John Newton mentored a man called William Cowper (1731–1800). Cowper had experienced tragedy. His mother died when he was six. His father died while he was still young. He qualified as a barrister. Outwardly he was successful. However, he suffered from serious depression. When applying for an administrative post in the House of Lords that entailed a formal examination, he was so disturbed by the prospect of the exam that he attempted suicide. For the rest of his life he suffered from mental illness.
When he was in his thirties, John Newton encouraged Cowper to begin composing hymns. He wrote powerfully of the joys and sorrows of everyday life. In 1774, he suffered such a severe episode of mental illness that he was prevented from entering into his intended marriage to Mary Unwin. He was crestfallen. Shortly afterwards, in perhaps his most famous hymn, he wrote:
God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform
God is good. God is love. God loves you. God has revealed himself supremely in Jesus. All this we know. Then you read passages in the Bible that don’t seem to fit with your understanding of God. You may also have experiences in life that don’t seem to fit either.
You cannot put God in a box. He is far greater than you could ever conceive. Some passages in the Bible are mysterious. Jesus said on one occasion, ‘You do not realise now what I am doing, but later you will understand’ (John 13:7). Sometimes that understanding may come in our lifetime. Some things we will only understand when we meet the Lord.
How should you respond when you don’t understand God?
Be honest with God
Are there times in your life when you simply do not understand why certain things are happening to you? Does it almost feel like God has rejected you? If so, your experience is common in the history of the people of God. This psalm opens with this question: ‘Why have you rejected us forever, O God?’ (v.1).
Sometimes it may seem as if God is silent and not intervening to help you in any way. As the psalmist says, ‘There’s not a sign or symbol of God in sight, nor anyone to speak in his name, no one who knows what’s going on’ (v.9, MSG).
When you go through times like this, you never know ‘how long’ this will be (v.9). You might have questions about why a part of your life is working out as it is. Or perhaps you just feel that God is distant. St John of the Cross (1542–1591) referred to these times as ‘the dark night of the soul’.
What should you do in times like this?
- Ask the questions
The psalmist does not beat around the bush. He pours out his heart to God. He asks God the difficult questions. ‘You walked off and left us, and never looked back. God, how could you do that? We’re your very own sheep; how can you stomp off in anger?’ (v.1, MSG).
- Ask for answers
‘Refresh your memory of us… you actually lived here once! Come and visit the site of disaster…’ (vv.2–3, MSG).
You are not alone when you have these kinds of experiences and emotions. One of the great blessings of the Psalms is that you can turn to them in times of mysterious suffering and echo these prayers in your heart.
Lord, thank you that even when I can’t understand what is happening to me, I can be honest with you when I pray and pour out my heart to you.
Be open to God
Jesus told his disciples to heal the sick, raise the dead and preach the gospel. The early church got on with doing exactly what Jesus told them to do. They must have been very surprised by what happened. Yet they were open to his leading.
- The mystery of healing
They continued to see God’s extraordinary power at work. Peter said to a man who was bedridden for eight years, ‘Jesus Christ heals you’ (9:34). He immediately ‘jumped right out of bed’ (v.34, MSG). ‘Everybody… woke up to the fact that God was alive and active among them’ (v.35, MSG).
Yet not all are healed. Why doesn’t God heal everyone? I don’t know. Sometimes it is really hard to understand why God has not healed someone we have prayed for so much. It is a mystery.
- The mystery of raising the dead
Next, Peter raised the dead! Accounts of the dead being raised are rare in the Bible. It happened twice in the Old Testament – once with Elijah and once with Elisha. Jesus raised the dead three times, Paul once, and Peter raised Dorcas from the dead. The command to raise the dead occurs only once (Matthew 10:8).
In almost every case, it was a young person who was raised from the dead. None of them lived forever – but their lives were not cut off prematurely. Very occasionally God intervenes in this way. We don’t know why. It is a mystery.
Here God did intervene. Dorcas, ‘who was always doing good and helping the poor’ (Acts 9:36), became sick and died. Peter got down on his knees and prayed. She opened her eyes, sat up, and Peter took her by the hand and helped her to her feet! As a result, ‘many people believed in the Lord’ (v.42).
- The mystery of the gospel
The apostle Paul was later to explain, ‘This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus’ (Ephesians 3:6).
Up until this point in the book of Acts, all the followers of Jesus had been Jewish. In fact, they did not think it was possible to become a Christian without being a Jew. But God surprised them. He prepared Peter with a vision. In a trance he saw heaven open and he was told to kill and eat ‘impure’ and ‘unclean’ animals and birds. His response was, ‘Surely not, Lord!’ (Acts 10:14).
The vision, and God’s voice that accompanied it, challenged Peter not to make distinctions between clean and unclean food (vv.13–15). However, Peter also realised that this vision meant that he should not make distinctions between ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ people – that is, Jewish and non-Jewish people. In tomorrow’s reading, we discover that Peter says, ‘No race is better than any other’ (v.28, MSG).
At the time, it was a mystery. ‘Peter, puzzled, sat there trying to figure out what it all meant’ (v.17, MSG). He did not realise what God was doing. Only later did he understand. God had plans that were far bigger than theirs. The good news of Jesus was not to be confined to the Jewish people – it was for everyone in the world. Thankfully, Peter was open enough to respond to God’s guidance, whether through a vision or even when ‘the Spirit whispered to him’ (v.19, MSG).
Lord, thank you that even if we do not understand some mysteries in this life, we can trust you and know that you always have a reason.
2 Samuel 23:8-24:25
Be mystified by God
This is one of the most mysterious passages in the whole Bible. All seemed to be going well. David had good people around him. He was greatly helped and supported by his three mighty men, as well as a wider inner circle of ‘the Thirty’.
Yet something terrible happened. Who incited David to count his fighting men? In this passage it appears to be God. Yet in the equivalent passage in Chronicles we are told, ‘Satan rose up against Israel and incited David to take a census of Israel’ (1 Chronicles 21:1). This is one of only three times in which Satan is mentioned in the Old Testament.
David apparently knew that what he was doing was wrong (‘because he had counted the people, replacing trust with statistics’, 2 Samuel 24:10, MSG). He was ‘conscience-stricken… and he said to the Lord, “I have sinned greatly in what I have done. Now, O Lord, I beg you, take away the guilt of your servant. I have done a very foolish thing”’ (v.10).
Given the various options, spoken by the prophet Gad, he chose to fall into the hands of the Lord, for ‘his mercy is great’ (v.14). He refused to offer a sacrifice that cost him nothing (v.24). After his sacrifice, ‘the Lord answered prayer on behalf of the land’ (v.25).
There is still much here that is difficult to understand. But the passage finishes on a note of hope and renewed relationship.
Lord, help me to trust you even in the midst of confusion and uncertainty. Thank you that, one day, your wisdom will be fully revealed. Thank you that you are good and that your love endures forever.