You Can Stumble But You Won’t Fall
December 28, 2003
“The steps of a good man are ordered by the LORD, and He delights in his way. Though he fall, he shall not be utterly cast down; For the LORD upholds him with His hand” (Psalm 37:23-24 NKJV).
Since this is the final Sunday of 2003, I wanted to bring a message that would encourage us as we wrap up one year and prepare to enter another. My mind was drawn to these words of David in Psalm 37. Actually I found myself using them to encourage several people who were going through hard times, and I thought that the truth in this text would help all of us.
One particular word in our text stands out in my mind. It’s the word “though” that stands at the beginning of verse 24: “Though he fall.” Some translations say, “When he falls.” Note that it does not say, “If he falls.” There is a big difference between “when” and “if.” The latter states a probability; the former declares a certainty. David understood that all believers fall eventually. We stumble, we lose our way, we struggle, and sometimes we trip and fall on our journey. No one is exempt. We all fall sooner or later. It’s what happens when we fall that makes all the difference.
We can summarize the teaching of this text in two simple statements:
I. God ordains every step we take—the good and the bad, the happy and the sad, the positive and the negative.
The verb “ordered” is very strong in the original Hebrew. It means to establish something so that it has a strong foundation. Proverbs 16:9 tells us that “in his heart a man plans his course, but the LORD determines his steps.” Same idea as our text. Most of us know that God “directs” our steps (Proverbs 3:6). But this verb is even stronger. God not only “directs” our steps, he also “determines” or “orders” or “ordains” our steps. This includes our going out and our coming in, our lying down and our getting up, our waking and our sleeping, our buying and our selling, our talking and our listening, and our walking and our driving. Because he is God, there are no accidents with him. Nothing ever happens to the child of God by luck, chance or fate. No circumstance—whether good or bad—can come to us apart from God’s determined purpose for us.
All of us wonder what the new year will bring. What will happen in 2004? Will it be a good year or a bad year for us personally? I’ve researched that question diligently and I know the answer: Next year will be a lot like this year. In some ways, it will be business as usual. You’ll have good days and bad days. You have some victories and some defeats. You’ll be sick for a while and you’ll be healthy much of the time. Some of your prayers will be answered; some won’t be answered. Some of your dreams will come true; some will be dashed on the rocks of hard reality. Some of your plans will come to fruition; others will remain undone. You’ll discover that some of your friends will be there when you need them. Others will fail you when you need them most. In many respects, life will be the same next year because we all face the same ongoing challenges in our walk with the Lord. But know this: Your steps in the coming year are “ordered” by the Lord. He is in charge of the details of your life.
II. God promises that when we fall, we will not be utterly destroyed.
Some versions say, “Though he stumbles, he will not fall.” Picture a trail that winds through a dense forest. As the pilgrim walks forward, he doesn’t see the rock buried just beneath the surface, and so he trips and falls to the ground. Or he trips over a root or he doesn’t see a sudden dip in the trail. When the path is narrow and winding, it’s hard not to fall sometimes. Life is like that. We all stumble in many ways. The word translated “utterly destroyed” means to be cast headlong into a deep pit. It’s what happens when you stand at the Grand Canyon peering over the edge, looking down 3,000 feet, when someone pushes you from behind. When you finally hit bottom, you won’t dust yourself off and keep on going. You’ve been “utterly destroyed.” God promises that won’t happen to you and me. Though we may face desperate, life-changing circumstances next year, God will not allow us to be utterly destroyed. Nothing can happen that will sever our relationship with him.
The reason is clear. He upholds us with his mighty hand. Think of a father walking along with his young son by his side. There are two ways father and son might hold hands. The young boy may reach up with his tiny hand to grasp his father’s huge hand. That works until the child stumbles and he is forced to let go of his father’s hand. But if the father places his huge hand around his son’s tiny hand, the boy is safe no matter what happens because his father’s hand holds him up. He may stumble but the father’s hand “upholds” him.
