The Providence of God | Genesis 42-50
Brian Hedges | March 14, 2021
Let me invite you to turn in your Bibles to the book of Genesis, especially chapter 45, although I’m going to reference things from Genesis 42-50, but we’ll root a lot of our thinking this morning in chapter 45.
While you’re turning there, let me remind you of a film that came out a number of years ago. This was M. Knight Shyamalan’s film called Signs. Anyone seen this film? Okay, most of us have seen this movie. Let me remind you, this is a science fiction thriller; it’s an alien invasion movie, right, but it has something of a twist.
The protagonist of the film is a man who was a priest. His name is Graham Hess—a former priest, actually, who has lost his faith. His wife had been tragically killed in a seemingly random accident, and he’s lost his faith, and he thinks that virtually everything in his life is meaningless. There are all these things that seem random in his life. He has a son with asthma, he has a daughter who has a phobia about drinking water, his brother is a former baseball player. Even the dying words of his wife seem like they had no meaning, made no sense.
Of course, the backdrop of the film is this alien invasion, and he’s lost hope, he has no hope in the world at all. But by the end of the film—this is the climax of the film—everything kind of comes together when they finally encounter the aliens. All of the things in his life that seemed random and meaningless come together to actually save his family and thus save the world from aliens.
He realizes that there was meaning after all, that there was some kind of design, there was some kind of higher power at work behind everything that was happening in his life. So they become signs for him of God’s work, and his faith is restored, and at the end of the film you see him once again in his clerical collar.
It really is a film about the providence of God, although that word is not used. But that’s what it’s about in kind of an artistic way, and that’s what we’re going to talk about this morning, the providence of God.
Now, this is a theological word, this is a churchy word, right, so I think we ought to define it, and then we’re going to see in the story of Joseph and wonderful illustration of it. But what is the providence of God? Let me give you two definitions.
Here’s a simple one that comes from a brand new book by John Piper. Get this: 750 pages. So, if you come out of this message this morning scratching your head and saying, “I’m not sure if I believe that,” you need to read this book, and I think you’ll be convinced by the time you finish. I haven’t read it all, but I’m reading it, and it’s really good. John Piper very simply defines the providence of God as, “God’s act of purposefully providing for or sustaining and governing the world.” That’s a pretty good definition. God provides for, sustains, and governs the world, and he does so with purpose. That’s what we’re talking about in the providence of God.
Here’s a longer definition from the Westminster Confession of Faith, which Piper also quotes. This is Westminster Confession of Faith chapter five, section one.
“God, the creator of all things, doth uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures, actions, and things, from the greatest even to the least, by his most wise and holy providence; according to his infallible foreknowledge and the free and immutable council of his own will, to the praise of the glory of his wisdom, power, justice, goodness, and mercy.” Now that’s a comprehensive definition!
One thing that’s helpful about that definition is that it affirms the full scope of God’s providence, that God governs all things, from the least to the greatest, and that he does so in a way that is consistent with everything in his character. God is good, and listen, he is always good, and his providence is always an expression of his goodness. God is just, and he’s always just. The judge of the earth always does right, and his providence is always consistent with his justice and with his wisdom and with his power, and so on.
If we believe that God is a just God, a wise God, a powerful God, a good God, and a merciful God, then we will therefore believe in the providence of God.
Now, it’s easy to define; it’s harder to discern in our lives, and that’s why the stories in the Bible are so helpful. One of the best stories in the Bible is the story of Joseph. We’ve already started looking at this story in the book of Genesis. Really, Genesis 37-50 is largely devoted to the story of Joseph. We’ve already looked at Joseph for two Sundays, and once again today we’re going to look at the story of Joseph. Let me recap where we’ve been so far.
We saw in Genesis 37 that Joseph was sold by his brothers into slavery. He ends up in Egypt, and when he’s in Egypt he is falsely accused of a crime he did not commit and then imprisoned; that’s Genesis 39. While he’s in prison, he is forgotten by the cupbearer, even after he interprets his dream and asks to be remembered. He’s forgotten for two years; that’s Genesis 40. But he’s finally remembered when Pharaoh, the Pharaoh of Egypt, has these two dreams. The cupbearer remembers this guy in prison who interpreted dreams for him; he remembers Joseph. Joseph comes out of prison, he interprets Pharaoh’s dreams, and he ends up immediately promoted to a position of power. He is essentially the prime minister of Egypt; all of that in Genesis 41.
