(Including thoughts from “Religious Affections” by Jonathon Edwards)
Holy Father, allow us to enter into Your joy! Fill us with single-minded longing to know You and only You, to love You and only You, to enjoy You and only You, even in the midst of a thousand worldly pleasures and pursuits on this desert Earth. Let us taste You and desire the taste of nothing else. In the beautiful name of Jesus, Amen.
Nero ravaged the church of God only thirty years after Jesus rose from the tomb. A few centuries later, Diocletian was a lion among the lost sheep of Christ. In the fourteenth century, Tamerlane made good on his promises of purifying his kingdom, and in North Korea today, the light of Christ shines around the silhouettes of gun-wielding soldiers and sharp-tongued government officials.
Stop, Church. See what I did there? In the paragraph above, millions of Christians have died, seen their friends and family killed, had their homes or jobs or possessions taken, been emptied of all worldly status or comfort or quality of life. It’s awful. It’s horrifying.
But do you feel anything right now? Everyone in this website’s target audience is within fifty miles of a twenty-four hour news service--we all hear stuff like this every day. We’re soaked in it like beans the night before my wife makes chili. You should be weeping, this should cause devastation in your heart. Are you? Are you moved at all?
Hear me now, Church of God: As Christians bearing the holy responsibility of communicating God’s Word to the nations (Matt. 28:18-20), we must not speak in generalities. So, if you’re teaching, don’t point to historical instances of Christian persecution and expect your hearers to apply that to their life--they can’t. Give them real examples of persecution that they might experience in real life so that they can understand (2 Tim. 3:12). To phrase it another way, do not talk about ‘absolute surrender to God’ without telling your hearers what, exactly, they must surrender.
Teaching without application is wasted time.
Now, let’s begin again, and this time, we will state what we mean directly: It is a rare day in which a Christian is not slandered in some way. You feel me there? Men mock us behind our backs, declaring how we live to be ‘backwards’ or ‘idiotic’ or ‘unbalanced’ or ‘crazy’. They declare we’ve abandoned our parents, that we don’t love anyone but ourselves, that our talk about Jesus is dangerous and threatening our country’s political stability. Our friends and cousins and brothers and sisters refuse to spend time with us because we’ve ‘changed’ or because they don’t want some of our bad reputation to rub off on them. We lose our jobs because we are not honorable enough to be seen by customers in our place of work, and we are told we will go to hell by those who believe they are righteous enough to earn Heaven with their good deeds (Matt. 10:21-25).
The first and most important lesson to remember in the midst of these events is that God is totally, absolutely, wonderfully sovereign. Hear me, Church: Nothing that happens in this world is an accident, and nothing is outside of God’s control. God is not a passive figure that ‘allows’--He is an active figure that is sovereign in every circumstance. Period.
He has actively caused all persecutions, all unpleasant happenings, all pain, all emotion, all joy, all faith, all righteousness, all salvation, all life, all death. Is that mind-bending for you? And yet, from Him and through Him and to Him are all things, Romans 11:36. To Him be glory forever, Church.
See, people can hear that, and nod their heads, and then still draw these arbitrary little lines in the sand. You with me there? They’re like, “Yeah, God is sovereign over everything. Except me.” …….What? You were made in the image of God--does that mean you, a man, are trying to be like God, above His control, sovereign over yourself? Do you count equality with God a thing to be grasped? Sounds a little like a certain fallen angel I’ve heard about.
Even the confines of your heart are not off limits to the sovereign working of our Father. Listen to me: It’s just the opposite. Your emotions are the primary stage for the display of His glory. Your emotions are the most important thing that God controls. Why is this? It’s because the perfect Christian only wants God all the time. In order to get there, God has to change what you want--He has to change your will, and that’s the very center of your being. God has to make you love Him. You with me?
Is God’s sovereignty over you good news, or is it threatening? Is God maybe horning in on your territory, the place where you should be able to exert your strength and show your value by working to please Him? Is God evil now in your estimation, and you believe He’s torturing you by some of the things that have happened to you? Is God even still real in your mind, or is it tempting to believe He’s fake, knowing that all the bad things that have happened in the world were completely under His control?
In the coming months and years, we will deal with all of these responses to the wonderful sovereignty of God. But for now, examine what response you had, and take a moment to ask God to be able to love Him.
Now let’s get back to God’s sovereignty in trials against our faith.
Church, here’s my message: God’s sovereignty over our emotions is excellent news, because otherwise we would have no hope of rejoicing in the midst of suffering--trials would produce in us their logical outcome, misery. But as it is, we can trust the almighty hand of God to produce His wonderful joy in us in all seasons of life, even in the valley of the shadow of death. God gives us His Presence at these times so that we will experience the greatest sensation of peace and delight that exists, namely Himself.
This is one reason why God sends trials to His children: To allow us to rejoice in Him, through the delight in His Presence that He gives us when the trials come.
But there is another reason. Remember that a simplified definition of sin is taking more pleasure, more enjoyment, having more fun, in anything else than you do in God. It has little to do with commandments--it has everything to do with what you love. Therefore God sends trials as an opportunity to let us taste Him more deeply, and from that experience of His fullness, reorient our lives around the pursuit of delight in His presence.
I will phrase that another way: God uses trials to teach us how to enjoy Him more than the worldly comforts we had been enjoying, and to make us want to enter into His Presence more often. Pain is an opportunity to leave behind some of the comforts of the world, and spend more time in the joy of God.
This is clearly demonstrated in real-world experience in most people. Perhaps you had previously loved watching sports, or playing a video game, or chatting with friends online, or shopping, or watching TV, but as soon as your friend spread a rumor about you that you were sleeping with someone in your church, you had no desire to spend your time with those hobbies anymore. Instead, you wanted to pray and read the Word of God and know Him a little more deeply. You realized how much you needed Him to move in your life every day, and how much you loved to be with Him.
Exactly this instance is the fulfillment of the biblical commandment to rejoice in our sufferings--because when we ask God to allow us to take pleasure in Him, this is the truest form of rejoicing. And notice, it is not us who achieves this, but God working in us after He enables us to pray for it.
Thank God for that, and rejoice in the sovereign will of our Father, who is working all things together for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose!