I shall never forget a young man who was a new believer. He was quite demonstrably excited about his new-found faith in the Lord. When he called me for a counseling appointment I assumed he had yet more questions about the Scriptures, which he was devouring as if he had an unquenchable thirst—a very good and common sign of conversion. Yet, as he sat before me his countenance was not only sad. I would, rather, describe it as bewildered; maybe even distressed.
“Pastor,” he spoke looking away, as if to look at me would be to compound some kind of inner disappointment, “I don’t get it.”
“You don’t get what, Bill?” I said.
“I don’t get, well, quite frankly—you or God or the Bible.”
I did not answer but hoped that, having laid down his somewhat cryptic but certain proposition, he could expound. Still looking away, the next thought formed, and he turned and looked me directly in the eyes.
“I have tithed. I have followed God. I have changed a lot in my life. I lead my family in Bible reading. I have daily devotionals. My business if failing. I literally was doing better as an unbeliever. I thought with my support of God He would support me. He would bless me. But now I don’t even know if God is with me.”
Do you judge God’s blessings by the absence of trials and suffering?
My wife and I committed to following Christ’s call into the ministry, leaving all. We were in Kansas City and were to go to seminary in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. It was quite a move. My supervisor of the Fortune 500 company that I worked for (and who knew that I was going to prepare for the ministry and would work for them in South Florida as I went through seminary) offered to pay for the entire move. It was a tremendous blessing. That was in the fall. By Christmas of the next year he had been promoted. His successor learned of the arrangement. He called me and demanded the full amount of the move returned by December 31st. With savings depleted, rent due, our daughter in Christian school, and Mae was caring for my Aunt Eva in our home, this seemed like a sign to us that God’s blessing had departed. I stopped at a red light. Put my head down on the steering wheel, wept to God in prayer about whether to even tell Mae. But I had to. We were in this together. We were. But where was God? I thought He was the One who had called us to this?
Do you judge God’s blessings by the absence of trials and suffering?
This is not, necessarily, an unfaithful question. It is a plea of faith cried out at the nexus of human inscrutability. And it is common to us all. In fact, it is often a necessary cry that leads to greater understanding of God and Self. The cry becomes testing of God when we cry out of a soul hardening against God’s providence, as if God owed us something and we demand payment of blessing from the God of the universe. This is cosmic anarchy.
In Exodus, Moses and the children of Israel come to Rephidim. They are thirsty. Once again, they take out their thirst on Moses and remind him that it would have been better if they had never left Egypt. They cry out, “Is the Lord among us or not?”
What we learn from this passage is that God’s glorious plans for us are greater than the respective circumstances of our lives. We learn that God’s blessings are not contingent upon the unpredictable vicissitudes of life’s circumstances but upon the unbreakable certainty of God’s covenant promises.
How is this so? We can be sure of this through the instruments of God’s Promises in Exodus 17:1-7.
Consider the first instrument:
Promises are fulfilled through a Leader and this is our blessing.
The blessing of God to Israel was that He had given them a leader to guide them to the Promised Land. Moses was the Man of God given. He is the blessing of God in their midst. Now, to live with Moses and all of his foibles is to possible miss the blessing. But, this is the appointed man of God for them. He was called for this. His presence speaks powerfully to the presence of the Lord. Circumstances come and go. But blessing is always connected to covenant. God had promised a leader and had given them one.
In the darkest days of World War Two God had given our nation and our allies some great leaders. As the twenty-first century came, many historians and journalists sought to identify the greatest leader of the Twentieth Century. I think they probably got it right when most of them pointed to Sir Winston Churchill. When he died in the 1960s my Aunt Eva cried. I could tell that his death triggered memories of hard times. My uncle, her brother, was killed in WWII. My father commanded ships that were shot by U-boats, twice, during WWII. It was a dark time for so many families. His voice, often broadcast across America, as well as Britain, brought stability, brought hope. The circumstance was horrible. The world was at war. But God has given a leader.
Jesus Christ said I will never leave you nor forsake you. The one who walked on the water and commanded the wind and waves—the Captain of your soul—walks among His people still. And through the fog of your troubles I can see the image of Man of Galilee beckoning you to come and follow.
Storms do not define the blessing of God. Christ in the storm does.
There is a second instrument that points to God’s unbreakable promise leading to His blessing in Exodus 17:1-7:
Promises are fulfilled through a Staff and this is our blessing.
