Our Satisfaction in God's Providence

Ligonier | Memphis

The title of my second message this morning is Man Satisfied in God’s Providence, which comes after last night’s message, God Glorified in Providence. And this morning, as I was meditating on the Word just to prepare my own heart, the Lord brought back to my mind this prayer of Moses, which I want to pray for us because it would be the fulfillment of God’s word and my purpose in being here if he were to answer it. In Psalm 90:14, Moses says:

Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love,
     that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.

It’s a plea that God would satisfy us in the morning. Do you pray that? Do you say to God in the morning, “Satisfy me in the morning with your steadfast love that I may rejoice all day today”?

And then as John and I were praying — my assistant who’s with me, by the way, manning a little table in there called Desiring God Ministries — we put that text together with the one I mentioned last night, Psalm 63:3, which says, “The steadfast love of the Lord is better than life.” Now put those two verses together, Psalm 90:14 and Psalm 63:3. The first one says, “Satisfy me in the morning with your steadfast love,” and the second says, “Your steadfast love is better than life.” That means that no threat can take your joy away. Nothing.

Content in Every Providence

Let me try to explain the meaning of the title, which was assigned to me by the way, though I love it and would have chosen it without it being assigned. Man Satisfied in God’s Providence has two meanings for me and they really merge into one. Let me give them to you one at a time so you can follow my thought. The first meaning it has is that we Christians should find tremendous joy in all of God’s providences, or all of his acts of providence, in seeing the way they fit together for our good.

Romans 8:28 says that all things — all acts of providence, from the details of pitching a basket to a baby’s cry to the movement of the stars — are working together for your good. Being satisfied in the providence of God is believing that and so resting in it, with a sense of profound contentment that everything is being maneuvered in your life, both the sweet and the bitter, for some great good that will satisfy your heart. And I really do mean all details.

Charles Spurgeon, one of my heroes, I think is a very great exemplar for how to be a Calvinist in the modern world. There are brands of Calvinism that do more harm for Calvinism than help, and Spurgeon was not one of those. And I encourage you to read the sermons of Charles Spurgeon if you want to see how to be a healthy, robust, winsome, evangelistic, good PR person for the truth of Reformed theology. Just to show you how much he believed in this doctrine of providence and what I want to believe, he said:

I believe that every particle of dust that dances in the sun beam 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 on their courses, that 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.

Now, Spurgeon was challenged on this, and names were put on it like fatalism or stoicism. And he responded like this:

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 a purpose. Everything in this world is working for some great end (even an aphid crawling over a rose bud, as we just heard). Fate does not say that. There is all the difference in the world between fate and providence that 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.

Those are all from a sermon that he preached on Ezekiel 1 titled Wheels Within a Wheel. The providence of God satisfying us (point number one) means that it is so thorough that all of its acts are moving reality to some great and good end for you as a Saint. And you may rest satisfied in the sweet and bitter providences of your life. That’s meaning number one that I give to this title, Man Satisfied in the Providence of God.

The Great Good of Providence

Now here’s definition number two of this title. The first answer leaves undefined what the good is in which we are satisfied. I’ve only used the word good. It sort of postpones the real issue. What is the good in which we rest satisfied that all acts of providence are working together for you? That has to be answered, I think, in order for last night’s message, namely God Glorified in Providence, to come to fulfillment.

Our satisfaction, I answer secondly, is not merely in the works of providence, but in the God who works the works of providence. Psalm 19:1 says that the heavens are telling, not just the handiwork of God, but the glory of God. God himself is being revealed in the works of providence. God means for you to read off of the works of providence, God.

In all of the artwork of God in the world, both the historical artwork and the natural artwork and the personal artwork, he means for you to read off of it the artist. And therefore, the good towards which all providences are leading you is a resting in or a being satisfied with all that God is for you in these providences. Now let me put these two together meanings of the title together, Man Satisfied in God’s Providence. It goes like this if you put them together: God works all of his providence for my good, and God is my good. All the works of providence fit together for my good, and my good is God. Or you could say, God is the one in whom I find all my good.

Now, putting the two together, here is the conclusion I draw for my topic. I should feel, and you should feel, a deep satisfaction in the works of God’s providence to the degree that those works reveal more of God to me and shape me into the kind of person who treasures God above all things. I’ll say that again, because those two halves are very important, as I’m going to take up a hard providence in a moment. Because you should be asking right now, “Do you really mean that we should be satisfied in the bitter providences?” I would say, yes, to the degree that the works of providence manifest or reveal or display more of God’s excellences to you, and secondly, to the degree that these works of providence, whether sweet or bitter, are shaping you into the kind of person who treasures this God more deeply.

