The other day, I got one of those reminders about Christianity’s false promises. It set me off on this trip through memory lane. Promises–in Christianity as elsewhere–become part of a package of testable assertions about whatever they concern. And in turn, they can show someone that what they believe is simply false. Now, you’d think that sensible salespeople would want to avoid making promises they can’t possibly keep. Alas for Christians, these promises are so much a part of their overall sales pitch thart they can’t. Join me for a look at false promises, and why they devastate Christian evangelism attempts.
Getting through to the most-indoctrinated Christians can feel a lot like licking a Tootsie Pop. How many licks will it take to get to the center? Meaning, how many times must reality itself reply, No, you’re totally wrong; that’s not how that works at all, before an indoctrinated Christian learns that a promise they rely on is a false one?
But oh, Christian hucksters love to make those promises anyway, and to offer them to the flocks as a real and genuine support and safety net in times of trouble.
Recently when John Piper was asked (or more likely asked himself) some softball questions about divine promises, he had plenty to say on the topic. He presented his very favorite, which is from Isaiah 41:10 (and since he appears to be using the English Standard Version, I’ll quote from it):
fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.
He tells his audience that his father told the verse to him before he left the country to pursue doctoral studies in Germany. Naturally, like many people would, young John Piper felt uncertain and nervous about the new venture (and being a pure authoritarian, likely he felt way more so than most would). So when his father recited that verse, he grabbed for it and hugged it close like a life raft.
Clinging to Promises.
We find similar promises from megapastor Rick Warren. Of course, Isaiah 41:10 appears on his list, as do many others that extend his theme.
In fact, this type of list shows up everywhere and constantly in Christian-land. Exhortations based on these lists (content note: cruel “haha jus’ playin‘” Christian parenting on display on that one; JFC, that poor kid) exist everywhere as well.
All of these lists boil down to one promise:
The Christian god helps his followers in their times of trouble.
If not material aid, his marketing team assures us that this god provides at least encouragement, moral support, and emotional strength. If he’s in the mood, gosh, maybe he even gives them miraculous help in tangible ways.
I clung to that promise myself. You’ve likely heard all the riffs on it. Most Christians have used the most common: God doesn’t give anybody more than they can handle.1 But there certainly exist others, such as the poem “Footprints,” which has Jesus carrying his adherent during that person’s very worst times in life.
The Marketing of Promises.
The marketing around this promise is huge. As with similar promises around magical healing, it certainly comprises one of the major claims that Christians make. Also like the promises around magical healing, these promises are unequivocal, absolutely black-and-white, crystal-clear, and written in stone.
Of course, some significant differences exist.
Firstly, despite the source material showing the promises around magical healing in that same way, Christians almost always subscribe to a long list of asterisks around it that all but nullify it.2
Secondly, nobody can dispute the results of a magic healing. Either the person heals magically, or they don’t. Christians constantly try to hand-wave away negative results, but even as a Christian that didn’t work on me after I found out what the Bible actually said about the topic.
However, they don’t even need asterisks and hand-waving around the promise of divine aid-in-some-fashion. That’s one of those promises that John Piper calls “gloriously general enough to apply in every situation.”
Alone Without Comfort.
In college, I became aware that why yes, our god did indeed allow people to have problems that were too big for them. And he did not give them even divine help to endure it.
The first person to break through my belief in this promise was surely “Tabitha,” an atheist I met in college. One day, she finally had about all she could take of my warbling of forced-birther talking points. In response, she laid into me with a terse, growled story about her best high school friend “Amy,” who was a fervent Christian. Amy died after a botched abortion (and this was in the late-1980s, when it was legal-but-seriously-stigmatized). Amy had not found the strength to endure an unwanted pregnancy. Nor had this god magicked her up some help afterward. Instead, she’d died in agony.
To say that Tabitha’s story destroyed my world would be an understatement. I’ll tell you more about that whole situation later on. For now, just know that I took from it way more than Tabitha ever intended. Besides showing me proof-beyond-proof that my talking points were in error (including the one about TRUE CHRISTIANS™ not needing or seeking such care), I saw it as the violation of a promise I viewed as both sacred and consistent.
