Sovereign, Good and Faithful

Oswald Chambers once wrote “It is only a faithful person who truly believes that God sovereignly controls his circumstances. We take our circumstances for granted, saying God is in control, but not really believing it. We act as if things that happen were completely controlled by people. God may cause our circumstances to suddenly fall apart, which may bring the realization of our unfaithfulness to Him for not recognizing that He had ordained the situation. We never saw what He was trying to accomplish, and the exact event will never be repeated in our life. This is where the test of faithfulness comes. If we will just learn to worship God even during the difficult circumstances, He will change them for the better very quickly if He so chooses.” This quote is found in the December 18th devotion entitled Test of Faithfulness from his devotional My Utmost for His Highest. The key passage for this devotion is Romans 8:28, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to His purpose”.

If you’ve never read Oswald Chamber’s, you should. You’ll be blessed by his writing. It was ten years ago today that I got up that morning and read this devotion. Later that same day, I waited by the phone for a call to find out whether or not I still had a job with the company I had worked for sixteen years. When the call came, I found out I didn’t. I’ve always been struck by God’s graciousness in providing these words to me that morning. I needed them. I still need them. More and more, I realize it has always been about God’s faithfulness and not my own. In fact, in spite of my unfaithfulness, His still remains. I’m encouraged by that. I hope you are as well.

God’s sovereignty doesn’t always play out the way we had hoped for, but His faithfulness during difficult times is everything we could hope for. God is good. And every situation He ordains in our lives is ultimately for our good. Although that good might look a little different than what we might have envisioned, we can always trust His ways. The question is, will we? Will we be faithful and worship Him even during the difficult times?

  • “He who calls you is faithful” (1 Thessalonians 5:24)
  • “But the Lord is faithful. He will establish you and guard you against the evil one” (2 Thessalonians 3:3)
  • “…if we are faithless, He remains faithful” (2 Timothy 2:13)
  • “God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:9)
  • “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful” (Hebrews 10:23)

Teach Me Your Way, O LORD

“Teach me your way, O LORD, that I may walk in your truth; unite my heart to fear your name” (Psalm 86:11)

I love the stories of God’s grace in the lives of the people in the Bible. I especially love the lessons that Scripture has to teach us about King David, a man after God’s own heart, yet a man who sinned greatly. David sinned on the biggest of stages and suffered heart wrenching consequences for those sins. 1&2 Samuel tells the story of David’s life, and his writings in the Psalms tell of his emotions at those various stages. Psalm 86 is a prime example of such a psalm. David was in trouble. There were people seeking to take his life, “O God, insolent men have risen up against me; a band of ruthless men seek my life.” (v.14). There’s no doubt that David brought some of his problems on himself. He found himself calling on God for mercy often. And though he sometimes stumbled, David’s heart was faithful to seek instruction from the Lord on how to better walk in truth.

I believe one of the reasons David’s stories are so loved is that they bear a resemblance to our own lives as Christians. Just as David did, we slip, slide and stumble through this life. David’s wide ranging emotions are much like ours. And you can see them clearly as they flow freely from his pen in the psalms. In his devotional Morning and Evening, Charles Spurgeon writes that the reason David’s psalms are so universally loved is that “no matter our frame of mind, whether ecstasy or depression, David has exactly described our emotions”. He goes on to say that David “was an able master of the human heart because he had been tutored in the best of all schools—the school of heartfelt personal experience”.

The Christian life will always have its ups and downs. Our emotions will sometimes run wild and there will always be choices for us to make along the way—a choice to obey God’s way, or a choice to seek our own way. Which way will we choose? “Teach me your way, O LORD, that I may walk in your truth; unite my heart to fear your name”. That was David’s cry and God was merciful to hear that cry. Let that be our cry as well.

One Row Down and To My Right

“Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the LORD your God, the holy One of Israel, your Savior” (Isaiah 43:1-3) 

One of the blessings of being in choir is the opportunity to watch from the choir loft as people worship the Lord through song. Music has a special way of stirring hearts and engaging emotions. This is especially the case when the lyrics espouse the great truths of God’s Word. I’ve heard it said that sometimes worship is like a dance, but at other times it’s more like a fight. I suppose the point is that when things are going well, it’s easy to praise the Lord. However, in difficult and uncertain times, giving God praise may not be so easy. I think that’s true.