If he is revealed more fully and you are brought to be the kind of person who treasures him more dearly, you should be satisfied even in the bitter providences. When I was preparing this message last September and giving more thought to it, the night before I was set to deliver with R.C. Sproul these messages in Grand Rapids, I got a phone call from a family in our church who was very distressed because they had been to the doctor, she had found a lump in her breast, and the next day she was to have a massive mastectomy and a scan for liver and bone cancer.

They wanted to meet with me and so we met. There were tears and there were fears, and she did have the mastectomy. And two weeks ago — this is now, what, eight months later? — I got another phone call. And they found two spots on her lungs. And the doctor said that without chemo, maybe she has five months. It’s a very aggressive kind of cancer. With chemo, perhaps she has a year. So I ask, how shall this family be satisfied in the providence of God? This is the providence of God.

Receiving Good and Evil from God

I don’t say the devil did it, except insofar as he did it the way he did it to Job. He gets permission from the Lord and the Lord says, “You can have her body, just don’t kill her yet.” That was last September when Satan got that permission. And then when Job gets sick, he says, “Shall we receive good at the hand of the Lord and not evil?” (Job 2:10). And the writer comments, “In all this he did not sin with his lips” (Job 2:10). It’s not sin to see the hand of God behind the work of Satan.

Second Corinthians 12 is the same thing, right? Paul’s thorn in the flesh is a messenger of what? Satan. And it’s with the design of what? Humility. Since when does Satan work sanctification? Well, ever since God took control. This must enrage Satan. I like to say this because it must make Satan very angry that he is the lackey of God in the performance of my sanctification. He hears me say that. I love him to hear me say it. I say it publicly here in Memphis. Satan is on a chain. He doesn’t move an inch apart from the permission of God Almighty. And when he moves in the life of a saint, it’s for your holiness. Oh, that must enrage him because his whole purpose is the opposite of holiness.

I don’t know all of the intermediary causes of this cancer. I do not know, nor do I need to know. I just know that ultimately, this is the providence of God. That’s the way I preach. The people who called me on the phone did not expect me to backtrack on my theology. But we cry. We do a lot of hugging. We’re patient with the questions. They say, “John, I’ve got four children and the littlest one is an infant. He’ll be two if she dies in a year. I don’t know what to do.” You don’t blow that off with a praise-God-anyhow kind of attitude.

You walk through that valley together, arm in arm, knowing that there is a sense in which Glenn can be satisfied and Patty can be satisfied with this. And the sense in which they can be satisfied is, are they going to see more of God here? And, are they going to be made into the kind of people who treasure God more deeply? Now, I said last night that the goal of God in redemptive history is to glorify himself in all of his acts of providence. And I want to quote somebody named Jonathan Edwards on what I concluded with. Let me try to sum it up so you can begin to pull these two together.

God Glorified in Head and Heart

I said that God’s desire to pursue the magnification of his glory in all of his acts of providence is not unloving, because in doing that, he preserved for us what is best for us, namely himself. And even though that’s very self-exalting and self-centered on God’s part, it’s very loving because he himself is my satisfaction. And therefore, God, in pursuing my satisfaction in him, is pursuing that which magnifies him the most. Now Edwards put it like this. This is one of those incredibly important paragraphs in my life:

God glorifies himself towards the creature in two ways: by appearing to their understanding and, two, in communicating himself to their hearts, and in their rejoicing in him and the manifestations which he makes of himself. God is glorified not only in his glory’s being seen, but in its being rejoiced in.

John Piper’s theology is very unoriginal. If it were, it would not be true. I learned it all from Paul and Jesus and Edwards, I hope. You judge. This was written 250 years ago, “God is glorified not only in his glory’s being seen (contemplated), but by its being rejoiced in.” I’ll continue the quote:

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 the heart. He that testifies his idea of God’s glory does not glorify God so much as he that testifies also his approbation of it and his delight in it.

That’s so plain and so powerful. To know the glory of God, to affirm by your will that God is glorious, is somewhat to glorify God. Many Reformed people stop right there and are deathly afraid of the rest of what Jonathan Edward says, namely, that God is far more glorified if that notion, that idea, that contemplation and affirmation, moves from the head down into the emotional center of the being and releases joy in God. Edward says, “When that happens, God is far more glorified than if we only think the right thoughts about his glory and make affirmations of it.”

The Main Business of Our Lives

Now comes the incredible implication of that. If that is true, and if what I said last night is true, that God is most glorified in you when you are most satisfied in him — which is what Edwards is saying without the rhyme — what is the implication now for what you do with the rest of this day, tomorrow, the Lord’s day, and the rest of your life? The first implication is this: the effort to maximize your joy in God is the main business of life.

