God Has a Bigger Plan
April 8, 2008
Listen to this Sermon
We have heard it said that God loves us and has a wonderful plan for our lives. It’s easy to agree when we like the plan. But what do you do when the plan isn’t what you expected?
- The doctor calls with bad news. “I’m sorry. It’s cancer and there’s nothing we can do.”
- Your wife tells you she wants a divorce after 26 years of marriage.
- Your boss calls you in and says, “We’ve decided to let you go.”
- Your oldest daughter moves out after a disagreement, and now she’s living with her boyfriend.
- The church board votes 11 to 5 to dismiss you as pastor.
- After wrecking your car, you discover that your insurance won’t cover any of the expenses.
- Your best friend decides she doesn’t need you in her life anymore, and suddenly she won’t return your phone calls or your emails.
- You job search has led to a dead end and now you are out of money and out of leads.
- You forgot to make your quarterly payments and now you owe $15,000 in income taxes.
- You were one of the 11 who voted to fire your pastor, but he has decided to fight the decision even if it means splitting the church.
- You prayed for your oldest son to come back to the Lord, but instead he seems to have hardened his heart.
- Your husband was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
- Your supervisor called you and said, “We’ve been getting lots of complaints about your performance. If it doesn’t improve, you’ll be gone at the end of the month.”
- The college of your dreams turned you down.
- Your spiritual mentor just divorced his wife.
- When the stock market went south, you lost 60% of your retirement account.
- You bought a big house with a 5%-loan thinking you could flip it, and now the mortgage payments are eating you alive.
And you cry out, “Lord, what’s happening?”
We are all familiar with the notion that God doesn’t always answer our prayers the way we would like. Pray for any length of time and sooner or later (probably sooner) you will come up again the hard reality of a sincere prayer that doesn’t seem to be answered at all. I have often thought about the “unspoken requests” that people mention when the time comes to pray together. After all the usual requests are recorded, someone tentatively raises her hand to say, “I have an unspoken request.” What falls into that category? An unspoken request is something so close to the heart that you cannot mention it without tears. It’s a request that arises at the painful intersection of biblical faith and the reality that we live in a fallen world.
What do we do when God doesn’t come through for us? How do we keep hope alive when life itself seems to take a wrong turn down a dead-end street? What if all that we hold dear is suddenly snatched away, if all the familiar landmarks are removed, if our friends desert us, if our job is gone, if our health disappears, if death comes unbidden to our door. These things do happen. What then?
We are led to face a difficult but undeniable reality. Sometimes God’s plan is different from what we expected. What then?
Taking God’s Blessings for Granted
The Jews had a long history of seeing God intervene for them:
It happened when Moses led them out of Egypt.
It happened when God sustained them for 40 years in the wilderness.
It happened when they crossed the Jordan River.
It happened when the walls of Jericho came tumblin’ down.
It happened when they conquered the Promised Land.
It happened when Gideon defeated the Midianites.
It happened when Samson defeated the Philistines.
It happened when Elijah defeated the prophets of Baal.
It happened when David defeated Goliath.
It happened when Jehoshaphat defeated the Ammonites.
Over and over again, when the children of Israel found themselves in a terrible spot, when they were outnumbered and overwhelmed, when they had no hope, God intervened. He came through for them again and again and again. It happened so often that the people came to believe that God would always be there no matter what. After all, were they not the Chosen People? Had not the Almighty promised to deliver them? Did they not have the temple in Jerusalem where God himself lived? What other people was so signally blessed? Other nations had their tribal deities but only Israel had the Lord God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.
“We are so blessed,” the people said. And so they were, and so they taught their children and their grandchildren. But any blessing long neglected will eventually be lost. That part of the story somehow never seemed to take root in the hearts of God’s people. The privileges—yes, they enjoyed those. But the responsibility and the warning—those never seemed to take great hold with the people.
Any blessing long neglected will eventually be lost.</h6 class=”pullquote”>
Fast forward to 605 BC. The Babylonian army led by Nebuchadnezzar has come to the gates of the city. It was a dark and dismal moment. But the people said, “God won’t let the Babylonians conquer us.” They were wrong about that.
Fast forward to 597 BC. The Babylonians once again threatened Jerusalem. And the people said, “God won’t let it happen again.” They were wrong again.