Note that the “fall” may be a fall into trouble, calamity or catastrophe or it may be a fall into serious moral sin. The fall might be occasioned by the loss of a job, a health problem, the breakup of a marriage, the end of a friendship, bankruptcy, or any sort of personal crisis that causes the loss of your reputation. Or it could be moral sin, a series of foolish choices that led you in a wrong direction so that you hurt your walk with God and hurt those around you as well. Sometimes the “fall” of circumstances causes a “fall” into bitterness, substance abuse, anger, rage, abusive speech, foolish decisions, lust, adultery, or other sinful action.
The Bible repeatedly shows how easily this can happen to even the best people. The Bible tells us the whole truth about human nature. We see men and women who are faithful one day and fickle the next. We see Peter boasting, and then he is busted by his own sin. We see worship mixed with worry, courage followed by cowardice, faith matched with doubt, generosity followed by greed, kindness overcome by arrogance. We learn that strong people sometimes do very stupid things. Saints often act like sinners.
Thus Noah built an ark to save his family, and when the flood was over, he got drunk and exposed himself to his sons. By faith Abraham left Ur of the Chaldees, following God’s call to the Promised Land. When he got there, he lied about his wife Sarah—not once, but twice! Before Moses led the children of Israel out of Egypt, he killed an Egyptian and tried to cover up the evidence. After David wrote, “The Lord is my shepherd,” he committed adultery with Bathsheba and had Uriah the Hittite murdered in a vain attempt to cover his sin. Then there is Peter, the man with the “foot-shaped mouth.” On one hand, he has the courage to declare to Jesus, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” But how little he knows himself. In the Upper Room, he boastfully declares that even if everyone else falls away, he will never fall away. But the bold apostle soon turned to butter. When confronted by a teenage girl around a campfire, he lost his nerve, began to swear like the fisherman he was, and three times denied the Lord.
These stories are in the Bible both to instruct us and to encourage us. They teach us that even the best men under pressure can do very foolish things. No one is beyond the reach of temptation. Very godly people can make some very wrong choices—and suffer greatly as a result. And cause others to suffer with them. It’s good that the Bible shows this to us—or we would be tempted to deny this reality. We like to think, “I’m beyond that temptation.” Don’t ever say that. You don’t know what you’re “beyond.” Today’s “victory” may actually set you up for tomorrow’s “defeat.” Satan roams the world like a mighty lion, looking for overconfident Christians he can devour (I Peter 5:8).
Here are two other verses we should consider. “Though a righteous man falls seven times, he rises again, but the wicked are brought down by calamity” (Proverbs 24:16). We may fall again and again, trouble may come again and again, we may struggle again and again—and again! But it is the Lord’s purpose that we should rise—again and again and again. Psalm 145:14 declares that, “The Lord upholds all those who fall and lifts up all who are bowed down.” When you fall, remember this: God never intends you to stay down forever. He intends for you to “rise up” and keep on walking with him.
Here are four practical applications of this truth.
A. Every detail of life is under God’s control.
Intellectually we know this is true. If God is God, then he must know about all the things that happen to us, and in some sense we can’t fully understand, that “all things” includes both the best and the worst that comes our way. After preaching this sermon, a friend asked if even our sins are “ordered” by the Lord. We have to think carefully in answering a question like this. God is never the author or instigator of sin. Never. He does not sin and he does not tempt anyone to sin. Sin is always our own responsibility. But that does not fully answer the question. If our sin can somehow exist independently of God so that our sin (and indeed, all the sin and misery of the universe) can somehow exist outside of God’s eternal plan, then God cannot truly be sovereign over all parts of the universe. We might ask the question this way: Is God sovereign over Satan? The answer must be yes. When you come all the way to the bottom line, the answer goes something like this: God reigns over all parts of the universe all the time, and he does it in such a way that all things must fit into his eternal plan. This even includes the reality of sin itself. For reasons that we only partly understand, God decreed to permit sin to enter the universe (primarily to display his glory through the grace that would be shown in redeeming sinners through the death of his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ). When we sin, we remain fully accountable for the wrong choices we make—and the negative consequences we must face. But if God did not allow it to happen, it would not happen. Thus in the broadest sense of God’s sovereignty, even our sin cannot take place apart from God’s divine decree. Is there a mystery here? Absolutely, and it is a mystery so enormous that we will spend eternity learning more about it, and marveling at the riches of God’s grace and the wisdom of his plan. But if this is not true, then God is not truly God at all, and we are (to borrow a Pauline phrase) of all men most miserable. But it is true, and therefore we rejoice to serve a God whose ways are far beyond our limited minds to understand. He can make the wrath of man praise him.
