Faithful to the Defeated
June 13, 1999
The year was 1866, and in a log cabin in the little town of Franklin, Kentucky, Thomas Obadiah Chisholm was born. Although he never went to high school or college, he became an elementary school teacher at age 16. Five years later he was named associate editor of the Franklin Favorite, the local newspaper. When he was 27, he attended a revival service led by Dr. H. C. Morrison and gave his heart to Christ. In the years following he served as a Methodist minister and later as an insurance agent. He lived for a time in Winona Lake, Indiana and later in Vineland, New Jersey.
During his lifetime he wrote over 1200 poems. In 1923 he sent a batch of poems to William Runyan, a musician serving at the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. Mr. Runyan was so impressed by one poem in particular that he decided to set it to music. He published it privately, little knowing that it would become one of the most beloved hymns of the 20th century. It became a favorite of Dr. Will Houghton, president of the Institute and later became known as the unofficial theme song of MBI. In 1954 George Beverly Shea introduced it to Great Britain during the Billy Graham crusade at Harringay Arena in London.
Writing in 1941, Thomas Obadiah Chisholm penned these words of personal testimony:
My income has not been large at any time due to impaired health in the earlier years which has followed me until now. Although I must not fail to record here the unfailing faithfulness of a covenant-keeping God and that he has given me many wonderful displays of his providing care, for which I am filled with astonishing gratefulness.
I love that phrase—”astonishing gratefulness.” Such should be the testimony of every child of God. The hymn he wrote is based on our text. Most of us know the words by heart. He called it simply “Great is Thy Faithfulness.” 
There is something of a paradox in the way we use this hymn. We tend to sing it at moments when we have experienced God’s blessings. We sing it at weddings, graduations, and at the end of a year as we look back and see how God’s hand led us day by day.
This beloved hymn, which has so encouraged God’s people, is based on a text written during Israel’s lowest moment. If you know what the word “lament” means, you know what “Lamentations” is all about. Written by Jeremiah as he sat amid the ashes of a destroyed Jerusalem, his mood is bleak, his words dark and angry. His tone is one of near-total despair. For most of the book, there is not one word of hope, not one ray of light.
Then we come to our text and the light begins to break through. What a challenge this is to all of us. It is one thing to sing “Great is Thy Faithfulness” at your wedding, it’s something else to sing it when your husband announces he is leaving you for another woman. We all sing when our children graduate from high school. It is more difficult to sing when they are killed by a drunk driver. We gladly sing when the operation is a success. Do we also sing when we bury a loved one because the cancer treatments didn’t work?
This text is not an answer to the mysteries of life. Nor is it about politics or the circumstances we face every day. It is not a detailed statement about intricate theology. It is rather a word about the Lord. It is a word that declares he is our hope in the midst of hopelessness. He is our light when all around is darkness. He is the way when we can find no way. He is our reason for living when we would rather give up. 
This text contains four phrases. Each one raises and answers an important question we need to consider.
I. Why doesn’t God destroy me?
This is not a theoretical question. We all walk closer to the edge than we think. There is a thin line between disaster and prosperity, joy and sorrow, laughter and tears, life and death.
Let a car swerve in front of you.
Let the bullet come three inches lower.
Let the horse stumble.
Let a tiny switch malfunction and the whole plane crashes.
Let the train jump the tracks.
Let the brakes give away.
Let a stray germ enter our system.
Let the lightning flash and in a moment we are gone.
Who can understand the mysteries of the universe? Why are you alive today and someone else is dead? Why is it that we have been to many funerals and yet no one has been to ours … yet!
Hear the answer of Jeremiah: “Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed” (Lamentations 3:22a).
Why doesn’t God destroy us? He could and he should. He could because he is God and He should because we are sinners.
Why doesn’t he? Because “of the Lord’s great love.” The Hebrew word for “love” is hesed, a word rich with meaning. It has within it the idea of “loyal love,” of love that will not let go because it does not depend on emotion but on an act of the will. God loves us because he promised to love us and nothing can cause him to break his promise.