Fast forward to 586 BC. The Babylonians have come back again. This time they set a siege around the city, intending to starve the people into submission. Inside there was fear and consternation. And they said to themselves, “God won’t let them do it a third time.” They were wrong again.
Now we run the clock backwards a few years, back to 594 BC. Now we are in Babylon. The exiles have heard about a man named Hananiah (Jeremiah 28) who predicted that within two years, they would come home. That was good news to the Jews who hated Babylon anyway. “God won’t make us stay in Babylon!” Wrong again. It was the familiar problem of false expectations.
And that brings us to Jeremiah 29:10, which contains a very specific promise from God to the exiles in faraway Babylon. “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my gracious promise to bring you back to this place.” These are two ways to read that verse and both of them are legitimate, and how you read it will probably depend on where you are. If you are anywhere but Babylon, you will read it and think, “God promised to bring his people back to their homeland.” But if you are an exile living in Babylon, your focus will necessarily be somewhere else. “Seventy years! You gotta be kidding!”
Don’t judge the end by the beginning.</h6 class=”pullquote”>
It seemed like a terrible mistake, like a cruel cosmic joke. Surely the Lord didn’t literally mean seventy years. That would mean an entire generation would live and die in Babylon and children born at the beginning might not live long enough to see the end. Surely God wouldn’t do something like that, would he?
The answer is, he would and he did. And he did it without explaining things completely to his own people. They never saw the big picture that God had in mind. But looking back after the passing of twenty-five centuries, we can see clearly that God had many things in mind by sending his people into exile.
Here are seven things God accomplished through the seventy years his people spent in captivity.
1) The grip of idolatry was finally broken.
It was for this sin more than any other that Israel had been judged. Because the people had repeatedly broken the First and Second Commandments, God had raised up pagans to judge them severely. “Your own conduct and actions have brought this upon you. This is your punishment. How bitter it is! How it pierces to the heart” (Jeremiah 4:18). So pernicious was the virus of idolatry that only a severe quarantine would remove it from their midst. And so, because the people loved their idols, God put them among a people whose whole system was based on idolatry, as if by exposing them to Babylonian worship they would be inoculated against it. And so it happened. Though the temptation remained, the people as a whole never again embraced idol worship. Though idolatry as a matter of the heart would always plague the Jews, the pestilence of Baal worship was eradicated.
2) God established a presence among the Babylonians.
Consider Daniel and his friends. From Daniel 1-6 we learn that the godly can have a powerful influence for good in the midst of an overwhelmingly pagan environment. The young Hebrews who remained true to God not only were noticed, they were promoted to positions of high authority. Thus did God establish a witness for himself among the Babylonians. Today we might call it a kind of “pre-evangelism” in which Daniel and his friends gained for themselves the respect of those around them because they would not compromise their convictions. As a result of their courage, Nebuchadnezzar himself noticed and rewarded them.
3) God raised up Daniel to a position of great influence.
Daniel and his three friends were taken to Babylon in the first deportation of 605 B.C. Immediately he and his friends drew the attention of their captors because of their convictions (Daniel 1). Soon he would interpret Nebuchadnezzar’s strange dream (Daniel 2). Later he became a court advisor to a succession of rulers, all the way to Belshazzar (the final ruler of Babylon) and Darius (the ruler of the Medes). Daniel came to Babylon as a teenager and was still there when the first group of Jews returned home 70 years later. Evidently he himself remained behind in Babylon. Perhaps he was too old to make the long journey home. But during all those years, God used him as a witness for the truth at the heart of pagan power.
4) Nebuchadnezzar becomes a believer in God.
Daniel 4 tells the amazing story of how Nebuchadnezzar, having become puffed up with pride, lost his mind and ate grass with the cattle for seven years. When he finally came to his senses, he cried out to the Lord in heaven in true repentance (Daniel 4:34-37). This would not have happened with the influence of Daniel and his godly friends.