And there is an important personal application to be made at this point. Since every detail of life comes under God’s control, we can remain confident and peaceful even when life itself seems to spin out of control. Are you familiar with the name George Muller of Bristol? When I asked that question during my sermon, I noted that only a few heads nodded yes. But a hundred years ago, every person in the congregation would have known his name. For over 60 years, George Muller oversaw a group of orphanages in Bristol, England, that provided food, clothing and personal care for over 10,000 boys and girls. Here is the amazing fact: He never once took an offering, sent out a fundraising letter, or made an appeal for money. He depended on God for whatever was needed to support the work. His diaries record numerous instances when they had no food and no money to buy food. He would gather with his fellow workers to cry out to God for help. On many occasions, the help came while they prayed—a grocer would come by with bread, cheese, meat and eggs so the children would have breakfast in the morning. Mr. Muller proved in his own life that you can take God at his Word. After he died, someone picked up his well-worn Bible and began to leaf through it. Because Mr. Muller was an avid Bible reader, its pages were filled with jottings from his daily devotions. Next to the words of Psalm 37:23, he had added two little words to the text: “The steps AND STOPS of a good man are ordered by the Lord.” How true that is. For the Christian the path of life is never an unbroken straight line to heaven. We all go through “many dangers, toils and snares” on our way to the Heavenly City. How good to know that our God ordains both the steps and stops of life.
B. God takes pleasure in our struggle to walk in holiness.
The last part of verse 23 says, “And he delights in his way.” The “he” refers to God and the “his” refers to the individual believer.” Spurgeon says it very nicely, “As parents are pleased with the tottering footsteps of their babes. All that concerns a saint is interesting to his heavenly Father. God loves to view the holy strivings of a soul pressing forward to the skies.” Consider a father and his young daughter who is just learning how to walk. For months she has been crawling; recently she has learned how to pull herself up and stand on her wobbling legs while holding her father’s hand. One day she pulls her hand free, wobbles for a moment, tries to take a step forward, and falls down. Does her father spank her for falling down? Of course not. He smiles a bit at her tears, and then he helps her back up. Good parents know that falling is a necessary part of learning how to walk. If you never fall, you’ll never learn how to walk. And parents do their children no favors by being so protective that their children never fall down. Better that a child should fall a hundred times than never to learn how to walk at all. Falling isn’t fun for the child, but a wise parent knows that falling always comes before walking. It’s not that the father enjoys seeing his little girl fall and shed tears each time. But he rejoices to see her growing and straining to learn something new.
This applies directly to the “falls” we take spiritually. Our struggles are necessary even though they are not pleasant or easy to endure. Sometimes (often!) we bring trouble on ourselves by the foolish choices we make. And sometimes we end up hurting ourselves and those around us very greatly by repeating those bad choices over and over again. Marriages end, friendships are broken, churches split, our children suffer, and the cause of Christ is hurt by the things we say and do. Sin is serious business, and we never sin without hurting ourselves, and very often, those around us.
I do not mean to suggest that God takes pleasure in our sin or that our sin does not bring punishment. But when we sin, we sometimes wrongly conclude that “God must hate me now.” And in our despair we want to hide in a closet and never come out. How could God ever take us back after what we did?
The answer is, God loves his children with an everlasting love. Nothing we say or do can ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:38-39). We are joined to our Father with bands of eternal love stronger than steel. He loves us too much to let us go on in sin forever. And when we turn back to him, with trembling lip, deeply guilty, fearing the worst, thinking all hope is lost, we discover the good news that he waits with open arms for us to come home to him. When the Prodigal Son finally came to his senses in the “far country,” having wasted his inheritance on riotous living so that he ended up eating with the pigs, having rehearsed what he would say, feeling no longer worthy to be called his father’s son, in the midst of his shame and despair, trudging down the long road home, after all that, when he was “yet a long way off,” his father ran to meet him, hugged him, and smothered him with kisses.