Worse still, the more I looked around the more I began to see the truth of that broken promise. My dear friend Wayne, a gay Southern Baptist, was nearly at the end of his rope. “Jesus” was not helping him, comforting him, or lifting him up–or magically taking his “same-sex attraction” away. Thoughts and prayers wasn’t doing anything to help his situation, and he was already becoming increasingly frantic and despondent.
It seemed like a whole lot of people did not get magical help to endure their troubles.
Of course, the promises around the Christian god caring and lifting up his followers might be absolutely clear-cut, but Christians still do a lot of hand-waving around them. Mostly they focus on the people who very clearly do not find that divine help in time.
Not many of those people exist, for a couple of reasons.
The primary reason why Christians don’t need to explain those people away is that they’re not that common. Most of us do manage to slog through our troubles. We don’t need or use divine aid to do it, obviously, but it’s very easy for Christians to assign such a reason to them after the fact. Nobody can disprove such a claim, and Christians get very tetchy when anybody asks them to support it–so most people don’t. They have no way whatsoever to demonstrate the difference between a slogging-through that happened only through supernatural aid and one that happened because that person just happened to be resilient or had some measure of resources at hand to handle the need.
The secondary and more sinister reason, of course, is that Christians can (and do) safely ignore the people who do fall through the cracks and can’t cope with whatever terrible things have happened. The people needing the most help seem to be the most quiet about saying so–and that rule applies doubly to Christian groups, where a person who admits they need help at all is tacitly admitting that “Jesus” isn’t helping them.
Explaining It Away.
When someone does show very visible signs of not having found divine help, like harming themselves or having a complete emotional breakdown, that puts Christians in an unexpected bind. Never fear, though! They can resolve it quickly–if the compassion has been scorched out of them thoroughly enough.
Usually the hand-waving centers around blaming that person for not having sought that help hard enough–or for some defect in faith or character that prevented them from seizing the help and utilizing it. Christian Broadcasting Network, the same outfit that Pat Robertson claims his god magically saved from the hurricane recently, decided last summer that focusing too much on “pursuing worldly pleasures can leave us feeling empty inside.”
Ah, that must be it. They just didn’t Jesus hard enough.
Indeed, that’s the usual reason Christians assign to people who demonstrably didn’t find magical help with their problems.
Christians are really good at reframing their failed promises as some shortcoming on the part of the believer. Remember that Christian who tried (emphasis laid upon tried there) to push back against my Easter post a few years ago? Seth tried to reframe my deconversion as some kind of “negative experience in the church” and “wounds given by others.” He saw those things as responsible for my deconversion and my deep antipathy toward the religion itself.
Keeping Them Dancing.
That same impulse to do everything except critically examine promises keeps Christians leaping from unanswered need to unanswered need like they’re doing the Log Driver’s Waltz.
This was a 70s mainstay that often ran on Saturday mornings during the regular cartoons. And it was one of my favorites!
I didn’t even think about using that hand-waving excuse when Tabitha shared her story, though, and I didn’t reach for it with Wayne. I’m glad of that now. At the time, all I can remember is that the excuse came to me–of course; it’s programmed early into chirpy Christians like I was–but it seemed so pathetically inadequate to the needs revealed.
I didn’t know Tabitha’s friend, but I did know Wayne. He did everything anybody could ever reasonably ask of anyone facing a serious problem. But “Jesus” wasn’t helping him. I had no expectation that “Jesus” would have helped Tabitha’s friend, either.
Maybe, just maybe, he didn’t help everyone who needed it.3
I’d just discovered a false promise. It was as simple as that.
Here’s Why False Promises Are Bad.
The A-#1 big problem with making a whole bunch of false promises is that when even one of those promises turns out to be untrue, a lot of folks who believed it will immediately begin wondering about all the other ones. And a lot of them won’t be satisfied with hand-waving excuses, but instead will get to the bottom of the matter.
