For some people, 2017 was a year marked by many delights. For many of us, 2017 was a year marked by many difficulties and decline, by disaster and death. Without rehashing all the details, that describes our experience as a family and as a church. To say the least, it was a rough and rowdy year — and we are not over it yet.
Rather than rant about it according to the flesh, let us pray for the grace to rejoice in it according to the Spirit, as our forefathers taught us by their way of life.
In the aftermath of tragic disaster and disease Job confessed, “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away; blessed be the name of the Lord…Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?”
In the face of tremendous devastation Jeremiah cried out, “Who has spoken and it came to pass, unless the Lord has commanded it? Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that good and bad come? Why should a living man complain…Let us test and examine our ways, and return to the LORD!”
In the midst of terrifying darkness and dread Jesus told his friends, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death.” He fell on his face and prayed, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.”
All these men acknowledged that God is sovereign over the ebb and flow of life. They did not always like what was happening or agree with it, but they accepted it as part of God’s purpose. Rather than accuse God of wrong-doing they turned to him and trusted him. They were not stoics who merely squinted their eyes and took it on the chin with a stiff upper lip. They were saints who wrestled with God through the night with tears in their eyes.
In our Presbyterian and Reformed tradition we confess that “God, from all eternity, did—by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will—freely and unchangeably ordain whatever comes to pass.” That is a disturbing thought to those who do not know God, but a comforting thought to those who are known and loved by God.
(Granted, if that were the end of the statement we might be justified in falling into the despair of determinism. But that is not the end of the statement, therefore we may hope in the Lord our God.)
The statement goes on to say, “Yet he ordered all things in such a way that he is not the author of sin, nor does he force his creatures to act against their wills; neither is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.” (WCF 3.1)
In other words, God’s sovereignty establishes our dignity and responsibility. We are not mere puppets on invisible strings or frozen chess pieces on a cosmic board. We are living creatures made in the image and likeness of our Creator — in him we live, move, and exist, for his glory and for our good.
Our forefathers in the faith knew these truths about God, took them to heart, and acted on them in life, good times or bad. They walked by faith, not by sight, as we must also learn to do.
As we leave one year and enter another let us strive to do the same, that we may glorify God in our joys and sorrows, our gains and losses, our life and death, and (finally!) enjoy him forever in the new heavens and earth.
This, after all, is the chief end of man.
Post-script — God did not keep a safe distance from us but came near to us. In Christ, God became flesh and entered into our ordinary human experience. As the scriptue says,
Since the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery…Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted. (Hebrews 2:14-17)
God in the flesh is able to sympathize with our weaknesses, therefore we may draw near to the throne of grace with confidence, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.