The effort to maximize your joy in God — and I could add here, in the middle of cancer — is the main business of life, which is why I began with the prayer I began with. I have Patty and Glenn on my mind. I’m praying, “Satisfy Glenn in the morning with your steadfast love, which is better than his life or her life, that he may rejoice with his little ones all the days of his life before and after his wife’s death, if you should take her.” That’s on my mind. The statement “your main business in life is to maximize your satisfaction in God” holds at the hardest times of life.

That’s your job, that’s your business. And I have said these things in so many places and heard so many objections. Against 100 philosophers I say it, that the pursuit of our joy is not the destruction of virtue, but the essence of virtue. Here’s my definition of virtue: virtue is the God-guided effort to maximize joy in God. What is sin, then? Sin is the pursuit of happiness where it cannot 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.

That’s evil. To turn away from your joy and to hew out broken cisterns that cannot satisfy is the essence of evil, not virtue. Another way to put it is that sin is also the pursuit of your joy in God half-heartedly. That’s what Jesus spits out of his mouth, according to Revelation 3:16. Be appalled, oh world, at a church, even a church, that defends sin as virtue.

Satisfied in God’s Providence

Now, back to Patty and Glenn, my friends. How are they to think about this pursuit of satisfaction, this joy in this critical moment of their lives? I invite you to turn with me to 2 Corinthians 1:8. I want to give you a text that helps me get a handle on the satisfaction with providence in the midst of death and pain, which is where we do live, or at least we all soon will.

While you’re turning, I’ll just let you in on a breakfast conversation from this morning. We need to be ready by contemplating these things before we are immersed in the moment of crisis. I remember talking with my father, who has helped me so much over the years come to terms with the sovereignty of God in a world of extraordinary suffering. When the Oklahoma City bombing happened there were public interviews happening and the outcry was, “Where is God? How can this happen?” My father, — he is not a callous and cold person — shook his head as we were talking one day and said, “I just don’t understand why Christians respond that way. Because if they were thoughtful people, they would realize that 10 or 20,000 Oklahoma Cities a day happen.” Right now, there are at least 10,000 people screaming in pain in this world. Right now, before I finish here, tens of thousands will have died excruciating deaths.

What is it that makes us elevate one of those tragedies to the point where God gets called into question? The rest of the time, we can go on not calling God into question and meet in our nice, air-conditioned sanctuaries. And it’s because we’re thoughtless. If it is true that the loss of many children in a terrorist act calls God into question, God is always in question 10,000 times more than that. What I’m saying is that we need — and this is why conferences like this are so important — moments of settled reflection to get clear about reality. And reality is that Oklahoma City is happening every day without stopping around the world a thousand-fold. And if you can’t handle it, you might as well be an atheist. There’s no point in waiting to wonder if it’s going to happen today. It is happening.

I was over in Uganda two weeks ago visiting some missionaries. I got just a little glimpse of somebody who had no legs and no crutches and no wheelchair, but who had arms that were just a tad longer than his hips so he could go and flop his bottom down on the dirt row and go to the market. And you wonder, that man looks to be about 50 years old, and he’s done that for how long? And he’ll die like that. He’ll probably get infected, and there’s no hospital in Kapchorwa. And there are tens of thousands of people like that.

Faith Has More Value Than Life

Second Corinthians 1:8 says:

For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers . . .

That’s what I’m just doing right now. I don’t want you to be unaware brethren. He continues:

We do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction . . .

We’ve cleansed that word pretty good for Paul. It’s pretty heavy for him. He continues:

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.

All right, now we’re back to my friends with cancer. Paul says:

Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead (2 Corinthians 1:9).

Now, let me remind you of how I said we should be satisfied in providence. There are two things: we should be satisfied in providence if we see God more clearly and are brought to treasure him more dearly.

Now look at this text. A providence has come into his life. He doesn’t tell us what it is. That’s fine. But it has brought him to the brink of death. He thinks he might die, or he used to think he might die in that situation. And then he asks, “Why?” It’s okay to ask why. And he gets an answer: “That was in order that we should not trust in ourselves, but in God who raises the dead.” Now I believe, what he means is that God’s providence ordained, through persecution or sickness, that he should be brought to the edge of his grave in order that he might see something and feel something; that God values faith more than life. God values faith in God more than life on earth. That’s what this text says — “that you might trust in the God who raises the dead.”

