Friday, September 18, 2009

Fighting Friday: Can I Really Trust God? by Jerry Bridges

Can I Really Trust God? by Jerry Bridges

What You Absolutely Need to Know When Life Gets Scary

Several years ago, doctors found a large malignant tumor in my wife's abdominal cavity. She went through radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and all of the pain, nausea, and months of anxious waiting that go along with this disease. Watching her suffer cut me to the heart. After many months, the Lord ended her struggle through death.

Our experience is nothing extraordinary these days. In the past few years, I have had seven friends with cancer listed on my "urgent" prayer page.

But cancer or other physical ailments are not the only source of anxiety. Over lunch a few weeks ago, a friend confided that his company is perilously close to bankruptcy; another experiences heartache over a spiritually rebellious teenager. On a larger scale, we hear about war, terrorism, earthquakes, famine, racial injustice, murder, and exploitation daily.

The truth is, all of us face fear-stirring adversity in various forms. So the question naturally arises, "Where is God in all of this?"

Trust and Obey?

I know something of the distress, despair, and darkness that fill our souls when we wonder if God truly cares about our plight. I have spent a good portion of my adult life encouraging people to pursue holiness and to obey God. Yet, I acknowledge it often seems more difficult to trust God than to obey Him.

God's moral will, which is given to us in the Bible, is rational and reasonable. We readily recognize that God's law is good for us—even when we don't want to obey it. Obeying God is worked out within well-defined boundaries of God's revealed will.

Trusting God, however, is worked out in an arena that has no boundaries. We do not know the extent, the duration, or the frequency of the painful, fearsome circumstances in which we must frequently trust God. They often appear irrational and inexplicable. We are always coping with the unknown.

Yet it is just as important to trust God as it is to obey Him. When we disobey God, we defy His authority and despise His holiness. But when we fail to trust God, we doubt His sovereignty and question His goodness. In both cases, we cast aspersions upon His majesty and His character.

In order to trust God, we must always view our adverse circumstances through the eyes of faith, not of sense. Just as saving faith comes through hearing the gospel (Ro. 10:17), so also the faith to trust God in adversity comes through the Word of God alone. Only in Scripture do we find an adequate view of God's relationship to and involvement in our painful circumstances. Only from the Scriptures, applied to our hearts by the Holy Spirit, do we receive the grace to trust God when we are afraid.

Choosing Trust

For many years in my own pilgrimage toward trusting God—I am still far from the end of the journey—I was a prisoner of my feelings. I mistakenly thought I could not trust God unless I felt like trusting Him (which I almost never did in times of adversity). Now I am learning that trusting God is a matter of the will; it is not dependent on my feelings. I choose to trust God and my feelings eventually follow.

Trusting God is also a matter of knowledge. We must know that God is sovereign, wise, and loving. Having been exposed to the knowledge of the truth, we must then choose whether to believe it or to follow our feelings. We must say to God, "I will trust You, though I do not feel like doing so."

I do not mean to suggest that this choice is an easy one. Trusting God is a matter of faith, and faith is the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22). Only the Holy Spirit can make His Word come alive in our hearts and create faith; but we can choose to be ruled by our feelings of anxiety, resentment, or grief.

The same David who said in Ps. 56:4, "In God I trust; I will not be afraid" said in Ps. 34:4, "I sought the Lord, and he answered me; he delivered me from all my fears." There is no conflict between saying "I will not be afraid" and asking God to deliver us from our fears. David recognized it was his responsibility to choose to trust God; but he also knew that he was dependent on the Lord for the ability to do so.

Trusting God does not mean we do not experience fear or pain. It means we believe that God is at work through the occasion of our fear and pain for our ultimate good. It means we recall the Scriptures regarding His sovereignty, wisdom, and goodness and ask Him to use those truths to bring peace and comfort to our hearts. It means, above all, that we do not sin against God by allowing distrustful and hard thoughts about Him to sway our minds. It will often mean that we have to say, "God, I don't understand, but I trust You."

The whole idea of trusting God is based upon the fact that God is absolutely trustworthy. We must be firmly grounded in scriptural truth if we are to trust Him.

We must also lay hold of some of the great promises of His constant care for us. One such promise is Heb. 13:5: "Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you." The Puritan preacher Thomas Lye remarked that in this passage the Greek has five negatives and may thus be rendered, "I will not, not leave thee; neither will I not, not forsake thee." Five times God emphasizes to us that He will not forsake us. He wants us to grasp firmly the truth that no matter what circumstances may indicate, we must believe, on the basis of His promise, that He has not left us to the mercy of those circumstances.

