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A Process and a Puzzle
The flag of sorrow flew at half mast over many an American heart in mid-July, 1999. Another tragedy. Another in a long line of familiar names from the famous Kennedy clan tasted death much earlier than anyone would have predicted ... and in a way most would never have guessed.
Ironically, this one happened seven short miles off the same shore of the same sleepy resort island where young John played as a lad. Will the sadness never end for this grief-stricken, shock-stunned family? The list is a litany of tragedies and surprises that reads like a modern-day book of lamentations. Horrible assassinations, sudden deaths, carnal scandals, tragic and life-threatening illnesses, and now a desperate search at sea for the remains of three lives that ended as strangely as any of us could have imagined. There are some who have suggested it is some sort of "curse" that haunts them. To be sure, unanwered questions swarm all over the Kennedys.
Regardless of where you and I may stand politically, ethically, and morally—in spite of whether we agree or disagree with their lives and lifestyles—every one of us turns the same three-letter word over and over in our heads: Why? We find ourselves wondering how much longer the plague, if that's what it is, will remain and who of their number will be next. It's a mystery.
Even as Christians, who firmly believe in a God of order and compassion, One who "tenderly cares for His own," we cannot deny the reality that much of what He does and most of why He doesit falls into that category ... at least from our vantage point. And it isn't just one family's mystery—we all live with mysteries, not just the rich and famous. They surround all of us through all of life. The healthy and hearty as well as the sick, the handicapped, and the dying. The young and the old. The godly and the godless.
It's time to say it: More often than not we face life in a quandary. Searching, disturbing questions far outnumber absolute, air-tight answers. Even though we love the Lord and are committed to His plan. Even though we obey His Word and seek His will. If we're honest enough to admit it, there are days—no, there are even months when we simply cannot figure out what God is up to.
The longer I live, the more I believe that one of the most profound subjects in the Christian life is the will of God. The deeper we dig into it, the more we realize how little we know. When we stop and think deeply about the way He leads us along, we must conclude that it is one of the most mysterious subjects in the spiritual life. Yet I've observed that we use words like "It's the will of God" or "We hope God will have His will and way in this" rather glibly.
Someone has said that getting an education is going from an unconscious to a conscious awareness of our own ignorance. When we do a serious study of the will of God, we go from an unconscious to a conscious awareness of how mysteriously He leads us along. Perhaps this explains why our walk with our Lord is often inconsistent and why it is sometimes more of a struggle than a relief. Let's face it: Much of His plan simply doesn't make sense ... not to us.
So much of understanding this is a matter of the will—not God's will, but our will. I certainly know that in my own heart I do not always really want to do His will.
We say we do, of course. If we were asked to respond with yes or no to the question, all of us would say, "Yes, I want to know His will." But doing God's will is another matter entirely, because almost without exception it requires risk and adjustment and change. We don't like that. Even using those words makes us squirm. Experiencing the reality of them is even worse. We love the familiar. We love the comfortable. We love something we can control—something we can get our arms around. Yet the closer we walk with the Lord, the less control we have over our own lives, and the more we must abandon to Him. To give Him our wills and to align our wills to His will requires the abandonment of what we prefer, what we want or what we would choose.
So as we approach this "archaeological study" of the will of God, let's recognize that we dig into it knowing that everything within us will at times resist doing what He wants us to do.
A PUZZLE WE WILL NEVER SOLVE
What is God's will and what is not God's will? How can we know God's will? Is it common to miss God's will or is that even possible? How did God reveal His will in biblical days? Is it the same way He reveals His will today? Are there prerequisites for knowing God's will? Can I really know that I am doing God's will? That I am in His will? If so, how? And if I'm not doing God's will, how do I know that? Can anyone else help me discern God's will? If I do His will does He always reward me?
All these and more are common questions every thoughtful believer grapples with at one time or another in life.
I jokingly say to people at times, "It's easier for me to know God's will for my wife than it is for me to know God's will for my life. "The reality is, of course, that we often operate on that principle. We believe we know what our spouse ought to do, or what our child ought to do, or what our neighbor ought to do, or what our friend ought to do. But the tough thing is knowing what I ought to be doing.