5 The Jews lived in peace in Babylon.
It is a matter of historical record that once the Jews were in Babylon, they were treated reasonably well. Instead of persecuting them endlessly, their captors gave them freedom to develop their own community. If you consider both the Jews in Babylon and those left behind in Jerusalem, we can see that they made significant spiritual gains during this period. For instance, it was during this seventy year period that important parts of the Old Testament were written, including 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, Daniel, and parts of the Psalms. It is also the first time that the Jews began to put together the canon of Scripture. Before the exile, there was no such thing as the formal collection of books we call the Old Testament. The beginnings of that collection trace to the Babylonian exile.
Just as there is a time and a season for everything, there is also a color for every stage of life’s journey.</h6 class=”pullquote”>
6) Judaism becomes a worldwide religion.
This period marks the true beginning of the Jewish Diaspora. Even though the northern ten tribes had been carried away by the Assyrians in 722-721 BC, it was the destruction of the temple in 586 B.C. that ultimately changed the character of the Hebrew faith. Before then, it had been centered exclusively in Jerusalem. After that time, the Jews were scattered among the nations. The synagogue was born during the exile. The yeshivas (Jewish schools for the study of the Torah) trace back to this period. The Babylonian Talmud comes from the exile. Over time the Jews spread to every part of what would become the Roman Empire. And 600 years later, as the early Christians began to fan out from Jerusalem with the gospel, where did they go first? To the synagogues! Why? Because that was the obvious starting point for spreading the Good News of Jesus. Check the record of Paul’s journeys in Acts. In every city he always started by going to the local synagogue. “To the Jew first” was his motto. The exile scattered the Jews who became part of God’s plan for spreading the gospel six centuries later.
7) Daniel and his contemporaries introduced Bible prophecy to the learned classes.
We know that something like this must have happened because 550 years later when the Magi show up in Jerusalem, they say, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him” (Matthew 2:2). How did they know about the “king of the Jews”? Someone had to tell them. How did they know to look to the stars? Evidently they were used to searching the skies for signs portending the future. The book of Daniel frequently mentions Magi in the Babylonian court (Daniel 1:20; 2:2; 2:10; 4:1; 4:9; 5:11). If you check out Daniel 5:11, you discover that Daniel was actually named the chief of the Magi and head over all the priests and spiritual leaders in Babylon. Think about that! A loyal, observant Jew being promoted to chief over the spiritual leaders in the capital of a foreign empire. Only God could orchestrate something like that. This does not mean that all the Magi became believers. But it does clearly imply that Daniel had a huge influence on all of them. John MacArthur explains the connection:
Daniel was chosen to become chief of the Magi when he demonstrated his superior ability in interpreting dreams (cf. 5:11). By the “divine coincidence” of having a great Hebrew prophet to rule the Magi six hundred years before Jesus was born, God was, in effect, setting up the situation so that one day, when a baby was born in Bethlehem, some of those Magi would find their way to the house where the baby was so that he could be acknowledged as King.
As we stand back and evaluate all of this, we should ask ourselves, “How much of this did the Jews understand at the time?” The answer is, they would only have clearly seen the first point—that God was punishing them for their sins. The rest was hidden from their view. Over time they would understand that God had chosen to bless them in the midst of their exile, but the longer-range purposes of God would not have been visible to them at all.
We serve a trans-generational God whose purposes span the centuries. </h6 class=”pullquote”>
And so it is for all of us. We serve a trans-generational God whose purposes span the centuries. He does not confine himself to our timetable or limit himself to our puny understanding of what he intends to do. We can only see these seven divine purposes because we have the benefit of 2500 years of perspective. This leads to a practical observation for those who feel like they are in Babylon right now. Don’t judge the end by the beginning. You can’t tell now all that will result from your current troubles, and it is unlikely that you will fully understand five or ten or even twenty years from now. Because God is God, he doesn’t work on our timetable, and he doesn’t obligate himself to explain his purposes in advance.
God Has Reasons We Can’t See
A friend once told me that we are like ants crawling across a painting by Rembrandt. We crawl across the dark brown and think all of life is dark brown. Then we hit green and think, ‘”Oh, this is better. Now all is green.” But soon comes the dark blue and then a splash of yellow, a streak of red, and then another patch of brown. On we journey, from one color to another, never realizing that God is actually painting a masterpiece in our lives using all the colors of the palette. One day we will learn that every color had its place, had a reason, nothing was wasted or out of place. Just as there is a time and a season for everything, there is also a color for every stage of life’s journey. When the painting is finished, we will discover that we were part of his masterpiece from the very beginning. Time is the canvas on which God does his painting, and eternity is the perspective from which we will see the beauty of his handiwork.