A few weeks ago, our choir anthem was a song entitled, I Am Not Alone. It is a beautiful song. Some of its lyrics are borrowed from Exodus 14:14, Psalm 23 and Isaiah 43 and emphasize God’s presence with His people in times of trouble. As we sang, I looked out and saw people begin to stand and raise their hands as they praised the Lord. This doesn’t happen all the time, nor does giving praise to the Lord require standing or hand raising. But when it does happen, it’s moving. Sometimes it makes me wonder what that person may be going through in that particular moment. In most cases, I have no idea. This day, however, was different. I saw several people in the congregation standing whose stories I did know. Then I noticed that one row down and to my right stood Mike Bratton. Mike was diagnosed with cancer about two years ago. He has already undergone two rounds of treatment for two cancer diagnoses and has just been diagnosed for a third time. He is again undergoing more treatment. During this song, I couldn’t help but glance over at him a couple of times, wondering what he might be thinking as he sang the words of this song. I also wondered if I could sing the truth of these words if I were in the same situation. I would hope that I could.

Recently, Mike shared his perspective on his battle with cancer by writing the following, “While doctors and clinicians have been killing cancer cells, God has been slowly growing my faith. I cannot do a quarter of what I could two years ago, but God is doing more in my life, and for that, I am unutterably grateful.” He then asked for prayer, prayer for himself and for his family, but also that we would pray for God to do more in our own lives, and that we would follow Christ more nearly. I don’t know Mike Bratton very well. Outside of choir, I can’t really say that I know him at all. But I know this, for me, he has been a wonderful testimony of God’s presence and unfailing grace and faithfulness in the midst of trials. Not for the cancer, but for that, I’m grateful. God’s grace is always sufficient. He promised to never leave us nor forsake us and He never will. He is always at work, even in the midst of great struggles, drawing us to a greater reliance on Him. I believe Mike Bratton trusts in that truth. And along the way, the Lord is using him to teach me that no matter what, I can trust it too.

I Guess the Kitchen Got a Little Too Hot

“For Demas, in love with the present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica…” (2 Timothy 4:10)

We don’t hear much about Demas in Scripture except to know that he ministered with the Apostle Paul for some period of time. He must have been a close associate of the apostle’s because Paul refers to him as a “fellow worker” in his letter to Philemon, and in his letter to the Colossians, he is included as one who sends greetings (Philemon 24, Colossians 4:14). But at the end of his life, as Paul sat in prison in Rome penning what he knew would be his last letter, he mentioned Demas again.

The Apostle Paul’s last letter was written to Timothy. Timothy was most likely Paul’s closest partner in ministry. He wrote to Timothy for several reasons. First, Paul wanted Timothy to bring him some of his personal items. Secondly, he wanted to encourage Timothy to carry on faithfully in his ministry ahead. Lastly, but in fact the primary attention of Paul’s letter was the gospel. Paul’s greatest concern was the glory of Christ and the preservation of the gospel as Jesus had revealed to him. In this letter, Paul also took the opportunity to update Timothy about those in which they had ministered together. One of those he spoke of was Demas.

At the time of this letter, everyone with the exception of Luke had pretty much deserted Paul. Specifically, Paul said Demas had deserted him because he was “in love with the present world.” The “present world” that Paul spoke about was the world apart from Christ, the world dominated by Satan. In Paul’s mind, Demas had proven, at least for the time being that he was unwilling to count the cost of a genuine commitment to Christ. Persecution of Christians had intensified. Ministry was tough, and evidently, Demas had had enough. Scripture doesn’t tell us how Demas’ story ends and we shouldn’t suppose his denial of Christ was permanent, only that in this particular moment, his own safety, convenience and love for the world overtook his commitment, not only to Paul, but also to Christ.

It’s easy for us to be so in love with the world that we become ashamed of the gospel of Christ, particularly when there’s a risk we might suffer for it. The truth is, comfort, convenience and acceptance appeals to us all. If we are to minister in difficult times to an unbelieving and often hostile world, we must be willing to count the cost. The kitchen can get pretty hot. Therefore, we need to pray for the Lord’s presence and power each day, always remembering the promise of His Word as we go, confident in that promise because we know that God keeps all His promises. “Be strong and courageous. Do not fear or be in dread of them, for it is the LORD your God who goes with you. He will never leave you nor forsake you” (Deuteronomy 31:6).

