I’m almost finished with pastor Tim Keller’s new book Walking with God through Pain and Suffering … and it’s great on many levels. This morning a section he wrote was powerful in my thinking and heart. This is the kind of stuff we MUST have settled in our hearts before we enter the furnace of suffering and confusion. I just want to give you an extended sample of what he wrote … then go buy the book:
Context – Keller has described the Joseph story and the hideous human event of his brothers sinful choice to sell their brother into slavery, and another Biblical event that happened in that same geographical place (Dothan) a number of years later – that of Elisha praying to God when he and his servant were trapped by Syrian troops and God showed them “Angelic troops and chariots of fire” and later struck the entire Syrian army blind.
Keller writes – ” Now think of these two divine acts of deliverance at Dothan. In the first incident, Joseph cries out to God for deliverance and rescue. But instead, God appears to do nothing at all. In the second incident at Dothan, God answers Elisha’s prayer for deliverance with an immediate massive miracle. On the surface, it appears that God ignores Joseph and responds to Elisha. But that is not so. It would turn out that God had been as watchful in his hiddenness as in any miracle. The two extremes of His methods meet in fact in Dothan, for it was here, where Joseph cried in vain (Genesis 42:21), that Elisha would find himself visibly encircled by Gods’ chariots. God was just as present and active in the slow answers to Joseph as in the swift answer to Elisha. He was as lovingly involved in the silence of that cistern as he was in the noisy, spectacular answer to Elisha’s prayer. And indeed, it could be argued that Joseph’s salvation, while less supernatural and dramatic, was greater in depth and breadth and effect. The Joseph story tells us that very often God does not give us exactly what we ask for. Instead he gives us what we would have asked for if we had known everything he knows. We must never assume that we know enough to mistrust God’s ways or be bitter against what he has allowed. We must never think we have really ruined our lives, or have ruined God’s good purposes for us. The brothers surely must have felt, at one point, that they had permanently ruined their standing with God and their father’s life and their family. But God worked through it. This is not inducement to sin. The pain and misery that resulted in their lives from this action were very great. Yet God used it redemptively. You cannot destroy his good purposes for us. He is too great, and will weave even great sins into a fabric that makes us something useful and valuable.” Later in the chapter Keller quotes from one of my favorite books of The Letters of John Newton – “All shall work together for good; everything is needful that he sends; nothing can be needful that he withholds … when you cannot see your way, be satisfied that he is your leader. When your spirit is overwhelmed within you, he knows your path: he will not leave you to sink. He has appointed seasons of refreshment, and you shall find he does not forget you. Above all, keep close to the throne of grace. If we seem to get no good by attempting to draw near him, we may be sure we shall get none by keeping away from him (Newton). Newton’s statement – ‘everything is needful [necessary] that he sends, nothing can be needful [necessary] that he withholds’ – puts an ocean of biblical theology into a thimble. If the story of Joseph and the whole of the Bible is true, then anything that comes into your life is something that, as painful as it is, you need in some way. And anything you pray for that does not come from him, even if you are sure you cannot live without it, you do not really need … we get God’s saving power in our life only through the weakness of repentance and trust. And, so often, the grace of God grows more through our difficulties than our triumphs.” (pgs 263-269)
May we learn to really trust that God is for His children … always!