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Understanding Providence

The providence of God can stir loyalty
This sermon is part of the sermon series "Dealing with the Difficult Person". See series.


A loyal person understands providence. In order to understand this, by way of contrast, consider our culture today. If there's one word that characterizes our modern world, I think it might be the word disposable. The pace at which we live our lives has fueled a whole new world of products that can be used once and then trashed—everything from plates and cutlery to contact lenses and cameras.

This should cause us, in some spheres, to be very thankful. Grandparents look with envy at the ease with which their children take the disposable diaper off their grandchildren and throw it away, remembering the endless routine that they had to go through. I recently read that there has been talk of disposable clothing. This throwaway wardrobe would be paper-based, forever removing from life the pain of washing and ironing. That doesn't sound too bad! This would allow parents to be considerably more relaxed when junior dribbles ice cream down his shirt. In our society we've become used to things that have no intrinsic value. They are used on a short-term basis; that quickly becomes for us a way of life.

Some years ago, the toy manufacturer Mattel came up with an interesting scheme to promote the latest version of its world famous doll, Barbie. The new Barbie being brought out was both slimmer and had more movement than her predecessor. In order to attract interest, Mattel said that, for the first time, any girl wanting to purchase the new Barbie would receive a trade-in allowance for her old one. What Mattel did not say was that in trading in her old doll for an improved model, the little girl was learning something about the world in which she was going to grow up in—a world in which even things that you love become disposable. This is actually quite ironic, isn't it? A little girl pours out affection on Barbie for three years, and now even Barbie can be replaced with a better model.

Mattel did that 30 years ago. And since then, most of us have grown up breathing in a culture that has moved increasingly in the direction of the disposable, so that we now have disposable marriage; we call it divorce. We have disposable babies; we call that abortion. We are increasingly discussing disposable old people; and we call that euthanasia. If we ask why this is, the reason must be that we are in love with pain-free lives.

A pain-free life has become the new god of our society—a god to be pursued at any cost, a god for whom anything else can be sacrificed. That, by the way, is why so many people have turned away from the God of the Bible—because the God of the Bible obviously allows pain. And many people have decided that a God who allows a great deal of pain in some cases is a God that they have not the slightest interest in knowing.

Indeed, when a pain-free life becomes the ultimate goal—becomes the god of a society—then the strategy to pursue becomes very simple. When anything or anyone comes in the way of pain-free living, or where anyone or anything makes my life uncomfortable, then I must get away from them or I must get rid of them.

This is reflected in all kinds of comments that one hears. Let me quote just one or two that I've heard within the recent past. First, "I don't like the classes at college, so I'm dropping out." In other words, "It's causing me a bit of discomfort, so I'm going to get away from it." Or, "My husband turned out to be a jerk, so I dumped him." Or what about, "People are talking about what's going on in the new church, so I thought I'd give it a try." Or finally, "I've been in the job for nine months now. I think it's time to move on."

I remember one of my first "aha" moments. It came in the first year that we were here when someone volunteered to teach Sunday school. After three weeks of teaching, this person had an idea to do a different program. They were quite rightly told that within the structure, this new idea wouldn't work. The response was fascinating and immediate: "I can't do my program? I'm out of here." And I've never seen this person since.

His view of church was simple: "I'm looking for a place to do my thing; nothing else matters." And in such a culture, when the truth is spoken in love—even in a long-standing, good relationship—it can often be the end of that relationship. The reason is simple: "What you said hurt me, so I'm off."

Do you see how this mindset develops? The ultimate goal—the ultimate god—is a pain-free life. So anything that causes pain then causes me to move, to separate. So what happens is that over a period of years, as this has multiplied throughout our land, a culture develops in which more and more people feel rootless. We feel rootless because we move to new homes, new jobs, new friends, new places, and new churches. Every time we feel unhappy, the answer is to move on again and again.

So relationships increasingly become a means to an end, something to be enjoyed as long as they are comfortable. And at the back end of it all, you end up with more and more people in a community who simply feel used.

Our pursuit of happiness often seems like chasing after a piece of paper as it blows in the wind. It keeps blowing around a corner so that we lose sight of it, only to chase after it some more, before we eventually wonder if it's behind us or behind the next corner.

Earlier this year, I was reading the First Book of Samuel. I want to invite you to come into a world with me over these next four Sundays that is completely and utterly different from ours. It is a world that has a different set of values. It is a world where relationships are not disposable. It's a world where a loyal person understands providence.

