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Ryan and I are reading The Meaning of Marriage by Tim and Kathy Keller with an engaged couple from our church. This quote, from Hannah Arendt, in chapter 3 was striking to me: "Without being bound to the fulfillment of our promises, we would never be able to keep our identities; we would be condemned to wander helplessly and without direction in the darkness of each person's lonely heart, caught in its contradictions and equivocalities." After eighteen years of marriage, I am realizing the power of a marriage promise. Yes, the promise binds me to Ryan, and I pray to be faithful to this good man. But in some fundamental way, as Arendt describes, our marriage promise also binds me to me: to the most loving, holy, reliable version of me I hope to one day become.
A promise can bind us to another. It can also bind us to ourselves.
God makes promises, too. And his identity is also bound up with his promises (cf. Heb. 6:13).
In Genesis 15:5, the LORD reassures Abram that his promises to him are sure. He had asked Abram to leave his home, to immigrate to Canaan, to trust him for children. But the years have worn long, and Abram, human as the rest of us, doubts. He wonders why, if God has promised him an heir, he has a household servant, not a son. "O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?" There is so little evidence for Abram to confirm God's word as true. How can Abram trust?
"This man shall not be your heir," God says. And then, for dramatic effect, he leads Abram by the elbow into the cold night air. The sky is electric with stars, luminous with promise. "Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them. So shall your offspring be."
This is magnificent scene, not least because God is patient with Abram. I think we imagine that doubt cannot be tolerated by God. (Read Dorothy Greco's terrific guest post on this.) We think God quick to judge the infirmities of our faith. But this is not the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—the God who remembers we are dust (cf. Ps. 103:14).
The scolding, disappointed God is not the God of Abraham. And he is not the God of the stars.
This is our eighth word of faith: stars.
It is difficult to believe that God is generous.
Sure, we have the hucksters on television, the health-and-wealth evangelists crooning that we can have our big house and fancy cars and Jesus, too.
But aside from those flatteries, what do we really believe about God? Do we see him as generous? I'm apt to think we've more convinced that he's miserly. Yes, maybe there's goodness to expect from him, but we imagine it's distributed judiciously, sparingly.
We see God's goodness like the bag of chips my friend describes sharing with her two brothers after swimming lessons. They grew up poor. Treats were scarce. But if the three of them swam well, after their lesson, their mother toweled them off and marched them up to the vending machine. She would insert her handful of change, and one bag of chips would drop.
The bag was mostly air. There were few chips to enjoy. But my friend and her brothers would dutifully pass the chips back and forth between them in the back seat of the car, thankful for what they had.
God made a promise to Abram, and he made good on it. He gave him a son and a line of descendants marching all the way to and beyond the birth of a little boy in the town of Bethlehem, Jesus of Nazareth. And now the God-Man is bringing all kinds of people into Abraham's family, His Father adopting them as his own. It's a family spanning continent and race, language and era.
These children are stars. And material proof that when God makes a promise, it is bound up with his identity.
Of goodness. And generosity. And faithfulness.