History is His Story, the slow outworking of God’s plan across the years, the generations and the centuries. It is so much bigger than you and me that we can’t begin to comprehend all that his plan contains. If we focus on our current troubles, we are likely to be discouraged, disheartened, confused, angry, frustrated and depressed. We will doubt the Lord and be tempted to turn away from him. Many people have done exactly that. They have pondered their own suffering and the pain of the world around them, and that has caused them to give up their faith.
It all goes back to whether you are willing to believe what God said in Jeremiah 29:10. If you are a Jew in exile, it’s not easy to hear that you will be in Babylon for seventy years because that means you probably will die there. On the other hand, God is promising to bring his children home at last. So it is for all of us. There is no respite from the pain and suffering of this world. Think of it this way. If you were a Jew in exile, in one sense it didn’t matter whether you believed God or not. You’re still in Babylon either way. But on a daily basis, either you live with hope or you don’t. And you pass that hope along to your children and grandchildren. And that matters!
Where does all this leave us? The answer is, we’re all still hurting. We are still a death-sentenced generation living in a sin-cursed world. We all hurt every day. No one is immune from the sufferings of humanity. All the sons and daughters of Adam live in the wreckage of that bus Adam drove off the cliff. We live with pain and sadness every day. There is no escape from that reality.
When we hurt, we have two choices:
We can hurt with God,
Or we can hurt without God.
When we hurt, we have two choices: We can hurt with God, or we can hurt without God. </h6 class=”pullquote”>
If you are hurting as you read these words, you may feel as if you have come to the end of your endurance. I pray that you will hang on to the Lord. If you turn away from him, things can only get worse. Pioneer missionary J. Hudson Taylor founded the China Inland Mission to reach the multitudes of Chinese people who had never heard the gospel. During the terrible days of the Boxer Rebellion (1900-1901), when missionaries were being captured and killed, he went through such an agony of soul that he could not pray. Writing in his journal, he summarized his spiritual condition this way: “I can’t read. I can’t think. I can’t pray. But I can trust.” There will be times when we can’t read the Bible. Sometimes we won’t be able to focus our thoughts on God at all. Often we will not even be able to pray. But in those moments when we can’t do anything else, we can still trust in the loving purposes of our heavenly Father.
A few days ago I received word that Rusty Farabaugh died five years after being diagnosed with Stage 4 liver cancer. Shortly after his initial diagnosis he saw one of my books and was drawn to it because, as he wrote me later, “I was married to a Pritchard.” He told me that he saw God’s hand at work in his life and that whether he lived or died, it didn’t matter because he was a winner either way. Only a man who truly believes in the sovereignty of God can talk like that. His friend Ken Ross wrote last week with the news of his passing. This is how he told the story of Rusty’s final journey:
He knew several years ago after the doctor told him the cancer news that his trip to Babylon physically was one of no return. He chose to be happy and I never heard him complain despite many setbacks and much pain. He ministered to his family and to those around him at church. He even held our last communion service. He made Babylon a place not to be feared for the rest of us facing our own trip someday.
Ken’s note ended with these words … “If Rusty could say anything to us right now it would be “Keep Believing…it’s worth it!”
“If Rusty could say anything to us right now it would be “Keep Believing…it’s worth it!”</h6 class=”pullquote”>
For those who don’t think it’s worth it to keep believing, I don’t have the power to convince you otherwise. But if you have eyes to see beyond your own problems, look up and you will see the hand of God at work. And remember this: God has a bigger plan!
I leave you with the words of William Cowper, a man who struggled mightily with depression and lived under a cloud most of his life. Out of his suffering came one of our greatest hymns. We don’t sing it often nowadays, but its message stands the test of time because its truth is eternal.
God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea
And rides upon the storm.
Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never failing skill
He treasures up His bright designs
And works His sovereign will.
Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break
In blessings on your head.
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.
His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding every hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flower.
Blind unbelief is sure to err
And scan His work in vain;
God is His own interpreter,
And He will make it plain.