by: Denise Robinson
God Moves in Mysterious Ways
Isaiah 55:3-9; Jeremiah 9:23-24; Prov. 8:17; Rev. 3:20
We’ve begun a sermon series looking at popular sayings people assume can be found in the Bible. We began last week with “God helps those who help themselves” and this morning we focus on the saying, “God moves (or works) in mysterious ways.” These words are actually from a hymn written by William Cowper in 1774. The first stanza says: “God moves in mysterious ways/ His wonders to perform. / He plants his footsteps in the sea / And rides upon the storm.” We’ll learn more about Mr. Cowper later.
Practically speaking, this statement is often intended in several ways. It may be an expression of praise after something so miraculous has happened that it can’t be explained in human terms. Or, more often, it may be shared as a hollow explanation when troubling circumstances come into our lives or something inexplicable happens. We shrug and say “God moves….” It may also be used as an excuse for not seeking to know or understand God – after all, God’s mysterious, so why try? But what does the Bible really say and what is the truth?
For the answer, let’s look at Isaiah 55:8-9. Taken on their own, these verses appear to say that God does move in mysterious ways. God says, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, my ways are not your ways. As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” The Apostle Paul says of God in Romans 11:33-34: “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God. How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord?” But just because God’s ways and thoughts are different and higher than ours, does it mean God moves or works in mysterious ways? To answer this question, let’s explore three important facets of who God is and how God relates to us:
1. GOD’S WAYS AND THOUGHTS MIGHT BE MYSTERIOUS, BUT THAT DOESN’T MEAN WE CAN’T KNOW GOD
Isaiah 55 speaks of the majesty and mystery of God. But while God’s thoughts may not be our thoughts and God’s ways are not our ways, v. 3 invites us to incline our ear and come to God and listen and v. 6 commands us to seek God while he may be found and reminds us that God is near to us. Why should we come to God, seek him, and listen if we can never understand God?
In his book Miracles, C. S. Lewis compares our human talk about God to shellfish talking to each other about humans. Let’s listen as a mystical clam catches a glimpse of a human and attempts to share his vision with his fellow clams. He begins by telling them how unlike themselves humans are. Humans have no shells; they aren’t attached to rocks; and they do not live surrounded by water. Those three dynamics, shells, rocks, and water are important to clams, so the clam begins to have a negative image of a human. Lewis writes, “Uncorrected by any positive insight, they build up a picture of man as a sort of amorphous jelly (no shell) existing nowhere in particular (no rocks); and never eating (because there’s no water). A clam might conclude that man is nothing more than a ‘famished jelly existing in a dimension-less void.’”
Lewis says in the same way our human limitations prevent us from thinking and talking correctly about God. We think more about how God is not like us instead of focusing on who God is. And yet, God reveals aspects of Himself to us in the Bible. And the Bible says while God is majestic and mysterious, we can seek God and know God. Isaiah is not the only one to tell us that God is not playing some kind of cosmic game of “hide and seek,” but wants to have a relationship with us. In Proverbs 8:17, God says: “I love those who love me, and those who seek me diligently find me.”
The secret of how we can know God is found in Isaiah 55:6-7. Our founder, John Wesley, is said to have preached on these two verses over 200 times. What are the requirements to knowing God? First, seek God. We have an obligation to seek – to study, worship, pray. God is near and waiting, but knowledge of God isn’t just going to call into our laps. Prov. 8:17 further hints that this process of seeking may not be easy; we are to seek diligently. Second, we have to abandon our way of living and our way of thinking, and rely on God’s mercy and forgiveness. Our way of living and thinking tells us that we can succeed on our own power and intellect. But we won’t find God that way. We have to seek God on God’s terms, waiting as God reveals more and more to us through our study and prayer.
2. KNOWING GOD DOESN’T MEAN FULLY UNDERSTANDING GOD’S WAYS
While the Bible tells us that we can know God, the problem for us is that God is so majestic that our finite minds can never fully comprehend all there is to know. If you ever hear someone say, “I’ve got God figured out” you know they’re wrong. God’s greatness is mind-boggling. Look at the stars and planets for example. The Psalmist writes in Ps. 8:3-4: “When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon, and the stars, which you have set in place. What is man that you are mindful of him?” In the same breath that the psalmist sees the greatness of God’s creative power, the psalmist also sees the love that God has for us as God’s creation. It seems that God can’t keep his mind off of us!
Does that make sense to you, that the God who created the universe and everything in it, thinks about you on a personal level? In our human relationships, it doesn’t often work that way. Our friends, the people we socialize with, are usually fairly similar to us in our educational level, our work history, our standard of living, our hobbies, our race, our gender, and our personal circumstances. All the stereotypes seem to come with some truth. The poor are uncomfortable around the rich and the rich around the poor. Those who are married or have children hang out with people like them. The highly educated don’t mix well with the high school dropouts. We gravitate toward people like us. We divide ourselves – and that carries over, if only subconsciously, onto our conception of God. We limit what we can know and understand of God by boxing ourselves away from God. And yet God says in Rev. 3:20: “I am standing at the door knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.” When you sit down and eat with someone, you get to know them better.