And secondly, that he might be satisfied in God rather than continuing earthly life — the God who raises the dead. So he’s brought right up to the edge of his grave. He’s allowed to look in and he thinks there’s no more life. He thinks, “I’m dead.” Maybe he had just been beaten or maybe he was being threatened to be tossed to the lions. Or maybe there was something in his sickness that brought him right up to death. And he said, “The providence of God was one that I would see the kind of God that I have.” Human life is not his main purpose on this earth. Staying alive is not high on God’s agenda.

High on God’s agenda is faith in God who raises the dead. So he gets his whole world turned around. And if Paul needed that, do you think I don’t need that, like when you get a funny lump right here in your groin like I had a couple of months ago? I thought, “Ew, what’s that?” I went to the doctor and he said, “You’ve got a hernia.” I said, “Oh, big deal.” He said, “It’s like driving around with a nail in your tire.” So I asked him, “Do you need to fix it?” He said, “Well, it’s like driving around with a nail in your tire.” I haven’t fixed it yet. But in the little space of 24 hours between the detection of this little bubble and the statement that it’s only a hernia, your whole life goes before you.

That’s a lymph gland place down there. I know about those places. It goes fast to the bones. And it’s good. John Piper needs little scares like that badly. I took my wife in to have one of those lumps removed a couple years ago too. I sat in the waiting room by myself. It’s good for a pastor to do that, to wait and think. Do you believe your theology, John Piper?

Publicly Displaying Our Satisfaction in God

Let me go to one more way that we are to be satisfied in the providence of God and show the glory of God through our satisfaction. The problem with everything I’ve said up to right now is that if last night is true, that God’s purpose is to be glorified in my being satisfied in him, that’s invisible. My satisfaction in God is invisible. You cannot see my heart. I could be an absolute charlatan, pulling the wool over your eyes, just like in the strokes of a thousand people listening to my voice.

It’s possible that there’s an absolute hoax in this church. Therefore, God’s purpose to be visibly manifest as valuable requires something more than just inner experiences of satisfaction in his people. Something has to go public. The abundance of the heart has to speak. There has to be fruit on the tree in order for the root to be seen to be resting in the rivers of God’s delights. We call it sanctification. And I would say the essence of sanctification is love. I would argue that my satisfaction in God’s providence is the means by which I am freed to love, and it’s the love that brings visible glory to God. Matthew 5:16 says:

Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.

And the root of that is your resting in and being satisfied with God.

Now I want to just show you a few texts where I get this, and then we’ll be done. The texts are in Hebrews mainly if you want to turn with me. Hebrews 10:32–34 is the first one. It’s one of my favorite radical texts. And the situation is that the people had been evangelized, the church had come into being, and some had been arrested and put in jail. The others had to decide whether to go visit them or not and risk being persecuted with them. And they chose to go and the dynamics of that situation are spelled out in Hebrews 10:32–34. It says:

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.

So you see, some were in jail and then some became partners with them by visiting them, I think. It continues:

For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property (that’s an amazing sentence), since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one.

A Better and Abiding Possession

All right, now get the picture very clearly here. Some Christians were in prison and some Christians were underground, not in prison. They were forced to think, “Will we identify with those in prison and publicly have compassion upon them by visiting them the way Jesus said you should, or will we be safe and secure underground and not go visit them and preserve our property and our lives and our children and our careers and our long existence on the earth?” And they had a prayer meeting, perhaps, and somebody remembered Psalm 63:3, which says, “The steadfast love of the Lord is better than life.” And then, if Martin Luther had been there, he would’ve said, “Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also. The body they may kill, God’s truth abideth still; his kingdom is forever. Let’s go.” And they went. And as they were going to the prison, they looked over their shoulder and their houses were on fire or something like that.

It says that they plundered their property, or confiscated it. And the spirit at that moment was an incomprehensible satisfaction called joy. Do you see that? These are not my words. These are Bible words. It says, “They joyfully accepted the plundering of their property.” Now, that is a visible manifestation of the glory of God. How so? The next phrase shows how that kind of radical, self-sacrificing love comes into being. It comes into being this way: “Since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one.” If you don’t make it your life long aim to be totally satisfied in that better possession and abiding one, you will not love, not like that. And there aren’t many Americans who love like that.

We are so intent on keeping our cars and our houses and our clothes and our portfolios and our retirement plans and our nice schools that if you tell me I should live in a neighborhood or go to a place or do a thing that might jeopardize my family or my health or my job or my security, you’re crazy. And that’s because we are not satisfied in God. We are satisfied in our things. Love like this love will only happen where you can say, “Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also. The body they may kill, God’s truth, God’s possession, God’s reward, namely God himself, is abiding and better.”