Who can help us discern that? Who can we lean on, rely on? Are there any examples of those who have walked in His will? Or, what about the opposite? Are there any examples of those who have strayed from His will? Is God's will ever a surprise? And if so, why would He choose to surprise us? Is that fair?
In the following pages, I want to grapple with many of these questions in one form or other. But before we begin, I need to make an admission, which will in some ways be a disclaimer. I admit: This subject is inscrutable. Please read those four words again. During my years in seminary, one of my mentors used to say, "One of your problems as young theologians is trying to unscrew the inscrutable." So there are times I will say, without reservation or hesitation, "I do not know the answer." It is a profound, unfathomable subject. Although we have been given so much direction and clarification in the Word of God, there is far more that is beyond our human understanding. So determine, right now not to let that trouble you—even you perfectionist types who want to sweep every corner clean and get every part of the subject covered and clearly understood. You will never, ever be able to do that with this subject. Benjamin Disraeli put it well: "To be conscious that you are ignorant is a great step to knowledge."
But don't take my word for it. Let's learn from Scripture. Look at Job 9, where Job is answering Bildad, who, along with Eliphaz and Zophar, has come to bring a bit of comfort to his suffering friend, Job. I write that with tongue in cheek, of course, because these guys really came to accuse Job. As Job himself says later on, "Sorry comforters are you all. What a sorry lot of counselors you have been?
If you take the time to read Job 8, you'll see how Bildad unloads a major guilt trip on Job. Then in 9:1-12 Job responds. You can almost picture him as he throws his arms in the air and cries,
In truth I know that this is so, but how can a man be in the right before God?
If one wished to dispute with Him [God], he could not answer Him once in a thousand times.
Wise in heart and mighty in strength, who has defied Him without harm?
It is God who removes the mountains, they know not how, when He overturns them in His anger;
Who shakes the earth out of its place, and its pillars tremble; who commands the sun not to shine, and sets a seal upon the stars;
Who alone stretches out the heavens, and tramples down the waves of the sea;
Who makes the Bear, Orion, and the Pleiades, and the chambers of the south;
Who does great things, unfathomable,
And wondrous works without number.
Job is awed by the Creator who "shakes the earth out of its place." Californians know that feeling well—that uneasy, insecure feeling of the earth shaking beneath them. He speaks of the One who "commands the sun not to shine, and sets a seal on the stars." We can set our watches by these heavenly lights God put in motion from the beginning. He does "great things," says Job, things that are "unfathomable." When it comes to God's workings and plans, we will never be able to say, "Finally, I've got it! I've figured it all out!"—not until we get to heaven, when we will know as we are known.
"The first sound we will hear from every throat when we get to heaven is `Ahhhh,'" says my good friend Jay Kesler. "Now I see it! Now I realize why. Now it all makes sense before my eyes, this great once-mysterious panorama of events."
My mentor, the late Ray Stedman, had a helpful description of this. I can still remember his talking about moving from earth to heaven: "We move from the very restricted and limited realm to this massive panorama of the whole scene. And it will be good." It all will have worked together for good, including the tragedies and the calamities and the heartaches, the illnesses and diseases and what we call premature deaths, the terrible deformities and birth defects and congenital illnesses. All will unfold, and we will see that God's plan was right. But not until then. That is Job's point:
[He] does great things, unfathomable, and wondrous works without number.
Were He to pass by me, I would not see Him; were He to move past me, I would not perceive Him.
Were He to snatch away, who could restrain Him? Who could say to Him, "What art Thou doing?"
Who hasn't been tempted to shake a fist at God and cry, "What are You doing?" A child is kidnapped and brutally murdered. "God, what are You doing to us?" A husband drives to the hardware store on Saturday morning and is hit head-on and killed by a drunk driver. Just that quickly he is taken from his wife and family. "What in the world is God up to?" A young mother has routine surgery, develops unforeseen complications, and dies. "God, what are You doing?" It is unfathomable.
So many things that happen in this life are past searching out. I can't explain His plan. I can only unfold from the Scriptures how unfathomable it really is.
