Surrender, Trust, and the Unchanging Character of God
Have you ever come across a Bible verse you’ve read a hundred times, and all of a sudden—maybe because of some situation you’re in—it comes alive to you in a whole new way? You question if you even understood what it meant before?
18th century theologian Jonathan Edwards is famous for his analogy on honey, in which he essentially says, “I can show you honey and you can admire its golden hue. I can tell you it’s sweet—and you can believe me when I tell you it’s sweet. But unless you have tasted it, you don’t truly know it’s sweet. You only truly know honey is sweet when you have tasted it.”
The heart of what he’s saying is that we can hear truths about God all day long, but until God makes those truths real to us by the power of His Spirit, we don’t truly know them. God has to move our knowledge of Him from head knowledge to heart knowledge—from conceptual, to experiential.
I have a special fondness for the story of the Israelites in the Bible—it’s one of my favorites. It seems that in each new season God walks me through, He unveils a new subtlety in their story to speak to me through.
I recently read through a portion of the Israelites’ story that unfolds in Deuteronomy, as God is preparing to bring them into the Promised Land after a 40-year journey through the wilderness. Leading up to this, God has already done so much. He has miraculously delivered them from slavery in Egypt through the ten plagues. He has parted the Red Sea and allowed them to walk through on dry ground. He has provided for them with manna—bread from Heaven. He has guided each step of their journey with a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.
Finally, after all their wandering and waiting, God brings the Israelites to the Promised Land and says He will give it to them. The land is inhabited, but God tells them He will fight for them, that the victory will be theirs. They even get to taste fruit from the land when they send spies in to survey it, and upon tasting it they exclaim, “It is a good land that the Lord our God is giving us” (Deuteronomy 1:25). You can almost sense their realization—like, wow, God really has been FOR us all along. What he has for us—what we’ve been waiting for—is GOOD.
Up until this point, the Promised Land is nothing more than a nice concept. I’m sure they wanted to believe what God had for them was good, but they had no frame of reference for it—all they could see was the barrenness of the wilderness. I wouldn’t be surprised if they wondered whether the wait would truly be worth it—or if they’d end up finding themselves with second best.
But then they get a taste, and the taste of the Promise gives them a taste of their God—One who is able to do immeasurably more than anything they could have thought to ask for or imagine.
The Israelites have been given every reason to believe in the God of the Promise—and this is their opportunity to. But instead, they start to focus on the inhabitants of the land. They see that they’re “bigger and taller” than they are—literally giants—and their hearts melt in fear. They don’t see how it could possibly work out in their favor. They exclaim, “God hates us, He brought us out of Egypt to destroy us!” (1:27).
Reading their story it’s like, SERIOUSLY GUYS?!
But things tend to be clearer when we’re looking at other people’s stories, right?
When we’re zoomed in on the circumstances in front of us, we’re filled with fear and think we’re doomed to fail. But if we zoom out on the metanarrative our circumstances are situated in, we’d have to be CRAZY to believe God brought us this far only to fail us now—that’s not who He is.
God is not a tease. He doesn’t dangle fruit from the land in front of us only to snatch it away and give us something less than instead. He WILL fulfill His promises to us. What He has for us IS good—whatever it may be and however and whenever it may come about. And I think sometimes the very reason He allows us to encounter giants at all is to bring us to the point where we actually believe this.
I was talking to a friend the other day who has been waiting for God to provide for her in several areas of her life for a long time. We talked about changes happening for her in the coming months, and she worried out loud about all that could possibly go wrong.
“Do you believe God could actually have good for you in these changes?” I asked her.
She answered “no,” softening it with a laugh, but I knew she meant it. “Maybe He could for other people, but that’s never how it’s gone for me,” she continued. “I just want Him to prove me wrong by having everything fall into place this time.”
I’ll tell you what I told my friend and what I believe to be true: I don’t think having everything fall into place would actually prove her wrong. I think it would simply slap a Band-Aid on the root issue.
At the Fall of Man, we all inherited an innate distrust of God’s goodness toward us. One of the primary purposes of the Israelites’ wilderness journey was to expose this distrust, and I think this is one of the primary purposes of the waiting periods in our lives as well.
Think about it this way. Imagine you’re on a long hiking trip in inclement weather and your feet are tucked up thick socks and heavy duty hiking boots. It’s been a while since you’ve had a chance to stop and you have no idea that under all the layers, gangrene is setting in on your left foot. But after a while, you feel that a pebble has made its way into your boot—it’s making its presence glaringly known by rubbing up against and scraping your heel. You don’t want to stop because you need to make it to the night’s stopping point before dark. So you plead with God to remove the pebble that’s causing you so much pain, but He won’t remove it because that pebble is actually His grace. It’s meant to make you stop, take off your boot and do some investigating so that the true issue—the gangrene—can be exposed, and dealt with. He will allow you to endure the pain of the pebble because it allows Him to root out the deeper issue which He knows, if left unattended to, will ultimately cripple you.
Our human default state is one of distrusting God’s character. But if we always got the things we wanted and never had to wait for them, we would never recognize this. God allowing us to be without the good things we long for is actually His grace. In this space, He exposes and roots out our distrust of His character so He can then begin to heal it—by showing us He is good, He is in control, and He can be trusted. He longs to correct our incorrect view of Him because He knows a correct view of Him is what our souls most truly need.
I think He sometimes gives us tastes of His goodness in giving us tastes of the Promise, but then allows circumstances to obstruct it from view to see if we’re going to rely on what we can SEE, or rely on remembering who He has shown Himself to BE.
When we encounter giants—circumstances that feel like roadblocks and seemingly bring us back to square one where we see no sure way to the Promised Land—these are actually opportunities to solidify the truth of who God is in our hearts. Are we going to revert back to old ways of distrust because we can’t see a way and it seems impossible? Or, are we going to choose to trust in the character of God, clinging to His faithfulness as displayed to us in the past?
God is faithful when we can see the Promise and we’re filled with wild excitement and possibility, and God is faithful when we’re disappointed and the Promise feels far off and unattainable. God is faithful regardless of our circumstances because His character is unchanging.
Like with the Israelites, fear and uncertainty will tempt us to view God’s character incorrectly, but we cannot allow it to. We need to set our sights on His sure promises, not on circumstances that look unpromising. We need to hold to who we KNOW Him to be, reminding ourselves of how He’s come through for us in the past. We need to fix our gaze on His character, not our conditions. One brings anxiety and trepidation. The other, PEACE.
I don’t know the specifics of God’s plans for me, and I don’t see how certain things that matter to me will all work out. This was true three years ago, and it’s true today. The difference is, today the uncertainty I sit in is marked by a lot less anxiety and grappling for control than it was three years ago—and that all comes down to how, like the honey Jonathan Edwards talked about, God has moved my knowledge of His goodness toward me from something I’ve heard, to something I’ve tasted.
I’m thankful for the wilderness journeys in my own life and I’m thankful for the setbacks—times when I thought I was on the precipice of the Promised Land but encountered giants instead—because those are the experiences God has used to do this important heart work. Those are the experiences that have taught me to focus on His character when I can’t see His hand. Those are the experiences He’s used to bring me to a place of trust in His character where I know He is good and He is for me—and it is this experiential knowledge alone that permits true surrender and perfect peace.