Faith in a sovereign God does not prevent us from sometimes feeling bewildered about what our sovereign God is doing.
On a small scale, we can grasp for reasons behind everyday frustrations like dead car batteries and sleepless nights — mere inconveniences, to be sure, but nevertheless enough to sometimes ruin what we thought were God-honoring plans for the day. Perhaps we can agree with J.I. Packer when he writes, “The harder you try to understand the divine purpose in the ordinary providential course of events, the more obsessed and oppressed you grow with the apparent aimlessness of everything” (Knowing God, 105).
Such confusion is troubling us enough in the everyday, but it can become altogether faith-shaking when, contrary to all our expectations, we witness the last breath of what seemed to be a God-given dream. How do we make sense of a church plant that fails to take root? Or of a child who, despite every spiritual privilege, walks away from her parents’ God? Or of a long-hoped-for relationship that finally comes, and then ends after the first few notes?
No matter which way we turn these stories, our most creative imaginings can invent no happy ending. Like Noah’s dove, our faith flies away from the ark in search of solid ground, but returns without an olive branch (Genesis 8:8–9).
Perplexed, but Not Despairing
The apostle Paul was not exempt from such bewildering experiences. True, he could write, “God is not a God of confusion but of peace” (1 Corinthians 14:33), but he could also write, “We are . . . perplexed” (2 Corinthians 4:8). The peace of God does not shield us from providences of God that feel, for a moment at least, utterly perplexing.
Nevertheless, Paul can tell us in the next breath, “But [we are] not driven to despair” (2 Corinthians 4:8). Perplexed, but not despairing; bewildered, but not hopeless. Where did Paul’s hope rest when God’s providence disoriented him? And how do we follow the apostle, and revive our hope in God when we can see around us no reason to keep hoping?
“Today, we are living in the grandest story ever told, but we are not yet at the ending.”
We do so, in part, by closing our eyes to hope in what we cannot see: “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9). When God’s promises to do us good seem to have fallen to the ground, we do not resign ourselves to what our eyes can see, what our ears can hear, or even what our hearts can imagine, but rather to “what God has prepared for those who love him.”
Perhaps many of us have heard these words from Paul spoken at funerals or in conversations about heaven. But if we are going to feel the force of 1 Corinthians 2:9, we need to notice that Paul is looking backward, not forward. Paul does not declare here his hope of what God will do; he celebrates what God has already done in the crucified and risen Christ, the Lord of glory (see 1 Corinthians 2:8, 10).
And if God has already done what our eyes can’t see, what our ears can’t hear, and what our hearts can’t imagine — and on a far grander scale than anything we’re facing — then we can hope that he will do so again.
No Eye Could See
On this side of the cross and empty tomb, we seldom feel just how improbable God’s promises could have appeared to God’s people before the coming of Christ. By the end of the old-covenant era, the promises of a king and a kingdom seemed to have died beneath Israel’s disobedience. At the same time, however, God kept making promises — promises that did not diminish as Israel’s earthly prospects waned, but rather intensified through the prophets.
As Israel’s temple lay in ruins, God promised to build a bigger, more glorious temple (by far) than Solomon’s ever was (Haggai 2:6–9; Ezekiel 40–48). As the worshipers of Yahweh dwindled through exile, God promised that all nations would one day stream to Jerusalem (Micah 4:1–2). As the presence of God seemed confined to a remnant in Babylon, God promised that the knowledge of his glory would one day flood through all the earth (Habakkuk 2:14). As Israel grew more skilled in wickedness, God promised that they would one day obey him with a whole heart (Jeremiah 32:39–40).
“Faith in a sovereign God does not prevent us from sometimes feeling bewildered about what our sovereign God is doing.”
And somehow, God would fulfill all these promises while remaining relentlessly committed to his own name. He would forgive rebels without injustice, redeem Israel without unfaithfulness, rescue sinners without forfeiting his right to say, “For my own sake, for my own sake, I do it, for how should my name be profaned? My glory I will not give to another” (Isaiah 48:11).
No eye could see what God would do. No ear could hear his plans. No heart could imagine the coming fulfillment.
What God Prepared
I can imagine a perceptive Israelite looking upon God’s promises, looking upon God’s people, and feeling perplexed. As John Frame writes,
Had I been living in the Old Testament period I would have had very little idea (despite the hints of the coming Messiah) of how God would resolve the problem. Were I of a skeptical bent, I might even have been tempted to say that God could not possibly solve the problem. . . . But God does solve the problem, in a way that none of us would likely have expected, in a way that amazes us and provokes from us shouts of praise. (Apologetics to the Glory of God, 183–84)
Yes, God does solve the problem. Though generations of Israelites entered their graves “not having received the things promised” (Hebrews 11:13), the promises came true. When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son — the greater temple (Matthew 12:6), the desire of nations (Matthew 12:18–21), the radiance of God’s glory (Hebrews 1:3), the soon-to-be crucified Messiah (1 Corinthians 2:8).
In a moment, God revealed what he had long prepared for those who love him: a resolution so stunning that no prophet could see it, no wise man could hear it, and not even the most fanciful dreamer could imagine it. Angels themselves longed to look into the eternal counsels that, finally, after centuries of waiting, sent a boy to save the world.
Harder Happy Ending
The grand story of redemption (and hundreds of smaller stories within the grand story) reminds us of the kind of stories God loves to tell: stories where everything seems to go wrong, and happy endings feel impossible. Stories where, for what feels like far too long, we are perplexed at his plans. Stories with endings that defy our despair and usher in a joy beyond all reckoning.
If we could see now how God will resolve our confusion, dispel our disappointment, and heal our broken hearts, we would no longer be living in a story, and we would no longer need hope. “Hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees?” (Romans 8:24). In our own moments of bewilderment, our role is not to know the ending of this story, but to wait for the ending, and in the meantime to live as faithful characters.
“If we could see now how God will fully resolve our confusion, we would no longer be living in a story.”
And we do so, in part, by remembering with Paul that the most perplexing problem in this world’s history has already come, and has already resolved. No matter how confusing our own stories are, God has already brought to pass the harder and happier ending. He has already made a way for his justice and mercy to kiss. He has already turned a cross into a throne and a grave into a footstool. He has already broken the curse that hung over all of Adam’s race.
To us, it may feel impossible for God to weave the frayed threads of our broken dreams into something beautiful — and, from all human perspectives, it may be. But compared to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, what feels impossible to us is a small thing for God.
Wait for the Ending
Today, we are living in the grandest story ever told, but we are not yet at the ending. We walk in the wilderness, not the Promised Land; we carry a sword, not the spoil; we look up to a dark night, not the dawn. If our eyes could see the solution, if our ears could hear the coming deliverance, if our hearts could imagine the ending, the final rescue would not be so wonderful, so happy beyond expectation.
After acknowledging the apparent pointlessness in the ordinary providential course of events, Packer reminds us that
the inscrutable God of providence is the wise and gracious God of creation and redemption. We can be sure that the God who made this marvelously complex world order, and who compassed the great redemption from Egypt, and who later compassed the even greater redemption from sin and Satan, knows what he is doing, and “doeth all things well,” even if for the moment he hides his hand. (Knowing God, 107)
Beware, then, of judging your story before God reveals his hand. If you are in Christ, the finale is sure. What your eye cannot see now, what your ear cannot hear now, and what your heart cannot imagine now, your God is preparing for you. Trust him. Love him. And wait for the ending.