That’s what happened to me. I didn’t deconvert because of Tabitha’s friend and Wayne, but my faith had been seriously rattled. When I discovered a couple of years later that the promise of magical healing wasn’t true either, that’s when I finally deconverted.
Once I hit upon the real reason why supernatural aid seemed so inconsistent, I only wondered how I hadn’t seen it earlier.
Indeed, I had to be almost deconverted even to be able to critically evaluate what I saw and experienced.
Aww, What’s the Harm?
Believing in false promises–even long past the time when evidence surfaces that they are false–can have serious repercussions on those who put misplaced faith in them.
I made my decision to marry Biff on the basis of a promise that a god had hand-picked a husband for me who was perfect. As disastrous a decision as it seemed to be even to me at the time, I went through with it because I fully expected “Jesus” to make it all work out.
I made my decision to go to the university I did because I believed that my god wanted me to go there. It wasn’t a bad university, but it sure wasn’t my first pick pre-Pentecostalism, mostly because (at the time at least) it didn’t even offer the very specific degree I wanted.
I made my decision about what jobs I took based on the idea that my imaginary friend had a definite opinion about the matter.
Obviously, I also made my decisions about sex and relationships because I thought my god had totally promised that I’d be happier through obedience.
Other people go to even more extremes. Some Christians don’t get themselves or their children adequate educations or healthcare because they think they’re doing the will of their imaginary friend. Some Christians make ridiculous business decisions on that same basis. Others go into politics or other careers that they are not suited for because they think that some supernatural being wants them to do it.
What Lauren Daigle Doesn’t Actually Know.
Yesterday, Rolling Stone reported that a Christian album has done phenomenally well this week even compared to secular albums (indeed, only albums from Paul McCartney and Eminem did better than hers). I looked to Lauren Daigle’s lyrics for the title song, and I felt a familiar surge of white-hot anger.
Where are You now
When darkness seems to win
Where are You now
When the world is crumbling. . .
You’re not threatened by the war
You’re not shaken by the storm
I know You’re in control
Even in our suffering
Even when it can’t be seen
I know You’re in control
“Look Up Child,” Lauren Daigle
Folks, she doesn’t know that at all.
She may feel sure of it. But she doesn’t know it. She can’t, really, because it’s blitheringly clear that it’s not true. Instead, she’s just chirping a party line. It’s one that her predecessors have made a lot of money on, too. Christians love to spend money on anyone who reinforces the Party’s talking points. I’ve no doubt her album will make a lot of money, if the rest of it is this baldly pandering.
The reality of the situation looks so different. As pretty as her voice is, Lauren Daigle’s imaginary friend is just as helpless to aid people in real need as I was the day Tabitha descended upon me in rage–or the day Wayne collapsed in tears before me.
No grand, invisible wizards in the sky can do anything that matters for anybody. And realizing that became one of my first steps out of a religion that did me far more harm than good.
NEXT UP: “Original Christianity.” It’s one of the biggest jokes in the entire religion nowadays. Certainly it’s one of the bigger lies. Let’s plunge into the truth of it. See you soon!
1 Some asshat at The Gospel Coalition (TGC) sent that tired old saying into red-hot maximum overdrive a few years ago with the more-hardcore-than-thou one-up on this: God will send you more than you can handle, but he can’t send you more than he can handle–HAW HAW SEE WHUT HE DID THAR?… OMG, it’s so tedious. (Back to the post!)
2 The prayer must be uttered by someone completely fervent and lacking in any unconfessed, un-atoned-for “secret sins.” Nobody who participates in the spellcasting ritual may feel even one iota of doubt that the magic spell will work. The request must be something the Christian god wanted and intended to do anyway, and it must fit into his specific “plan” for the universe (however, please remember that literally nobody can possibly know exactly what he wanted to do or what the “plan” is in the first place). (Back to the post!)
3 The reality was that nothing supernatural was doing anything. ALL the supernatural promises, therefore, were false. But so were all of the earthly promises, in great part because the supernatural ones were. (Back to the post!)
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