Man Satisfied in God's Providence

Ligonier Ministries | Grand Rapids

I hope your experience in the last hour was the same as mine sitting right back there. Did not my heart burn within me as he opened to me the word of God (Luke 24:32)? I love to hear R.C. Sproul walk through a passage of Scripture, and then come back and lean over it for a minute. Then take a walk and come back and lean over it and take a walk. And I could sit under that for a long time. One of the great disadvantages of being a preacher is you don’t get to hear people preach very often except yourself. And that gets old, except that the Word is always new. So I love the preaching of the word and I thank God for the ministry that he just gave me in the last hour.

Satisfied in God’s Providence

Let me begin by explaining the title of this morning’s talk. It’s called Man Satisfied in God’s Providence. For me, it has two meanings. I’ll take the two meanings and try to put them together into one meaning so that you can answer the question, in what sense are we to be satisfied with bitter and sweet providences?

Here’s the first meaning that I attribute to this title which I have been given. It means that Christians ought to be tremendously joyful in the assurance that all the providences of God work together for our good. Romans 8:28 says:

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.

So the first ground and nature of the satisfaction is satisfaction in the assurance that all the providences of God that befall me work for my good. When I say all, I join with Charles Spurgeon, one of my Baptist heroes, to say — this is a quote from a sermon he gave on the providence of God, and nobody preached like Charles Spurgeon preaches:

I believe that every particle of dust that dances in the sunbeam does not move an atom more or less than God wishes; that every particle of spray that dashes against the steamboat has its orbit as well as the sun in the heavens; that the chaff from the hand of the winnower is steered as the stars in their courses. The creeping of an aphid over the rosebud is as much fixed as the march of the devastating pestilence. The fall of leaves from a poplar is as fully ordained as the tumbling of an avalanche.

He attracted 4,000 people to that kind of preaching. I mean, that’s an incredible affirmation. You know, last night when R. C. said, “When the doctrine of the providence of God goes, God goes,” that’s right. That’s absolutely right. He goes out of the church and out of the media and out of education and out of entertainment and out of business. Because if you don’t ask how God relates to everything, pretty soon, he doesn’t relate to anything.

And people asked Charles Spurgeon, “How’s that different from fatalism? Stoicism?” And this was his answer:

What is fate? Fate is this: whatever is, must be. But there is a difference between that and providence. Providence says, “Whatever God ordains must be.” But the wisdom of God never ordains anything without purpose. Everything in this world is working for some great end. Fate does not say that. There is all the difference between fate and province as there is between a man with good eyes and a blind man. He who has faith is better than the stoic. The stoical philosopher bore it because he believed it must be. The Christian bears it because he believes it is working for his good.

So my first answer about the meaning of this title (Man Satisfied in God’s Providence) is that we should be satisfied with the providence of God to the degree that we have assurance that they all are working for our good.

Moving Up the Sunbeam

Now that does not go far enough for me. That’s a great and biblical answer. And I love Romans 8:28. It’s probably my third or fourth favorite verse in the Bible.

The second meaning that I attach to this title (Man Satisfied in God’s Providence) has to be addressed because we haven’t defined the “good” yet, when Romans 8:28 says it works “for my good”. What is that? My second answer to the question of why, how, and what it is to be satisfied in the providence of God is simply this: our satisfaction must be ultimately in the God of providence. Providence is not an end in itself. The heavens are telling the glory of God (Psalm 19:1). All the works of God in the world are meant to direct your attention to God.

C. S. Lewis has this great picture in one of his books about a barn. And I didn’t know this until just a few years ago when I visited one in Minnesota and they had a recreational barn with all kinds of ropes to swing on. It was broad daylight outside and inside it was dark, and it was full of dust. There was hay everywhere. And as the sun moved, at one point there was a slat gap in the barn and it came through like a laser. And you could see all the dust beams in it, which you couldn’t see before. I could preach a sermon on that parable, but that’s not the point. The point was, as you looked at it, you said, “Ah, that’s beautiful. It’s like a laser beam.” And all the kids were amazed. This was a homeschool thing in this barn. And I walked over into it and looked up and was blinded by this hole in the side of the barn.

The point of the beams of providence is that they beckon you into the ray and to direct your attention up the beam into God, and unless your satisfaction reposes on God himself, providence has not in your life yet performed its designd purpose. So those are my two answers.

