But God is Faithful!
May 2, 2021
The year was 1866, and in a log cabin in the little town of Franklin, KY, 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. He served as a Methodist minister and later as an insurance agent. He lived for a time in Winona Lake, Indiana and in Vineland, New Jersey.
He was never in good health and was often an invalid.
I am filled with astonishing gratefulness
During his lifetime he wrote over 1200 poems. In 1923 he sent a batch of poems to William Runyan, a musician serving at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. On a trip to Baldwyn, Kansas, Mr. Runyan read the poems. One of them so impressed him that he decided to set it to music.
He published it privately, little knowing it would become one of the most beloved hymns of the 20th century. In 1954 George Beverly Shea introduced it to Great Britain during the Billy Graham crusade at Harringay Arena in London.
Late in his life 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. Thomas Chisholm 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.
When we come to our text, 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 it when our children graduate from high school. It is more difficult to sing when your daughter announces she is leaving the Christian faith.
This text is not an answer to the mysteries of life
We gladly sing it when the operation is a success. Do we also sing it 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. Our text declares he is our hope amid 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 an important question we need to consider.
1. Why Doesn’t God Destroy Me?
What a 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 tiny virus enter our system.
Let the lightning flash and in a moment we are gone.
Covid-19 has taught us we’re not in control of our own destiny. Let a microscopic virus invade our lungs, and we may end up in bed or in the hospital or on our way to the morgue.
Covid-19 has taught us we’re not in control of our own destiny
Who can understand the mysteries of the universe? Why are you alive today and someone else is dead? Why have we have been to many funerals and 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).
So 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? Jeremiah says it is because “of the Lord’s great love.” The Hebrew word for “love” is hesed, a word rich with meaning. It means “loyal 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.
That 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, 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.
The Little Word “Yet”
I read about a pastor in upstate New York who was diagnosed with cancer in his early 30s. After extensive treatment, the doctors told him there was nothing else they could do. So they sent him home to spend his remaining months with this family. They also said he could preach as long as he felt able to do so.
On his first sermon after his treatment, the pastor spoke on Romans 5:8, concentrating on the little word “yet,” as in “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” All his life, he had used that text to preach the gospel to the lost, but now, in his dying days, he was preaching it to himself.
Time was not on his side
It’s a sobering thing to die young because no one expects that to happen. The pastor said he had always thought he had 30 or 40 or even 50 more years to live. That meant he had plenty of time to get rid of his bad habits, to heal any broken relationships, and to grow in his walk with God. But now there wasn’t enough time. Slowly the truth broke through. He wouldn’t have enough time to get better. He would have to face the Lord with all his faults and flaws, with those bad habits still there and with some relationships not healed.
Time was not on his side.
He said he wasn’t afraid to die, but he wasn’t ready either. What had he learned from his ordeal? Chiefly he had learned that he must depend wholly on the grace of God.
That’s where the little word “yet” kicked in.
He would go out into eternity “yet” a sinner. His only hope of heaven was not personal improvement or spiritual growth. For the first time in his life, he understood 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.
Our Only Hope
What is our hope in the face of death? Our hope lies in the fact that God’s grace reaches us while we are sinners, saves us as sinners, keeps us even when we fail, and when we die, that same grace takes us all the way to heaven.
That’s the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
In many ways, the doctrine of God’s grace is one of the hardest 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’s right, of course.
Grace, of course!
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.
It is because of the Lord’s great love that we are not consumed already.
2. 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 the 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 rolls down in waves from heaven. James 4:6 says, “He gives us more grace,” and John 1:16 speaks of “grace upon grace.” But many of us have lost a sense of gratitude for our blessings. That’s especially true regarding the simple blessings we receive every day.
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.
For most of life, nothing wonderful happens
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.
Unhappy Cancer Survivor
I remember the day a fine-looking young couple came to see me. I didn’t know them and didn’t know much about their problem. After some discussion, the issue was out on the table. It was a genuine problem, but it was not the end of the world. With some grace and patience, it could be solved or at least circumnavigated.
I looked at the husband and saw his face contorted in a way that said, “I’m not happy about this.” So I asked, “What do you think?” “It’s fine with me,” he said, which meant, “It’s not fine with me.”
How blessed we already are!
So we talked some more. Things weren’t perfect in their marriage, and he wasn’t happy. Eventually it came out that he had been cured of cancer. 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. Raising my voice, I addressed the husband. “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 would open our eyes to see what God has done for us. His compassions never fail.
3. 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 new every morning. The experience of the children of Israel in the Sinai wilderness illustrates this principle. Exodus 16 records the story. The Israelites had just crossed the Red Sea. After that great miracle, they started grumbling. They were out in the middle of the desert saying, “Why did you bring us out here? At least we had food back in Egypt. Who cares about miracles? We’re going to starve to death.” So Moses went to God and said, “God, I’ve got trouble with your people.” And God said, “Tell them to get ready because I am going to provide food for them.” So the Lord sent the children of Israel manna and quail. The quail flew in at night. Numbers 11:31 says the birds were three feet deep on the ground in every direction. In the morning, the Jews found dew on the ground, and when the dew disappeared, they found wafers that tasted like crackers with honey—manna.
God’s instructions were very specific: “Go out and get as much as you need for yourself and your family. But don’t get any more than you need.” Why? Because if you get any more than you need, it will rot, and the maggots will infest your manna. Anyone who tried to hoard extra manna ended up with a worm-infested, rotting mess.
Consider what this means:
- We never have to live on yesterday’s blessings.
- God’s blessings are never early, but they aren’t late either.
Today’s mercies are for today’s burdens. Tomorrow’s mercies will be for tomorrow’s problems. In July 1945, shortly after leading Great Britain to victory in World War II, Winston Churchill suffered a shocking setback when his party was defeated at the polls, bringing his time as prime minister to an end. Hoping to console him, his wife Clementine suggested that his defeat 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 all wonder about tomorrow!
We all 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.
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.
4. What is my hope for the future?
“Great is your faithfulness” (Lamentations 3:23b).
This 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 vacillate…but our God cannot.
We may fail a thousand times…but our God cannot fail, not even once.
I often heard Harry Bollback tell the following story:
In the early days of Word of Life, Harry and Jack Wyrtzen went to see Harry Ironside, pastor of the famous Moody Memorial Church in Chicago. He said they went through a winding library filled with books to get to Dr. Ironside’s office.
When they finally arrived, Dr. Ironside asked Jack Wyrtzen how much money Word of Life needed every week. When Jack replied $3000 (this was back in the 1940s), Harry Ironside commented, “That’s a lot of money. What would happen if you didn’t get the money?”
You’re not important enough for him to make an exception
“I guess they’d put me in jail,” Jack replied.
“You don’t have to worry about that.” Dr. Ironside said. “God has never failed anyone yet, and you’re not important enough for him to make an exception now.”
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.”
I’d like to share one more word from C.S. Lewis: “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.
Fear not, child of God!
We can trust him today. We can trust him tomorrow. Fear not, child of God.
We can trust him when we take our last breath because our God is faithful.
Calm our fears.
Release us from anxiety.
Open our eyes to see your blessings.
Help us to say with all the people of God, “Great is Thy Faithfulness.”
In Jesus’ name, Amen!