Which leads me to make the following point: As bad as things are, if it weren’t for God, things would be much worse. That seems obvious, and perhaps it is, but we need to hear it again. If it weren’t for God, and for God’s love, no matter how bad things are in your life right now, they would be much worse without the Lord.
We tend to forget that. Many of us go through life with a sense of entitlement. “I deserve this. I’ve earned it.” Even when we pray, we think, “I’ve been good so God has to do this for me.” How little we understand about God’s grace.
A Pastor Learns About Grace
This week I downloaded a powerful sermon (“Surprised by Death”) by James Van Tholen printed in the May 24, 1999 issue of Christianity Today. It seems that Pastor Van Tholen had been diagnosed with cancer, received treatment, and returned to his pulpit to talk about his experience. The doctors told him that they could not cure him and in fact he probably did not have long to live. What do you say to your congregation in a moment like that? He remarked that for the first time in his life, he felt as if he had begun to understand God’s grace. He wasn’t afraid of dying per se, but suddenly he realized that at the age of 33, he wasn’t going to live to be 40 or 50 or 60 or 70. He might live a few more weeks or months, but without a miracle of God, he wouldn’t live much longer than that. That’s when it hit him. For years he had subconsciously expected to live to some ripe old age. And that meant he had plenty of time to improve himself, to get rid of bad habits, to repair broken relationships, to grow in grace. Now for the first time he realized he didn’t have enough time to do it. He would have to go out into eternity less than he wanted to be—with some habits unchanged, some relationships unrepaired, some spiritual growth not accomplished. That’s when he realized that he would have to depend completely on the grace of God. Not just theoretically but practically and totally. If God’s grace wasn’t enough, then he was in trouble because there wasn’t enough time for massive self-improvement. Romans 5:6-8 became precious to him because it speaks of Christ dying for us while we were “yet” sinners. Our salvation hangs on that little word “yet.” Not just that we were sinners once upon a time but that in some profound way even though we are saved, we are still sinners desperately in need of grace.
Last night while flipping through the TV channels I happened upon CSPAN and listened as a most agreeable high school teacher from North Dakota said a most foolish thing. Attempting to defend religion, he said that all religions boil down to the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It sounds nice, but is it true? Behind the Golden Rule stands a greater truth: We are to do unto others as God has done unto us. Everything starts with God, not with us. That’s what grace really means.
In many ways grace is the hardest doctrine to believe. Even in the church we struggle to believe it. One day C. S. Lewis happened to pass by a group discussing which feature of Christianity most separated it from other religions. Without batting an eye, he responded; “Why, grace of course.” He is right, of course.
Two weeks ago I was in Pittsburgh doing a radio interview for my book What a Christian Believes. Don Matzat, the interviewer, asked me about the chapter entitled Did Mickey Mantle Go to Heaven? I recounted the story of how Bobby Richardson and his wife visited Mickey in his hospital room in Dallas just before he died. Mickey gave a clear statement of his faith in Christ and quoted John 3:16 as the basis of his faith. I added that I believe Mickey Mantle is in heaven, not because of his baseball exploits or because of the charitable work he did, but because before he died he trusted in Jesus Christ. “So you believe a person can be saved at the end of his life?” “Sure. Look at the thief on the cross.” Then Don Matzat asked a question I wasn’t prepared to answer: “What about Jeffrey Dahmer?” According to press reports, he claimed to accept Christ before his death in prison. Could a serial murderer/sexual abuser/cannibal be saved?
Here is my answer, longer than the one I gave because I’ve had time to ponder the question: “We like to think that some people are so bad that they are beyond God’s grace. That God saves moderately bad people who are slightly less than perfect, but the really bad cases he sends straight to hell. I don’t know about Jeffrey Dahmer’s soul. That’s for God alone to know. But I know this much about salvation: It’s either all of grace or not of grace at all. And nothing in between.”
Do you want mercy or justice? If justice, you’ll have it and be sorry for it. If mercy, then you can have it, but just remember when you receive it, you don’t deserve it.
II. How do I know God will keep on loving me?
“For his compassions never fail” (Lamentations 3:22b). The best part of this little phrase is the word compassions. Note that it’s plural. That’s very unusual in English. When I entered this verse in my word processor, the spellchecker didn’t like it and kicked the word out. So I added it to the dictionary. God’s compassion is plural. It comes in waves rolling down from heaven. James 4:6 says “He gives us more grace” and John 1:16 speaks of “one blessing after another.”