The psalmist gives voice to this eloquently in Psalm 139:1-2:
O Lord, Thou hast searched me and known me. Thou dost know when I sit down and when I rise up; Thou dost understand my thought from afar. Thou dost scrutinize my path and my lying down, And art intimately acquainted with all my ways.
Before I ever have a thought, You know it's on its way. You know when it strikes my brain and what's going to come as a result of it. You know it long before I have the thought. Yet we still have the freedom to think that thought and follow through on that action. This is part of the unfathomable nature of our God. "You know it from afar. You scrutinize my path."
For Christmas one year we bought our children what was called "Ant City." This consisted of clear plastic plates on either side, filled with sand and ants. From our vantage point outside and above, we could see what these busy little creatures were doing underground. We watched as they tunneled their way around, leaving a maze of trails.
In a similar fashion, God scrutinizes our paths. From where we are, tunneling along, all we see is the sand immediately ahead, behind, and beside us. But from His vantage point, He can see exactly where we've been and precisely where we're going. "He is intimately acquainted with all my ways."
I know my wife, Cynthia, very well, but I am not intimately acquainted with all her ways, even though we have been married almost forty-five years. As well as I may know my wife or my children or a friend, I will never be "intimately acquainted" with all of their ways. My finite nature hinders such knowledge.
God, however, knows each one of us individually. He numbers the very hairs of our head (which is a bigger challenge for some than for others). The hopes, the wayward thoughts, the directions, the decisions, the indecision, the motives, the words we think but don't say ... He knows all of those.
Even before there is a word on my tongue,
Behold O Lord, Thou dost know it all.
You have enclosed me behind and before,
You have laid Your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
It is too high, I cannot attain to it.
"I may be Your son," David was saying, "and I may write Your music, Lord, and I may be the king of Your people, but, Lord, Your ways are still beyond me. They remain unfathomable to me. I can't understand or explain what You're doing. Such knowledge is too great for me. I can't reach it. I can't attain to it."
Why is it that in the same family one child will go one direction and one another? "It is too high, I cannot attain to it." All of us are sinners. So why does one couple break up in six months and another stay together for sixty years? Why are some individuals called to serve in small, obscure, and difficult places while others serve in comfort in a large arena, surrounded by support. Why, why, why? "It is too high, I cannot attain to it."
So let's settle this point right at the outset. All of these things and so many more we will never understand in this life. Despite all of our searching and all of our study of the Scriptures, we'll never be able to see everything clearly, to fully grasp and understand and answer all the questions. They are beyond our comprehension—a puzzle, a mystery.
In Keep a Quiet Heart, Elisabeth Elliott says, "Today is mine. Tomorrow is none of my business. If I peer anxiously into the fog of the future, I will strain my spiritual eyes so that I will not see clearly what is required of me now."
Much of what happens in life we simply have to take by faith. Answers will not be forthcoming. These are the tensions of reality, and if we get marooned on the tensions, we will not be able to travel further. That is as our heavenly Father planned it.
Who can ever explain the events that occurred at Columbine High school in April, 1999, in Littleton, Colorado? The tragedy is beyond our comprehension—fourteen teenagers and one teacher dead, most of them Christians. How could that be? Why would a loving, caring, gracious God—who does all things well—even permit such an event? In our minds, none of the above squares with our understanding of goodness and grace. How could it?
Was all that a part of His plan? could it be that, in this strange unfolding of His will, we have failed to leave sufficient room for His permission of evil? Job asked his wife what I now ask you, "Shall we indeed accept good from God and not accept adversity" (Job 2:10)? It's a mystery ... based on how we see things and how we evaluate fairness and how we gauge goodness.
God is the Potter; we are the clay. He's the Shepherd; we are the sheep. He's the Master; we are the servant. No matter how educated we are, no matter how much power and influence we may think we have, no matter how long we have walked with Him, no matter how significant we may imagine ourselves to be in His plans (if any of us could even claim significance), none of that qualifies us to grasp the first particle of why He does what He does when He does it and how He chooses to do it.