Now let me try to put them together into one understanding of the satisfaction we should have in the Providence of God: God works all of them together for your good, and your good is God. Or let me put it together like this. I should feel satisfaction in the providence of God to the degree that two things happen: 1) these providences reveal God to me, and 2) they shape me and make me into the kind of person who finds my treasure more fully in God. In those two ways then, providences should satisfy me. They reveal God to me and they go to work on me, sometimes very painfully, to make me into the kind of person who more fully delights in this treasure revealed to me in them — God. Now, if those two things come true in any of your providences, you should be satisfied in providence.

God Gives What Is Best

Now let me pick up where we left off last night and try to bring you up to speed and then relate this and move forward. Last night, the point was that God displays his glory in all the works of providence. And this is not narcissistic or unloving for the two reasons that I gave, namely, that when God displays himself in all the works of providence, he gives us himself and offers us what is best, and that’s an act of love. And not only does he give us what is best, but he works in his people to awaken them with hearts made alive, with all the callouses of the world that we’ve gotten by rubbing up against these fleeting pleasures all our life, and he carves all the callous off and leaves it bloody and oozy and sensitive so that when the great, beautiful glory of God is revealed to us, we’re alive to it. We can feel it. We can taste it. We can eat it. We can revel in it. We’re not dead anymore to it.

It’s a hard thing to preach in a worship service. You’re lifting up the glories of the Lord and you look out and you just fear they’re dead. They don’t know. They’re listening. They’re fascinated, but they don’t taste. It’s so scary.

So God not only loves us in offering us himself through all the works of providence and revealing his all-satisfying glory, he moves in on us and awakens the heart. He opened the heart of Lydia that she might give heed to the word of God (Acts 16:14). That’s the new birth. He opened her heart to love and to delight. He gave her a new spiritual taste so that when the word landed, it tasted. And there was a self-evidencing experience of God’s distinguishing glory. So he’s not unloving when he lifts up himself. No, he’s infinitely loving when he lifts up himself and exalts himself in all that he does.

The last point last night was that, in calling forth from us a satisfaction in him, he is also magnifying his glory because God is most glorified in you when you are most satisfied in him. My wife is more honored when I delight in her than when I just dutifully serve her. Joy in God magnifies the worthiness of God.

The Head and the Heart

Now, I want you to hear this from a far more God-besotted and Bible-saturated pastor than I am — namely, Jonathan Edwards. And I want to read a few sentences from Edwards that I hope will persuade you that this is not just some John Piper, odd construction of biblical revelation, but is historic and is profoundly true. Listen carefully. Because Edwards is not easy to understand sometimes. And if you ever want to track down this quote, it’s in Miscellanies 448:

God glorifies himself toward the creatures in two ways: 1) by appearing to their understanding, and 2) in communicating himself to their hearts and in their rejoicing and delighting in and enjoying the manifestations which he makes of himself. God is glorified not only by his glory being seen, but by its being rejoiced in.

I’ve never had an original thought in my life, and if I had one, I would doubt it. I’m still reading:

When those that see it delight in it, God is more glorified than if they only see it. His glory is then received by the whole soul, both by the understanding and by the heart. God made the world that it might be received both by the mind and by the heart. He that testifies his idea of God’s glory doesn’t glorify God so much as he that testifies also his approbation of it and his delight in it.

Is that clear? That’s not hard to understand. What a great quote. God is most glorified in you when you are most satisfied in him. Or I could say, therefore, the chief end of man is to glorify God by enjoying him forever. There is no final conflict between God’s passion to be glorified and your passion — stop denying it — to be happy. Oh, I’m tempted to go on a little detour here about a page I read in C. S. Lewis back in 1968, standing in Vroman’s Bookstore on Colorado Avenue when I was attending Fuller Seminary. It was one of those immeasurable moments, those divine encounters. It was when I opened C. S. Lewis’s book The Weight of Glory and read, “We are far too easily satisfied.” That was in those years, those Copernican-revolution years.

The Mandate of Pursuing Joy in God

Now comes a practical implication that is almost too good to be true. It is almost incredible. The implication is this. Since God is most glorified in you when you are most satisfied in him, therefore the effort to maximize your joy in God is the main business of life. I call it Christian Hedonism. The main business of life is to maximize your joy in God, because in that joy, as Jonathan Edward said, God is more glorified than if you just know that he is glorious and say that he is glorious.

Contrary to a hundred philosophers, especially Immanuel Kant, this pursuit of our joy as the main business of life does not destroy virtue; it is the essence of virtue. Virtue is the God-directed pursuit of joy in God. Sin, biblically, is the pursuit of happiness where it can not be lastingly found. Jeremiah 2:12–13 says:

Be appalled, O heavens, at this;
     be shocked, be utterly desolate,
     declares the Lord,
for my people have committed two evils:
they have forsaken me,
     the fountain of living waters,
and hewed out cisterns for themselves,
     broken cisterns that can hold no water.