In Genesis 42, the famine which God had revealed through the dreams—seven years of plenty, seven years of famine—the famine has come in Genesis 42, and two years in to the famine Jacob sends his sons (all of his sons except Benjamin) to Egypt to buy food. That’s where they encounter Joseph for the first time.
Now, they don’t recognize Joseph. Joseph looks thoroughly like an Egyptian by this point. His clothing, his grooming, everything about him; he looks Egyptian. They don’t recognize him, and he’s over 20 years older. So Joseph does not initially reveal himself to his brothers, and in fact, there are two visits. It’s only after the second visit and after a series of events where the brothers begin to reckon with their guilt, their sin against Joseph, they begin to show some repentance—it’s only then that Joseph finally reveals himself to his brothers. He does so after expressing great emotion, weeping, at the beginning of Genesis 45. I just want to pick up in Genesis 45:3 and see what Joseph says to his brothers. I think in Joseph’s words we learn some very important things about the providence of God. So let’s read Genesis 45 beginning in verse 3.
“And Joseph said to his brothers, ‘I am Joseph! Is my father still alive?’ But his brothers could not answer him, for they were dismayed at his presence. So Joseph said to his brothers, ‘Come near to me, please.’ And they came near. And he said, ‘I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years, and there are yet five years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. And God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God.” Stop right there.
This is God’s word.
I want you to see three things about the providence of God: the. mystery of God's providence, God's purposes in his providence, and our response to God's providence.
1. The Mystery of God’s Providence
Now, Scripture teaches that God’s providence embraces all things, as we read in the Westminster Confession of Faith, from the least to the greatest: all creatures, actions, and things. God governs them, disposes, directs, and upholds all things.
I could spend an entire sermon defending that. I’m not going to do that this morning, but you can go back a few months, find the sermon online, “The God Who Reigns” in our series Behold Your God, the series on the attributes of God, and I do make the case for that from the Bible that God reigns over all things, big and small, good and evil. I think Scripture teaches that very, very clearly.
That means that God’s providence concurs with historical events, with the course of nature, and with the freely chosen decisions and actions of human beings. So, for example, in the story of Joseph, that means that God’s providence was overseeing everything that had happened to Joseph, including the famine (that’s a historical event, that’s the course of nature), including everything that is happening in Egypt (that’s a king), and including the sinful actions of his brothers. In all of it God was at work.
The whole story teaches us this, but you see it very definitely here in Genesis 45. Look at this in Genesis 45, and here’s what I want you to see. This is the mystery, okay. The mystery is not that God reigns over all things; the mystery is how God reigns even though there are bad things happening. That’s the mystery. It’s the mystery of how God in his goodness is at work even when there is evil and suffering in the world. That’s the mystery. We can’t fully explain it, but Scripture teaches it.
I think you can see this in Genesis 45 when we read a few verses, and you see two things side by side; these two things are happening simultaneously, so that you see human agency, as human beings are doing things, and you see divine agency as God is at work in the same events. Okay, Genesis 45; I’ve already read it, but let me read verses 4-5 again and then verses 7-8, and I’ll point out the human agency and the divine agency.
Verse 4: “So Joseph said to his brothers, ‘Come near to me, please.’ And they came near. And he said, ‘I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt.’” Human agency. “‘And now, do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here,’” human agency, “‘for God sent me before you to preserve life.’” There’s divine agency.
Drop down to verse 7. “God sent me—” divine agency “—God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God.”
Do you see it? Human agency on one hand, divine agency on the other. Three times Joseph says, “It was God; God sent me here.”
Listen, that does not in any way exonerate Joseph’s brothers for their sin. It doesn’t, but it does mean that God’s will was decisive and determinative in it all. As Joseph later says in Genesis 50, what they intended for evil God intended for good.
