Christianity 201

February 12, 2018

When My Plan Isn’t God’s Plan

Filed under: Christianity - Devotions — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:30 pm
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We were sorry to see that the Ask the Pastors website has been dormant since October. Readers would send in questions and different pastors would reply. The one below was the final item appearing at the site.

What if God’s plan doesn’t want something important to me to go right?

Question: The Bible always says that God will make everything all right in the end, and if something doesn’t go right, it’s because God’s plan says it’s not supposed to go right. I know that’s supposed to make you feel better, but it does the opposite for me. What if God’s plan doesn’t want something important to me to go right? Please help, because this is one of the main reasons why I feel my faith is weak. For some reason, just “trusting the plan” doesn’t make me feel any better.

Answer:  There is an entire book in the Bible devoted to the search for some guarantee that our lives will go right.  It is the book of Ecclesiastes.  The author sought to “gain” a bright future through various means including wisdom and folly.  He discovered that folly is sure to bring pain and misery, but that even wisdom and behaving wisely cannot keep things going right.  And the ultimate proof of that is death.  We’re all going to die.  God will not rescue us from that negative future.  What he finally counsels is to enjoy the happy moments of life but prepare for the unhappy ones, especially death.  And above all, keep God’s commands.

The author of Ecclesiastes is applying the truth Paul gives us in Romans 8:18-25:

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. (ESV)

God purposely subjected the world to futility.  That means it is always going to be characterized by frustration.  Things are not going to work out the way they should.  There is a tragic undercoating to all of life.  God did this in the garden of Eden after Adam and Eve sinned.  He made the most beautiful experience in a woman’s life, child bearing, a thing accompanied by pain.  He made growing food a fighting against the land growing weeds.  He banned Adam and Eve from the tree of life so that they would not live forever.  Death became the reality of life.

Paul says God did this in hope of creation’s being set free from this bondage when His kingdom is restored and we are fully redeemed.  We are groaning just like creation is.  Our relationships were meant for perfection but fall sadly short.  Our work was meant to always be fruitful but falls sadly short.  Our lives were meant to be pain and death free, but fall sadly short.  We are hoping for the redemption of all things and will not experience it until Jesus returns.

The author of Ecclesiastes says God did this, made the world this futile place, “so that people fear before him” (Ecclesiastes 3:14).  He put eternity in our hearts yet so that we cannot find how He will work things out from the beginning to the end (3:11).  God knew that if Adam and Eve and all their offspring were allowed to live forever as He intended originally, and if the world always worked the way He originally intended it to work, people, sinful people, would be satisfied with life in this world instead of coming to know the One who alone brings real satisfaction.

This is a long way of answering your question.  Yes, God will make everything right in the end.  The world must remain a frustrating place until then.  There is no guarantee that He will make your life go right in a way that is important to you.  Jesus told us not to fear those who are able to destroy the body, but to fear Him who is able to destroy both body and soul in hell (Matthew 10:28).  God has let many of His saints be persecuted to death (Stephen and James are prime examples, Acts 7 and 12).  The apostle James and the apostle Peter were imprisoned by Agrippa (Acts 12) and the church was praying for their release.  James was beheaded but Peter was miraculously released.  God’s plan for James was different than for Peter.  Each was righteous and useful to the kingdom, but only one escaped death.  We could say that living was something important to James to go right, but God did not grant that.

So we’re not asked to simply “trust the plan” if by that is meant trust that it will always go right for us.  We trust God, who loves us more than anything and yet still may not choose to spare us pain.  The apostle Paul experienced tremendous pain (read 2 Corinthians 11 for some examples).  I may never know how or why God used the pain in my life for good (Romans 8:28 does promise that He does) and the “good” does not mean that which is pain free or not tragic.  Life is tragic.  He has made it so on purpose to make people unsatisfied with this life as their answer.

But in the tragedy He teaches us to trust Him and to share in His sufferings.  He gives us empathy for others suffering.  As we show that we have hope despite the tragedy, He sends us people who want to know the reason for our hope.  Jesus was a man acquainted with sorrow (Isaiah 53:3), and so will be those who follow Him.  Yet he was also full of joy by the Holy Spirit (Luke 10:21), and so will be those who follow Him.

September 8, 2016

When Things Go From Bad to Worse

clarke-dixon-picby Clarke Dixon

Ever get the feeling that it is all downhill? That things are going from bad to worse? Or that life could be captured by an expression I grew up with, one said best with an Irish accent: things are “worser and far badder.” It might be health, it might be finances, it might be anything or seem like everything. Whatever it is, it is not good and not getting better. Ezekiel chapter 17 captures a time when God’s people are experiencing things going from bad to worse. It is a “riddle,” or allegory, so let’s quickly cover some of the key moments:

  • In verses 3 and 4 there is an eagle which takes a top branch of a cedar from Lebanon and plants it in a different land. This represents the Babylonian control over Judah and Jerusalem with the resulting deportation of about 10,000 people to Babylon, among whom was Ezekiel himself. This was done to weaken God’s people in order to keep them under Babylon’s thumb.
  • In verses 5 and 6 we find the planting of a vine which stretches toward the eagle. This represents Babylon letting the people of Judah carry on with life, though weakened, so long as they remain loyal to Babylon.
  • In verses 7 and 8 the vine stretches instead to a second eagle. This represents the rebellion of Judah under King Zedekiah, and the seeking of help from Egypt against Babylon.
  • In verses 9 and 10 we learn that the vine will be easily uprooted and destroyed. This represents the utter destruction of Jerusalem and a second and much larger deportation of its people.