When your children disobey and you punish them, do you hate them or do you love them? You punish them because you love them and because your heart is broken over their disobedience. The same is true a million times more of our heavenly Father. The things we suffer because of our disobedience prove that God still loves us. He waits anxiously for the slightest turn in his direction. No matter what we have done, if we will return to the Lord, he will abundantly pardon us.
One other point and we will move on. God “permits” us to fall when he could stop it. If he permits it, then what he permits must ultimately be for our spiritual benefit. Not the fall itself, but what we will eventually learn from it. God “allows” us to suffer when he could stop it. Not that suffering itself is good, but it is often the pathway to enormous blessing for us.
C. God designs our trials so they will not destroy us.
This follows from all that I have said. Verse 24 assures us that though we may “stumble” or “fall” temporarily, we will not be utterly destroyed. God will not allow anything to permanently destroy our relationship with him. Not even death itself can sever our strong connection with God. “He knows the way that I take; when he has tested me, I will come forth as gold” (Job 23:10). When you are “in the furnace,” it is hard to believe that any good could result from the fiery trial, but God says, “Wait for a while and you will see pure gold.” During the worst moments, we take this by faith and hang on to God, believing that better days must eventually come. Thus it is that Job lost everything, Joseph was cast into prison on a phony rape charge, and Jonah ended up in the belly of a great fish. Jonah was a very reluctant prophet whose final words are both angry and accusing. But still he was God’s man for Nineveh. God said, “I’m going to send you to the belly of a fish so you can think about things for a while.” He did, and eventually he was puked out on the beach (not a very pleasant experience). Job lost everything and gained back more than he lost. Joseph ended up the second most powerful man in Egypt. Sometimes our trials lead to a promotion; other times we feel like we’ve been puked up on the beach. God does it both ways—and we’ll probably experience both if we live long enough. But God had bigger things in mind in all three cases. He wasn’t through with Job or Joseph or Jonah. Nor is he through with us just because we stumble and fall.
Consider what Jesus said to Peter in the Upper Room on the night before he was crucified: “Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:31-32). This statement deserves special notice because Jesus said it before Peter’s threefold denial. In fact, Jesus said it just before Peter made his boastful promise of unending faithfulness. The point is, Jesus saw it all coming, knew everything before it took place:
The teenage girl around the fire,
The repeated denials,
The bitter tears,
He knew Peter better than Peter knew himself. He knew the “steps” Peter was about to take in the wrong direction. In a sense, he had more genuine confidence in Peter than Peter had in himself. By himself, Peter was just a braggart. But Jesus said, “I have prayed for you.” He didn’t stop Peter from boasting or from denying. He let matters take their natural course, but he prayed for Peter, knowing that Peter at heart was a good man who loved him, and knowing that his denial was not the “real” Peter. The “real” Peter was the man who declared, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus allowed Peter to fall away, knowing that through his prayers, Peter would eventually return, and when he did, he would be a better, stronger man, humbled by his failure, ready to serve the Lord with a humility born of painful failure.
D. We will not utterly fall because God will not let go.
Theologians call this the doctrine of eternal security. It simply means that those whom God saves, he saves forever. Though we stumble and fall a thousand times, God’s love is firm because his purposes are eternal. Our salvation rests not on our performance but on God’s unchanging character. “No saint shall fall finally or fatally. Sorrow may bring us to the earth, and death may bring us to the grave, but lower we cannot sink, and out of the lowest of all we shall arise to the highest of all” (Charles Spurgeon).
Martin Luther said that it takes three things to make a man of God—meditation, prayer and temptation. We’re fine with the first two because we know we need to read the Bible and pray. But most of us would not add “temptation” to the list. Luther meant that godly character can only be developed in the crucible of life where we fight many battles with the world, the flesh, and the devil. The temptation to quit, to despair, to give in to bitterness, to flee the struggle, to yield to lust, to give in to greed, to indulge ourselves, to walk in pride, these things either destroy us or they make us stronger. Prayer and Bible reading alone cannot make us godly. We need the struggles of life to make us strong.