I mentioned earlier that many of us have a well-developed sense of entitlement. Along the way we have lost the sense of gratitude for our blessings. I think that’s especially true regarding the simple blessings we receive everyday. In the words of the crusty curmudgeon Andy Rooney, “For most of life, nothing wonderful happens.” He goes on to say that if you can’t find happiness in things like having a cup of coffee with your wife or sitting down to a meal with family and friends, then you’re probably not going to be very happy. If you sit around dreaming about winning the big contract or hoping for the love of your life to call you up or wondering when the Yankees are going to make you their starting pitcher, you’re going to spend most of your days waiting for something that isn’t going to happen.
Meanwhile the sun will rise tomorrow and you won’t see it. A friend will say hello and it won’t matter, your children will giggle but you won’t smile, the roses will bloom, white snow will cover the front yard, your husband will offer to rub your back, the choir will sing your favorite hymn, and because it’s ordinary or you’ve seen it before or heard it before or done it before, and because you’re dreaming of the future, you’ll miss it altogether.
How blessed we already are … and how easy it is to forget what God has done for us. Not long ago a fine-looking young couple came to see me. I didn’t know them and didn’t know much about their problems. After some discussion the issue was out on the table. It’s a genuine problem but it’s not the end of the world. With some grace and patience it could be solved or at least circumnavigated. At one point I looked at the husband and saw his face contorted in a way that said, “I’m not happy about this.” So I said, “What do you think?” “It’s fine with me,” which meant “It’s not fine with me.” So we talked some more. Things weren’t perfect and he wasn’t happy.
Eventually it came out that he had had cancer but had been cured. At that point I did something I can’t remember ever doing before. I stood up and looked at both of them across my desk. Addressing the husband, I said, “I spend my days talking with the sick and dying. I bury people every year who die of cancer. Look at you. You’ve got a lovely wife, a good marriage, wonderful children, you’ve both got good jobs and a great future ahead of you. And you’ve been cured of cancer. Half the people in my church either have cancer or know someone who has it and they are praying for a loved one to be cured. You are one of the fortunate ones, you’ve beaten the odds. Now you’re unhappy because things aren’t perfect. You ought to be down on your knees every morning thanking God for all your blessings. God has been so good to you that you shouldn’t complain again, ever.”
He smiled sheepishly and agreed with me. How blessed we already are. If only we had eyes to see what God has done for us. His compassions never fail.
III. When will God give me what I need?
“They are new every morning” (Lamentations 3:23a). Here is a word of hope for fearful saints. God’s mercies are brand-new every morning. Do you remember the story of the manna in the wilderness? God sent it every day (except on the Sabbath). He instructed the Jews to gather as much as they wanted because it would never run out. However, they weren’t to store it up (except on the day before the Sabbath so they could rest on the Sabbath). In order to drive home his point, God told them that if they stored it up, the maggots would come and spoil the manna. They were to gather enough for each day, eat it that day, and then gather more the next day (read Exodus 16 to get the whole story). By this means God taught his people to trust him day by day to meet their daily needs.
Consider what this means …
We never have to live on yesterday’s blessings. They are “new” every morning.
God’s blessings are never early but they aren’t late either. They are new “every morning.”
Today’s mercies are for today’s burdens. Tomorrow’s mercies will be for tomorrow’s problems.
Somewhere I read about Winston Churchill and his personal struggles during a hard period when he was Prime Minister of Great Britain. Hoping to console him, his wife suggested that his trouble was really a blessing in disguise. “If so, it is very well-disguised,’ he replied. Many of us no doubt feel the same way about our own problems. We see the trouble, but where is the blessing?
We wonder what will happen tomorrow. Will our health hold up or will we have a heart attack or a sudden stroke? Will we end up in a nursing home or waste away in a hospital? What about our children? Will they serve the Lord? What if something happens to them? Who will take care of us in our old age? Singles wonder if they will ever marry. Married couples look at all the divorces and wonder if they will make it. We all have concerns about our career choices and we wonder where we will be in ten years. Just yesterday I got an e-mail from some old friends who are facing a career change. They asked for prayer because the future seems very uncertain. 