This is the mystery, is how those two things exist simultaneously, concurrently, at the same time; how God is working in bad and in evil circumstances, and how God remains good.
Jerry Bridges wrote a book a number of years ago called Trusting God Even when Life Hurts. Bridges said there are two mistakes we make about the providence of God. I’ll just paraphrase him.
He said the first mistake is that we sometimes only attribute good things to God’s providence, and not the difficult things. So, we will talk about our blessings and say, you know, “In God’s providence he blessed me, so that when I was in college I met this wonderful girl and we got married, and we’ve had a wonderful marriage, and it was all the providence of God.” Well, that’s true, that’s right, but God’s providence was also involved in the most difficult things in your life, but we don’t tend to talk that way. We don’t tend to say, “When I was driving downtown and I went through this green light and somebody turned in front of me and we had a head-on collision,” we don’t say that that was the providence of God. But when you look at everything Scripture says, it’s actually right to think of all these events, including the bad ones, as being governed by God’s providence. That’s the first mistake, attributing only good events, not bad.
The second mistake is when we think of God’s providence as an intervention into our lives rather than a constant reality, as if God’s providence only works sometimes, when the reality is that God’s always working, he’s working at all times in his providence. Again, we see this in the story of Joseph.
Now, here’s the problem. Because we do not think this way, we often are blind to what God is doing in our lives, so we mistake God’s work, and we see trials without discerning the goodness of God in and through those trials. You see an illustration of this in Jacob. Jacob is Joseph’s father, and it’s really interesting, the contrast between Joseph’s perspective and Jacob’s perspective. Joseph clearly sees the hand of God; Jacob in Genesis 42 doesn’t.
In Genesis 42, when his sons return from Egypt the first time and they still don’t know that they’ve been dealing with Joseph; Joseph has kept Simeon as a hostage, and he’s demanding that their youngest brother, Benjamin, be brought back to Egypt. The brothers come back, they give this report to Jacob, and this is how Jacob responds in Genesis 42:36.
“Jacob their father said to them, ‘You have bereaved me of my children; Joseph is no more and Simeon is no more, and now you would take Benjamin. All this has come against me.’”
Now, you see how he’s mistaken. He thinks Joseph is dead; he’s actually not. He thinks Simeon is dead; he’s actually not. He thinks Benjamin is going to die; he’s actually not. He says, “All these things are against me!” The reality was all these things were actually working for him. He just couldn’t see it! He couldn’t see it; his perspective was limited.
I ran across a wonderful illustration a few years ago, and this had to do with the neurologist Oliver Sacks, who was a British neurologist. He tells a story about a woman he worked with who was this wonderful, intelligent, articulate, charming woman, but she had suffered a stroke that had affected the back regions of her brain, that left her with a deficit mentally in terms of her perception. The effect of the stroke was that she could not perceive anything on the left side of her body, in her left side field of vision.
That meant that she could not pick up objects with her left hand; it meant that when she put on makeup she would only put makeup on the right side of her face; it meant that when she was eating she would only eat the food on the right side of her plate! If people turned the plate, then she would eat the other side. She just could not perceive anything on the left, and it was a perception problem. It’s not that things weren’t there; she just couldn’t perceive it.
I read that, and I thought, you know, I think spiritually that’s what happens to us. We perceive the hand of God on the right, we perceive God’s hand in our blessings, but we do not perceive God’s hand in our trials. Why? Because of a spiritual blindness, because of unbelief, because we’re not able to see it.
That was Jacob’s case. He says, “All these things are against me,” when really, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” Jacob did not see that God was for him.
Spurgeon preached a sermon on that verse, those words of Jacob, and in the way that only Spurgeon could put it he said this: “Now usually our unbelief is a great liar,” and he points out all the things that Jacob said that are wrong. “Our best things are reckoned by unbelief to be our worst. God sends his mercies to us in black envelopes, and we sit down crying over their dismal covering and dare not open the letter and read the heavenly new written within.”
Only Spurgeon could put it that way, but that’s the reality. Our blessings come wrapped up in trials! Sometimes the very worst things that are happening in our lives are actually just a covering, a disguise for the good that God wants to do in our hearts and in our lives through the difficulty. God is working all things together for good for those who love him, who are called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28). Jacob didn’t see that, and often we don’t see that in our lives.
