Comfort and Encouragement in God’s Providence

Have you ever noticed how God is constantly at work in all things, exercising His providential control in every aspect of our lives, even when (perhaps especially when) we least realize it? John Piper famously captured this truth in a 2012 tweet when he said: “God is always doing 10,000 things in your life, and you may be aware of three of them.”

We see this throughout Scripture, don’t we? We see it in the story of Joseph in Genesis 37-50. We see it in the life of Esther. We see it in Pauls’ painful thorn that made the power of Christ more beautiful in his weakness (2 Corinthians 12:7-9). We see it in virtually every book of the Bible, from beginning to end.

Recently I was reminded of this truth from the book of Philippians. In Philippians 1:12-14, Paul is reminding the Christians to whom he’s writing that his imprisonment is actually accomplishing something good for the sake of the Gospel.

If you remember, the Apostle is sitting in a Roman prison while writing this letter to these Philppian Christians. You have to imagine that these Philippian brothers and sisters are distraught over the current situation of their beloved Apostle. I’m certain that they were praying for his release. I’m confident that many were plagued by fear that a similar fate may come upon them. And perhaps some of them were even tempted to question the faith. But not the Apostle Paul. Not only was he aware of and focused on the providential control of God, but he also wanted to remind and encourage his brothers and sisters in Christ of this glorious truth.

Recognizing the likely range of emotions among these saints, Paul reminds them in verses 12-14: “I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the imperial guard and to all the rest, that my imprisonment is for Christ. And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear.

Paul reminds them that, even in his imprisonment, God is at work. God is at work to spread the Gospel. God is at work to embolden other brothers to “speak the word without fear.” God is at work to point the whole world to the fact that Paul’s imprisonment is for Christ. Even in the unlikeliest and worst of scenarios, humanly speaking, God was powerfully at work for the expansion of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Only God knows how many men and women were converted, and how many local churches planted, in the years and decades that followed Paul’s imprisonment as a result of the emboldening effect upon men to preach the Word without fear.

What about your life? Is there anything in your life right now that is causing you to question the goodness or faithfulness of God? May our hearts and minds be encouraged by the truth of Scripture that God is powerfully at work in all things. There is not a single thing happening in your life that God is not aware of, that God is not in control of, and that God is not working for your good to make you more life Christ. 

Depending on the circumstance, it can be very hard for us to grasp this truth, can’t it? I am pretty confident that, as Paul received lashes, beatings, stonings, and as he was shipwrecked hungry, thirsty, and exposed to the harsh elements (2 Corinthians 11:24-27), he was confused at times at how exactly God was using these things for his good. But I’m far more confident that Paul trusted, by faith, that God was powerfully at work for His glory and Paul’s good, whether he could understand it or not.

And such is the case for us. Whether it’s sickness or sorrow, pain or persecution, death or disease, no matter what the situation is for us in this life, we can trust with rock-solid assurance that God is in control (Romans 8:28-29). As the Apostle Paul reminded these Philippian brothers and sisters of God’s work through his imprisonment, let us remind ourselves of the truth that God is powerfully at work in and through each of our situations, whether we realize it or not, whether we recognize it or not, and whether we understand it or not.

“God is always doing 10,000 things in your life, and you may be aware of three of them.”

Soli Deo Gloria!

That’s Not Fair!

That’s not fair! — How often have you heard this cry in your life? If you’re a parent, odds are you’ve heard it more times than you can count from your children. “Why does he get to do that and I don’t? That’s not fair!” “Why does my friend get to stay out until 11 and I don’t? That’s not fair!” But it’s not just children that cry foul in the arena of fairness in life, is it? We adults do it too. We’re just a little better at hiding it, or at least knowing how to keep our thoughts in our heads and not let them come out of our mouths like children.

Perhaps you’ve looked around and seen a family member or a neighbor receive material blessings in this life that you haven’t received, and you think to yourself, “That’s just not fair!” Perhaps you work and work and work, barely scraping by, all the while your friend does the bare minimum and gets the big end-of-year bonus and you cry out, “That’s not fair!”

Or perhaps you are striving to live a godly life, submitting yourself to the Lord and seeking to live for him, and it just seems that there’s one hurdle after another, one storm after another, and you can’t seem to get above board. All the while, you look around in the world around you and see the wicked, the godless, the unrighteous, who care nothing about the things of God, who are living for themselves, their own pleasure, and their own glory, and they’re wealthy, healthy, and carefree, and the cry of your heart is “THAT’S NOT FAIR!”

