Human beings break promises, and young people know it. A friend says “I won’t be late tonight—promise,” and then he’s late again. Or for some it’s something much more painful. Perhaps Mom says “This doesn’t mean dad and I are splitting up—I promise,” but then they do. Teenagers have all been on the receiving end of broken promises, so when someone says “I promise” they might only hear “I’ll try really hard” or “I want you to trust me.”
How do we show teenagers that God is different? How do we give them confidence that when God says “I promise” he doesn’t just mean “I’ll try” or “I want you to trust me?” A good place to start is to point them to the promise behind the promises: God said to Moses ‘I AM WHO I AM’ (Ex. 3:14). The God who reveals himself to us in Scripture is not like us, and so his promises are not like ours.
Back when I was a university student, I can’t say I was thrilled when my pastor suggested we work through the book of Exodus in our weekly Bible study—I knew the story (I’d seen The Prince of Egypt movie after all) and it all felt very distant from my life. But over a decade later, I’d count the hour we spent looking at Exodus 3 together as one of the most important hours in my growth as a Christian. And so I want to encourage you to open up this part of God’s Word with the teenagers you’re ministering to—it might just change their lives.
As Exodus 3 opens, God appears to Moses in the burning bush, and then commissions him to return to Egypt to bring his people out of slavery. And then Moses asks God:
When Moses asks God his name he’s not asking God what he should call him. He’s asking God who he really is. And God answers him:
When Moses asks God his name, who he really is, God replies “I AM WHO I AM.” God’s foundational promise to Moses, to his people in Egypt, to his people across all of time and space is that he is unchangingly, unstoppably himself. And that promise, that revelation of who he is, underpins all of the other wonderful promises he makes to us in the pages of Scripture. By promising “I AM WHO I AM,” God reveals that he is unchanging and unstoppable. And that’s what makes his promises different.
The Bible is crystal clear that God does not change (Mal. 3:6, Heb. 13:8, Jas. 1:17) One of the reasons human beings break our promises is that we change. We make promises with the best intentions, genuinely intending to do everything we can to keep them—but our desires change. We get a better offer for that evening, and so we break our promise to go to the movies with a friend. The person we promised to help ends up hurting us, and so we don’t want to help them anymore. But God isn’t like that—he is utterly eternally unchanging. And so he never makes a promise and then doesn’t want to keep it.
This is crucial to get across to teens from broken homes in particular. If we want teenagers to build their lives on God’s promise that he will never leave them or forsake them (Deut. 31:6, Heb. 13:5), then we need to give them reason to believe that God is not “just saying that.” We need to give them confidence that God won’t feel differently tomorrow, that he won’t decide that given all their sin and mess he can’t stick with them anymore. And that reason, that confidence can be found in Exodus 3:14: “I AM WHO I AM.”
The footnote in my ESV Bible tells me that the Hebrew of Exodus 3:14 could also be translated as “I will be who I will be.” And I love how that gets across the unstoppability of God—nothing and no one can stop him being who he will be.
Because sometimes human beings also break promises through no fault of our own. We promise we’ll make it on time to the show —but the car breaks down. We promise we’ll take students away on a youth weekend this year—but covid hits. There are circumstances beyond our control that stop us keeping our promises. But God is different. There is nothing beyond his control. There is nothing that can stop him from keeping his promises. He will be who he will be—no matter what.
I had been a Christian for years before I sat in that coffee shop with my pastor and opened up Exodus 3, but I’d never understood that truth. I’d never seen that when God makes a promise there is nothing that can stop him from keeping it, and so we can stake everything —absolutely everything—on his promise being fulfilled. I’d never truly grasped that we’re not taking our chances when we build our lives on the promises of God, we’re rooting our lives in the only thing that is truly certain. We need to make sure young people don’t miss out like I did. We need to be sure we don’t just teach them God’s promises, but how God’s promises are so much better than our promises.