We need to heed the words of the old hymn-writer William Cowper:
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust him for his grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.
His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding every hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flower.
The mystery of God’s providence. We don’t understand how it all works together, but when we trust the goodness of God, then we can discern his heart, we can discern his wisdom. That leads us to consider what his purpose might be.
2. God's Purposes in His Providence
What are the purposes of God in his providence? That’s point number two. What are those purposes?
Well, they are more than we could ever fully understand. God is doing a million things in the world that we don’t see, but we can discern some things. Again, the stories are helpful, and this story in particular, because we can see the whole story and we can see some of the things that God was doing. Let me point them out.
First of all, we could say deliverance was part of God’s purpose; deliverance for Jacob, Israel, and for the children of Israel. Deliverance from famine, and also that meant preservation of the covenant family and therefore of the promised seed.
You see that again in Genesis 45:5-7. You see this now, as I’m going to read these same verses again; before I stress God’s agency, now look at the purpose, the intent behind God’s agency.
“And now, do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life.” There’s the purpose. Why did God send Joseph? To preserve life. He was providing for the children of Israel during this famine. Verse 7, “God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to keep alive for you many survivors.” That means preservation for the family, but it’s not just preservation for them there, in that moment, but it’s preservation for the family so as to secure the promised seed, the Messiah, who eventually will be born through this family, the descendant of Jacob through Judah. So God is doing something immediately in this family, preserving their lives, and he’s working out his grand promises of redemption.
God is working—do you see this?—on the macro level, large-scale redemption for the world; and he’s working on the micro level, providing for this family through the trials and through the circumstances. Deliverance. That’s part of God’s purpose.
God was also working in their hearts and in their lives, and we see this in the story of Joseph’s brothers. When they come to Joseph, he doesn’t reveal himself immediately. In fact, he plays some tricks on them. He’s not being malicious. You know, he puts the silver back in their sacks, the silver that they used to pay for the grain; he puts it back in their sacks, and he puts the silver cup in Benjamin’s sack. Why is he doing all this? He holds them in custody for several days when they first arrive, then he holds Simeon as a hostage.
You might wonder, “What is Joseph trying to do?” I think he is very intentionally and systematically working to bring about a conviction of sin in the hearts of his brothers. That’s what’s going on.
This is indeed what happens, and you see this in chapter 42:21-24. “Then they said to one another,” these are the brothers, “‘In truth, we are guilty concerning our brother, in that we saw the distress of his soul when he begged us and we did not listen. This is why this distress has come upon us.’” You see what’s happening? Their current circumstances are reminding them of their past sins, and they’re beginning to feel conviction. You can read it for yourself and see how this works itself out.
You also see it in the story of Judah in chapter 44, where Judah actually comes to a point of real transformation. I mentioned that a few weeks ago, but in chapter 44 he actually comes to the point where he is willing to substitute himself for Benjamin, to take Benjamin’s place. Now, that’s a major character development on the part of Judah. Why? Because God is working in Judah’s life, and he’s working through these circumstances.
Now, the lesson for us is simply this, that in our circumstances, in our trials, in our difficulties, God is also working in our lives. One of the things he wants to do is bring about repentance. He wants to convict us of our sins—he chastens us for our sins, Hebrews 12 says—and why does he do that? So that we might share in his holiness. He has a good purpose even through the difficult things that we experience. If we can see that, if we can discern that, the goodness of God in our trials, it will give us hope even in our darkest moments.
William Cowper, once again, put it well. This is a different poem, but I think beautifully put. He says,
’Tis my happiness below
Not to live without the cross,
But the Savior’s power to know,
Sanctifying every loss.
Trials must and will befall,
But with humble faith to see
Love inscribed upon them all;
This is happiness to me.
Trials make the promise sweet,
Trials give new life to prayer,
Trials bring me to his feet,
Lay me low, and keep me there.
Did I meet no trials here,
No chastisement by the way,
Might I not with reason fear
I should prove a castaway?