My suspicion is that each and every one of us has been in that very spot at one time or another in our life. Perhaps at many times. Perhaps even right now. It’s a temptation that is common to man because of the sinful jealousy and envy within our heart. And it is a temptation that is not only common to man today, but is an age-old temptation, dating all the way back to the garden when Satan convinced Eve that God was withholding something good from her.

Psalm 73

One of my favorite Psalms in God’s Word is Psalm 73 because it addresses this very struggle in our hearts. In this Psalm, we see Asaph — the Israelite worship leader and psalm composer — chronicle his descent to the depth of envy, the transition of how he saw clearly and gained a new perspective, and then the ascent back up whereby he regained a proper, heavenly, eternal, and Godward perspective on the fate of the wicked and the blessings of God. And he does so in a gritty, soul-bearing, telling-it-like-it-is honesty. John Calvin describes Asaph’s approach in this Psalm in the following way:

“The Psalmist does not ascend into the chair to dispute after the manner of the Philosophers, and to deliver his discourse in a style of studied oratory; but, as if he had escaped from hell, he proclaims with a loud voice, and with impassioned feeling, that he had obtained the victory” (Quoted in William S. Plumer, Psalms, 79).

Why Are We Envious Of The Wicked?

Simply put, I think that the root of our problem, and the root of Asaph’s problem, is that our focus is off. Our focus is on the wrong people, and our focus in on the wrong timeframe. 

The first mistake we make is that our focus is on them. Notice the pronouns in the first section of Psalm 73. In 9 verses (verses 4-12) we see the pronoun “they” or “them” used 17 times. And what is it that Asaph notices about them. He notices that they seem to live such easy lives (v.4-5), such prosperous lives (v.6-7), and such carefree lives (v.8-12). Like Asaph, we can often be tempted to jealousy and envy as we look around at the godless, wicked men and women around us, whether in our town or on TV, and be tempted to think “That’s not fair!”

The second mistake we make is that our focus is on us. Notice the shift in pronounce in verses 13-15. No longer is the focus on them, but now it is on me and I (7 times in these 3 verses). After turning the spotlight to ourselves in light of the the lives of the wicked, we begin to see our righteousness as pointless (v.13) and our hardships as preeminent (v.14). Such is the descent into the heart of envy and jealousy for each of us. Our focus is off.

How do we address our envy?

Just like Asaph’s clear transition in verses 16-17, we too need to “enter the sanctuary of God” by coming to His Word through prayer, depending on the sanctifying power and presence of the Spirit through the Word. Like Asaph, we need a new perspective. A paradigm shift. If we are going to correctly and biblically address our envy, we must immerse ourselves in the perfect, inerrant, sufficient Word of God, gaining a biblical, Godward perspective on reality rather than trusting our own faulty, skewed, and sin-filtered lens through which we view the world.

So what are the three areas that Asaph, and we, need a new perspective on?

We need a new perspective on eternal judgment

As Asaph came to the Word of God and gained a heavenly perspective, we see in verses 18-20 that he was able to see with clearer eyes the ultimate reality and ultimate fate of the wicked. Yes, they may be living easy, prosperous, carefree lives right now, but right now is just a small mist compared to eternity. And the eternal realities that await them are something none of us would envy.

We need a new perspective on ourselves

Like Asaph did in verses 21-22, we need to understand who we are apart from the grace and mercy of Christ. Nowhere is the Scriptural account of human nature a flattering one. Rather, we are described as dead, ignorant, and blind. When we fail to let God’s Word be the lens through which we see the world and through which we view reality, we are, like Asaph, brutish, ignorant, and acting like animals. As we seek to deal with the envy that creeps up in our heart toward the prosperity of the wicked, let us run to God’s Word, bathe ourselves in prayer, and immerse ourselves in His perfect Word to give us His perspective on our own sinfulness.

We need a new perspective on God’s presence and eternal blessings

As we gain a new perspective on God’s presence and eternal blessings from God’s Word, as Asaph did in verses 23-28, God reminds us of the fact that He is always with us, holding us fast through life’s struggles, doubts, and trials (Jude 24-25). And He reminds us that He, Himself, is enough. That He is the ultimate treasure for which we are redeemed. That He is not the means to another end, like the health, wealth, and prosperity of the wicked, but that He Himself is the end.

Be Satisfied In God

If you are tempted to envy, if you are tempted toward jealousy, if you are doubting the goodness and justice of God because of the prosperity of the godless all around you, let me encourage you to immerse yourself in God’s word, bathe yourself in prayer, rest in Christ’s righteousness granted to you through the Gospel, clothe yourself with holiness, and be content and fulfilled with God in Christ as your ultimate treasure. Pursue His Word to gain a proper, biblical perspective on the end of the wicked, on the sinfulness of your own heart, and on the presence and goodness and blessings of God — blessings most ultimately and most fully seen in the gift of Himself, through His Son, by His Spirit.