When God called Moses He had turned a serpent, an instrument of danger and death, into a staff, an instrument of presence and power. And the Lord instructed Moses to raise the staff whenever there was a great need. Thus, it was, once more, through the use of the staff that water came forth from a rock, surely the most miraculous of the wilderness signs.
Yesterday I was teaching Basic Preaching to seminary students. I was teaching on “occasional sermons,” those messages other than the normal Sunday to Sunday sermons, like weddings and funerals. A student raised his hand and asked a very important question about the funeral sermon. He formed his question with intense thought, even as he spoke, “How do you keep your emotions in check? It must be that sometimes a certain death hits home. After all, we are only human.” I said, “Yes, it is true. All of us are traumatized at some point in our lives. We experience loss in such a dramatic way that it is impressed upon our souls for life. Trauma is like a water moccasin lurking beneath a dark pond. And should a branch suddenly fall from a tree into that pond and disturb it, the moccasin suddenly jumps to the surface to frighten us once again. Yet, the Cross, an instrument of horrow, an instrument of trauma itself, becomes for us, a staff that leads us through these times. And we are led by the Cross, our staff, to the Savior. So the trauma becomes, in a paradoxical way, the instrument of understanding how to preach the sermon.”
The staff that transforms our lives is the Cross of Jesus Christ. The cross was fashioned by the devil for death and transformed by God for life. The cross was created by Man to cruel punishment of a wholly innocent Man, the Lord Jesus Christ. Yet, the cross was re-created by God to glorious victory for wholly sinful Men through the life of Christ.
This is the blessing of God in the midst of every circumstance.
The third instrument of God’s promises lies at the heart of this narrative:
Promises are fulfilled through a Stream and this is our blessing.
The people are given water. They drink to their fill. Yet, the experience of having thirsted has left them with the question, “Is God really with us?”
Jesus Christ said, “Whoever believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water’” (John 7:38 ESV).
On 08 April 1945 the Reverend Dr. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hanged at Flossenburg prison. The final act of this 39-year old Lutheran pastor and seminary professor was to lead a worship service for fellow prisoners. His final words were, “This is the end, for me, the beginning of life.” Bonhoeffer was drinking from that well that never runs dry.
My Beloved, today, no matter what your situation, do not judge God’s blessing or lack of blessing merely by your circumstance, but by His Promise. Jesus our Lord promises that even if your tongue clings to the roof of your mouth in death’s reply to human thirst, His life will flow through yours unto everlasting life.
Do you judge God’s blessings by the absence of trials and suffering? Remember that the Lord’s blessing is not contingent upon the vicissitudes of this life, but upon the certainty of His promises. We have seen, in Exodus 17:1-7, that the instruments of His promise—in a leader, a staff, and a stream—lead us to rest in Christ no matter the circumstance.
Bonhoeffer once taught his young pastors that “we must love God for God’s own sake.” The young businessman who came to see me just could not understand how God’s blessings would not follow his profession of faith through greater wealth. I had to ask him if he loved God for what he could get from God in this life, or if he had come to love God for God’s own sake. I did not want an answer. I wanted him to seek the answer in his own soul over time. And through many trials that young man, at length, came to follow the Lord Jesus Christ out of love, not out of transaction. In time, his demeanor so changed that customers (and fellow Christians) were not as put off by his blunt, aggressive way of dealing. He became more thoughtful. He listened. He cared. He conducted business as if he were serving his customers rather than using them. And he enjoyed financial success.
But, please remember. Whether the circumstance is earthly rewards or a Nazi noose at Flossenburg prison, we do not judge God’s blessings by circumstance. We know the blessing of the Lord through His covenant, His promise. And His greatest Promise is that One that Moses looked to and pointed Israel to: our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Have you received Him? Do you love Him? Do love God for God’s own sake? Let these questions rest upon your soul today. Let them lead you to the God who is here, not out of a transaction, but out of His own desire to love you, to be with you, to be your God, and to walk with you all of the days of your life until you see Him face to face. And that will be the greatest blessing of all. Until then, we are given the Holy Spirit to drink deeply of His promises and know that the very things that are coming against us are the very things that are nudging us closer and closer to home.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Michael Milton is James H. Ragsdale Chair of Missions and Evangelism, Erskine Theological Seminary; President, D. James Kennedy Institute for Reformed Leadership and Training; Chaplain (Colonel) U.S. Army Reserve; and President, Faith for Living, Inc.