: "Promises, Promises" – Genesis 12-21
The story goes that after an evening out, some parents returned home to their children, whom they had left with the baby sitter. They were pleasantly surprised to find the kids fast asleep. When the sitter had been paid–just as she was walking out the door–she communicated this detail: “Oops-almost forgot to tell you. I promised the kids that if they would stay in bed, you would take them to Disneyland tomorrow.”
Fortunately, that circumstance hasn’t been a part of our experiences with babysitters, but it is true that ever since my wife and I became parents, we have had to pay particular attention to the way we use promises.
Making promises with our children often seems like the only way out of difficult situations. We promise rewards or treats if our kids can manage to recover their sanity in the midst of tantrums or other difficult behavior. We promise punishment if negative behavior continues. And when the kids are scared or worried, we promise that everything will be ok.
Pay attention to how often you make promises in any given day. We make promises not just in matters of parenting, but also with other relationships including co-workers, employees, siblings, parents, partners, and so on.
Making promises can be incredibly virtuous or incredibly deceitful. The difference lies in the intent and ability of the promise-giver to actually see the promise come true. The example that began today’s message is an example of an inappropriate promise. We can’t make promises on behalf of other people; nor can we make promises that we either have no interest or ability in helping to come true (as the babysitter did).
Also, promises create precedence. If a child throws a tantrum when you are trying to get him or her out the door, you might be inclined to say, “If you cooperate I promise we can stop by Target and buy a toy from the dollar spot.” You better believe that by doing so, a precedent has been set. Next time the child refuses to cooperate with your efforts to get out the door, he or she will expect you to offer a trip to Target to purchase a toy, which is fine as long as you intend to fulfill your promise in perpetuity – or at least until the child grows tired of collecting cheap, plastic knickknacks.
As I read these initial chapters of Genesis I am tempted to view God as a parent who is trying to figure out the best way to respond to children in the throes of a tantrum. Last week as we explored the stories of the first sin, Cain murdering Abel, and Noah’s Ark, we saw plenty of examples of God responding to unruly humankind with all manner of threats, curses, and punishment – each leading to an even greater sin and even greater punishment – to the point where God decided to begin all over again and destroys the Earth. Not only did God regret this action and vow never to do it again, but only a couple verses later and Noah’s righteous family has proven anything but righteous…and the pattern of sin and punishment continues.
However, by the time Abram arrives on the scene, God has decided to try a different tack – as opposed to punishing past offenses, God engages in proactive promises. God promises to make an ordinary man one of the key figures of human history. God promises to give a child to a woman whose ninety years of life have proven anything but fertile.
Abram and Sarai respond to God’s promises in interesting and wide-ranging ways:
- Abram agrees to pick up and move to the promised land with no certainty, which is admirable.
- Abram then fears for his life and pretends his wife is his sister so that she would marry the Pharaoh and ensure their safe passage, which is detestable.
- Sarai becomes impatient and convinces Abram to sleep with, and impregnate, her servant, Hagar, which is, well, I’m not sure what adjective to use here.
- Then, Sarai laughs out loud at God’s promise that she would give birth to a son in her old age, which is understandable.
These varied responses not only make for an entertaining story, but they demonstrate the profound message that the validity of God’s promises do not rest on our ability to make them come true. God’s promises are not contingent on our worthiness or correct responses to every situation. This is a remarkable shift in God’s dealings with humankind.
This shift in how God interacts with humankind demonstrates that there is yet another factor in determining the virtuousness of promises. Good, life-giving, promises not only in the intent and ability of the promise-giver to actually see the promise come true; but good, life-giving promises also require empathy – a willingness enter fully into the life of another.
As I studied pastoral care, first in a classroom and then in a hospital setting as a chaplain, it was common to use the analogy of a dark pit. Imagine one who is suffering as sitting in a dark pit with no clearly visible way out. When we care for someone who is suffering, our impulse is to send down a ladder to the pit. The ladders Christians like to use are the classic one-liners like “I promise everything will be ok” or “I promise this all happened for a reason” or “I promise God doesn’t give you more than you can handle” and so on.
Ladders seem like a fine way to get out of a pit…especially when we’re the ones standing at the top, looking down. But ladders always seem rickety and obtrusive to the people at the bottom, if they reach down that far at all.
Another natural tendency is to go down to the pit to rescue the person who’s suffering. We stand at the top and, frankly, the pit of despair doesn’t seem like it’s really that deep. We think the person who is suffering is being over-dramatic. So we promise “I’ll save you!” We jump down, grab a hold of the suffering person, and tug and pull them with all our might and self-righteousness, only to find their weight is too much to bear alone.
The third way, however, is the way of empathy. The empathetic promise is the one that says, “I will be with you.” The empathetic promise is the one that sends us down to the pit simply to sit beside the suffering one, so that we can truly understand the depth of their emotion and serve as a healing and patient presence of love in the darkness.
God’s promise to Sarah and Abraham, and to their descendants (of which we are adopted) is the empathic promise of presence in our pain. Through the first creation, the rainbow covenant, and now the promise of blessing to Sarah and Abraham, God intends and is able to see God’s promises to creation come true and is willing to dwell completely with us to prove God’s steadfast love.
Frederick Niedner quote from Feasting on the Word, Year A, vol. 2, p54