The Agonizing Will of God and our Sanctification

When Pain Paves the Way for Salvation:
Several years ago I sat and wept as I listened to Pastor Bill Wilson of Metro Ministries share his testimony, and the stories of the many children they serve through his “Sunday School church” in Brooklyn, New York and around the world. As a child, Bill Wilson was abandoned by his mother on the streets of New York. One day, as they walked down the street together, she instructed him to sit down on the curb and wait for her to return. He sat and waited for three days and she never came back. A Christian man noticed Bill alone and stopped to find out if he was okay. He picked him up, brought him home, and paid his way to a Christian summer camp where Bill heard the gospel and was saved by God’s grace. He now runs Metro Ministries which serves more than 42,000 children world wide with the gospel and is known as “the world’s largest Sunday School.”

Bill Wilson’s story is agonizing but beautiful. Someone who suffered much as a child, and has continued to face persecution today, is saved by “the Way, the Truth, and the Life”, and what he went through was worth it for the sake of his eternal life. What Jesus suffered on the cross was worth it also, for the sake of his children who are rescued because of his sacrifice. Sometimes God’s will is easy to bear and just what we would hope for, but more often than not it can be agonizing and even painful. If God allows us to suffer so that we might be saved and/or for our sanctification, it is worth it. And when we are yoked to Jesus the burden is light because of the joyful hope of glory we find in Him.

For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. 2 Corinthians 4:17-18 ESV

The Will Behind the Cross:
I have been working through the heart of gospel in my devotions lately, the Cross. The crucifixion of Jesus is not something to be rushed through. I’ve had a lot of things vying for my attention this past week and I think it’s a real picture of what can happen with “the story of the cross” to many of its hearers. Other things can easily overshadow the simple message of the gospel in hearts and the enormity of it might be missed because we feel like “we know it.” As I read though, and picture the situation, and I’m trying really hard to listen, I’m amazed at the underlying message of suffering and the sovereignty of God. It can’t be escaped. The heart and soul of the gospel is Jesus atonement for the sins of his people through his life’s blood and then his victory over death and the grave, making a way for sinful people to have righteous standing with God for Jesus’ sake. The message of God’s will in it all, from the betrayal to the spear in Jesus side, cannot be missed though when you take the time to read it slow. Here’s where I’m at tonight.

And when they had crucified him, they divided his garments among them by casting lots. Then they sat down and kept watch over him there. And over his head they put the charge against him, which read, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.” Then two robbers were crucified with him, one on the right and one on the left. And those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads and saying, “You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” So also the chief priests, with the scribes and elders, mocked him, saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him. For he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’” And the robbers who were crucified with him also reviled him in the same way. Matthew 27:35-44 ESV

As Jesus hung on the cross, making payment for his lost sheep, the people continued to mock and blaspheme him. Their accusations and statements might sound frighteningly familiar if put into different words though. Let’s look at the four examples from this passage in Matthew.

1. “If you are the Son of God, come down…”
The passersby were likely many of them Jewish travelers who were on their way to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover, which may very well be the most relevant parallel in this passage to our modern church. Religious people in such a hurry to take part in their religious ceremony that celebrated the night death passed over their ancestors because of the lamb’s blood on their doorposts, and they disregard the Lamb that is hanging on a post in front of their very eyes so that death might pass over them. How often does our religious activities focus on our ideas rather than God’s? Let’s ask ourselves, “What am I involved in with the church right now, and what is my reason for doing it?”

They also said to him, “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” This is a whole new ball of wax. Where have we heard those words before? Oh yeah, the Devil when he came to tempt Jesus in the wilderness.

And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written,
“‘Man shall not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written,
“‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and
“‘On their hands they will bear you up,
lest you strike your foot against a stone.’”
Matthew 4:3-6 ESV

This mentality that says to Jesus, “If you are…” is a “prove it by blessing me” mentality that has a lust for the things of this world and no interest in the Savior. And it’s easier to get caught up in than you might think. Some might be wondering even as they read this why it seems that God is not intervening in a difficult situation in their life. Could it be that he is, but just not how you want him to? The people in Jesus time were waiting for a King sent by God to come and lead them into abundant life on earth, not a bloody Savior who refused to come down from the tree he was nailed to. This was not the kind of intervention they were looking for, so they missed what was happening. They said, “You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself!” and he could have been thinking, “I’m doing just that and more.”

2. “He Healed Many People, but Can’t Save Himself”
The chief priests, scribes and elders, said, “He saved others; he cannot save himself.” A common question that we’ve all heard, or maybe even asked, is “Why does a good God let bad things happen?” It’s a good question and a big one. I’m sure I won’t be able to cover even a portion of the full answer to it here, but let me ask this, Is what happened to Jesus on the cross good or bad? Hmmm… Is that a trick question? Maybe it is. I think the answer is, yes and no. It was bad. In fact, it was the pinnacle of evil and depravity, but it was also good because it was allowed and controlled by God. Read what Jesus said about it.

Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?” Matthew 26:52-54 ESV

and,

For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.” John 10:17-18 ESV

Is what you’re going through bad? Peter, Jesus disciple who suffered much persecution for the gospel, said this,

    In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. 1 Peter 1:6-7 ESV

I know it’s not the kind of encouragement you want to hear when it feels like the walls are closing in around you, but if it’s possible to catch a glimpse of the great glory and joy that may result from it, it can help you to see the value and worth in the trial. For example, would it have been better for Bill Wilson, mentioned at the beginning of the post, to have grown up in a well off home with two good parents who never taught him the gospel and to go through life very comfortable and full only to die without Christ? No, his suffering served God’s good purpose to save his life through the Christian love of a stranger who found him alone on a New York street corner. So, are you willing to trust God that he is in control and what feels like agonizing right now could be for your sanctification and because he loves you?

