In a parallel universe somewhere I am currently in Heathrow Airport, about to fly out to Kenya to speak at a couple of conferences next week. It is one of a number of events that I was looking forward to this year that will no longer happen. And my own experience in this regard is relatively small fry- I know those who were due to be on their honeymoon at the moment.
What do you do with that? I’ve mentioned before that one of the great lessons of this period comes from James 4:14-15- “Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” In the end, events only happen if they are God’s will. The blunt reality is that it wasn’t God’s will that I speak in Kenya this year. But where the will of God has caused us particular pain (more than a cancelled speaking trip) there may be some processing to do. How does the Bible do that?
There are plenty of examples of biblical heroes who don’t find it easy to accept the will of God. Habakkuk can’t understand why God’s will involves the Babylonians invading Israel. Job cannot comprehend why God appears to be using him for target practice. In Psalm 10 David is mystified why God’s purpose seems to involve standing far off when the arrogant prosper. Perhaps most astonishingly of all you find Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane with the prayer that the cup be taken from Him.
In other words, it isn’t necessarily the case that God’s will is always met by a sense of peace. There will be struggle, pain and confusion in it at times. One of the phrases that I constantly have in mind when thinking of Christian experience is Paul’s description of his life in 2 Cor 6- “sorrowful yet always rejoicing.” Elsewhere Paul ponders what would have happened had his friend Epaphroditus died and he describes it as “sorrow upon sorrow”. The Gospel does provide a fresh perspective on circumstances and a cause for joy but it doesn’t yet remove all pain, grief and confusion. Is it right therefore to feel sad about the good opportunities that have been taken away, to weep over the ways in which hopes have been dashed even as we recognise the will of God in them? Yes seems to be the biblical answer- provided we know it is not the only answer.
“Yet not my will, but yours be done.” It is still the most remarkable prayer ever prayed. Jesus knows the agony of the cross awaits Him and yet bows to His Father’s will.
For all the appropriate sorrow there comes a point when we have to acknowledge that what has happened is the will of God and to accept that He is the One with the right and the wisdom to order the universe. The alternative is to seek to live in a parallel universe where we don’t accept what has happened or where we nurture bitterness about the Lord. I have seen that happen and it can wreck life for years. Of course this is far from easy at times. It may feel for some of us as though we are going through our own version of Gethsemane. But- I wonder whether for some of us we will need to say through tears- “Father I accept this as your will for me. Help me to submit to it.”
In the end God’s will always has a good purpose. Jesus’ work on the cross had the ultimate good purpose- the eternal salvation of billions. Likewise His will has good purpose in our lives. For myself, I am learning to accept that in not sending me to Kenya the Lord had the purpose of giving me the privilege of pastoring Woody Road through a tough time and learning lessons through an enforced experience of solitude. More broadly, the New Testament is clear that the Lord’s will in these times will be increased perseverance, dependence on Him, humility and compassion for others. Again- I don’t want to be trite. I know that sometimes in specific circumstances it can’t always be easy to conclude what the Lord’s good purpose is- we may need to wait for the new creation to discover that. But what we can know from His character revealed in Jesus is that He must have one. And it is good to co-operate with that: to begin to thank Him for those things whether we can yet see them or not.
Pretty much all of us at this time will be discovering that God’s will for our life at the moment was not what we imagined it would be. Rather than simply be shocked or dismayed, can I urge us to process that? And, if necessary, through tears to accept His sovereignty and to believe that He is good.