Sin is forsaking the pursuit of your joy in the fountain of the rivers of delight in God, and sin is, secondly, carving out of broken cisterns, which you are all doing if you are not pursuing it in God. You’re pursuing it in your job or your ministry or your wife or your children or your vacations or Windows 95. Sin is the abandonment of the pursuit of joy in God and all the false allegiances that entails. Virtue means to treasure God above all things, to make every effort to maximize that treasuring of God, and then to reveal, in the lifestyle that flows from that treasuring, the God of that treasure.

Satisfaction in God’s All-Controlling Governance

The night before last, as I was working on these messages, I got a call from my associate David Michael. He said that Patty and Glenn just discovered that the lump that was in her breast when she had her baby in January is very aggressively cancerous. And tomorrow morning (that was yesterday morning), they will do a major mastectomy, take all the lymph nodes, do a bone scan and a liver scan, and they’re very afraid. It is far advanced. She has three little children. Glenn has spent the last five years on Saturdays building a house with his own hands that they just moved into. And I called him on the phone and spoke to her and prayed with her and spoke to him. And he cried and said, “I can’t imagine living with anybody else. I can’t imagine anybody else bringing up my kids.”

How are they to be satisfied with this providence? Before I answer that, I just want to take you to a text. I invite you to turn there with me. This is 2 Corinthians 1:8–9. Paul is reporting here on the affliction and suffering that he experienced in Asia. And he puts it into a theological context and talks about the providence of God and the purposes of the providence and his satisfaction in the providence. Paul says:

For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself.

So he had been pushed over the edge of his strength. He thought it was over. He continues:

Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death.

Here comes the purpose clause. And it is none other than God’s purpose. This isn’t Satan’s purpose. This isn’t a chance purpose, which is an oxymoron:

But that was to make us rely (you could say rest in, be satisfied with, find contentment in) not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.

Finding Contentment in Bitter Providences

How are we to be satisfied in bitter providences that push us beyond your strength and bring us to the point of death? Well, here’s what I said earlier. To the degree that providences reveal God to you and to the degree that they shape you into the kind of person who more fully treasures God, they are to be treasured and they are to bring satisfaction.

Now, Paul says here that this life-threatening providence was designed by God for a holy purpose. The purpose was that they would not trust in themselves anymore, but to trust in the God who raises the dead. In other words, Paul should find more contentment, more security, and more satisfaction in God and communion with him on the other side of resurrection, than in staying alive and escaping or in experiencing torment here.

The providence was to strip Paul of reliances upon earth — anything including wife, children, job, health, the future retirement plan. Providences of God, like this one, are brought into our lives to knock crutches out from under our souls and leave us falling on God and finding his arms open and our position fully sufficient in him. So he was being shaped. He was being shaped. It was that he would be purged of some of his unbelief.

I’ll tell you, when R. C. Sproul stood here and said that it was a mercy that God had not revealed to him all of the sin in his heart, what my heart said is, in relation to this point, “God is merciful not to reveal to me all the remnants of unbelief.” Jesus says, “Oh, ye of little faith. Do you not know that your Father knows that you need these things? Be anxious for nothing — not what you eat, not what you drink, not what you put on. Seek the kingdom first. All these things will be yours.” Anxiety, folks, is unbelief in the gracious providences of God. It’s unbelief. And it’s a horrible thing how much of it is left in our hearts even after we have been born again. God is most glorified in Paul when Paul is cast most fully on God for his satisfaction.

Something Better than a Pain-Free Life

Glenn and Patty, I pray, will see God and what he is like. For Paul, it was seeing that God values faith more than life. He values faith more than life. He values eternal fellowship with him beyond the resurrection more than he does escaping oppression and torment and pain. And so he saw God and he was stripped of his support and had to fall upon God, and so he was made more into a godly person. And that’s happening to them as well.

Patty said to me on the phone, “God must think that I need more of him and more discipline.” They’ve lost two children in the last two years, one at age two and one at birth. Things seem to come in batches don’t they? And some people get more than their share.

One more thing I want to share with you about why satisfaction in the providence of God glorifies God. Here’s a problem. I’ve been saying, repeating over and over again, God is most glorified in you when you are most satisfied in him. Here’s the problem. Satisfaction in God is invisible. If you are, right now, delighting in God, if you’re savoring God, if you’re drinking from the river of his delights, if you’re feeding on the bread of heaven, I can’t see it. I don’t know what’s going on in your heart. However, God means for his glory to be made visible in the world.