Bastards may escape the rod,
Sunk in earthly, vain delight;
But the trueborn child of God
Must not, would not, if he might.
Don’t wish away your trials. Your trials show God’s faithfulness to you, they show God’s goodness to you. God disciplines every child whom he receives, and he does it so that you might share in his holiness. He’s making you more like Christ.
Thomas Watson, a Puritan, said, “God’s rod is God’s pencil to draw the image of Christ more fully upon us.” He’s making you like Christ, and he’s using your difficulties to do it. So don’t wish away your trials.
God has good purposes on the macro level, on the micro level; purposes of deliverance, of provision, of chastening, of conviction, of repentance; and of our holiness and our Christlikeness.
3. Our Response to God’s Providence
How, then, should we respond to God’s providence? This is point number three. How do we respond?
The short answer is we respond by trusting him—trusting his goodness, trusting his wisdom, trusting his grace—and by forgiving those who sin against us. That’s the particular rub in this story.
Forgiveness is an important theme in Genesis. John Lennox in his excellent book on Joseph points out, “The sheer importance of forgiveness in God’s eyes is shown by the fact that it’s the principal topic in eight chapters, whereas the description of creation takes up only two.” Two chapters on creation, Genesis 1-2; but forgiveness is the theme of Genesis 42-50. So forgiveness is important. It’s one of the most basic aspects of Christian living, that we forgive those who sin against us.
Now, as Lennox shows, there are two aspects to forgiveness. There’s an internal and there’s an external. The internal aspect is the refusal to hold bitterness in our hearts, to hold onto malice and ill-will and bitterness so that we want to hurt those who have hurt us. A Christian is always called to turn away from that internal bitterness and to in our hearts release the matter to God. That is one aspect of forgiveness. We forgive from our hearts those who have sinned against us.
There is also an external aspect of this, which is when sometimes we actually extend pardon, forgiveness in an external way, to those who have sinned against us. I think the whole teaching of Scripture would say that we do that when there is repentance.
Now, I just want to say, because some of you have suffered some really awful things. Some of you have been very badly treated. You’ve suffered injustice or abuse, maybe even crimes have been committed against you. If that’s true, first of all, I’m just so sorry that that’s happened, and I can relate to some degree, because I’ve experienced personal betrayal. I’ve been through things where I’ve been treated unfairly, and I know the sting, I know the hurt that you feel from that.
If that happens to you, it’s wrong that it has happened, and yet we can trust that God in his providence was still at work. We can trust that, we can trust the goodness of God, and we should forgive from our hearts those who sinned against us. But there are occasions where that does not mean removal of all the consequences of sin. For example, if someone committed a crime against you, it is right that they be prosecuted, it is right that justice be done according to the law. What is wrong is for you to take justice into your own hands, okay? Understand that qualification, that nuance, as we think about forgiveness.
I want you to see Joseph here as a model of forgiveness, and I want to go to chapter 50:15-21 to see this. What I especially want you to see is that Joseph’s forgiveness of his brothers is directly grounded in his confidence in the goodness of God and in the providence of God.
Genesis 50:15: “When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead—” Okay, this is after Jacob has died. “—they said, ‘It may be that Joseph will hate us and pay us back for all the evil that we did to him.’ So they sent a message to Joseph, saying, ‘Your father gave this command before he died: “Say to Joseph, ‘Please forgive the transgression of your brothers and their sin, because they did evil to you.’” And now, please forgive the transgression of the servants of the God of your father.’ Joseph wept when they spoke to him.” He still feels the pain, okay? He wept when they spoke to him, but listen to what he says.
“His brothers also came and fell down before him and said, ‘Behold, we are your servants.’ But Joseph said to them, ‘Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. So do not fear. I will provide for you and your little ones.’ Thus he comforted them and spoke kindly to them.”
Do you see it? He forgives his brothers, and why does he do it? Because of his deep trust in the goodness of God. “You meant it for evil; God meant it for good.” So, instead of revenge, instead of punishment, instead of vengeance, instead of hatred, anger, malice, all of the negative things that might be coming out of Joseph at this moment—instead of that, what we see is kindness, comfort, and forgiveness.
