I returned and saw under the sun that The race is not to the swift, Nor the battle to the strong, Nor bread to the wise, Nor riches to men of understanding, Nor favor to men of skill; But time and chance happen to them all. (Ecclesiastes 9:11)
I was recently blessed to spend a day in a game reserve, and found myself unexpectedly snarled in a traffic jam literally in the middle of nowhere. Out there, in the back of beyond, nature rules. Whether elephant, lion, zebra, or a trio of happy rhinos, visitors have no choice but to kill the engine and wait for the unexpected traffic stoppers to decide to leave the road and let the vehicles through. Sometimes, no matter how prepared or organised we are, life throws us that pesky obstacle or detour. The world is quick to label these happenings as ‘chance’ – random events that simply happen and over which we have no control – but we should never confuse this with the purposes of God.
The purposes of God exist in everything.
Chance is simply a label, but we often give it more power than it deserves. We talk about luck and about taking a chance, both of which imply an actual entity of some kind that functions outside out consciousness. It’s a separate and random ‘power’ that can influence or even control the direction of our lives. This is directly contrary to the purposes of God. It leaves Him entirely out of the equation. The real truth is that different causes operate in varying degrees.
First, there is the natural law of cause and effect. Someone, somewhere, takes a decision and follows through with an action, which in turn initiates a ‘domino effect.’ That tragic accident on the road is always the result of a choice someone has made which proceeds to impact others, including those who had no part in the original choice. Nothing in this world happens outside of our actual responses and decisions. While I do believe that the enemy plays an active role in helping along those situations that disrupt our lives, the action, choice, or response is what creates the raw material he works with – the actual situation. But the Bible promises us that we are assured that the purposes of God will work to our good in every situation.
The circumstances themselves are not always the purposes of God.
There is a difference between God causing or initiating a situation and Him using it for His purposes. As humans, we’re very quick to blame God for unpleasant events and seldom as quick to thank Him for the pleasant ones. While the Bible does show us that God does cause certain things to happen at certain times for specific reasons, we also have to accept that we live in a natural, fallen world that will inevitably impact us. While the purposes of God will always work in every situation for the good of those who love Him, the situation is not necessary an ‘act of God’ as we like to call it.
There is a complex, unseen interaction between the natural world and the spiritual world. They exist in dynamic relationship, and both impact our lives in powerful ways. In addition to this, we have free will, and the consequences of our choices and the decisions of others will always play a part one way or the other. While we hold onto our God-given right of free will, we seldom acknowledge that it’s a powerful force in our lives – for good or bad, depending on how we exercise it. Using the truth that the purposes of God will always work in every situation is not an excuse to blame Him for everything that happens, or for allowing things to happen. For Him to move sovereignly in this way would essentially mean that He retracts free will.
The outworking of the purposes of God is a gift of grace.
What this essentially means is that no matter what the situation, and no matter what the causes of it are, God will work in and through it to our good. The vague forces of ‘chance’ – simply a collective appellation for natural and spiritual laws and the choices of humanity – have no real power to affect us spiritually and, through the outworking of the purposes of God in us, will ultimately become a power for good in God’s hands. This is our faith at work, that nothing can every happen that is too big for God to work with, and that His grace will always work it for good, not evil.
The problems in understanding the purposes of God always comes in when we keep our focus on self and the natural. We lose sight of the fact that He never promises no problems, trials, grief, or suffering. His primary purpose is to bring us into eternity with Him, so His focus is always spiritual, first and foremost. Spiritual ‘good’ will ultimately manifest in the natural, but that’s a response not the primary purpose. As the Bible reminds us, what good is it if we gain the whole world and lose our souls? The purposes of God are about spiritual life and spiritual matters. That He is willing to actually use the wrong decisions of sinful man – be it ours or those of others – to work out His purposes is evidence of His grace.
Free will remains a context for the purposes of God.
The anti-God voices will always use the matter of the purposes of God to portray Him as a cruel despot who forces us to obey Him. If they’re not blaming Him for causing the problem, they blame Him for not preventing it. Yet those same voices will loudly declare the right to free choice – the very root cause of much of the evil that fills our world. Part of God’s purpose for us includes the right which He has given us to choose. The outcome of those choices thus inevitably create the context within which God works.
In addition, our responses to those events will largely determine whether or not the purposes of God are worked out to our good. The familiar verse about giving thanks in all things comes to mind. This is an indication of ‘right’ response. The message is that we should give thanks, not for the situation but for the sure and certain knowledge that God will work it to our good. It’s a reminder that He is bigger than any circumstance, and that He desires to work in us and on our behalf.
The purposes of God work out to the limit of our surrender to His sovereignty.
The hardest thing, especially in really hard and painful situations, is to step back and let God do what He wants to. All too often, our response is to ‘blame’ God, or to expect Him to work according to our determination of what should or should not happen. It’s really hard to let go and focus on what He wants rather than on what we want. But the truth is that our response and the degree of our surrender will ultimately determine how much of the purposes of God are worked out. What we hang onto remains unresolved.
Our greatest example is Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane. Surrender to God’s sovereignty is never easy, and the harder the situation, the more difficult it is to desire and accept His will above ours. Christ’s surrender did not remove the necessity for the cross. Instead, it provided the strength to endure it, and through it, the eternal purposes of God for the entire human race were powerfully and perfectly worked out.
Chance is the invention of man. The purposes of God are the intervention of God.
The reality is that ‘chance’ actually doesn’t exist. The ‘chance’ referred to in today’s verse is simply the outworking of the natural and spiritual worlds and the choices we and others make. It’s a term that, like time, is our attempt to control and explain our lives. As such, these things do ‘happen’ to us. We cannot influence them by how learned, knowledgeable, skilled, clever, or swift we are. They are a context, not a condition, and will always operate no matter how much we try to avoid them. But, through faith, we have the grace of the sure and certain knowledge that the purposes of God will always work through them to our good.
Human nature will always invent terms and explanations to try to make sense of things. But Christians are called to live in the spirit. We’re called to live in the world but to be separate from it through spiritual separation. We’re called to live in the place where circumstances and chance are never as important as what God can and will do through them. The purposes of God provide our constant hope, because no matter how bad things get, God is bigger. He may not always end the trial in our timing, and He may not work things out as we would like, but if we step back and surrender to His sovereignty with thanksgiving, He will always work them to our good.
Thank You, Lord, for Your patience and grace. Forgive us for the times when we blame You for the consequences of our own choices, and for the times where we try to push You to work according to our plan of what should happen. In all things, grant us a heart that turns to You in thanksgiving, so that we can surrender and make space for You to work all things to our good.