Therefore, it isn’t enough for you to have private religious experiences. This inner contentment and satisfaction must spill over in something visible. It has a name. One name is sanctification, and the essence of sanctification is love. Love is the overflow of joy in God that meets the needs of others. I want to illustrate this with just a few texts. This is my last point, but I’m going to take a few minutes to illustrate it with texts because I believe in America today there is a desperate need for Christians to radically, sacrificially love their enemies and love each other.

Compassion on Those in Prison

Turn with me to Hebrews chapter 10:32–34, if you want to follow along. While you’re turning there I’ll describe the situation. Early in their Christian life, these people had experienced some persecution and some of them had been put in jail and others had not been put in jail. And those who had not been put in jail were faced with the question of whether they would visit and have compassion on those who were in jail, and thus risk being identified with them and thus being persecuted like them. That’s the situation. The question I want you to ask as we read this text is, what is the liberating power of love in this text?

But recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to reproach and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated (Hebrews 10:32–33).

How did that happen? How did they get to be partners? Here it is:

For you had compassion on those in prison, and you (pause and wonder) joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one (Hebrews 10:34).

Here’s a group of Christians who are facing a choice, “Shall we visit the prison and become identified with Christians and risk reprisal, or shall we go underground and keep our children safe and our houses safe and our lives?” And they made a choice to go to the prison in compassion, in love. And as they were walking to the prison, they looked over their shoulders and their houses were on fire. People were torching them and throwing their furniture out into the street. And they sang. They sang the song:

Let goods and kindred go, This mortal life also. The body they may kill, God’s truth abideth still. His kingdom is forever.

That’s anachronistic, but they sang. They sang. How did they do that? Where’d that come from? That’s very strange behavior. It’s not American to sing when somebody torches your house. It’s not human, and it’s especially not American Christianity. We would just move to better houses.

Well, the answer is given very clearly in Hebrews 10:34 in the second half of the verse:

Since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one.

That’s God, folks. That’s the glory of God — better and abiding.

Full and Forever

Are there texts anywhere in the Psalms where you hear those two words, better and lasting?

You make known to me the path of life;
     in your presence there is fullness of joy;
     at your right hand are pleasures forevermore (Psalm 16:11).

It’s better and it’s abiding. We’re talking about everlasting fellowship with the God of glory. They were so satisfied with all that God was for them in Jesus now and forever that it spilled over in compassion for the hurting, and enabled them not to have any cravings for things that cause them to curse or swear or even cry when their goods were plundered. They sang because in this providence, God’s glory was shining. Was it not shining? Are you not tempted to fall down and say, “What a God! What a God that could so satisfy a person’s heart that they would choose to suffer for their fellow Christians at the expense of their houses and sing about it!” Is that not the glory of God made visible? Isn’t that what Jesus meant when he said, “Let your light so shine before man, that they might see your good deeds” (Matthew 5:16)? That’s going to the prison, in spite of the loss of your house. It’s so that they might see your good deeds and do what? Glorify your father who is in heaven.

Letting Our Light Shine

Now, if you need any added exegetical help to believe that’s what Jesus had in mind in Matthew 5:16, when he said, “Let your light so shine,” that what he had in mind there was be ravished, be satisfied, be content with all that God is for you in Jesus so that you are free from the hindrances to love, like greed and fear and self consciousness — if you want to be freed from these things that hold you back and make you cleave to your house and cleave to your family and cleave to your job and cleave to yourself, instead of being abandoned in love — if you want exegetical help, just back up a few verses. He says:

Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven . . . (Matthew 5:11–12).

Is that clear? Where does joy, which is the light, I believe, come from? “Let your light so shine,” doesn’t mean, “Well, I guess we’ll have to go to the prison and do our Christian duty.” They sang. They joyfully accepted the plundering of their properties, and the joy was the light. I’m not a Christian Hedonist for anything other reason than exegetical constraints. I am forced by texts like this to say the key to loving, brothers and sisters, is joy in heaven so that when the pain of loving rears its head and says, “Don’t do that. Stay at home. Don’t do that. Keep your money. Don’t do that. Move to this more comfortable place. Don’t go over to Afghanistan, they might lop off your right hand. Don’t do that,” I say, “Get down. I have a satisfaction so much greater than anything you could offer me here in America or anywhere else that you are no competition.” That is the biblical key to love.