Stop Praying Safe Prayers

One thing that I’ve noticed about the Reformed crowd that I am a part of is that we often pray safe prayers. Sure, we pray. Sure, we implore God. Sure, we boldly approach the throne of grace in our time of need. But we often end (or begin) our prayers with phrases that let God “off the hook” or make His not answering easier for us to swallow. Phrases like, “If this is your will, please …” Or, “Please do so and so, but I recognize it may not be in your will to do so.” I don’t know if this is you or not, but I know it has been me in recent times. And the Lord has been using His Word to challenge me to stop praying safe prayers.

I was recently reading through the Gospels and came across statement after statement from Jesus that just didn’t quite square up with the safe prayers I was praying. 

  • Matthew 21:22 – “Whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.” 
  • Mark 11:24 — “Whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” 
  • Luke 11:9 — “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.”
  • John 14:13 – “Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.” 

And it isn’t just Jesus in the Gospels saying things like this. Later in the New Testament Epistles we see things like:

  • James 1:5-6 — “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind.”
  • 1 John 5:14 — “And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us.”

Now to be fair, many of us have experienced the gross and outlandish misinterpretation and misapplication of these passages of Scripture, and so our default position is one of caution. We rightly caution that Jesus is not giving us a carte blanche to get whatever we want in life. We rightly caution that we are not to be presumptuous in our prayers, expecting that God is our magic genie in the bottle, there to fulfill our every wish. We rightly caution that it is not the measure of our faith that causes God to act, but His Sovereign will based on His eternal decree. All of these are good and healthy cautions, and ones that we must keep in the back of our minds and warn new believers of as they may be lured away by the false teachings of our day.

But brothers and sisters, even after all of these right cautions, let us not miss out on the incredible promise given to us by Jesus and the other writers of the New Testament, and the amazing privilege afforded to us to commune with and entreat the God of the universe in prayer. Let us not make the cautions our main focus. Those of us who rightly emphasize the meticulous sovereignty of God in all things must be careful not to downplay, or worse disregard, the words of Jesus concerning prayer. As one preacher put it, we are often guilty of putting the back-of-our-mind cautions (“God may not answer this prayer because it may not be His will”) at the forefront of our mind (“God I’m going to ask you to do this, but I know you probably won’t because it probably isn’t your will.”)

With the utmost focus on the sovereignty of God, and careful attention not to presume upon Him, let us be men and women who pray God-sized prayers. Let us implore Him to move and act in a way that only He can, in a way that is only explainable by the fact that the God of the universe has intervened and acted on our behalf. Let us model the bold prayer of John Knox: “Give me Scotland, or I die.” As Burk Parsons says of Knox’s prayer,

“Knox’s prayer was not an arrogant demand, but the passionate plea of a man willing to die for the sake of the pure preaching of the gospel and the salvation of his countrymen. Knox’s greatness lay in his humble dependence on our sovereign God to save His people, revive a nation, and reform His church. As is evident from his preaching and prayer, Knox believed neither in the power of his preaching nor in the power of his prayer, but in the power of the gospel and the power of God, who sovereignly ordains preaching and prayer as secondary means in the salvation of His people.”

As we prepare to enter into the New Year of 2019, what are the mountains in your life waiting to be moved, by God’s sovereign decree, through the means of your faith-filled prayer? What is your Scotland, for which you earnestly implore the Lord to the point that you would rather die than not see that prayer come to pass. 

We aren’t talking here about asking the Lord for health, wealth, and prosperity. We are talking about those things that we know, by virtue of His perfect, sufficient, and inerrant Word, are in accordance with His Will and bring Him honor and glory. We are talking about asking Him for wisdom in a decision that we need to make or in a situation we need to handle, wisdom that would result in our good and His glory. We are talking about asking Him to overcome the hardness of heart in the lives of your neighbors and to enable you to have an inroad to faithfully and boldly proclaim the Gospel in a winsome way. We are talking about imploring Him to work in your marriage to enable you to be a sacrificial husband or a loving, honoring wife, to the end that your marriage would be a beacon to the world of the beauty and truth of the Gospel.

As I ponder some things going on my own life, I am speaking to myself as much as, if not more, than anyone reading this. While this is by no means an exhaustive treatment on the topic of prayer, I want to challenge you, as I challenge myself, to enter into the New Year committed to praying God-sized, unsafe prayers — committed to stop saying safe prayers. May we be men and women who come before the throne of grace with bold faith and expectant hearts, asking God to do what only God can do, that He may receive all praise, honor, and glory.