This is a bad to worse moment for God’s people. It is bad enough when they are under Babylon’s thumb. Much worse that Jerusalem is to be destroyed and the people exiled. This was “worser and far badder.” Perhaps you can relate.

As we learn from verses 11 to 21, this story could have turned out better. Had the people listened to the prophets who encouraged patience as Babylon’s subjects, they would not have faced such destruction. Things would not have been great, but they would not have gone from bad to worse.  And had the people been listening to God all along, things would have turned out much better from the get-go. There are times that things get “worser and far badder” for us because we are not listening to the Lord. Things can go from bad to worse because our decisions go from dumb to dumber.

But there are also downhill moments not caused by any particular spiritual or moral failure, but rather because of a general spiritual and moral failure. Since Adam and Eve were banished from the Garden we have been humans living in a fallen world. A lady once told me that she thought the devil was out to get her, and her faith must be so terribly weak because no amount of prayer would touch her sore feet. I asked if perhaps her feet were sore as a result of walking on them for 95 years. We Christians are prone to the aging process along with the rest of the world. We do share in our humanity which means sometimes things go from bad to worse though the troubles can not be traced to any specific bad decision on our part.

With all this negativity and “worser and far badder” thinking, is there any good news? Yes, it comes in verse 22:

22 Thus says the Lord God:
I myself will take a sprig
from the lofty top of a cedar;
I will set it out.
I will break off a tender one
from the topmost of its young twigs;
I myself will plant it
on a high and lofty mountain.
23 On the mountain height of Israel
I will plant it,
in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit,
and become a noble cedar.
Under it every kind of bird will live;
in the shade of its branches will nest
winged creatures of every kind.
24 All the trees of the field shall know
that I am the Lord.
I bring low the high tree,
I make high the low tree;
I dry up the green tree
and make the dry tree flourish.
I the Lord have spoken;
I will accomplish it. Ezekiel 17:22-24

Here God Himself plays a role in this allegory. This story is not over until God intervenes to write the final chapter. Whatever eagles were swooping around threatening to be the undoing of God’s people, God is the last and greatest eagle. Though God’s people seemed to be at the mercy of the seemingly more powerful powers of Babylon and Egypt, in fact all powers are at the mercy of the Lord. As our passage says “All the trees of the field shall know that I am the Lord.” This represents all the nations which of course would include Babylon and Egypt. The once mighty eagles have had their wings clipped and sprouted leaves. They will know their place.

Whatever powerful eagles are swooping around us, God Himself is the last and greatest eagle. We tend to think that history is written by the powerful, and that our own lives are at the mercy of the powerful. Cancer is powerful. Ageing is powerful, addictions are powerful, hurtful people are powerful. These and the like seem like soaring eagles and we feel like mere twigs in their presence. God Himself is the last and greatest eagle. He sets the story according to His sovereign and loving purposes:

I bring low the high tree,
I make high the low tree;
I dry up the green tree
and make the dry tree flourish.
I the Lord have spoken;
I will accomplish it. Ezekiel 17:24

Most importantly, Ezekiel 17 points to the reason for our confidence in God and His love. It points to Jesus. He is the sprig from verse 22. He is the topmost branch of the line of David. He is the one who ensures a future through his death and resurrection. So when if feels like things are going from bad to worse, whether it is you own doing or not, with Jesus it is not your undoing. Because God in Christ kept His promise of Ezekiel 17, even death when it may hover over us like an eagle, or rather like a vulture, does not write the final chapter for us. A diagnosis of cancer may feel like the end of the world. It is not, it is a different world, and a temporary one. Parkinson’s may feel like the end of the world. It is not, it is a different world, and a temporary one. Alzheimer’s may feel like the end of the world. It is not, it is a different world, it is a temporary one. Death itself may feel like the end of the world. In Christ it is not, it is the next step toward the world our Lord has prepared for us. Take your pick of diseases or troubles, they all seem like mighty eagles now, but the Lord is returning, they will find their proper place. Such things as threaten to be our undoing now, He will undo! 

I the Lord have spoken;
I will accomplish it. Ezekiel 17:24

Are things “worser and far badder?” In Christ the best is yet ahead.

all scripture references are taken from the NRSV

Clarke Dixon is a Baptist pastor in Ontario, Canada; read more at Sunday’s Shrunk Sermon