This week I ran across a comment from Ben Patterson, campus minister at Westmont College in California. Speaking of his own spiritual growth in the last few years, he commented on how he has changed from the “Young Turk” he used to be: “I have bumped up against the hard edge of my limitations and sin, again and again. I am less sure about what’s wrong with Christendom, and more sure about what’s wrong with me.” Those are wise words from a man who has experienced the grace of God through the ups and downs of life.
We do not pretend that our trials never happened or that Christians never suffer. We suffer just like everyone else on this sin-cursed planet. Nor is it good when we fall into sin. Just ask any Christian who fell into serious moral sin how “good” it was. Sin only delights “for a season.” All Satan’s apples have worms. But there is an important truth in our passage that we need to understand: God is at work in our trials and in our falls in a way we never dreamed, never knew, and never saw at the time. Nothing is wasted with God. All things truly do “work together” for our good and for God’s glory—even though we rarely see that in advance.
Last Wednesday night, Marlene and I arrived at church for the second Christmas Eve service a few minutes before 9:00 p.m. As we were walking from our car to the sanctuary, I saw a couple about ten yards in front of us. Pretty soon the man turned around and said, “I thought that was you, Pastor Ray.” The man and his wife are dear friends so we stopped to say hello. “We just saw the doctor. He says I have less than a year,” the man said. I had known that was a possibility, but it is still jolting to hear it said. “The doctor says that if I take chemo, I have a 30% chance of survival.” Those aren’t great odds, but he’s starting the very difficult chemo regimen next week. I looked at his face because the face is the mirror of the soul. I saw no bitterness or anger there, and no fear either. My friend wants to live as long as he can, and he’s going to fight as hard as he can, but if you ask him, “Are you ok?” he’ll reply, “Yes, I’m ok.” It’s not easy but my friend has come to grips with the fact that God loves him and is ordering every step he takes. That’s what this great truth can do for us.
On the first Sunday of this year, I asked the congregation to pray for me. Some of you were surprised by my request, but I meant it, and today I want to thank you. I have been overwhelmed by the number of people who have told me, and continue to tell me, that they are praying for me. Your prayers have been strength to my soul and I know deep down that your prayers have been answered. Some of the answers I can see. Others are known only to God. I mention that to say thank you and to point out that the prayers of the saints are one way the Lord “upholds” his children as they walk the path that leads from earth to heaven.
As I prepared this message, I made a list of people I know who are struggling in one way or another. If you think about it long enough, virtually everyone you know could be put on a list like that because we all struggle in many ways, and no one gets an easy road to glory. Here’s a thought that may encourage you: If it is possible, God loves you even more when you struggle because that’s when you need him most. When is a father most honored? When his children are in trouble and turn to him for help. Even so, our God is honored and shows his special care for his children when they go through struggles on earth.
Three Simple Statements
Let’s sum up the application of this message with three simple statements:
1) Your struggles are necessary – fight on!
2) Your Father has not forgotten you – hang on!
3) Your future is assured – walk on!
Here are three good mottoes for 2004: Fight on! Hang on! Walk on!
I close with this thought. God will not put you in an unbearable situation in 2004. But he may put you in a situation that seems unbearable so that you will turn to Him. Remember that God does not give his strength in advance but only when needed. Each day this year you will have what you need. We may therefore go forth into the new year with confidence, hope, and joy.
And in the end we come back to the Lord Jesus and back to the cross. Let me end this last sermon of the year with the words I have said many times before:
If you are tired of your sin, run to the cross.
If you want a new start in life, run to the cross.
If you feel like a failure, run to the cross.
If you fear the future, run to the cross.
If you need hope and encouragement, run to the cross.
If you want to meet Jesus, run to the cross.
For those who don’t know the Lord, the Bible says there is only one step between you and destruction. But there is also only one step between you and Jesus. It’s the step of faith. Reach out to Jesus as Lord and Savior. He will come to you and your life will never be the same.
I said earlier that next year will be just like last year. Let me amend that statement just a bit: Next year will be just like last year—only entirely different! Some things will be the same, much will be different, and some things will be brand-new to us. Be encouraged, child of God. The future rests in the good hands of a God who loves you more than you can imagine. You may stumble next year, but you won’t completely fall. This is God’s promise to you. Amen.