We're going to follow the story from the beginning. After we've taken an overview of where this story is going, we're going to see that when God is at work in a person's life, he or she can develop a different set of values and relationships—indeed, a whole different approach to life. I want to suggest to you that this is something that we, as Christian people, desperately need to discover if we are going to live counter-culturally in a society that is breaking apart.

God allows the pain of difficult relationships.

Very early in First Samuel, God's people wanted a king. If you look at First Samuel 8:7, you'll see that God was not pleased with their desire. God said, "It is not you [Samuel] they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king." The Lord's people had to depend on the Lord to raise up their leaders. Their defense had depended on the Lord leading them into battle. But as time went on—this is now 1000 B.C.—they felt that having a king was more "modern." They thought that depending on the Lord was no longer a viable strategy, and there was a growing movement that demanded the stability that would come from a king. First Samuel 8:19-20: "We want a king over us. Then we will be like the other nations, with a king to lead us and go out before us and fight our battles."

They persisted in such thinking. On and on they complained through the early chapters of First Samuel, until God gave them what they wanted—a king. His name was Saul. First Samuel 9:2 tells us that "Saul [was] an impressive young man without equal among the Israelites—a head taller than any of the others." He was exactly the kind of leader Israel was looking for. "My goodness," they reasoned, "if the nations see us with a fellow a head taller than anyone else, then they'll know that we are a force to be reckoned with."

But Saul turned out to be a disaster. The people realize that they've made a foolish choice, and they begin to experience the pain of living with their own foolishness. Notice that God enters into that pain. First Samuel 15:35 says, "The Lord was grieved that he had made Saul king over Israel."

The Lord was "grieved." This does not mean that God had made a mistake. God knew precisely what he was doing when he made Saul the king. The text simply reminds us that God felt the pain of what he had allowed. That's important to remember. God is not like some cosmic scientist conducting experiments on us. "Oh, I wonder what'll happen if I make him king? Oh dear, that didn't work out! Let's try something else." No, that's not the God of the Bible. He knows precisely what he is doing, working out all things in conformity to his will. There is no pain in your life that God has not allowed, and there is no pain in your life that God has not also felt. He entered into the pain that came to his people as a result of him allowing Saul to be king, which was the consequence of the persistence of their foolish choice.

And after a time, God gives Israel relief from this pain. He told the prophet Samuel that the next king would come from another line. The new king would have a heart after God's. In First Samuel 16, we're introduced to that new king: David. Of course, David wasn't perfect, either. There are no perfect leaders! Nobody can be everything you want him to be—nobody. That's why Jesus had to come into the world. No President, no husband, no wife, no school, no church, no job can ever be everything you would want them to be. But David was a man after God's own heart, and that was a reason to be thankful. This was the mercy of God. For a time, he allowed them to experience the pain that came from their own persistent and foolish choice, and yet he taught his people through it. He gave them relief, and he poured out his blessing upon them. After David was anointed to be the next king of Israel, the rest of the Book of First Samuel follows the story of the relationship between the two kings, Saul and David. Right from the beginning, Saul made David's life absolutely miserable.

It all started after David killed Goliath. Saul had invited David to join his staff in the palace. First Samuel 18:6-7 says that when the men returned home after David had killed Goliath, the women came out from all the towns of Israel to meet with King Saul. They were singing. They were dancing. They were playing their joyful songs with tambourines and lutes. They danced their way out to Saul, and they said, "Saul has slain his thousands." But then you notice they went on to say, "And David, his tens of thousands." This created a spirit of jealousy within Saul. David now faced a boss who has a bitter attitude toward him.

Over time, things got progressively worse. In First Samuel 18, we're told about two occasions when Saul hurled his spear at David. That shows the level to which Saul's jealousy had escalated. David dodged the spear, but he had to go on the run to save his life from Saul.

It's difficult to know how long, but historians believe there was a period of 15 years between the time when David was anointed king and the time when he actually came to the throne after Saul's death. Fifteen years in which he had to struggle with this man who created nothing but difficulties in his life.

David knew that God had anointed him to be king. He knew that Saul was a royal pain in the neck. David even had the support of the people, having slain his tens of thousands. He could have easily seized power. But he was loyal to Saul until the day he died. And what's more than that, on the day Saul died, David wept for him. It is absolutely staggering. In fact, it is so far from the culture in which we live that it's almost impossible for us to understand.