Deathbed Conversions

“And he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ And he [Jesus] said to him, ‘Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise’” (Luke 23:42-43)

Sometimes we hear of conversions at the end of a person’s life and question their validity. This is particularly the case when that person has done horrible things and are now facing the consequences of their actions. We think that perhaps they’re looking for sympathy for having to suffer those consequences, maybe even hoping with enough sympathy they may even avoid the ultimate consequence, death itself. I guess it’s hard to know for sure if to claim Christ in that moment was genuine or not. Quite frankly, I find myself a little skeptical when I hear stories like this. Perhaps I shouldn’t because the truth is, we have no idea what means God may use to save a soul. And the story of the thief on the cross, I believe, illustrates that very point.

The gospel of Luke gives us the greatest detail about the crucifixion of Jesus. It is also the only gospel account that specifically tells of His interaction with the thief that hung beside Him. Jesus was crucified between two criminals. As people passed by, they mocked and railed against Jesus. One of the criminals joined in “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” (Luke 23:39). Jesus didn’t respond, but the other criminal rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong” (Luke 23:40-41). He then turned to Jesus and said “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus’ responded saying “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:42-43).

What an amazing story of God’s grace. There’s so much we can learn from the story of the thief on the cross. The first is how gracious God is in spite of our sin. In the case of the thief on the cross, most likely, a lifetime of sin. Salvation for this man was Jesus’ gracious gift to him. It was free. His sins were forgiven because the One hanging next to him was bearing the penalty for it at that very moment. The second lesson is that we don’t have to have lived a perfect life to be saved. We can’t. For the thief on the cross, it was nothing more than a simple expression of faith at the end of his life. A final lesson from the story of the thief on the cross is that we should never give up on sharing the gospel. Just as God has ordained who will be saved, He has also ordained the means and the time of salvation. It was the reality of impending death that proved to be the event God used to save the thief on the cross. God’s timing is always perfect. Let’s not presume to know who is beyond His grace. Just be thankful that Christ has paid the penalty for your sin. Salvation doesn’t rest on a lifetime of goodness, but comes only by grace through faith in Christ. Let this be an encouragement to share that truth with those whose lives seem contrary to deserving the grace our God gives.

All Things in His Hands

“He changes times and seasons; he removes kings and sets up kings; he gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to those who have understanding” (Daniel 2:21)

I love politics. I especially love it around the time of major national elections. I must admit though that I sometimes think I pin my hopes for the future on who wins. Sure, there are consequences that result from the outcome of elections, but at the end of the day, there are much greater things at stake. This doesn’t mean that as Christians we are not to participate in the political process. We are. In fact, the Bible speaks directly about how the Christian community is to engage with government. It also speaks to the appropriate role of government (Romans 13:1-7). Too often, neither the government nor us as Christians live up to that role.

The primary theme of the book of Daniel is God’s sovereignty over history. God’s sovereignty is, in fact, made clear throughout the Bible. Government was instituted by God. As such, just as all things do, government and those who hold high office in it, do so only at His will. The struggles that exist today within governments will one day end with the LORD’s reign. His reign will be the last.

Recognition of God’s sovereignty over all things should never be mistaken as a call for passivity on the part of Christians. We are to be active in the political process and we should always let God’s will expressed in His Word guide our decisions. We can take great comfort, however, in knowing that our hope for the future is not determined by which political party control Congress. It does not lie in a President Obama, a President Trump, Sanders or Clinton. Our hope is found only in a Savior named Jesus Christ and our eternal futures are tied only to what we believe about Him. In this and all political seasons, I need to trust that truth more. Our God is sovereign, our God is faithful and for those who love Him, He works ALL things together for our good, and most importantly, for His glory. Lord, let that penetrate our souls in a greater way.