3. “Let Him Come Down Now from the Cross, and We will Believe in Him”
Do you think they really would have believed in Him if He came down from the cross when they asked?

While you have the light, believe in the light, that you may become sons of light.”
When Jesus had said these things (he just finished speaking of his impending death), he departed and hid himself from them. Though he had done so many signs before them, they still did not believe in him, so that the word spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:
“Lord, who has believed what he heard from us,
and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?”
Therefore they could not believe. For again Isaiah said,
“He has blinded their eyes
and hardened their heart,
lest they see with their eyes,
and understand with their heart, and turn,
and I would heal them.”
John 12:36-40 ESV

They wouldn’t have believed in Jesus even if he miraculously climbed down from the cross and healed himself right there on the spot. They didn’t believe when Lazarus was raised from the dead, in fact, they plotted to kill Lazarus again. They didn’t believe when Jesus cast a Legion of demons from a depraved man. They didn’t believe when he healed the blind and the lame right in their presence. As Matthew puts it, “Though he had done so many signs before them, they still did not believe in him“. And when we read beyond those words we see that again, this was God’s will. It might be a hard pill to swallow, but it’s there in verses 37- 38, plain as day, “they still did not believe in him so that the word spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled...” Read Isaiah’s prophesy again if need be. He  blinded their eyes and hardened their hearts.

God’s will always trumps our will, and we cannot put conditions on God. It would be like an ant saying to a human, “If you get me a nice big watermelon to eat I’ll let you walk on my grass.” What a joke! A human could crush an ant with one toe. How much more is this true of God and people? Listen to what King Nebuchadnezzar said of God and His will after God caused him to act like a wild animal with hair as long as eagles feathers and nails like bird claws (read about it in Daniel 4) He had been full of himself before and after being humiliated by God he was restored to sanity and his position, but with a whole new outlook on God’s will.

    At the end of the days I, Nebuchadnezzar, lifted my eyes to heaven, and my reason returned to me, and I blessed the Most High, and praised and honored him who lives forever,
for his dominion is an everlasting dominion,
        and his kingdom endures from generation to generation;
    all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing,
        and he does according to his will among the host of heaven
        and among the inhabitants of the earth;
    and none can stay his hand
        or say to him, “What have you done?”
Daniel 4:34-35 ESV

Let’s not be proud or think of ourselves as good. God alone is good and therefore we can trust Him with our lives if we come to Him through His Son.

4. “Let God Deliver Him Now, if He Desires Him.”
The final insult, hurled at Jesus by the church leaders, was a statement that they felt proved that God was obviously not with Jesus because He was not delivering him from the cross. Again, this echos the past when Job’s friends tried to accuse him of being in sin because of all the outward appearances of what was happening to Job. But as we know from the beginning of the story, God allowed the Devil to strike Job, but God was still in control. He put the parameters on what Satan was permitted to do to Job.

And the LORD said to Satan, “Behold, all that he has is in your hand. Only against him do not stretch out your hand.” So Satan went out from the presence of the LORD. Job 1:12 ESV

God was pleased with Jesus, but it did not (and could not) result in deliverance from the cross.

Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him;
he has put him to grief;
when his soul makes an offering for guilt,
he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days;
the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand.
Isaiah 53:10 ESV

“All is well” does not equal “God’s favor”. Throughout the Bible you will find references to the wicked prospering and the righteous suffering. Of course, that doesn’t mean that the wicked never suffer and the righteous never prosper, it’s just all that to say that everything hinges on God’s will and plan. And we should never measure  success and prosperity as God’s favor and blessing.

I don’t know a lot about singer/songwriter Laura Story, but I heard her new song “Blessings” on the radio today as I was driving with my kids, and I’d like to share the portion of the song that stood out to me the most because I think it fits in really well with this truth that we’ve been looking at of God’s blessings not always coming in the form we feel comfortable with.

We pray for blessings
We pray for peace
Comfort for family, protection while we sleep
We pray for healing, for prosperity
We pray for Your mighty hand to ease our suffering
All the while, You hear each spoken need
Yet love us way too much to give us lesser things

‘Cause what if Your blessings come through raindrops
What if Your healing comes through tears
What if a thousand sleepless nights
Are what it takes to know You’re near
What if trials of this life are Your mercies in disguise

When friends betray us
When darkness seems to win
We know that pain reminds this heart
That this is not, this is not our home
It’s not our home

It’s Worth It:
I’d like to leave you with this thought: If you were able to see your life from beginning to end as God sees it and  you could see that everything you’re going through, or will go through, that is difficult will all turn out for your good and eternal joy in the end, would it comfort you? Now, here is the definition of faith: Even though you cannot see your life from beginning to end as God sees it and you don’t know how your difficulties will work out for your good, can you trust God that everything will turn out for your good and eternal joy in the end?

Let me encourage you friends, as my husband Shane and I walk through trials ourselves, even today, that while there are moments when God’s will feels agonizing, as I’m sure it did to Jesus as He hung on the cross for me, the trial will end and by God’s grace we will be full of joy in Him alone.

   …I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. Philippians 4:11-13 ESV

Preparing the Way,
~ Danae Martin

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