You intended to harm me, but God intended it all for good. He brought me to this position so I could save the lives of many people (Genesis 50:20 NLT)
When you need comfort, where do you look? What’s your go-to source when you need to know that everything will be ok?
Honestly, I could answer that question with a list. Maybe you could too.
At the top of the list would be people, especially my family. As I write this my wife is down the hall in her familiar morning place. My kids are removed from me by nearly five-hundred miles – but I know where they are, and I know they are well. I take comfort in that. The same can be found in the presence of a trusted friend or a co-worker who functions as your ‘right arm’ day after day. There’s no comfort like a comforting presence, a confident voice, someone next to you at just the right moment.
Further down the list I would add other ordinary comforts. Comfort foods like pot roast and mashed potatoes, a Chick-fil-A sandwich, or chili on a cold night. These days I find comfort in a favorite sweatshirt and old blue jeans, a fire in the fireplace and a good book. You get the idea.
All of these are gifts from God given for our enjoyment. But let’s raise the stakes just a bit. If you had to choose one thing from your list, a singular source of comfort above all others, what would it be?
Our Only Comfort
Bear with me for a short history lesson. In 1562 a group of theologians were commissioned to write a unifying statement of faith for the German people. The work they produced in 1563 is known to us as ‘The Heidelberg Catechism’ and we Presbyterians still make use of it to this very day. A catechism teaches the basics of the faith through a series of questions and answers, making it suitable for children to study and memorize (we Presbyterians don’t do that anymore).
The Heidelberg opens with this question: ‘What is your only comfort in life and in death?’
Pastor-professor Kevin DeYoung explains that the word ‘comfort’ translates the German word ‘trost’ which is connected to our English word ‘trust.’ Where do you place your trust? What do you look to above all things to secure your well-being, your peace of mind and heart?
The catechism answers: Our only comfort is the knowledge that we belong to our savior Jesus Christ and that we are set free from the tyranny of sin by his death on the cross.
Then we read these words: Jesus who died for me ‘also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven. In fact, all things must work together for my salvation.’
Read that last sentence again. Slowly. And then ask yourself, ‘do I believe this is true of my life?’
The ‘S’ Word
Some years ago, as I was teaching through parts of the Heidelberg, a woman in the class interrupted me at this point. Those words about a hair not falling from your head without God’s will bothered her. She wasn’t buying it. I knew some of her story – a story filled with heartache – and I wasn’t surprised by her resistance to this idea. She placed the events of her life alongside these words of the Heidelberg, and she couldn’t hold the two together.
What we’re talking about here is God’s sovereignty. The idea that God in power and goodness governs all things, and that all things ‘must work together for my salvation.’ The catechism tells us that this is a source of comfort. For many people, however, this is not comforting at all. It’s confusing.
If God can stop tragedy and pain and suffering, then why doesn’t he stop it?
If God can bestow blessing and healing and wholeness, then why won’t he give it?
You might wonder, if God is truly in charge, then why is this world so screwed up? And why is my life such a mess? And why are people I love hurting? The words of the Heidelberg might not comfort you at all. They might just make you mad, bitter.
More than You Know
I won’t even begin to try to defend or explain the sovereignty of God. I’m not capable, and this reflection is already long. What I will do is invite you to listen closely to the story of Joseph. You can easily read his entire story in one sitting (Genesis 37-50). Pay close attention to what happened to him. Ponder what God is teaching us through his life. There’s plenty of heartache in Joseph’s story, plenty of reasons he could have become a bitter and despairing person. That’s not what happened.
Be very careful about drawing conclusions about your life or about God based on what’s happening to you today. Things are not always what they appear. More is happening than you know. God’s guidance and governance of your life doesn’t depend on your grasp of the hows and whys. No, this mystery is rooted in his love and grace.
You belong to him. He is on your side. And there’s great comfort in that.
Comforting God, remind me today that my life is firmly in your hand, that you are watching over and guiding my steps. I won’t pretend that this truth is always easily embraced. But even in my questions I will look to you as my hope and strength, come what may. I offer this prayer through Jesus my savior. Amen.