If you have a hard time loving your enemy — there’s somebody at work that gets your goat, or if your marriage is falling apart and you are so angry because he let you down again and again and again and again, and he makes promises that he doesn’t keep and you get so bitter and so angry — where are you fighting? Where’s the front? Where’s the battle line? I’m telling you, the battle line is to be satisfied in God. It’s a God issue. And until my heart is ravished with God, I won’t have the resources even to be married to my wonderful wife, let alone love a thousand people who can’t agree on whether you should have drums or an organ in worship. This is amazing. How do you do that?

The resources for a pastor to keep loving and loving and loving and loving when there’s relentless disagreement and criticism — or when somebody at work that never appreciates you and is always on your cases, trying to find out some way to show you wrong — are not in teeth-gritting, doing what you’re supposed to do and performing for God. The resources are joy in his future grace.

Refusing the Fleeting Pleasures of Sin

Let me show you one other text. It’s chapter 11 if you’re still in Hebrews. I could show you two or three others to show you this is a motif in Hebrews from chapters 10 through 12 — this way of living that love is the visible overflow of joy in God and that the battlefront for becoming a loving person is on the brink of eternity, where we either are or aren’t satisfied with all that God is for us in Jesus. There must be a lot of Geneva Bibles out there. I can hear them. Hebrews 11:24 says:

By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for (here it is again) he was looking to the reward.

This is exactly like Hebrews 10:32–34. Moses is facing a choice. Here is Egypt with its security and its comforts and its esteem. And here is a call of God to experience relentless abuse, not only from the Egyptians short-term but from these cantankerous people long-term. He’s choosing pain, poverty, and the agony of leadership instead of the comforts and security of Egypt. This is love. Moses loved the people of God and served them faithfully for the next 80 years. This is love.

Where did the power to forsake sin and do love come from? It came from a very odd set of priorities. It says in Hebrews 11:25 that he chose ill treatment with the people of God. And he considered suffering with Christ (Hebrews 11:26), for the Messiah, greater wealth than Egypt. How did he do that? Where did that set of priorities come from? How do you become the kind of person who in America is an upside down person, that when you watch TV ads, they don’t work on you. How do you become that kind of person? The answer is in Hebrews 11:26 — he was “looking to the reward.”

Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God (Colossians 3:2–3).

The reward is God. And the main battle of becoming a loving person is becoming a satisfied person in God. Why look to the reward? Because when we fix our eyes on the surpassing worth of all that God is for us in Jesus, that satisfaction frees us from the bondage of the fleeting pleasures of Egypt and America.

Don’t Fall for the Lie

Fellow Christians, I’m done. I want to close with an exhortation. Brothers and sisters, comrades in the greatest cause in the world, God has a great work for us to do. God has a great work to be done in this world, and he is about it today in unprecedented ways in America and around the world. But do you know what? Grand Rapids and Minneapolis and Orlando are cities that are saturated with churches. There are more churches in the Twin Cities than there are American missionaries to 1.5 billion perishing Muslims and Hindus in this world. I’m going to say that again because when I counted them in the Yellow Pages and then did the research, I was speechless. There are more churches — and I’m not talking Christians, and we’re only talking about one city in this God-soaked land — in the Twin Cities than there are missionaries from America to all the perishing 1.5 plus billion Hindus and Muslims in the world.

And there are how many groups like that? There are 3,000 to 11,000 people groups in the world today who have yet to have their first God-glorifying, indigenous church. There’s not one church in these places. God means for this work to be done. And in his providence, he’s going to get it done.

And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come (Matthew 24:14).

It will happen. But you know, he means to do it through home-sacrificing, land-abandoning, family-stressing, parent-grieving, self-denying, life-risking, 100-fold-inheriting, God-glorifying love in you. That’s how he means to get it done. With all my heart, I plead with you. You’re a theological bunch. Ligonier people like us are a theological bunch of people. I plead with all my heart, don’t be easily satisfied with the fleeting pleasures of America. Don’t be satisfied with the fleeting pleasures of America. It is insidious. It is relentless. It is a bombardment all day on the television, the radio, the billboards, the newspapers, and the magazines. “Be satisfied here,” is the message of the world.

And every now and then somebody stands up or somebody opens the Bible and says, “Don’t be so easily satisfied with the fleeting pleasures of Egypt. They only last about 80 years and then they’re gone. They’re gone forever and ever and ever and ever. They are fleeting.” Don’t be satisfied with anything less than better and abiding treasures, namely fellowship with God. Be content. Hebrew 13:5–6 says:

Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he (in his sovereign providence) has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.”

So we can say with the Psalmist in Psalm 73:25–26:

Whom have I in heaven but you?
     And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
     but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.