God’s Mysterious Ways
Jesus’ teaching – in fact the entire Bible – has dire consequences if ignored, yet God’s way seems so illogical and unworkable that few of us dare try it. Even among devout believers much of the Bible gets left gathering dust on the “nice sentiment but impractical” shelf. Our brain flashes, “Does not compute,” and fails to program the instructions into our daily living. It is easy to become so familiar with the words of Scripture and so conscious of the importance of revering the Word of God, that we are barely aware that we are not actually living according to its directives.
After staking virtually everything on God’s method we will gradually begin receiving personal confirmation that it really works. We must first, however, reach that critical point where we are willing to risk this plunge into the unknown. Much of what follows is therefore devoted to building confidence in God’s way of doing things. To assist in this, a goal of the webpage is to make the relevant mysteries as easy to understand as possible. We will pursue this from several different angles, using as a main tool simple illustrations from the world we live in.
Most biblical revelation is the exact opposite of what any sensible human would come up with. This should come as no surprise. There would be little point in God giving us a Bible if it were filled with truths that mere common sense tells us. A helpful way to understand why spiritual principles seem illogical and unworkable is to consider many tragedies that have occurred in Australian deserts.
A rule of survival in the harsh Australian Outback is if your only vehicle breaks down in a remote place, stay with the disabled vehicle. That seems dangerously out of touch with reality if you have no means of raising an alarm, you are somewhere that does not see a human for weeks at a time, and your water supplies can keep you alive for only a few days. So people in this predicament often disregard the warning and try walking the long distance to where help is more likely to be found. Eventually, they are reported missing, a search locates their vehicle, but no one is there. The Coroner’s investigation later confirms that vehicles are more easily located than walkers, there was more water in the vehicle than walkers can carry, and the extra exertion demanded of walking hastened the dehydration and sunstroke that led to their death. They died because they tried to save themselves. Had they done nothing except trust that they would be saved, they would have lived. They dismissed advice that would have saved their lives because such instructions only make sense to people who can believe that rescuers will arrive in time.
Likewise, whether Jesus’ advice seems reliable enough to bet your life on it hinges on whether you can believe that someone – in this case, God – will come to your rescue. This is why faith is so critical to Christianity. If the Almighty will powerfully intervene for you, the best course of action is usually the exact opposite of what you would do if you are in this predicament alone. The tragedy is that most of us, petrified that God might let us down, usually suppose we are playing safe by choosing whatever option would work best if God doesn’t care enough to intervene. We would dearly like to have a bet each way – hoping that God will act, while covering ourselves in case he doesn’t. With the God who knows our every motive, however, hedging our bets is as impossible as surviving by walking in tight circles half way between a stranded vehicle and a very distant source of help.
Since the Bible is the Word of God, every statement in it is backed with an iron-clad guarantee from Almighty God. To ratify his pledge, the One who put the stars in space and who keeps your heart beating, put his guarantee in black and white, and signed it in the blood of his own Son. He who cannot lie, then had his guarantee published around the world in thousands of languages so that the Holy One’s entire reputation with humanity hinges on him keeping his word.
Whenever Scripture says something that seems out of touch with reality, the One who runs the entire universe is pledging his integrity and power on the fact that he will make it happen. It means the Creator and Sustainer of every law of physics is announcing a new law.
Unless God’s physical laws are correctly understood, they will be thought to fail. It is not always true, for instance, that everything must fall to the ground. The law of gravity is more complex than that. Likewise, whenever the Almighty establishes a spiritual law, the conditions must be accurately understood or we will sooner or later discover what we mistakenly think is God’s failure to keep his word. What we would actually be discovering are defects in our understanding of God’s promise. A common error is to misunderstand the time frame. The Eternal One’s timing often shocks us. Even before Abraham plunged the knife into his son, he got his son back. On the other hand, the fulfillment for God’s promise to Abraham about the birth of his son had dragged on and on for so long that the situation seemed utterly hopeless. Moreover, it was not until centuries after Abraham’s death that some of what he had been promised was fulfilled. It might have happened after the end of his earthly life, but Abraham will be rejoicing over it for all eternity.
Another error is failing to realize that most of God’s pledges apply only to people who are in true, intimate fellowship with God. Some promises have even more conditions attached. Tragically, some people have been devastated by what they imagined was God letting them down but was actually a tragic misunderstanding of God’s words. For more on this see When Promises Aren’t Promises.
It would be ridiculous to expect spiritual laws to be easily verifiable. When, for instance, the Bible says, “it is more blessed to give than to receive,” it is not implying this is a readily observable fact – if it were obvious it would hardly be a significant revelation. By placing it in the Bible, the Almighty is declaring he will ensure that ultimately – not necessarily this side of eternity – those who give will end up more blessed than if they had received.
