For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:8-9)
Sometimes we come to situations in life that seem completely impossible. We simply cannot see how God can change them. Sometimes, things happen that seem like the very worst possible outcome. Sometimes, we pray for things and instead of the situation getting better, it gets worse. Sometimes the thing we most fear and dread comes to pass.
What do we do in that situation? Do we conclude that God isn’t working? That he doesn’t hear us or answer us? That he doesn’t care? That he isn’t powerful enough to change things, or to stop bad things from happening?
Those are certainly the natural ways to think. In the middle of severe pain and disappointment, they are common conclusions, even for people who know and trust God.
And yet Scripture doesn’t give us any reason to believe that God is anything less than loving, all-powerful, caring, and working for our good, even in the midst of seemingly the worst things to happen.
We simply can’t see sometimes how this could possibly be true. Death, disappointment, loss, heartbreak—none of these things seems good.
And yet, God sees from a vantage point that is not ours. His thoughts are not our thoughts, his ways are not our ways. They are infinitely higher.
Sometimes, the very worst possible thing to happen to us is actually how God is working out his plan. It’s exactly how he intends to bless us, or bring us the result we are praying for. God has an infinite variety of ways to do things. He is infinitely creative. He is often doing more than one thing through a situation, or working in more than one person. He often has a timing that is not ours. From our limited perspective, we believe we know what he should do and how and when. From his perspective, he is doing much greater and more good through what he chooses to do and when he does it than if things worked out how we thought they should.
Sometimes, the very worst thing happens in order to cause us to cast ourselves completely on God and realize that he is our only hope. We begin praying desperate, faith-filled prayer, depending only on him. While we are still looking at the situation, while we still have some hope in circumstances, other people, or ourselves, we will not pray this way. It’s only when things get as bad as they possibly can be, completely desperate and well beyond our ability to cope or to control, that we turn to him.
Often, God allows these things in our lives because there are issues of character or sin in us that he is working out. We do not recognize our desperate need for change until we run into circumstances that make it painfully clear, circumstances that cause us to desperately cry out to him for the heart reform that only he can do. God wants to bring us to a place of greater trust and faith, of deeper knowledge of who he is, of complete surrender and obedience. He knows that those things are truly better for us than getting what we want.
Romans 8:28 says that God works everything out for the good of those who love him. So we know that must be true, no matter how painful and seemingly terrible our situations are. We have to remember that God’s idea of good is us looking more and more like Jesus. It is not to spare us from every kind of pain and suffering. In fact, pain and suffering are often his greatest teachers to shape us into the character of Jesus.
“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good….For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son.” (Romans 8:28-30)
God will do whatever it takes to accomplish that, up to and including not granting our deepest desires or allowing us to suffer loss that we think is unbearable. Usually when the trial is over we can see how God giving us what we want would not actually have been best for us. We can see how the pain brought about better results under his loving hand than if we’d continued living with self-centred motivation, or worshipping something or someone rather than God.
Hebrews 12:11 says it best: “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”
In our limited perspective, having our desires met is our motive and it should be God’s. God wants to purify us of such illegitimate motives and give us a heart that is truly in line with his kingdom and his will.
This doesn’t mean we can’t pray and expect our prayers to be answered. But often our prayers are not answered because we are asking them for the wrong reasons. James says, “You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.” (James 4:2-3) God seeks to cleanse and purify our motives so we can pray according to his will, out of compassion for other people, out of a desire to see him glorified and his kingdom come, not out of a desire for self-gratification.
This is difficult and it can take a long time of struggle and trial, and things getting worse, before we let go of our hold on our selfish demands and begin to see things God’s way. When we begin to truly desire his will and pray for it and seek to obey it, we begin to have peace in the middle of our troubles and see change: perhaps not the change that we wanted, but the change God wants for us, which is of far greater value.