Some of us have a Saul in the office. Some of us have a Saul at home. For others, our Saul is not so much a person, but a situation that God has allowed. It's painful for us, and we'd love to get out of it, but God has put us in it. As we try to live the Christian life in a world that is breaking apart, how did David put up with Saul? How could he have shown this kind of loyalty throughout 15 years? How can I keep faith in a broken world? And in a world of disposable relationships, how can I learn to be loyal?

Turn with me to First Samuel 10:1. I want us to discover the first principle on which loyalty is built. The text reads: "Samuel took a flask of oil and poured it on Saul's head and kissed him saying, 'Has not the Lord anointed you leader over his inheritance?'" Notice the word "anointed." It's very important. The Lord anointed Saul.

Saul was not a very good king, but God put him there, nonetheless. We've already seen why. He's allowing the people to experience the consequences of their own foolish choice. That's one of the ways in which God teaches us. Miserable fellow that he was, Saul was there for the purposes of God. He was in David's life as part of the plan of God, and David knew it.

There is a fascinating story where Saul comes into a cave, and David's hiding at the back of it. Saul is absolutely defenseless, and David could have easily taken his life in that moment. But as David points out in First Samuel 24:6: "The Lord forbid that I should do such a thing to my master, the Lord's anointed, or lift up my hand against him; for he is the anointed of the Lord." You see what he's saying: Saul, I can't do this to you because God has put you where you are. I can't simply take matters into my own hand because you are the king by appointment of God. God has anointed you.

Not once, but seven times David speaks of the anointing of Saul—First Samuel 24:6, 24:10, 26:9, 11, and 23, and then later in Second Samuel 1:14. This line appears again and again: You're the Lord's anointed.

David is saying: I can't take matters into my own hands. Saul, I can't harm you. Saul, I can't even hate you, because I believe and know that God has put you where you are. You're an absolute pain, but God put you where you are, and I'm convinced that you are part of his purpose in my life.

There is a word to describe the fact that God orders events, circumstances, and people according to his plan. It is the word providence. Providence is the way in which God wisely and lovingly orders events for the ultimate good of his own people. It is spoken of throughout the Bible, but perhaps never more clearly than in Romans 8:28: " … in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose."

Our lives are not a random series of accidental or coincidental events. The people in your life, the events in your life, and the sequence of things that occur are ordered by the hand of God. He has a wonderful way of working them all together to advance the ultimate purpose, the ultimate good—which is not that you have a pain free life, but that you will reflect the life of Jesus Christ to the glory of God for all eternity.

That's why he can use the Sauls in our life. He can use those who are a pain as well as those who are a blessing. That's why he can use the disappointments as well as the triumphs. That's why, even when we reach our lowest point of our greatest failure, God can work that into reflecting the beauty of Jesus Christ. For as we learn humility, we learn to trust him more fully, and we learn more deeply what grace really is, which has reached even us.

God will use the most difficult of relationships to shape us.

Once we begin to see that our lives are ordered by the loving hand of God working out his ultimate purpose in us and through us, then we will have an entirely different attitude toward the difficult people, or the Sauls, in our lives.

It's wonderful to see both in Scripture and experience the way in which God does this. Consider this story of Saul. At the beginning of chapter 9, which we focused on, Saul woke up one ordinary morning. Imagine him reading his newspaper, looking over his Cornflakes, and his father comes in and says: Bad news, son. Better get out there, big fella. The donkeys have disappeared.

Saul probably heaved a great sigh as you would or I would. Where do you begin looking for a set of lost donkeys? I mean, where do you begin? So they go out and have a meaningless day. Then they can't find the donkeys, which is even worse. What's God doing? Does he care about us at all? They go further and further until they're utterly frustrated. Then someone says: Why don't we go and see the prophet?

So they decide to go and see a prophet, to whom, unknown to them, God had already spoken to and said: I'm going to bring someone to you today. You don't know how I'm going to do it. Actually, it involves a lot of donkeys. But he's going to come to you and he's going to be the one that you appoint as king.

And Saul finds, in the most ordinary of days, that as he pursues what God has given him to do on that day, God opens up a whole new opportunity for him in life. Even the missing donkeys are part of the providence of God.

