Monday, April 23, 2012

Reflections on what I thought I knew

"It's clear enough to me, the ugliness I see is evidence of Who I need..." (NEEDTOBREATHE)

How many times have I prayed to forget the mistakes of my past and the many ways I have fallen short and grieved God by my willful disobedience, while trying to remedy that desire with the reminder that painful memories help keep me from falling into the same strongholds and help me recognize the wrong-thinking that led me far from God in the first place? When I’m reminded in the slightest of who I’ve been at my worst, I am overwhelmed by feelings of self-loathing and regret, tempered only by the strongest sense of gratitude for how far God has brought me to get me to this point – a point in my life where I and my circumstances are still so far from perfect, but where I am assured and sustained by the knowledge that I am in His will, that He cares for me, and that He is working all things together for my good, even though I don’t deserve it.

I look back on a girl and a life I do not recognize, on a past and a story that sometimes doesn’t feel like my own, and I realize how great the disconnect between myself and that girl has become, and how great the distance between my current life and those former things has widened, and how much God has changed me and grown me through it all; how much He has blessed me, as hateful and sinful in my heart as I can be, as prone to failure as I am. It is painful, but at the same time humbling to realize the depths from which God rescued me. But grateful as I am, I’ve often wished that I’d not sunken so low before finding much firmer footing in God’s will.

Given how intensely I’ve been feeling as of late, imagining just how much my past actions have grieved God, you can imagine how overwhelmed I felt yesterday morning, when in studying the Word, I came upon a passage that gave me a much broader perspective, and helped me realize that, all along, even at the height of my disobedience, God’s plan was taking shape, and that, even then, His hand was on my life in ways I couldn’t yet see.

“God looks at our past lives from a completely different perspective. God was accomplishing His will even through our own failures and sin” (Dan DeHaan). 

I’ve been leading a small group through Dan DeHaan’s The God You Can Know, a book recommended by a dear friend when I was going through difficult times not too long ago, that helped remind me of the need to put my focus on God and who He is rather than my circumstances, to love and worship Him for all He is rather than for what He does for me, and most importantly, to be seeking to know Him more and more. The chapters we are covering tomorrow, which I was preparing for yesterday when I came upon the passage that is the premise for this post, deals with The Perfections of God. Among them: how Incomprehensible, Perfect, Unchanging, All-powerful, All-knowing, Ever-present, Good, Holy, and Sovereign He is.

In addressing God’s Sovereignty, DeHaan recalls “the battle of Jonah’s hard head against the sovereignty [of] God,” and concludes that the story of Jonah shows us that God will accomplish His purposes and His will regardless of our disobedience. When reading through Jonah this morning, something else about the passage struck me. Not only did God accomplish His purposes despite Jonah’s actions, but God’s plan took Jonah’s actions into account and used Jonah’s missteps for His Glory and His purposes. Put more simply, Jonah didn’t somehow mess up God’s plan for his life. God had a plan for his life that took into consideration the mistakes he would make because God forknew them. The same way He foreknew mine.

For those of you not familiar with the story of Jonah, please allow me to briefly recount:

God commands Jonah to go to Nineveh and preach against it. Jonah refuses and runs away, catching a boat to the furthest destination from Nineveh that he can reach. Not only is Jonah running away, the Bible says that he is seeking to avoid God’s presence (as if such a thing were possible).

“Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?” (Psalm 139:7)

While en route, God sends a storm that causes the men on the boat to question who has brought God’s wrath upon them. Ultimately, it is revealed that Jonah’s disobedience has roused God’s anger. Jonah essentially professes his faith and asks the men to throw him overboard so that they might survive. When the men refuse, God increases the storm such the men not only acknowledge that it is God who has brought this storm but they cry out to Him and ask Him to spare their lives.  Ultimately, they throw Jonah into the sea. As soon as Jonah is in the water, the storm immediately calms and the men begin to fear God and to make vows to Him (Jonah 1:1-17).

I stop here for the time being to reflect on this part of the story that occurs before Jonah ever finds himself in the belly of the “whale,” the part of the story Jonah is most famous for. Surely, Jonah’s disobedience was not pleasing to God. Yet, God, being All-knowing, had a plan not only for Jonah’s life that took Jonah’s disobedience into account, but also a plan for the lives of the men on the boat, who, through the repercussions of Jonah’s fleeing God’s will and attempting to avoid His presence, watched as God demonstrated His existence, His power and authority over the wind and the waves and over their lives. God used it all for His glory because He had a purpose for Jonah’s life and for the lives of the men in the boat.