Cornerstone

“therefore thus says the Lord God, ‘Behold, I am the one who has laid as a foundation in Zion, a stone, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone, of a sure foundation: Whoever believes will not be in haste’” (Isaiah 28:16)

The New Year always seems to be an appropriate time to reassess the past and perhaps reorder our priorities. It just seems the right time to consider necessary changes as we move forward into the future. The first Sunday of the New Year, our pastor taught from the beginning verses of Isaiah 41. I’m not sure whether the passage was chosen specifically for the first Sunday, but it was certainly an appropriate one. In his sermon, he encouraged us to know and experience both the greatness of God and His presence in our lives. One of the primary passages in the text was Isaiah 41:10, “Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand”. In this same service we sang several songs whose themes aligned with what was taught. One of the songs was Cornerstone, a remake of an old hymn written in 1834, known today as “The Solid Rock”. The song has an updated chorus that was written and recorded by several members of the worship group Hillsong, and was born out of a mass shooting that took place in Norway in 2011. In an interview about what inspired the song, one of the co-writers indicated that circumstances such as this shooting are reminders that when everything appears to be shaken and nothing seems to make sense, we really need to put our faith in Jesus, the Cornerstone.

In ancient building practices, a cornerstone was the large stone that served as the foundation for the entire structure. It was a special piece that needed to be perfectly set. In a figurative sense, a cornerstone is the thing we build our life around. It is what we value the most. It is what we prioritize. It is what we say “no” to other things for because we have said “yes” to it, and of course, it is what we stand on in times of uncertainty. When speaking about the Lord, we find the image of a stone or rock used in both the Old and New Testaments. The point of Isaiah 28:16 is that God has established a sure foundation for His people, a sure foundation that the Old Testament points to and the New Testament reveals. This sure foundation is Jesus Christ. Peter referred to Christ as a “living stone” as He is both the source and giver of eternal life. Those who trusted in Him he called “living stones” (1 Peter 2:4-5). For those who rejected His Word, Jesus became a stone of stumbling (1 Peter 2:8). He is a stone of stumbling for those who reject Him today.

As years pass, the pace at which they go seems only to increase. That begs the question, not because it’s the New Year, but because the answer has eternal consequences. Is Christ your cornerstone? Have you put your trust in Him? Is He your priority? Is He the “rock” upon which you stand? Maybe this is the year to make some changes and put Jesus in His rightful place. In this New Year, why not try standing on the solid rock of Christ, because the truth is, all other ground really is just sinking sand.

Sovereign in Every Circumstance

“So it was not you who sent me here, but God” (Genesis 45:8)

For all Joseph’s brothers subjected him to, it would have been easy for bitterness to consume him. His brothers wanted to kill him, but instead sold him into slavery in Egypt. He was seventeen. They did it because they were jealous of how much their father Jacob loved Joseph. It didn’t help matters that Joseph also told them of his dream, a dream that they would one day bow down to him. It only made them hate him more. Joseph’s brothers sought to do, and did evil to Joseph.

For a large part of his life, Joseph was cheated out of many things he might have enjoyed; the opportunity to spend time with his family, including his younger brother whom he had never met and the father he loved greatly. He was also subjected to various challenging circumstances along the way. But whatever the circumstance, Joseph always found favor with God and in the end was reunited with his brothers and his father. God’s great purpose for Joseph was to preserve the Hebrew people, a remnant on earth (Genesis 45:7). The complete Joseph narrative is found in Genesis 37-50.

Scripture teaches that for those who love God, all things work together for good (Romans 8:28). But good doesn’t always mean easy. Joseph’s life is testimony of this truth. During his times of testing, Joseph exhibited faithful obedience and trust in the Lord each step of the way. He recognized that what his brothers meant for evil, God meant for good (Genesis 50:20). He grasped the important truth that everything that happens, happens only under the sovereign hand of God.

Evil is real, life is full of storms and sometimes our circumstances can be overwhelming. This can lead to bitterness. But our God is greater. Trusting in His sovereignty is not only a help when evil dawns, but also comforts through life’s storms and protects us by keeping bitterness from taking root, robbing us of the joy of our salvation. God’s sovereignty puts perspective around our circumstances. People and circumstances may come against you, but as He was with Joseph, God is with you. Be faithful to obey and trust in the Lord’s sovereignty knowing that He is working both for your good and His glory.