Those two words are very important because they recall Psalm 16:11, which says:

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

It’s better and abiding, better and abiding in the presence of God. My point is that if God’s glory is to be displayed in the works of providence, your being satisfied in God must be so radical as to free you to let goods and kindred go for the sake of love. Then people will see and give glory to your Father in heaven. Just four verses earlier, in Matthew 5:11–12, it 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 . . .

And who is that, pray tell, but God? The only way you will be freed to rejoice in persecution and thus have massive resources to love those who hate you will be if you have devoted your life to being satisfied in God. And if you let stoics and others tell you that to devote your life to being satisfied in God is the destruction of virtue rather than the essence of virtue, you will not be a loving person.

The evangelical church in America will be as culturally conformed and as weak as it presently is because our God is not God. Our pleasures on the earth are God, our cars are our God, our houses are our God, our retirement plans are our God, our children are our God, our secure neighborhoods are our God, our American way is our God. God is not God. And so when cancer comes, we think our God has been called into question when he’s beckoning us to love him instead of the world. We need a radical revolution of where our treasure is, that is, where our pleasure is in this world. This is so important.

Choosing Mistreatment Over Fleeting Pleasure

I have one more text and then I’ll be done. Look at Hebrews 11. Just flip over one chapter to chapter 11 in Hebrews. This is good because it ties right in with R.C. Sproul’s work with Moses. Do you see Moses given here now as an example of faith? Walter said last night that the understanding of faith had made a difference in his life. Here’s an example of what faith is. What is faith? 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 . . .

Now he’s doing exactly the same thing that the early Christians did when they went to the jail, right? It continues:

Choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin.

Moses is not interested in anything fleeting. Neither am I. You can have it, thank you.

When I come to die, Oh, when I come to die, When I come to die, give me Jesus.

Give me Jesus. Give me Jesus. You can have all this world, give me Jesus.

Hebrews 11:26 continues on to say:

He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt (why?), for he was looking to the reward.

That is not a golf course in the kingdom. That’s Christ. To die is gain, why? Because to go and be with Christ is far and away better. How many Christians believe it? How many just say it? Don’t miss the point here. The key to Moses’s loving work on behalf of the recalcitrant people called Israel, the key to that love was a satisfaction in the reward that caused him to see the pleasures of Egypt as husks and ashes by comparison.

Nobody sins out of duty. We only sin because sin holds out the promise of pleasure. And the only way to visibly defeat and destroy the power of sin in your life is with a counter pleasure, namely God. Moses chose ill treatment with the people of God. But let me close.

God’s Great Cause

Christians, we have a great cause in front of us. God’s great work in this world is not finished. The holiness of God is at the center of Ligonier Ministries — exalting a great, holy, sovereign God. I count it an incredible honor to be invited to these conferences. I love what R.C. Sproul and Ligonier Ministries stand for. But I said to R.C. junior in the car yesterday, I want to kick you in the pants to cause you to do one little adjustment. And here I may get into trouble, but that’s okay. I just want this ministry to resound for the nations who don’t know God, not just for American Reformed Evangelicals. There are thousands of people groups, among Hindu peoples and Buddhist peoples and tribal peoples and Muslim peoples who don’t even know Jesus’s name, let alone the glories of Reformed theology.

And oh, I just beckon you to be so satisfied in the God of R.C. Sproul and the God of Ligonier Ministries, which is the God of holy Scripture. I beckon you to be so satisfied in this God that you are freed from your money, freed from your cars, freed from your houses, to go and tell them instead of just doing our own little thing, week in and week out, to enhance our precise theology. If you love this God, and if you believe that his will is to be known and displayed for the enjoyment of all peoples, you will be a free and radical people. You will be either a goer or a sender and there is no third alternative.

Our church just adopted a mission statement that says this:

We exist at Bethlehem Baptist Church to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples

That’s the word peoples because I think that missions is the touchstone of authentic love for the glory of God. If we do not have a passion to see the glory of God reverberating out of the faces of a satisfied Kazakh village, do we love him? Do we love his glory? And so this is my last shot at you. And my church commissions me to go to conferences like this to do our mission statement. And our mission statement is for the joy of all peoples. So I beg of you, you Reformed brothers and sisters that I love and whose theology I delight in and share and want so much to send through Oscar and Cathy Huerta to Kazakhstan, along with 40 or 50 other missionary families from our church; I beseech you in the name of Christ. Let goods and kindred go, this moral life also. The body they may kill. We will not finish the Great Commission without martyrs. God’s truth abideth still. His kingdom is forever.

Make your lifelong pursuit satisfaction in this great God, and then magnify the worth of that God by how much you are willing to forsake on his behalf.