So… Jonah finds himself sinking into the sea, thinking he is about to die, when suddenly, a “huge fish” swallows him. It is important to note that the Bible makes it clear that this was no accident. Rather, God “provided [this] huge fish to swallow Jonah” (Jonah 1:17). And there Jonah remains for 3 days and 3 nights until He cries out to God and praises Him, and the fish spits him up (literally vomits him) onto dry land. God commands Jonah a second time to go to Nineveh and preach and this time Jonah obeys. He goes to Nineveh and proclaims that God will overthrow the city in 40 days time. Upon hearing the message, the people (“from the greatest to the least of them”) believe God, and begin fasting and repenting. Even the king lays aside his robe and begins to repent and orders that his subjects repent and turn away from their evil and violence. God sees that the people have turned away from their evil ways and “relents” from the disaster He said He would bring (Jonah 2:1 – 3:10).

Did God change His mind? Perhaps. But, wouldn’t God being All-Knowing have known from the beginning of time that He would spare the city of Nineveh? I can’t help but believe that He knew that he would use Jonah to reach these people in this exact way.

When God decides to spare Nineveh, Jonah is incensed.  The Bible says that "to Jonah, this seemed very wrong" (Jonah 4:1).  He acknowledges that God is a God of mercy and justice but yet he is angry that God has "relented from sending calamity."

It’s easy to imagine that Jonah might have wondered why God bothered sending Him to preach against the city at all if He was going to allow it to go unpunished for its many sins. Maybe He was angry that God’s anger rose up against Him on the boat and yet, these people appeared to be getting a free pass for behavior that seemed so much worse. The Bible says that, at this point, Jonah becomes so angry that he wants to die, to the extent that he asks God to take his life.

But God does not take Jonah's life.  Instead, He asks Jonah if it is right for him to be angry. Over the course of the next two days God uses everything that has happened and will happen to teach Jonah about His Love and Mercy. Jonah decides to sit and watch to see what will become of Nineveh. While he is sitting there, a leafy plant grows up over him and gives him shade and comfort. The Bible says that God “provided” it and that “Jonah was very happy about the plant” (Jonah 4:5-6). God allows Jonah to experience this for one day. However, the next day, God provides a worm to chew the plant and the plant withers. The sun is now beating down on Jonah’s head, God sends a scorching east wind and Jonah becomes faint, again becoming so distressed that he wants to die. God asks Jonah whether it is right for him to be angry about the plant. And God uses the analogy of Jonah’s love and concern for the plant, which he only knew for one day to show how much He loves His people, who He created despite their disobedience. Here is what He said:

“You have been concerned (other versions say “had pity”) about this plant though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight. And should I not have concern (“ pity”) for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left – and also many animals?” (Jonah 4:10-11).

I can’t help but wonder if this turn of phrase was used to remind Jonah that these people had been lost and had been sinning without knowing the God they were sinning against. And here is Jonah, sinning against the God he knew, the God who had revealed Himself to him and given him clear instruction. And he is grieved that God would show mercy to these lost people.

Yesterday, as I read this, I was filled with an overwhelming sense that God knew the mistakes and missteps I would make, and that its not so much that He redirected my life accordingly – or that I missed out on some other better plan-- rather, He had a plan for my life that took those mistakes and missteps into account from the very beginning because every day of my life was written in His book before one of them came to pass (Psalm 139:16). Even now, He uses those mistakes, reminders of the "pits" He pulled me out of (as He rescued Jonah from the belly of the huge fish) to remind me of how much I am loved in that He saved me despite all my failings and despite the fact that I will inevitably fail again. And for the first time, in some weird sense, I felt grateful to have experienced the painful consequences of sin because if I had not, I might not realize just how blessed and loved I am. I might take His Sacrifice for granted. It struck me that all that happened in my life, all the things I brought upon myself and which were brought upon me, things I've sometimes questioned God for, were orchestrated to bring me to a place where I could realize His Power and Grace, His Mercy, Forgiveness and Love because He knew me and knew what it would take to bring me to this point.

To the realization that it was all worth having gone through.