J.B. Phillips writes about this in his book, Your God is Too Small. We speak of God in lofty and splendid terms – and then place God beyond our reach and understanding. We think that the one who is responsible for the vastness of the universe can’t possibly be interested in our insignificant lives. We may feel that God is so huge and we are so minute by comparison, that we cannot conceive God taking detailed interest in a single human life. But just because we can’t imagine that God is that interested in each of us personally, that doesn’t mean it’s not true; it simply means that our minds are incapable of grasping the concept. We are limiting God to our imagination – building up our mental picture of God from our knowledge and experience of ourselves. We are modeling God upon ourselves and making God too small.
3. THE TRUTH IS, GOD HAS REVEALED THE MYSTERY!
If you look at bestselling novels and the highest ranked shows on television, you quickly realize that we love a good mystery. According to my scientific survey (AKA Google search), the current top bestselling books include books by John Grisham, Nora Roberts, Tom Clancy, and Brit Bennett – all of whom write suspense novels. The current top rated television shows, after we eliminate sports, include NCIS, FBI, Blue Bloods, Chicago Fire, and Chicago PD. It seems we like to be challenged to figure out who done it or how it got done. Many of us think of God in the same way. We think God’s ways are so mysterious they are beyond our understanding. It’s true that in the Bible, God often did the unexpected. For instance, instead of using Moses when he was 40 years old, God waited until Moses was 80 – by our standards, that’s rather mystifying! As we learned a couple weeks ago, instead of using Gideon’s army of 32,000 soldiers, God told Gideon to whittle his ranks down until only 300 soldiers remained –that seems rather strange. And, instead of having the Messiah born in a great palace, Jesus was born to a peasant girl in a stable. God, it seems, specializes in the unexpected.
While much of what God does may qualify as mysterious, the Bible teaches that God has chosen to reveal the mystery to us. The Bible says in Colossians 1:26: “The mystery that has been hidden throughout the ages and generations has now been revealed to his saints (which means to all who believe in Christ). To them God chose to make known how great are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” When we look at Christ’s life, we understand how God moves. God’s ways may not always make sense to us, but God does not move in mysterious ways. God’s ways and thoughts and actions are consistent with God’s very nature. And God’s nature is love. “For God so loved the world that he sent His Son.”
Remember our friend, William Cowper? The one who wrote, “God moves in mysterious ways.” Here’s the rest of the story. Cowper was born into a pastor’s home and trained to be a lawyer, but he was held back due to struggles with bouts of depression and anxiety. At the age of 28, he had an opportunity to be hired as an accountant for the House of Lords, but when he came before them to be interviewed, he froze. He sank so far into depression he made three attempts to commit suicide and was admitted to an insane asylum. Although he knew about God, Cowper was deathly afraid he was lost. While in the asylum, he began to read the Bible and gain a greater understanding about God’s nature. He also started writing poetry. One evening, feeling lonely and depressed, Cowper decided to jump into the Thames River to drown. He called for a cab and directed the horseman to drop him off at a certain dock, but on the way to the dock the fog became so dense that the driver couldn’t even find the river. After wandering around aimlessly for over an hour, Cowper told the driver to stop, and let him out. The coach stopped and Cowper was surprised to find that in the fog, the driver had made a circle and he was right back in front of the door to his flat. Cowper concluded that God had a hand in the fog, and he never attempted suicide again. Not long after that evening, he penned the words: “God moves in mysterious ways; His wonders to perform. He plants his footsteps in the sea and rides upon the storm. Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take; the clouds ye so much dread – are big with mercy and shall break in blessings on your head. Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, but trust Him for His grace; behind a frowning providence He hides a smiling face.” Although he struggled for all of his life, Cowper wrote other lyrics we still sing today: “There is a fountain filled with blood, drawn from Emmanuel’s veins; and sinners plunged beneath its flow lose all their guilty stains.” Another verse of that wonderful hymn ends with these words: “Redeeming Love has been my theme; and shall be ‘till I die!”
What we can know about God is summed up in Jeremiah 9:23-24: “Thus says the Lord: Do not let the wise boast in their wisdom, do not let the mighty boast in their might, do not let the wealthy boast in their wealth; but let those who boast, boast in this, that they understand and know me, that I am the Lord; I act with steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth, for in these things I delight, says the Lord.” We may not always grasp God’s ways or God’s thoughts. We may make God in our image and make him too small. We may place God so far above us that we wonder how he could ever care for us personally. But while we run around in circles and get caught up in our doubts and fears, God’s character is unchanging: when God moves, he acts with love, justice, and righteousness. God is good all the time and all the time (God is good). Amen.