God's Strange Ways
Our Father breaks us down before building us up. He discourages before encouraging. He afflicts before healing. He sometimes withers the fledgling plant under the scorching heat of persecution to drive its roots deeper into Christ. He works this way in the various seasons of our lives – a job loss, humbling, then he makes provision; sickness, praying, then healing, or not healing but persevering grace and joy triumphing over circumstances. He works this way across generations, even centuries – he does not chasten the church all at once, but progressively, then more seriously as in diminished light and power, then persecution, then renewal. It is a strange work he does. We see only the shadow of his ways, as Job confessed, the broadest outlines, with sunspots before our eyes after we have tried to see his glory.
Jeremiah’s prophecies are a good example of this. Never was there a more penetrating indictment of a people’s sin, a breaking down of resistance to God’s word. He condemned them for “turning the back to me, but not the face” (2:27). From their youth up, the beginning of their national existence, they had rebelled against the Lord (3:25). He was near in their mouth, but far from their reins, their heart (12:2). Again and again, they provoked him to his face with their idolatries (7:18; 8:19; 32:30).
The leaders of Israel hated Jeremiah’s message. They did not think humbling and chastening were necessary before restoration. They had the temple; surely that would count for something – but not to the Lord (7:4). Then, when Jeremiah told them that everyone who defended the city would be killed but those who went out to the Babylonians would be saved, it was too much for them. Even at their last extremity, they held out a vain hope that all would be well. They imprisoned God’s prophet and threw him in a pit. We find it so hard to listen and to stoop to pass through truth’s gate – not many wise (1 Cor. 1:28-32). We do not want to be broken. The old paths of God’s word seem insufficient for the crises our sins create (6:16). There must be another way to have peace and blessing.
Strangely, one of the bleakest portions of Scripture is also one of the most promised laden. “I will heal your backslidings” (3:22). I will bring you back from captivity and restore you to your place (27:22). I will restore your health and heal your wounds (30:17). I will raise up for David a righteous Branch (23:5). He will save my people; his name will be THE LORD OUR RIGHEOUSNESS (23:6). “I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear me forever, for the good of them and of their children after them: and I will make an everlasting covenant with them, that I will not turn away from them to do them good; but I will put my fear in their heart, that they shall not depart from me” (32:39-40).
I cannot think of a more wonderful back and forth – judgment and deliverance; chastening and healing; backsliding and steadfastness, warning and hope, destruction and salvation. What is God doing here? Very simply, he was breaking them. They had rebelled against him from their youth up. They did not appreciate the HOLY ONE who set them apart in his grace and gave them his word and covenant. They followed the idols of their hearts and hands. They rested in the forms of religion but knew little of its power. The Lord kept his end of the covenant; he judged them sorely for disobedience: humiliation, defeat, and captivity.
But in the midst of this breaking, he upheld them with his promises. Most of them would not live to see the promised return from Babylon 70 years later. None of them would live to see the coming of David’s Righteous Branch, the true King of Israel, Jesus Christ. The remnant faithful must learn to live by faith. They, too, must be broken over the sins of their fathers and people. They were not preserved from suffering. Affliction comes before healing, chastening before restoration.
The world and especially consumer societies cannot understand the way God works. First, they do not accept personal responsibility. It is always someone else’s fault – politicians, the environment, scarcity, my husband, whatever. That being the case, second, sin has inoculated them from being broken down, truly humbled before the Lord. Nothing less than the new birth, Jeremiah’s “one heart and one way,” God’s sovereign grace and power can break the granite of the unbelieving heart. If this was true of those who had God’s word, covenant, and glory (Rom. 9:4), it is true of the rank and file Gentile, whatever his nationality.
And third, personally irresponsible and unwilling to be broken before God, they crave easy solutions to sin’s disease and consequences, an aspirin for a cancer – nothing to challenge, nothing to hold up the mirror in one’s face, nothing to confront the blackness of sin with the light of God’s holiness, truth, and mercy. No Bible-believer should ever be surprised by the deadly decline and judgment of unbelieving men and nations. God is angry with the wicked every day (Ps. 7:11). He judges the world. He will humble all the mountains of man’s pride and rebellion. This is the way he works.
And he works this way in us. There is first the breaking down, the humbling of our pride, and the correction for our stubbornness. He uses various means to do this – disappointments in calling and family, sickness, a gnawing sense that things are not right and that we have displeased him. He can use calamities that engulf whole peoples and nations. He uses “natural” disasters, wildfires, and social revolution to rebuke, chasten, and judge. He uses turmoil among the nations in which we live, sins that will not leave us alone, or even crimes against our persons and property. If he loves you, he will break you. Resistance is futile. It only prolongs the chastening and intensifies it.
As believers in Jesus, we must accept personal responsibility that we often provoke the Lord. He is holy, and our sins are an insult to his majesty and ingratitude for his mercy and grace. His love does not change, but his love is jealous for our love and obedience. This is his right; he is our Maker and Husband and Redeemer. Whenever we feel the Lord’s breaking, humbling hand, we must fall into it, for his mercies are great and everlasting (2 Sam. 24:14). But fall we must, not because he will destroy us but crush our sins and sinfulness, the core rebellion that Jesus Christ came to break and replace with “one heart and one way.”
Be willing to be broken before God. Think of the promises to the broken. “The Lord is near to those that are of a broken heart, and saves such as be of a contrite spirit” (Ps. 34:18). If we turn our face to him, and not our backs, he will heal and restore us. The reason he brings his chastening hand against us is to pour his everlasting mercies upon us. He promises to fill our hearts with a holy fear of him (Jer. 32:39). The fear of the Lord is central in New Testament piety as it was in Old. We are to “perfect holiness in the fear of God” (2 Cor. 7:1), “submit ourselves to one another in the fear of God” (Eph. 5:21), and “serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear” (Heb. 12:28). God’s strange ways are perhaps not that strange after all. He will be feared, adored, loved, worshipped, and obeyed. He is God.
These are the old paths of which Jeremiah spoke (6:16). He is leading us to walk carefully in them. The world has become a dangerous place, with threats of war, globalist intrigue, increasing persecution of Christians. Is something wrong? No, these are God’s ways. Our Savior did not come to launch us onto a personal spiritual quest. He came to send fire on the earth (Luke 12:49) and to baptize his people with fire and the Holy Ghost (Matt. 3:11). Expect to feel it, to be purified as his kingdom of priests so that you can offer unto God sacrifices of righteousness (Mal. 3:3).
Have you thought, child of God, that the pressures and afflictions you are going through are the first half of God’s ways? Pain, loss, temptation, persecution – the Lord has many ways to reveal our weakness and set our hearts to seeking him. Perhaps he has convicted you of a heart idol, and as you now think about how much something has controlled your life, it is as if all the wind has gone of your sails. It is hard for you to look honestly into the mirror of the soul, but the Lord would show you your heart so that he might then show you his.
We are very sinful, but he will mercifully pardon all. We are weakness itself, but he is very strong and able. When he points out how much pride, ambition, or the desire to be esteemed has dominated our expectations – which thus explains our frustration as being ignored or belittled – it is deeply humbling to be brought so low. Ah! I was not ambitious for my God but for me! I did not want others to praise him but to praise and to recognize me – or it was such a muddle in my mind that I hardly know whether God or me is the God of my life. Rejoice in such perturbations that the Lord is confronting and sifting. His ways are strange, but he breaks so that he can heal, cripples so he can use, and casts down our heart idols so that we may know and love and adore him for his mercy and truth.