Let us learn the lesson of Lamentations 3:23. God’s mercies come day by day. They come when we need them—not earlier and not later. God gives us what we need today. If we needed more, he would give us more. When we need something else, he will give that as well. Nothing we truly need will ever be withheld from us. Search your problems and within them you will discover the well-disguised mercies of God.
IV. What is my hope for the future?
“Great is your faithfulness” (Lamentations 3:23b). This is the text that led Thomas Obadiah Chisholm to write the poem that became a beloved hymn sung on every continent. Here’s a simple way to bring its truth into focus …
Great is our fickleness … Great is thy faithfulness.
We may grow weary … but our God cannot.
We may give up … but our God cannot.
We may fluctuate … but our God cannot.
We may vacillate … but our God cannot.
We may disappoint ourselves … but our God cannot disappoint anyone.
We may fail a thousand times … but our God cannot fail, not even once.
God’s faithfulness is so great that we may rest assured that when we come to the final bend in the road, he will be there as we make the journey from earth to heaven. A few weeks ago Carrie Enstrom gave me a copy of a letter her father wrote just before his death in March of this year at the age of 89. Knowing that he was dying of lung cancer, he wrote his grandson (and his grandson’s wife) about his own faith in Christ. With Carrie’s permission, here is part of what he wrote.
Dear Jeff and Becka,
I hope I can come up with something readable, as I hunt and peck and discover and land on it, as I have fun with my toy, a portable electric typewriter, which I had some of my neighbors get for me at the flea market. It’s in like new condition, but it needs a new ribbon, so until I get one I have to use all capitals.
While I have difficulty with my breathing if I try to move about, I feel fine and have no pain if I sit still and behave myself. … We are so thankful to the Lord, as we look back and see how he has led us to make decisions, do things and make moves that have prepared us for these times that he knew were ahead of us. So each day he gives a fresh taste of his love as he provides.
We hear from your Dad that things are going well for you folks and that you plan to break ground on your new home in the spring. We are so glad for you. I am looking forward to a new home too, it is paid for and debt free, and there will be no maintenance expenses because it is going to last forever. Jesus told his disciples when he was here on earth, that I go to prepare a place for you that where I am there ye may be also. I have believed and trusted in the Lord Jesus as my Savior most of my life. It has been such a joy to rejoice with him in the high smooth times of my life, and to be assured and experience that he was there and helped me in the valleys and rough places.
Have a very happy birthday. We love you so very much, and you are remembered in our prayers. Love, Grandpa
In March of this year he went to his new home in heaven. I am struck by one sentence in particular: “Each day he gives a fresh taste of his love.” Think about that. Each day we experience God’s love and when we die, we go home to heaven.
Can you say that? Do you know that? Is that your personal experience? When your funeral finally comes and some pastor is talking about you, will it be obvious to everyone that you knew Jesus Christ? Or will it be said that you lived for something else? This is our hope for the future—that our God is faithful. We can trust him today, tomorrow, and forever.
Let’s review the four questions and see God’s answers:
Why doesn’t God destroy me?
“Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed.”
How do I know God will keep on loving me?
“For his compassions never fail.”
When will God give me what I need?
“They are new every morning.”
What is my hope for the future?
“Great is your faithfulness.”
One more word from C. S. Lewis and we are done. “He who has God and many other things has no more than he who has God alone.” Most of us have many other things. We have money and security and friends and family. But do you also have God in your life? If you do, then the “many other things” don’t matter one way or the other. If you have God, and if you know Jesus Christ, you have enough because our God is faithful.
Kenneth W. Osbeck, 101 Hymn Stories, Kregel Publications, pp. 84-85.
Many of the thoughts in this section come from a fine sermon by George van Popta, “Hope in the Midst of Hopelessness.”
Some of the thoughts in this section come from a sermon by John Piper, “Today’s Mercies for Today’s Troubles; Tomorrow’s Mercies for Tomorrow’s Troubles.”