Obviously, the frequently stated biblical truth, “He who humbles himself will be exalted,” comes with a similar guarantee that the Lord will ensure it happens in God’s time. That’s a scary path to honor. It is most unlikely to work unless there really is a Holy Lord whose integrity makes it impossible for him not to keep his promise. So the pressure mounts for us to disbelieve the Word of God and try to boost ourselves rather than leave it to God. The Lord of heaven and earth, however, not only expects you to stake your life on the fact that he will keep his side of the deal, he has already staked his Son’s life on it. Moreover to disregard this directive is to risk your eternity on the presumption that the Word of Almighty God is a lie when it says that God resists the proud.
Suppose someone suggested you sell absolutely everything you have – your car, house, furniture, jewelry, even your best clothes – to raise the cash to buy a barren piece of land that to you is nothing but dirt. That’s about as ridiculous as what Jesus seems to be asking of us – to give up things we hold dear and for this enormous sacrifice he offers what seems little better than dirt. But what if the person urging you to buy the land were a devoted friend who had discovered a rare mineral on the property? Underneath that land is enough to make you an instant multimillionaire. You would not be able to stop grinning as you excitedly sell all you possess. You would be focused not on the house you are losing, but on the mansion you will soon be able to buy. You would be too busy thinking about sports cars, limousines and Lear jets to mourn the loss of your old car. That’s how eagerly we would follow Jesus’ seemingly crazy requests if we really understood what God is offering us in exchange. If, for instance, we are horrified when God asks us to give up our puny, selfish ambitions, it is only because we have been too pre-occupied with ourselves to gain the slightest conception of how excitingly superior are God’s ambitions for us. If only we understood we could hardly contain our joy.
As wonderfully true as this is, for me to leave you floating in the clouds would be less than honest without first tackling the issue that most preachers and teachers, myself included, are sorely tempted to side-step. We must face up to the cost, plunging into those icy waters while desperately clinging to the truth that by an incomprehensible but divinely-guaranteed miracle, the benefits are exceedingly greater than the enormous cost.
Jesus is our Savior – saving us from many things we could never bear, including an eternity in hell. In addition, Jesus is our Example – the Pioneer who trail-blazed the route for us to follow, all the way to the cross and beyond. “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2). Not only was it necessary for our Leader to suffer en route to indescribable victory, joy and honor, so must his followers. Prayerfully consider the following:
. . . if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. (21) To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps (1 Peter 2:20-21).
Therefore, since Christ suffered in his body, arm yourselves also with the same attitude . . . (1 Peter 4:1).
Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. (13) But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed (1 Peter 4:12-13).
This truth is strongly emphasized in Scripture. Most of us will find the relevant Scriptures in the verses not underlined in our Bibles. For more Scriptures, see The suffering Lord: our Example.
Act like Christ – which is possible only by letting Christ live in you and express himself through you – and you will end up like Christ – despised, rejected, humiliated and finally reigning in honor on God’s throne for all eternity.
“Anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me,” declared our Savior (Matthew 10:38). I dare not rob that chilling statement of the dread filling the thumping hearts of Jesus’ original hearers. Crucifixions were so common that all Jesus’ contemporaries must surely have seen condemned criminals dragging their crosses on the way to a most torturous death. Later, many of his hearers witnessed their Leader agonizing on the cross, confirming the enormity of the cost involved.
It is an inescapable fact that the cross is sheer agony. I would be little better than a charlatan to suggest otherwise. I, for instance, made what at the time seemed a huge sacrifice for the Lord. Over twenty years later it still hurts deeply every day, with no hint that the pain will ever cease this side of eternity. I am unaware of the slightest compensation for all the suffering, except for an increased capacity to minister to hurting people. If I hold on until the end, however, what had seemed a sacrifice will prove itself one of the shrewdest imaginable investments.
Following Christ starts by sweating drops of blood, sobbing the prayer, “Not my will but yours.” It necessitates abandoning our pet sins, even though the incessant craving may gnaw at our insides day after endless day. It involves lowering ourselves in our own eyes; viewing ourselves as weak, ignorant and useless without Jesus’ constant input, and believing we are so morally corrupt that we deserve endless torment in hell. It could well mean letting people walk all over us, or choosing a path that exposes us to rejection, ridicule, perhaps even physical suffering. It will probably involve giving up whatever is dearest to our heart. It might be prized possessions, hobbies, loved ones, a promising career, financial security, or the right to marry the person we love, but whatever most rivals our love for God may have to go. Jesus’ teaching is crammed with this emphasis and if it is currently unpopular to talk about it, that just shows how far we have yet to go before we truly reflect Jesus.
