When God’s Promises Don’t Mean Very Much

I was standing at the precipice of a new season, nervously anticipating the last day of my salaried job and the dreaded world of freelancing that awaited me after. It wasn’t a career move that I’d chosen. But the company wasn’t doing well, so I’d been retrenched.

As I prayed and looked for another job, I encountered something familiar: all the doors to the work that I wanted were firmly closed, but the door to the sort of job I didn’t want—freelancing—was flung wide open.

In the week leading up to that last day, friends coincidentally sent me links to sermons and articles, all related to the same verse, “So do not fear, for I am with you” (Isaiah 41:10). None of them knew each other or knew about my job transition. Receiving the promise “I am with you” in several different forms happened enough times for me to know that God was trying to get through to me.

So, I sat down one evening and said to God, “I’ve got to be honest. I know being told that You are with me is supposed to be something very precious, but it doesn’t give me the comfort that I think I’m supposed to feel.”

I braced myself for what was surely going to be (at the very least) gentle chastising. What a sacrilegious thing to say, after all. But as I waited on God, a surprising question came to my mind:

When have I felt assured simply because of someone’s presence with me?

Thinking back over my experiences, I remembered two people who had a remarkably reassuring effect on me.

Mr. and Mrs. B. were teachers I had in high school when I was in New Zealand. They would often organize hikes in the New Zealand wilderness during the summer weekends. They were absolute experts, and knew all the beautiful and formidable things about the outdoors, as well as how to navigate through them.

There were always any number of things that could go wrong in the bush: the way the unpredictable New Zealand storms could transform the safest looking path into a deathtrap, or how an unusually hot summer could dry up a stream at a campsite and leave you stranded for fresh water. Someone stepped on an innocent-looking tree root once, some 10 minutes after Mr. B. warned the team not to (tree roots are always deceptively slippery). She had to be helicoptered out of the bush because of how terribly she’d sprained her ankle.

Yet, amidst all the potential for chaos, I was never once anxious about how dangerous tramping could be. I was so assured of Mr. and Mrs. B.’s competence that I knew, when the worst happened, they’d manage it perfectly. I was also certain that they cared about their students and would use their expertise if we needed help. There isn’t much point having experts at hand if they’re indifferent to your situation. This combination of what they could do and who they were made their presence indispensable.

It occurred to me to apply this reflection to my current circumstance, so I thought about the sort of expert I’d ideally like to have during this season of freelancing.

My answer rolled right off: someone excellent at finding jobs for me, the ones I like and can do well, the ones that open doors to meaningful projects where I can make a difference. It wouldn’t hurt if they paid well too, of course, the bills and all that. . .

And then, almost immediately, another question dropped in my heart, “Is there anyone more of an expert and more willing than God is to provide all those things for you?”

It felt like such an obvious question, with such an obvious answer. But I was shocked to realize just how ineffectual I’d thought God was. A source of comfort, sure, insofar as one is comforted by having their hand patted and told that everything will be fine. But that’s not what relieves fear, no.

Fears arise from an acute realization that what one has at hand is insufficient to thrive in a situation. I feared freelancing because I wasn’t sure that the irregularity of the work could always keep me financially afloat. The only thing that would dissipate my fear was knowing I had a tangible way through the quagmire, something I clearly didn’t think God was capable of doing!

My fears revealed my insufficiencies of which I was most aware. And they also revealed the aspects of God of which I was most unaware. My inaccurate impression of who God could be made me ascribe His promise with the value and power of a fridge magnet.

After all, whether the words, “Don’t worry, I’ll be with you wherever you go; I won’t ever leave you,” mean anything to us really depends on the person who says it. (Stalkers say these things too, and that’s what restraining orders are for.) In the same way that I valued Mr. and Mrs. B. because I knew what they could do and who they were, I needed to learn who God is before I could cherish His promise.

In the face of my limitations, God promises Himself to me—with all His expertise and His willingness—so that I will have what He has to meet my circumstances. His expertise is in keeping unstable situations stable (Psalm 18:2), in making something come out of nothing (Isaiah 48:21), in knowing how to give us exactly what we need (Matthew 6:8). How He’ll do it, He’ll never say, but that He’ll keep His word is a given.

I realized it’s a little like how it was with Mr. and Mrs. B. I never questioned the routes they took us on, even through some of the most mundane  landscapes or those perilous cliff edge trails on the side of a mountain. They had my complete trust, so whatever paths we were taking became irrelevant. I knew they would always lead us to some of the most spectacular campsites or mountaintop views that New Zealand has to offer. They always led us somewhere good.

When I question God’s instructions, or if I fear the path He’s taking me down, it’s because I’ve lost sight of how much of an expert He is in that area of my life. He knows the ins and outs of the land and all the tricks of the trade and is the most qualified to navigate me through it competently. He’s the very best at healing broken hearts, in building secure inner worlds, in redeeming failures, in sustaining human relationships, in overcoming the impossible. . . an endless list of specialties for a God with infinite capacities.

I don’t know why being a freelancer is so necessary for me just yet, and I don’t know where it’ll lead. But I trust that He has excellent reasons for it. It’s been three months into this new season, and He’s already given me more work than I know what to do with. Expert, indeed.

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