Now, consider the place where we are. Do you think that's an accident? It says in Acts 17, "God has determined the exact places where people should live." I'm glad he determined that for 16 years I should live in London. I'm glad that he's determined my present address, as well. God sets us in spheres of influence. When we understand that we're not here by accident, but on the purpose and the design of God, it gives us a new attitude toward the people around us. Just think, "These are the people God has placed around me." God is in this—and that's where loyalty begins. Otherwise, we're just like billiard balls, bouncing off each other in a haphazard kind of a fashion.

I think of some of the things that have been hard in my life, and I have to ask the question: "Am I going to say that the good things were from the hand of God, but the others, well, they just happened when he was asleep?" I can't say that. The God who watches over you "neither slumbers nor sleeps."

I think about one man who was a Saul in my life for years. I wonder, "Was he there by accident, or did God put him there?" If I can see that God allowed him to be there, and that God has purposed to make me more like Jesus even through the irritant of his presence in my life, then I'm going to be able to live with the Saul in my life.

Some of us have the idea that blessings come from the hand of God, but difficulties are somehow beyond his reach. We need to understand more deeply that when the apostle Paul says, "in all things God works," he is including the consequences of your foolish choices in life. This includes the disappointments about which we ask, "What on earth is God doing here?" This includes the day that your job comes to an end, as well as the day the new job opportunity opens up. This includes your Saul.

God works in all things. We must look up to him and say, "Oh God, help me to learn what you would teach me, so that I may become more like Jesus Christ and not go through this pain without something that glorifies you coming out of it."

The story of Joseph Tson is a powerful one. He was speaking in our home about the passage in the Old Testament where the temple was built. The stones were all cut and shaped in the quarry, and then they were brought to the building site. Because they were all shaped in advance, it was simply a case of assembling them. The instruction was, "Build!" The Bibles says the temple went up without a sound, without even a tool being used.

That's a beautiful picture of how God shapes our lives in the quarry of this world. It's not an easy thing. One day, we will take our place for all eternity in what he puts together, in heaven and for his glory.

Joseph Tson went on to tell a story that I will never forget—of how he was imprisoned for his faith in a Romanian jail some years ago. Along with the rest of the prisoners, he was badly mistreated by many of the guards. But he took the words of Jesus seriously, and he began to pray for his enemies. Because Tson prayed for these guards, he had compassion for them. He began to reveal this compassion by asking one of them if he had children. The guard didn't know what to make of this, of course. Then one day, one of the guards said to him, "Joseph, the other prisoners hate us. Why are you different?" And Joseph said, "Because to me, you are God's stonecutters."

To David, Saul was God's stonecutter. David understood providence, and that was the secret of his loyalty, which our culture desperately needs to see.

Have you understood providence?

Do you know that you never had a teacher at college, even those you found terribly difficult, who God didn't intend to be your teacher? You know you've never come up against a boss in employment that God didn't intend you to come up against? That teacher is God's stonecutter. That boss is God's stonecutter. You're there in the providence of God. And that's where loyalty begins.


It's not difficult for some of us to identify the Sauls in our lives. The prayer this morning is that God will help us to see how he can use our Sauls to advance the reflected image of the life of Jesus within us and through us. For that is his ultimate purpose, rather than a pain-free life—to reflect the glory of Jesus.

My life is not at the impulse of arbitrary forces. It is in the hand of God. The hand that holds my life is the hand that holds the world.

Why should I feel discouraged?
Why should the shadows come?
Why should my heart feel lonely
and long for heaven and home?
If Jesus is my captain,
my constant friend is he.
And if his eye is on the sparrow,
I know he watches me.
Said the sparrow to the robin,
"I should really like to know,
why these anxious human beings
rush around and worry so?"
Said the robin to the sparrow,
"I think it must be,
that they have no heavenly father,
who cares for you and me."

You have a heavenly Father, and your life is not a random sequence of chance events. He's working in it for good. And so we go out into another week. Who knows what it holds?

I do not know what lies ahead,
the way I cannot see.
But One stands near to be my guide.
He'll show the way to me.
I know who holds the future
and he'll guide me with his hand.
With God things don't just happen.
Everything by him is planned.
So as I face tomorrow,
with its problems large and small,
I'll trust the God of miracles
and give to him my all.

Colin Smith is pastor of The Orchard Evangelical Free Church in Arlington Heights, Illinois.

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I. God allows the pain of difficult relationships.

II. God will use the most difficult of relationships to shape us.