God is not a man, so he does not lie. He is not human, so he does not change his mind. Has he ever spoken and failed to act? Has he ever promised and not carried it through? [Numbers 23:19 (NLT)]
While my college mantra was, “Study like you don’t pray and pray like you don’t study,” I tended to wait until the end of the semester to do either one. While cramming for finals, my prayers always included a promise that, if God would help me pass my exams, I’d never again cut class or wait until the last minute to do the required reading.
It certainly is tempting to make promises to God in return for answered prayers. In the 1940s, when Danny Thomas was down and out, the young entertainer did just that. Turning to St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes, he prayed, “Show me my way in life, and I will build you a shrine.” When his career took an almost immediate upswing, he envisioned a children’s hospital and started raising money to build and maintain it. In November of 1958, Thomas dug up the first spadeful of dirt at the groundbreaking for St. Jude Hospital! I’m not maligning Danny Thomas, condoning praying to saints, or disparaging the wonderful research hospital that resulted from Thomas’ promise. Nevertheless, in spite of the good that resulted, I don’t think prayers promising something to God if He fulfills our prayers are ones we should make.
When we pray “I’ll do this, if you’ll do that,” it seems like we’re asking God for something we don’t think we’ll get unless we “sweeten the pot” with a promise. It’s as if we don’t truly trust His intentions. The promise to do something for God seems like we’re asking Him to see it our way instead of us desiring His way. Yet, if we’re praying within God’s will, He promises we will receive.
Sometimes, sin is what causes us to make a promise to God. At finals’ time in college, forgetting that both repentance and facing consequences are an essential part of confession and forgiveness, I glibly promised a change in my behavior if I didn’t have to meet the consequences for my foolishness. Others, thinking their sins are just too great for absolution, make a promise to serve God in some way to merit His forgiveness, which seems a lot like bribing a judge for an innocent verdict. Such deal making is refusing God’s grace. Since Jesus already paid for our sins on the cross, paying God for forgiveness and absolution is an offense to Him!
Sometimes we make promises to God out of gratitude. Preferring to rely on ourselves rather than Him, we’re uncomfortable with feeling beholden or indebted to God. Rather than offering Him praise and thanksgiving, we make a pledge to do something as a way of thanking God for blessings received. Then, after fulfilling our promise, we’re the ones who feel praiseworthy for our good works! Trying to pay God for blessings received is another insult to Him; our good works should come from our love for Him rather than as a payment to Him.
Although God always keeps His promises, we humans aren’t so reliable and, more often than not, we break our promises to God. Granted, Danny Thomas kept his promise but perhaps he’s the exception that proves the rule. When the next semester rolled around in college, because I’d failed to keep the previous semester’s promise, I again made the same conditional prayer while cramming for exams. Although I always ended up with decent grades, it had nothing to do with my promises. Those grades, like Danny Thomas’ success and every other good thing that comes our way, have nothing to do with our promises—they are received only by God’s grace!
Praying with conditional promises of any kind turns our prayers into a transaction. Moreover, because we think it was our promise that caused the prayer’s fulfillment, it robs God of his deserved glory and praise. May we always remember that following Christ isn’t about making promises to God, it is about depending on the promises of God!
Believers do not pray, with the view of informing God about things unknown to him, or of exciting him to do his duty, or of urging him as though he were reluctant. On the contrary, they pray, in order that they may arouse themselves to seek him, that they may exercise their faith in meditating on his promises, that they may relieve themselves from their anxieties by pouring them into his bosom; in a word, that they may declare that from him alone they hope and expect, both for themselves and for others, all good things. [John Calvin]