Today, we are living in the grandest story ever told, but we are not yet at the ending. We walk in the wilderness, not the Promised Land; we carry a sword, not the spoil; we look up to a dark night, not the dawn. If our eyes could see the solution, if our ears could hear the coming deliverance, if our hearts could imagine the ending, the final rescue would not be so wonderful, so happy beyond expectation.
Faith in a sovereign God does not prevent us from sometimes feeling bewildered about what our sovereign God is doing.
On a small scale, we can grasp for reasons behind everyday frustrations like dead car batteries and sleepless nights — mere inconveniences, to be sure, but nevertheless enough to sometimes ruin what we thought were God-honoring plans for the day. Perhaps we can agree with J.I. Packer when he writes, “The harder you try to understand the divine purpose in the ordinary providential course of events, the more obsessed and oppressed you grow with the apparent aimlessness of everything” (Knowing God, 105).
Such confusion is troubling us enough in the everyday, but it can become altogether faith-shaking when, contrary to all our expectations, we witness the last breath of what seemed to be a God-given dream. How do we make sense of a church plant that fails to take root? Or of a child who, despite every spiritual privilege, walks away from her parents’ God? Or of a long-hoped-for relationship that finally comes, and then ends after the first few notes?
No matter which way we turn these stories, our most creative imaginings can invent no happy ending. Like Noah’s dove, our faith flies away from the ark in search of solid ground, but returns without an olive branch (Genesis 8:8–9).
Perplexed, but Not Despairing
The apostle Paul was not exempt from such bewildering experiences. True, he could write, “God is not a God of confusion but of peace” (1 Corinthians 14:33), but he could also write, “We are . . . perplexed” (2 Corinthians 4:8). The peace of God does not shield us from providences of God that feel, for a moment at least, utterly perplexing.
Nevertheless, Paul can tell us in the next breath, “But [we are] not driven to despair” (2 Corinthians 4:8). Perplexed, but not despairing; bewildered, but not hopeless. Where did Paul’s hope rest when God’s providence disoriented him? And how do we follow the apostle, and revive our hope in God when we can see around us no reason to keep hoping?
We do so, in part, by closing our eyes to hope in what we cannot see: “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9). When God’s promises to do us good seem to have fallen to the ground, we do not resign ourselves to what our eyes can see, what our ears can hear, or even what our hearts can imagine, but rather to “what God has prepared for those who love him.”
Perhaps many of us have heard these words from Paul spoken at funerals or in conversations about heaven. But if we are going to feel the force of 1 Corinthians 2:9, we need to notice that Paul is looking backward, not forward. Paul does not declare here his hope of what God will do; he celebrates what God has already done in the crucified and risen Christ, the Lord of glory (see 1 Corinthians 2:8, 10).
And if God has already done what our eyes can’t see, what our ears can’t hear, and what our hearts can’t imagine — and on a far grander scale than anything we’re facing — then we can hope that he will do so again.