Now listen, that’s supernatural. That’s supernatural! That is a miracle for someone to be able to respond that way, and that is not how these kinds of stories usually go.
In contrast, you might think of another rags to riches story, another story of prison to a position of power. Do you remember The Count of Monte Cristo? Have you ever seen the movie or read the book? You have Edmond Dantes, and he is falsely accused of treason, and all these people have conspired against him. He’s in prison, he’s thrown into that terrible prison, the Chateau d’If. It’s only as he meets this priest who teaches him in philosophy and helps him escape from prison, and he’s led to this great treasure, and he becomes the count of Monte Cristo, with all this wealth and all this power.
What does Edmond Dantes then do? He coldly calculates a plan to take vengeance on all of his enemies. Just Google the most famous revenge stories of all time, and The Count of Monte Cristo is right there near the top.
Joseph’s story is very different. Not a revenge story, but a forgiveness story, and it is forgiveness that is grounded in the providence of God.
Brothers and sisters, some of you, perhaps, need to hear this today, because it may be that you’re holding onto something that you’ve been harboring for a long time, bitterness eating away at your heart, and you need to release it. You need to let it go. How do you do that? The only way you can do that is by trusting in the goodness of God.
Listen, if we lived in a world where there was no God and there was no justice, it might make sense to want to take justice into your own hands. Even in that kind of world, doing so—taking justice into your own hands—would destroy you. It always does. Taking vengeance into your own hands always destroys you. There’s no other way through it.
But we have higher motives, don’t we? We have higher motives for forgiveness, because not only do we believe in the providence of God and the goodness of God, but we ourselves have been forgiven! We are told in Scripture (Ephesians 4:32) to “be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ [forgave] you.” So there’s a call for us to be forgiving, as we have been forgiven.
Now, I know it’s one thing for me to say that; it’s another thing for someone to actually do that who has been through horrific circumstances. So I want to let someone else speak into this. Many of you will know this story. It’s the story of Corrie ten Boom. Maybe you’ve read that wonderful book The Hiding Place. Corrie ten Boom was a wonderful woman of faith, and she was imprisoned in the Nazi death camps during World War II. She was in Ravensbruck. Her sister was imprisoned there with her and died when she was in the concentration camp, but Corrie survived.
She went on to have a very vibrant ministry talking about her experiences, and she wrote this wonderful book, The Hiding Place. She tells the story about after speaking in some kind of event when one of the guards from the Nazi concentration camp came up to speak to her and ask for her forgiveness. I’m just going to read what she said. It’s really compelling.
“That’s when I saw him,” she said, “working his way forward against the others. One moment I saw the overcoat and the brown hat, the next a blue uniform and a visored cap with its skull and crossbones. It came back with a rush. The place was Ravensbruck, and the man who was making his way forward had been a guard, one of the most cruel guards. Now he was in front of me, hand thrust out. ‘A fine message, Fraulein! How good it is to know that, as you say, all our sins are at the bottom of the sea.’
“And I, who had spoken so glibly of forgiveness, fumbled in my pocketbook rather than take that hand. He would not remember me, of course. How could he remember one prisoner among those thousands of women? But I remembered him. I was face to face with one of my captors, and my blood seemed to freeze.
“‘You mentioned Ravensbruck in your talk,’ he was saying. ‘I was a guard in there.’ No, he did not remember me. ‘But since that time,’ he went on, ‘I have become a Christian. I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well, Fraulein.’ Again the hand came out. ‘Will you forgive me?’
“I stood there, I whose sins had again and again been forgiven, and could not forgive. Betsy had died in that place. Could he erase her slow, terrible death simply for the asking? It cannot have been many seconds that he stood there, hand held out, but to me it seemed hours as I wrestled with the most difficult thing I had ever had to do. For I had to do it; I knew that. The message that God forgives has a prior condition: that we forgive those who have injured us. ‘If you do not forgive men their trespasses,’ Jesus says, ‘neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses.’ I knew it not only as a commandment of God, but as a daily experience. Since the end of the war, I had had a home in Holland for victims of Nazi brutality. Those who were able to forgive their former enemies were able to return to the outside world and rebuild their lives, no matter what the physical scars. Those who nursed their bitterness remained invalids. It was as simple and as horrible as that. And still I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart.”
