(The Lady in Red)
“Oh Lord, I want to trust only You.” I cannot recall the exact words - nor even whether I said this prayer out loud or only breathed it. Yet I vividly remember the ensuing events! Anything that I could have been trusting in other than God was removed - it was His mercy that this particular episode was spread out over a period of six months. My singular “I” was also changed to the plural “we” by virtue of our marriage covenant.
I tell people that if they pray a prayer anything similar to this and they do not really mean it - then they had better duck. This will be one of the most quickly answered prayers you have ever uttered - and you will probably not appreciate the immediate results. Although I now have the advantage of thirty years of hindsight, it did not take that long to realize what our Faithful Father was accomplishing in our lives. While “blowing bubbles in the mud” both literally and figuratively - through a prophetic utterance God reminded us that He was Sovereign. I like to say that at that point I became a Presbyterian - again. Actually it was another step on the pathway of the Reformers.
If such a prayer has as its motive vain personal piety - then it is the most foolish thing possible; akin to shooting oneself in the foot. However, if it is inspired according to the will of the Father by the Holy Spirit - then its results will be of incalculable value. This is referred to in the Scriptures as glory. There were choices made by me during this period that definitely resulted in untoward circumstances - yet they only served as part of the Father’s plan for our lives.
One of the favorite refrigerator magnet scriptures must surely be Romans 8:28 - usually only quoted in part: “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God,...” This misapplication of this partial passage can result in extreme injury. For us it meant the loss of the support of a community of believers that we had helped grow. They saw the things that were happening to us as not being “good” therefore we must be out of the favor of God - certainly we were not experiencing His blessings. The glibness by which this passage is quoted and the violation of its contextualization is tragic. Let’s end this paragraph with the rest of the verse: “to them who are the called according to his purpose.” KJV
At the very minimum of proper exegesis we must get the eternal implications of this verse by looking at it within the paragraph of which it is a part - Romans 8:26-30. As I mentioned before I prayed a prayer - but where did that prayer originate and how did it get into me? The unequivocal answer is in the first two verses of this paragraph: “In the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words; and He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” Romans 8:26-27
Did I know how to pray correctly - do any of us know how to pray correctly? The answer from these verses is a resounding “No!” Thankfully we are not consigned to aimless meanderings or vain repetition for the Father has sent His Spirit to aid us in our infirmities. He intercedes on our behalf in such a majestic way it is beyond our comprehension - thus “too deep for words.” The revelation that He brings is totally in accord with the will of God. Mike Bickle has said something like this concerning the heart of prayer: “Tell God what He has told you to tell Him.” The Holy Spirit draws us into the eternal symphony of heaven where the Father’s will is being accomplished explicitly and works it out through us - the people of God - on the earth: “Your kingdom come. Your will be done, On earth as it is in heaven.” Matthew 6:10 NASB
These two verses then could be considered as the preamble to that which follows in this paragraph. Without this divine initiative on the part of the Father through the agency of the Holy Spirit what follows would be meaningless - indeed it would ring with the hollowness of narcissism. The idolatry of the admiration of our image must totally and completely be eclipsed by the One who has brought to us the express image of God the Father - “The Son is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being,...” Hebrews 1:3a NIV
Recently I attended a national convention of evangelicals when one the leaders expounded on Romans 8:28. As he concluded, he said these words: “To those who are called according to His purposes.” I was aghast! I could not believe what I had just heard from the lips of one of our main spokesmen. His purpose is not plural. Our God is singular - He is One! "Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one!” Deuteronomy 6:4 NASB As He is One so also His purpose is one - to defuse His purpose into purposes is to cause it to lose the grandeur of the Son of His love. This singular purpose is the focus of the intercessory groaning of the Holy Spirit. It seems that if we do not neglect this part of the verse then we contort it to mean something that was never intended.