Trust in the Dark

We may, however, sometimes lose the sense of God's presence and help. Job, in his distress, could not find God. He said:

But if I go to the east, he is not there; if I go to the west, I do not find him. When he is at work in the north, I do not see him; when he turns to the south, I catch no glimpse of him. But he knows the way that I take; when he has tested me, I will come forth as gold. —Job 23:8-10

Job apparently wavered, as we do, between trust and doubt. Yet here we see a strong affirmation of trust. He couldn't find God anywhere. God had completely withdrawn from Job the comforting sense of His presence. Yet Job believed, though he couldn't see Him, that God was watching over him. Job believed God would bring him through that trial as purified gold.

We will sometimes have the same experience as Job—not the same kind or intensity of sufferings, but the inability to find God anywhere. God will seem to hide Himself from us. Even the prophet Isaiah once said to God, "Truly you are a God who hides himself, O God and Savior of Israel" (Is. 45:15). We should learn from Job and Isaiah so that we are not totally surprised and dismayed when, in the time of our distress, we can't seem to find God. At these times we must cling to His bare yet inviolate promise, "Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you" (Heb. 13:5).

Because God will never leave you nor forsake you, you are invited, in the words of Peter, to "cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you" (1 Pet. 5:7). God cares for you! He is not just there with you, He cares for you.

His care is constant—not occasional or sporadic. His care is total—even the very hairs of your head are numbered. His care is sovereign—nothing can touch you that He does not allow. His care is infinitely wise and good so that, in the words of John Newton, "If it were possible for me to alter any part of His plan, I could only spoil it."

We must learn to cast our anxieties on Him. We must, by an act of the will in dependence on the Holy Spirit, say something such as, "Lord, I choose to cast off this fear onto You, but I cannot do this of myself. I will trust You by Your Spirit to enable me, having cast my fear on You, not to take it back upon myself."

Trust is not a passive state of mind. It is a vigorous act of the soul by which we choose to lay hold of the promises of God and cling to them despite the fear that at times seeks to overwhelm us.

Providential Purposes

The Scriptures teach us three essential truths about God that we must believe if we are to trust Him in adversity.

  • God is completely sovereign
  • God is infinite in wisdom.
  • God is perfect in love
Dozens of passages describe God's sovereignty, love, and wisdom. Let's consider just a few of them.

Who can speak and have it happen if the Lord has not decreed it? Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that both calamities and good things come? —Lam. 3:37-38

This passage offends many people. They find it difficult to accept that both calamities and good things come from God. People often ask, "If God is a God of love, how could He allow such a tragedy?" But Jesus Himself affirmed God's sovereignty in calamity when Pilate said to Him, "Don't you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?" (Jn. 19:10). Jesus replied, "You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above" (v. 11). Jesus acknowledged God's sovereign control over His life.

Because God's sacrifice of His Son for our sins is such an amazing act of love toward us, we tend to overlook that for Jesus, it was an excruciating experience. It was sufficient to cause Him to pray, "My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me" (Mt. 26:39). Yet He did not waver in His assertion of God's sovereign control.

Rather than being offended over the Bible's assertion of God's sovereignty in both good and bad circumstances, believers should be comforted by it. Whatever our particular calamity or adversity may be, we may be sure that our Father has a loving purpose in it. As King Hezekiah said, "Surely it was for my benefit that I suffered such anguish" (Is. 38:17). God does not exercise His sovereignty capriciously, but only in such a way as His infinite love deems best for us. Jeremiah wrote,

Though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love. For he does not willingly bring affliction or grief to the children of men. —Lam. 3:32-33

Many people talk about God's providence but have only a vague idea of what it means. I define God's providence as His constant care for and absolute rule over all His creation for His own glory and the good of His people. Note the absolute terms: constant care, absolute rule, all creation. Nothing, not even the smallest virus, escapes His care and control.

Note also the twofold objective of God's providence: His own glory and the good of His people. These two objectives are never antithetical; they are always in harmony with each other. God never pursues His own glory at the expense of His people's good; nor does He ever seek our good at the expense of His glory. God has designed His eternal purpose so that the two are inextricably bound together.

What comfort and encouragement this should be to us! If we are going to trust God in adversity, we must believe that just as certainly as God will allow nothing to subvert His glory, so He will allow nothing to spoil the good He is working out in us and for us. Is God trustworthy? The Bible is clear that He can always care for us (He is sovereign) and that He does always care for us (He is good).

To know Him is to trust Him.

In order to trust God, we must know Him in an intimate, personal way. David said in Ps. 9:10, "Those who know your name will trust in you, for you, Lord, have never forsaken those who seek you." To know God's name is to know Him intimately. It is more than just knowing facts about God. It is coming into a deeper personal relationship with Him as a result of seeking Him in the midst of our pain and discovering Him to be trustworthy. Only as we know God in this personal way do we come to trust Him.

As you delve into the Scriptures about God's sovereignty, wisdom, and love, pray that the Holy Spirit will enable you to move beyond the facts about God, so that you will come to know Him better, and so be able to trust Him more completely.

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