Thursday, January 3, 2013

Merciful Sovereignty

I had the opportunity last week during our family’s visit in Xi’An to share with a small group what God has been teaching me about “Disappointment and the Mystery of God.” Lessons on how we can persevere in difficulties and disappointments by embracing God’s mystery. How we can experience His goodness even in undesired circumstances. As we wait and hope and trust in Him to act in His time and in His way.

One of the quotes I shared was from Paula Rinehart: “His purposes for you are so set in place that you can rest every minute of your journey in the cool shade of His merciful sovereignty over your life.” (Better Than My Dreams)

Ever since the devotional time in Xi’An, I’ve continued to ponder the phrase “merciful sovereignty.” What a beautiful joining of those two words. I love the image of resting in this cool shade every moment of our journeys. The times when praise for His wonderful way of working in our lives flows easily off our lips. And the hard-to-understand times when our struggle and pain is poured out on the altar in a sacrifice of praise to our mysterious God.

I’ve been thinking about the conversation Ann Voskamp had with her brother-in-law after his second son tragically died of the same childhood illness as his first son (recorded in One Thousand Gifts).

He said, “Well, even with our boys...I don’t know why all that happened. But do I have to?...Who knows? I don’t mention it often, but sometimes I think of that story in the Old Testament. Can’t remember what book, but you know—when God gave King Hezekiah fifteen more years of life? Because he prayed for it? But if Hezekiah had died when God first intended, Manasseh would never have been born. And what does the Bible say about Manasseh? Something to the effect that Manasseh had led the Israelites to do even more evil than all the heathen nations around Israel. Think of all the evil that would have been avoided if Hezekiah had died earlier, before Manasseh was born. I am not saying anything, either way, about anything...Just that maybe...maybe you don’t want to change the story, because you don’t know what a different ending holds...Maybe...I’s accepting there are things we simply don’t understand. But He does.”

This amazing perspective on accepting what we don’t understand and not wanting to change the story of our lives makes me think of Martin Luther’s words: “We should pray by fixing our mind upon some pressing need, desiring it with all earnestness, and then exercise faith and confidence toward God in the matter, never doubting that we have been heard. St. Bernard said, ‘Dear brothers, you should never doubt your prayer, thinking that it might have been in vain. I tell you truly that before you have uttered the words, the prayer is already recorded in heaven. Therefore you should confidently expect from God one of two things: either that your prayer will be granted, or, that if it is not granted, the granting of it would not be good for you.’”

Luther also said “the one who prays correctly never doubts that the prayer will be answered, even if the very thing for which one prays is not given. For we are to lay our need before God in prayer but not prescribe to God a measure, manner, time, or place. We must leave that to God, for he may wish to give it to us in another, perhaps better, way than we think is best. Frequently we do not know what to pray as St. Paul says in Romans 8, and we know that God’s ways are above all that we can ever understand as he says in Ephesians 3. Therefore, we should have no doubt that our prayer is acceptable and heard, and we must leave to God the measure, manner, time, and place, for God will surely do what is right.” (Excerpts of Luther’s writings from Devotional Classics, edited by Richard J. Foster and James Bryan Smith)

And I’ve been thinking about Job, whose close-to-perfect life changed overnight into a living nightmare. Holding on to faith in a God he couldn’t understand and who had brought great pain into his life, Job was able to say, “For I have stayed in God’s paths; I have followed his ways and not turned aside. I have not departed from his commands but have treasured his word in my heart. Nevertheless, his mind concerning me remains unchanged, and who can turn him from his purposes? Whatever he wants to do, he does. So he will do for me all me has planned. He controls my destiny.” (Job 23:11-14) God’s merciful sovereignty to Job included more suffering than we can imagine, and gave him the opportunity to experience God in a way that he couldn’t have if his life had continued down a problem-free road. At the end of the book, after God revealed Himself to Job in whirlwind, Job confessed to God, “I had heard about you before, but now I have seen you with my own eyes.” (Job 42:5)

I love the perspective on life’s challenges that I heard from Kimberly Knochel in a seminar on Helping People last summer: “There is something that God wants to be for you in this circumstance that He could not be otherwise. Job’s experience of God completely changed as a result of the incredibly hard circumstances God allowed in his life. What does God want to be for you in the difficult circumstances of your life that He could not be otherwise?

In this New Year of 2013, with all of its unknowns, and with all the joys and challenges that lie ahead, may we hold our lives with open, trusting hands before our compassionate Father who knows what is best for each of His children. May we rest this year under the cool shade of God’s merciful sovereignty.

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