You might wonder, how did she get through? Listen carefully.
“But forgiveness is not an emotion; I knew that, too. Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart. ‘Jesus, help me,’ I prayed silently. ‘I can lift my hand; I can do that much. You supply the feeling.’ So, woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me, and as I did an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands, and then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes. ‘I forgive you, brother!’ I cried with all my heart.
“For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely as I did then.”
To forgive those who have sinned against you is impossible apart from grace, but it is possible when Christ helps you. If that’s where you are this morning, look to him right now.
Brothers and sisters, our confidence that God, even through these difficult things that we experience, our confidence that God is good is seen when we look at the very climax of human history in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. We can see it in the story of Joseph; I hope that’s been clear to you, to see human agency (man intending things for evil), divine agency (God intending it for good), but I want to end by showing you that this is also the case in the cross, in the crucifixion.
One of the places you see this most clearly is in the book of Acts. One more passage of Scripture, Acts 4. The early Christians are being persecuted, they gather for prayer, and the way they pray is simply amazing. They are reflecting on Psalm 2, they are reflecting on the crucifixion of Christ, and they are looking to God and his sovereign purposes. This is what they say, Acts 4:24-28. As I read it, watch for human agency and divine agency.
“And when they heard it, they lifted their voices together to God and said, ‘Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them, who through the mouth of our father David, your servant, said by the Holy Spirit, “Why did the Gentiles rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves and the rulers were gathered together against the Lord and against his anointed.” For truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed [here’s the human agency], both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.’” There’s the divine agency. So they bring their hearts to God and pray for the fullness of his Spirit.
You know what that passage is telling us? It is showing us that Jesus Christ, when he died on the cross, when he suffered at the hands of wicked men; Jesus Christ, who suffered the worst wickedness, the worst injustice, the greatest sins possible, ever committed in the history of the human race; here is Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only fully, completely righteous who’s ever lived; he suffers the worst possible death by execution, terrible injustice. It is the worst thing that ever happened, and in it God is doing his greatest work of redemption.
If that’s true—if in the cross we can see the convergence of human sin and wickedness and the good, wise, saving purposes of God, then surely in our own trials and sufferings we can see that there is a good God who mysteriously, in ways we don’t fully understand, a good God who is working out his good purposes, and we can trust him, and we can forgive those who sin against us.
Brothers and sisters, look to God this morning, trust his providence, trust his grace, look to the cross, and believe his word. Let’s pray.
Our gracious God, we are treading this morning on difficult ground in your word and in our own experiences. Some of us have suffered and endured things that no human being should endure. And yet your word tells us that you are working in all things and you’re working for the good of those who love you and are called according to your purpose. We pray this morning for eyes of faith to see your goodness, to discern your work on not just our right hand in the realm of our blessings, but to discern your work on the left in our trials, in our difficulties, in our suffering, in our tribulations. We thank you for the cross, we thank you that in that moment of injustice and inhumanity and wickedness and sin that you were displaying your wisdom and your goodness and your power and mercy in ways that would change the course of human history; that you were redeeming a people for yourself; that you were saving us through the crucified one. My prayer this morning is that we would look at all the circumstances of our lives throug the lens given to us by the cross.
Lord, give grace this morning for those who need to release bitterness and forgive others. I pray that they would be able to do that right now, and to do so because of their trust in you. They may not understand why, but if they can trust your heart, trust your goodness and your wisdom; Lord, give them that help right now.
I pray for those who do not know Christ, that you would give the gifts of saving faith and repentance. I pray for all of us as we come to the Lord’s table this morning. May we come with faith. May we see in the emblems of bread and juice, may we see the broken body and the spilled blood of Jesus portrayed for us there. May we come, and as we take these elements into our bodies, may we also by faith take hold of Jesus Christ, who is the bread of life, and may he nourish our hearts and our souls. Lord, we need you. We thank you for your word, we thank you for your grace. We pray now for your Spirit to work. We pray it in Jesus’ name, amen.