"For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Neither are your ways My ways," declares the Lord. "For as the heavens are higher than the earth, So are My ways higher than your ways, And My thoughts than your thoughts." (Isaiah 55:8-9)
Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways! "For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who became His counselor?" (Romans 11:33-34).
In an old work by Origen, On First Principles, the great church father underscores what the apostle of grace meant when he wrote that statement:
Paul did not say that God's judgments were hard to search out but that they could not be searched out at all. He did not say that God's ways were hard to find out but that they were impossible to find out. For however far one may advance in the search and make progress through an increasing earnest study, even when aided and enlightened in the mind by God's grace, he will never be able to reach the final goal of his inquiries.
As I think about God's unfathomable ways and the theme of this book, I am reminded of the six-year-old boy who had been given an assignment to draw anything he wanted to draw. But when everyone else in the class had finished drawing, he was still sitting there working on his picture. Finally the teacher walked back and looked over his shoulder.
"What are you drawing?" she asked.
"I'm drawing a picture of God," said the boy.
"You need to remember, Johnny, no one has ever seen God. Nobody knows what He looks like."
"Well ... they will when I'm through," said Johnny.
That's what I would love to think about this book: that when I have finished writing and the printer has finished printing and all my readers have finished reading, that people will at least know what the will of God looks like. But even though I think we will all have learned some things together, in all humility and reality, I know that you won't find it all, or see it all in these pages. So, don't get your hopes up!
What I hope we will do is learn how to turn to God and rely on Him to work out His will in our lives. Hopefully we will realize the enormity of our own ignorance and our need to trust Him and then let it be. Just let it be. If His plan for you is a surprise or, perhaps, a disappointment, let it be. I urge you to come to terms with the disappointment and accept the surprise. Go ahead ... call it a mystery. Let Him have His way with your life, for nothing is worse than resisting and resenting the One who is at work in you.
The amazing thing is that even in the midst of disappointment, surprise, and mystery you will discover how very reliable and trustworthy God is—and how secure you are in His hands. And oh, how we need that in this day of relativism and vacillation, filled with empty talk and hidden behind a lot of semantic footwork. In the midst of "spin city," it is the Lord who talks straight. It is the Lord who has preserved Truth in black and white in His Word. And it is the Lord who has the right to do as He wishes around us, to us, and in us. He's the Potter, remember. Puzzling as the process may be to us, He stays with His plan. There is no need for us to know all the reasons, and He certainly doesn't need to explain Himself. Potters work with the clay, they don't fret over it ... or ask permission to remake the clay into whatever they wish.
And if we're going to let God be God, then we're forced to say He has the right to take us through whatever process He chooses. The journey may be painful as well as puzzling ... including a tragedy at sea seven miles off Martha's Vineyard and a massacre in a school in Littleton, Colorado.
|PART ONE—THE BUFFETINGS OF GOD'S WILL|
|Chapter 1—A Process and a Puzzle||3|
|Chapter 2—God Decrees ... God Permits||15|
|Chapter 3—Moving From Theory to Reality||37|
|Chapter 4—Fleshing Out the Will of God||53|
|Chapter 5—Another Deep Mystery: God's Sovereignty||73|
|Chapter 6—Reading God's Mysterious Lips||95|
|PART TWO—THE BLESSINGS OF GOD'S WILL|
|Chapter 7—The Magnificent Chesed of God||117|
|Chapter 8—God's Mysterious Immutability||135|
|Chapter 9—Can God's Will Make Us Holy?||155|
|Chapter 10—Surprised by God||171|
|Chapter 11—Closed Doors, Open Doors||183|
|Chapter 12—A Better Way to Look at God's Will||199|
Posted December 4, 2000
If you are trying to find an answer to why things happen in this world you will not find the answers in this book or any other book for that matter. However, I believe God inspired Chuck to write this book with all of us in mind. This book will give you a new sense of God¿s greatness and power. It will make you realize that God, above everything, is in ultimate control of what happens in the universe. And as mysterious as His ways are, He always does what is best for His children. If you read this book and don¿t come to the realization that God loves you so much you simply cannot put it in words, you probably did not really stopped to understand what was in the pages. However, if you do read the book with great care you will praise God for His unfathomable care and love for you and me.
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