Thanksgiving is a natural time to take inventory of the last year, recounting all that God has tangibly done for us. If you’re like me, your mind migrates toward the obvious, seen gifts of physical provision, health, family, answers to prayer, and so on. We certainly ought to thank God for these things. The Bible commands to do so!
But there is a host of unseen realities for which we as Christians and ministers of the gospel should be immensely grateful. These spiritual realities are the eternally shaped pillars of our ministry. They remind us that our God has not left us without resources. He has not hung us out to dry. He didn’t call us to ministry and then leave us on our own.
Instead, He is for us. He is on our side. He is always working, always active, always pushing toward a glorious and meticulously calculated end. These are the realities that remind us that we are swept up into a redemptive drama that has played out over the stage of history, a drama in which we are now privileged to play a small role.
I’d like to reflect on two such realities as a means of praising God for His goodness to me. Truth be told, these thoughts are not incredibly profound, and they’re certainly not unique to me. But I pray that through this reflection the Lord might lift your eyes to heaven and cause your heart to sing.
God’s plans are better than mine.
Proverbs 16:9 reminds us, “The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps.”
Our plans change all the time. Often, as soon as we set our plans we’re forced to adjust them. That’s the case for all humans, not just for followers of Jesus! But a distinctively Christian reality is that overriding all our best-laid plans is our King’s superintending providence. James echoes Proverbs in instructing us not to boast about tomorrow, but to submit all future plans to the Lord’s sovereign will (James 4:13).
This is Christianity 101: God is sovereign, and we are not. It almost seems like a trivial or redundant point to make. But this truth takes special importance when the very ground on which we stand seems to shift underneath us. When our world is turned upside down. When things that we thought to be true suddenly aren’t.
I don’t view myself as a grizzled ministry veteran, but even through the few years of service that the Lord has given me, he’s taught me this reality through the crucible of experience. He’s even taught me afresh this year. He altered my course by changing my circumstances. He took me on what seemed like a road detour through the fog. And yet through it all, God has remained faithful, even when I did not.
Sometimes it’s plain how God’s purposes bring about a far better result than I could’ve planned. The Lord makes it painfully obvious how finite my capabilities are and how infinite His are. He lifts something obviously, tangibly beautiful from the ashes.
But sometimes God’s purposes are not plain. Sometimes God’s purposes are mysterious, forcing me to peer into the shadows through eyes of faith. I’m left to trust God because He’s God, not because I understand His ways. It’s often in these times that God gets His best work done. He’s reshaping my heart even as He’s reshaping my plans.
As ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ, we must first soak our plans in prayer before we set out. Otherwise, we’re operating practically as if we’re God and He is not. Then once we set our course, we must hold our plans with an open hand, resolving that God’s ways are indeed better than ours. We must trust that God packs His purposes with infinite wisdom, goodness, and love. Although course detours may frustrate us in the moment, we can be confident that He is working all things for our good and for His glory (Rom 8:28-29).
Ultimately, our Father is in the process of conforming us to the image of His Son through the work of His Spirit, and that should be enough for us. We may only notice one or two ways that God is working, but He is working in billions of ways that escape our gaze! We may look at our frustrated plans and see loose, random strands, but we can be confident that these strands are part of a tapestry of grace woven together by our sovereign God.
So, with thankful hearts, we trust in our Father’s good hand to guide us, our Savior’s promise to intercede for us, and the Spirit’s commitment to strengthen us.
Praise to the Lord, who o’er all things so wondrously reigneth,
Shelters thee under His wings, yea so gently sustaineth.
Has thou not seen how thy desires e’er have been granted in what He ordaineth?1
The gospel is not bound.
Paul wrote to Timothy, Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David, as preached in my gospel, for which I am suffering, bound with chains as a criminal. But the word of God is not bound (2 Tim 2:9)!
In other words, the gospel of Jesus Christ is not limited by our circumstances. As we trust in God’s sovereign grace in our lives, we are assured that His purposes are oriented toward the advance and growth of His gospel around the world. As His gospel people, we’re confident that the strongest hellish defense cannot withstand the onward march of the church.
Paul’s imprisonment gave him an additional platform from which to share the gospel with others. He marveled to the Philippians that the imperial guard heard the good news of Jesus due to his incarceration (Phil 1:21). At another time, when all seemed to abandon him during his indictment before the court, Paul confessed that the Lord stood with him so that the Gentiles might continue to hear the saving message of Jesus Christ (2 Tim 4:17). The gospel of Jesus is not bound by our circumstances.
In my role with Reaching & Teaching, I regularly rub shoulders with missionaries who, like Paul, are seeking to take the gospel to the world’s hard places. Over this past year, I’ve watched the Lord close doors of ministry to some of them due to government hostility to the gospel, only to open other opportunities for Reaching & Teaching in that same country and opportunities for the missionary in another country. The gospel is not bound!
I’ve interacted with missionaries forced to return to the States due to difficult family circumstances, only to watch the Lord open new pathways of ministry for them here and fresh pathways of ministry to their former teammates on the field. The gospel is not bound!
I’ve watched other missionaries walk through deep waters and suffer unspeakable grief. And yet they’ve come out on the other side more refined, more resolute, and even more fruitful in ministry. The Lord used the seeds of pain to grant a harvest of righteousness. Praise God, His gospel is not bound!
While these circumstances were part of God’s sovereign purposes, I believe that each of them likely included spiritual warfare, where the enemy sought to derail the work of the gospel and drive gospel ministers to despair. But notice Paul’s words to Timothy above: Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David.
Not only must Satan’s attacks pass through the hands of a sovereign God before they reach our lives, his attacks are doomed to final failure. The Devil’s power was stripped from him when David’s greater Son walked out of his tomb and then ascended to sit on David’s throne. The risen King proclaimed victory over the demonic realm having crushed the serpent’s head. The attack of the enemy may seem fierce, but it has limited power and limited scope.
Praise be to God, it is not so with the gospel. The gospel is not limited. It is not bound! And so with thankful hearts, we faithfully proclaim God’s Word, trusting in the power of God’s Spirit to grant it success.
Our call to war, to love the captive soul,
But to rage against the captor;
And with the sword that makes the Wounded whole,
We will fight with faith and valor.
When faced trials on every side,
We know the outcome is secure.
And Christ will have the prize for which He died:
An inheritance of nations.2
1From Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, by Joachim Neander (1680). Public Domain.
2From O Church Arise, by Keith and Kristyn Getty. © Copyright 2016 Getty Music Publishing.