For those who are the elect of God in Jesus Christ - "You did not choose Me but I chose you,...” John 15:16a NASB - there is nothing that comes our way that is outside the bounds of His predetermined purpose. And that brings us to: “For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren;...” Romans 8:29 NASB. We also see the reinforcement of this great truth here: “In love He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.” Ephesians 1:4b-6 NASB
Returning to our personal story - did God in His sovereignty allow me to make choices - yes. Did my “bad” choices impede His purpose for my life - “No!” Was the experience pleasant - not in the least. Nancy reminded me that at that time I was teaching in our home fellowship group from “Don’t Waste Your Sorrows” by Paul Billheimer and reading devotionally from “The Calvary Road” by Roy Hession. I can distinctly remember taking both of those books and shoving them to the back of my desk drawer.
Yet, all that was happening was working together for our good. Craig Keener comments: “The ‘good’ that God seeks for those who love him, then, is above all their ultimate glory.” And that glory is being transformed into the image of His Son. Indeed this also is part of the High Priestly prayer offered to the Father on our behalf: "The glory which You have given Me I have given to them, that they may be one, just as We are one;” John 17:22 (The singularity of Christ’s prayer is inescapable.) The glory of God is at the heart of the evangel. It is that which no man can co-opt. The Father bestowed it on the Son and he causes all things to serve this purpose in those whom He has elected - “to become conformed to the image of His Son,...”
This leads us directly to the last verse of our paragraph: “and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified.” Romans 8:30 NASB Once again we see this purpose in John’s Gospel: "I ask on their behalf; I do not ask on behalf of the world, but of those whom You have given Me; for they are Yours; and all things that are Mine are Yours, and Yours are Mine; and I have been glorified in them.” John 17:9-10 NASB John Gill comments: “Christ is speaking not of things but of persons;...and these the elect of God,...”
Twenty years after these particular events that I have been referring to I found myself on the other side of the world - Entebbe, Uganda - speaking to a group of pastors. I do not remember what my subject was, but I began to relate this story. I shared of the dealings of God in our lives through difficult circumstances - but how the local community of believers was not able to comprehend. This resulted in misunderstanding, confusion and even accusation.
I looked to the back of the congregation and saw two women that had not been there before - we were teaching a seminar for pastors over a period of days. One of them was dressed in red - and she was beginning to cry. I continued to explain how all of these events only served our Father’s predetermined purpose to get us where He wanted us. The lady in red began to cry even more. The Presence of the Holy Spirit was so real that we entered into a period of spontaneous worship. As we came out of this I motioned to one of our team to go back and minister to her. But when she saw me do this, she came forward. This set the scene for a protracted period of ministry not only to her, but to others as well.
A few days later while we were at the airport preparing to return home, the other lady - who worked there - approached us with bottles of water as gifts. “You don’t understand,” she said to us. She told us that the lady in red was her pastor and in her desire to follow God she had encountered misunderstanding, confusion and criticism. She had just told God that if she did not receive a word from Him, she could not go on. God in His sovereignty - twenty years before - had prepared a West Virginia boy to be the word of God to her - the image of Christ. My friends, this is the glory of God - not my glory, not your glory - but the glory of God. Mankind cannot usurp this: “That no flesh should glory in his presence.” 1 Corinthians 1:29 Webster’s Translation All we can do is worship such a One - and do it for all eternity.
Is there anything that can happen to the believer - whether by our choice or not - that is outside of the bounds of Romans 8:26-30? The anser again is No! Are you living in the midst of difficult circumstances? Is our Faithful Father frustrated in His ultimate purpose for you? No! He takes all of these things to fit, fashion and conform us to the image of His Son.
Recently I was speaking with a younger pastor and we were relating the wonder of the adventure of the Christian life. I mentioned to him, “The older I get the more Reformed I become.” He looked at me with astonishment, “You are the third person that has said that to me recently.” One of those was his father, also a pastor. We serve a sovereign God whose purpose - that His Son would be the First among many - is beyond frustration.
From the timeless truth of the hymn writer:
O to grace how great a debtor
daily I'm constrained to be!
Let thy goodness, like a fetter,
bind my wandering heart to thee.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
prone to leave the God I love;
here's my heart, O take and seal it,
seal it for thy courts above.
“Then I heard something like the voice of a great multitude and like the sound of many waters and like the sound of mighty peals of thunder, saying, "Hallelujah! For the Lord our God, the Almighty, reigns.” The Revelation of Jesus Christ 19:6
Soli Deo Gloria!