Our Lord was forever warning would-be followers of the enormous cost involved. This worries most of us so much that we would like there to be two categories of believers: disciples and ordinary born again Christians. But Scripture makes no such distinction. There are indeed two categories: true Christians and fake Christians. Or, expressed another way: those who are genuinely born again and those who merely think they are. Space allows only a couple of reminders of how Jesus’ approach to potential converts differs so markedly from what we typically hear today:
Luke 14:25 Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: (26) “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters – yes, even his own life – he cannot be my disciple. (27) And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. (28) Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Will he not first sit down and estimate the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it? (29) For if he lays the foundation and is not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule him . . . (33) In the same way, any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.
Matthew 10:25 It is enough for the student to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master. If the head of the house has been called Beelzebub, how much more the members of his household!
John 16:2 They will put you out of the synagogue; in fact, a time is coming when anyone who kills you will think he is offering a service to God.
The apostles, of course, followed Jesus’ method of evangelism and teaching. Thus, for example, we find Paul and Barnabas “strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith. ‘We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God,’ ” they said (Acts 14:22). “Everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted,” promises 2 Timothy 3:12. Today we are so eager to declare people “co-heirs with Christ” that we often gloss over Scripture’s proviso, “if indeed we share in his sufferings” (Romans 8:17).
“Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ,” said Paul (1 Corinthians 11:1). We know how much Paul suffered. “I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church,” he wrote (Colossians 1:24). Paul kept his side of the bargain. He paid the price of following Christ. What about us?
The cost highlights why faith is so essential to authentic Christianity. Faith is the glue without which our entire spiritual life disintegrates. Without faith, we would not dare pay the price. We would be left only with false religion, no matter how much we cite Christian doctrine. And what faith it takes! Without a foretaste, it is nearly impossible even to imagine anything so wonderful as to make the cost worthwhile. Whatever could move anyone to pay such a price? I suggest the greatest of all motivations: love. The future joy that moved Jesus to endure the cross was not the happiness that ease and luxury gives, nor an empty euphoria like a drug-induced high. What held Jesus to the cross was the thrill and matchless satisfaction of knowing he was delighting the Father who meant everything to him, and the ecstasy of obtaining eternal fellowship with us, whom he loves with an intensity beyond our comprehension. Likewise, it was supernatural love pumping through the hearts of the early Christians that propelled them to exult in what they regarded as the privilege of suffering for their Lord (Acts 5:40-42). And it was that same love that exploded within the heart of Paul, driving him to count all his earlier achievements as trash relative to the joy of intimately knowing Christ and of sharing in Christ’s suffering (Philippians 3:8-10). We love because Christ first loved us. We embrace pain because he first did it for us.
When I remind you that “hope” is a theological term about the certainty of the reward, you will see that we have been discussing the big three – faith, hope and love. No wonder Paul in 1 Corinthians 13 sang the praises of these three qualities. They empower us to embrace the cross and thus plunge into the riches Christ has purchased for us.
To take up our cross and follow Christ sounds horrific, until we discover that following Jesus takes us not only to crucifixion but to resurrection; not only to the death of self but to a gloriously new and superior life. It is only the spiritually corrupt part of us that we are asked to let die. Once that goes we find ourselves tingling with life like never before. It’s the death of the grub so that butterfly wings might be stretched and soar heavenwards. It’s the death of the sin-addict, the groveling sin-slave, the despicable weakling, and the rising of the glorious conqueror. It’s the death of pollution and the emergence of purity; the death of lonesome self-infatuation and the release of true love.
‘Self’ refers to everything within us that is weak and ignorant and ugly. It is all that would ultimately darken us with shame and misery – the foolish choices that seemed a smart move at the time; the sweet things that turn sour. This, and only this, is what your loving Lord wants to die, so that a new you can burst onto the scene. Like (and through) Jesus risen from the dead, the new you will be a person brimming with life; glowing with purity, honor and a thrilling future.
I have sometimes so much craved sin that I actually felt that without it life was hardly worth living. That is utterly ridiculous and yet temptation is all about the enemy of our souls creating a dangerously false but highly convincing illusion. The critical issue, however, is that even if sin really were the only thing that made life seem worth living, I should lay down my life for the sake of the One who laid down his life for me. Christ paid the ultimate price for me, even though I deserve nothing. This leaves me utterly without excuse for not laying down my life for the exalted Lord who deserves everything. As Christ resurrected to a new and glorious life, so will I, as I cling by faith to my Savior. Through the One who died a slow, agonizing death for me, I will gain a sparkling new life, far superior to the old, sin-stained one. This new life will be fully manifested only after I physically die. Nevertheless, as I “die daily” – daily sacrificing a life of self-centeredness for the sake of my Lord – I will receive greater and greater foretastes of this new and excitingly superior life. Since they are only foretastes I will still have times when life feels awful, but in faith I plow through those times, refusing to surrender eternal reality for temporary illusion.
