Many of us have experienced the feeling of reading or memorizing a promise, hoping that it will be the answer to our temptations, only to find that in the middle of spiritual conflict we either forget the promise or it doesn’t seem to have the power we expected.
What does it look like, on the ground, to use God’s promises to fight successfully against doubt and unbelief? As I brainstormed this question with a few of the people in my community at NHCC, we filled a whiteboard with ideas from God’s Word and from our own experiences of success (and defeat). The ideas below are the fruit of that discussion. Later this week, I will also post a blog entitled “Promise Training In Community,” which will focus on how we can help each other fight to believe God’s promises.
Here are five practical ways to use God’s promises in fighting against doubt and unbelief:
1. Use God’s promises as a channel to his power and presence, not as a rabbit’s foot.
Promises are not a magic charm that when remembered just at the right time mystically make temptation disappear. Nor are they a spiritual six-shooter that you un-holster to blow away unbelief. 2 Peter 1:3 tells us that God “has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature.” Read that again. That’s a startling statement Peter is making. Promises are God’s means of connecting (and re-connecting) us to God himself and everything he is. In the middle of doubt, unbelief, and temptation, God knows that what we really need is not a quick fix so we can get on with our lives. We need to be spiritually transported and connected to the life-giving presence of God.
2. Personalize God’s promises to help you talk to God about specific doubts or temptations.
If the purpose of promises is to move us towards enjoying God’s presence and power, then promises are a helpful way of fueling our prayers, of putting words in our heart and mouth that cultivate earnest conversation with the Father. Thomas Manton, a contemporary of John Bunyan, said about using promises in prayer that we should “show [God] his handwriting; God is tender [to] his Word.” So, use God’s Words, not in mindless repetition, but in combination with your own words as prayers that are relevant to the current temptation.
For example, one of my go-to, all-encompassing promises is Psalm 63:3: “Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you.” I often replace the word “life” with things in life that discourage or allure me and I begin to have a conversation with God that goes something like this: “God, I believe that your steadfast love is better than a completed task list” or “God, I am thankful that your steadfast love is better than the feeling of resolving this question immediately.”
Or, for another example, I will often personalize and pray the promise in 1 Corinthians 15:58: “be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” My conversation with the Father might sound like this: “Father, because Jesus rose from the dead, it is not useless to work hard to understand your Word today” or “Father, because Jesus rose from the dead, it is not useless to tell my neighbor about Jesus today.” You get the idea. As God gives you promises, use them to customize and energize your prayers.
3. Use both old and new promises.
Peter reminded us Sunday that we often look for the next best thing, for something novel, thinking that always having a new promise is the answer. Jesus told his disciples in Matthew 13:52, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” In other words, Jesus is telling his disciples to keep storing up kingdom words because sometimes the words we heard months or years ago (the “old” words) are what we need, and sometimes the words we heard yesterday or this morning (the “new” words) are what we need.
So, yes, keep learning new promises, but don’t shy away from the good, simple ones that you’ve known for years. It’s still true that “he has said, ‘I will never leave you or forsake you’” (Hebrews 13:5). It’s still true that “he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6). It’s still true that “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7). And, yes, it’s still true that “we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).
4. Affirm and vocalize God’s promises even when you don’t fully believe them.
The Psalms are full of examples of the psalmists confessing what is true, even in the middle of doubt. In the middle of asking, “Has God forgotten to be gracious?” (Psalm 73:9), Asaph still remembered God’s ways in the past and confessed, “Your way, O God, is holy. What god is great like our God?” (v. 13). It’s easy to feel that we’re being disingenuous if we affirm God’s promises when we really don’t feel like they are true. But one of the best ways to cultivate faith is to pray something like this in the middle of doubt: “God, I affirm that you are good/holy/faithful/true/loving even though right now I do not feel like it’s true.” Sometimes, we cannot even honestly start there and so maybe we have to start with, “God, in this moment, I am refusing to believe that you are…but, I still affirm that it is true.” Humbly vocalizing your unbelief or your doubt in God’s promises can be the starting point for repentance and can help your heart “catch up” with your words. In other words, don’t wait until you are resting in God’s promises before you confess and affirm they are true. Begin fighting, even when you are waiting for your soul to catch up with your words. Reason with your soul like the psalmist did in Psalm 42: “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.” Proverbs 18:21 says that “death and life are in the power of the tongue.” So, speak life-giving promises to yourself and let God by his Spirit, ignite your faith as you do.
5. Keep fighting to rest in God’s promises.
“Fighting to rest” seems like an oxymoron. But that’s exactly the kind of language the writer of Hebrews uses to describe the kind of response to God’s promises that distinguishes believers from unbelievers (see Hebrews 4:1-16). Believers keep fighting to believe God’s promises. They keep fighting to say, “today, I will hear God’s voice and not harden my heart” (v. 7). This kind of fighting results in both future and present rest (vv. 10-11).
The reason fighting is so critical is because promises defend against temptations, but they do not eradicate them, any more than a shield can eradicate the blows of the enemy’s sword. God doesn’t promise that he will completely remove our temptations (although sometimes he does), but he does promise to help us keep learning how to fight successfully. So, our posture has to be one of constant readiness to fight to believe God’s promises when doubt and temptation come.
As we fight, the rest and peace often don’t come immediately. We often give up too soon, expecting immediate results as we quote a promise once or twice in the middle of doubt. But as Bunyan’s life illustrates, if we will keep affirming, keep praying, and keep entering God’s presence through his promises, rest and hope will eventually begin to invade our souls. The analogy Peter used Sunday is super helpful. A waterfall, over time, slowly etches pathways into rocks by repeatedly flowing over them in the same spot. As we begin to change our thought patterns to think promises instead of doubts or unbelief, the initial rock-etching can be rough going. It takes time. But if we will fight to keep believing, a new pattern of thinking can be etched in our minds.
Keep training. Keep fighting. Keep resting.
By Ben Arnold