Alex, a friend of yours, inherits a massive fortune in diamonds. He knows you have a small safe for personal valuables. “I have many diamonds with me,” he says, “I’d hate for them to be stolen. Could you put them in your safe?”
“Okay,” you say, none too pleased. You open the safe. It’s crammed with stuffed toys and fake jewelry.
“You’ll have to remove your things to make room for the diamonds,” Alex observes.
“What?” you exclaim, “and risk having my valuables stolen? Not on your life!” You angrily show Alex the door.
You later meet a friend and tell him about it.
“Alex kindly approached me, too,” your friend replies with a big grin, “I gladly threw out my valuables for his diamonds!”
“You did?” you reply, taken aback. “You took your valuables out of your safe, when he has enough wealth to buy a million safes of his own?”
“Alex didn’t want to use our safes!” laughs your friend, “He wanted to share his new-found wealth with us. All he wanted was to ensure you had a secure place to store your diamonds until you made up your mind what to do with them.”
“You mean all those diamonds would have been mine to keep?” Your ‘valuables’ suddenly seem worthless. “If only I’d understood, I’d have immediately emptied that trash out of my safe!”
Most of us make that same tragic mistake when God makes his offer. Like no one else, God is a giver, yet we mistake him for a taker. We each have, as it were, a treasure chest within us. We usually cram it full with such trinkets as self-righteousness, self-pity, self-promotion and bloated self-esteem. Pathetically, we horde these fake commodities, foolishly thinking them valuable. We realize they are inadequate, but they are all we have and we don’t think God would give us genuine valuables. We think the Lord asks for sacrifices, when all he wants is for us to clean out lesser things to make room for priceless treasures. Most of us fail to realize that by making room for God, we are making room for a vast treasury of divine riches that will be ours to keep.
If God filled that treasure chest within you, it would make you of infinite worth. While that chest is filled with yourself, however, there is no room for God. The more you make yourself small, the more of God there can be in that chest. The thought of making ourselves small terrifies us until we discover that it is simply making room for real riches that will be ours forever. Anyone opening up to God and pricking the balloon of his/her own importance, fills with divine importance. The new you fills with divine glory and supernatural power and majesty and joy and goodness and love and wisdom.
By emptying ourselves, we free up space for God to cram honor, beauty and eternal riches into our lives. When we shrink our estimation of our unaided ability, we make way for more of the ability of Almighty God to come flooding in.
Dying to self means coming to life like never before. It is trading trinkets for treasures; taking desires that end in despair and exchanging them for superior passions that produce life and fulfillment. And yet, when we have only known the inferior, it is so hard to even imagine the superior that it seems an enormous sacrifice to swap our darling trinkets for things of eternal value.
You might have heard it said, “God does not make junk.” The implication is that because we are God’s creation, we are of great worth, irrespective of whether we are filled with self or filled with Jesus. There’s a flaw in that logic. A brilliant artist will only make masterpieces, but any fool can vandalize a work of art until it is worthless. Our value lies only in our potential to be restored to the condition the Master originally intended. This restoration cannot happen if we keep Christ at arm’s length. We were divinely crafted to be filled with Jesus. As a human body without life is nothing but a putrid, decaying shell, so is a human spirit without Jesus.
So upon opening yourself up to God, the more you shrink in your own estimation, the more you grow in worth, honor and usefulness. Here’s an example that may startle you: the more morally superior to a rapist Jane thinks herself, the more of Jane there is in that chest and the less there can be of God. On the other hand, the more Jane regards herself as morally corrupt and worthy of the same eternal fate as a rapist, the more she makes room for the Holy Lord and so the more she grows in purity and eternal honor. Consider Jesus’ parable of the tax collector and Pharisee praying in the temple. The one overwhelmed with a sense of moral depravity went home pure in God’s eyes. The good-living man, however, left morally corrupt in God’s eyes because he considered himself better than notorious sinners (Luke 18:9-14). Likewise, we see in the life of the apostle Paul, the more he grew in spiritual stature, the lower his opinion of himself. That’s the only way anyone can grow spiritually. Paul went from thinking himself the equal of any apostle, to regarding himself as the least of Christians, to concluding he was the worst of sinners (Galatians 2:6-14; Ephesians 3:8; 1 Timothy 1:15). The more we lower ourselves, the taller we stand. Life is filled with such ironies and spiritual life is crammed with them.
Consider these ironies:
In a nutshell:
How can this be the gateway to fulfillment and supernatural joy?