April 24, 2013
Life can seem fragile and unbearable without the confidence that our times are in God’s hands. Whether we prosper or face uncertainty or adversity, the Christian response should not include pride, panic, or self-pity but gratitude and faith in God. Alistair Begg clarifies that while there is great security found when we rest in God’s providence, there are responsibilities that remain ours as we humbly submit to the Lord’s will.
Sermon Transcript: Print
I want to read a few verses from Exodus chapter 3 and from verse 13:
“Then Moses said to God, ‘If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, “The God of your fathers has sent me to you,” and they ask me, “What is his name?” what shall I say to them?’ God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am.’ And he said, ‘Say this to the people of Israel: “I am has sent me to you.”’ God also said to Moses, ‘Say this to the people of Israel: “The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.” This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations. Go and gather the elders of Israel together and say to them, “The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, has appeared to me, saying, ‘I have observed you and what has been done to you in Egypt, and I promise that I will bring you up out of the affliction of Egypt to the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, a land flowing with milk and honey.’” And they will listen to your voice … you and the elders of Israel shall go to the king of Egypt and say to him, “The Lord, the God of the Hebrews, has met with us; and now, please let us go a three days’ journey into the wilderness, that we may sacrifice to the Lord our God.” But I know that the king of Egypt will not let you go unless compelled by a mighty hand. So I will stretch out my hand and strike Egypt with all the wonders that I will do in it; after that he will let you go. And I will give this people favor in the sight of the Egyptians; and when you go, you shall not go empty, but each woman shall ask of her neighbor, and any woman who lives in her house, for silver and gold jewelry, and for clothing. You shall put them on your sons and on your daughters. So you shall plunder the Egyptians.’”
Father, what we know not, teach us. What we have not, give us. What we are not, make us. For your Son’s sake. Amen.
Our phrase from Monday we pick up again today: “My times are in your hand[s],” the declaration of the psalmist, not on a particularly joyful and cheery day in his life but in the experience of clouds and deep darkness. And it is this declaration of the providence of God that gives him equilibrium. And so we reminded ourselves on Monday that because my times are in God’s hands, I’m not trapped in the grip of some blind force, I am not being tossed around on an ocean of chance, but I am actually being trained in the school of God’s providence.
That covers the what. Now we move to the so what. And let me give you three so whats, and if we have time, a couple of now whats.
First of all, since this is true—since God is providentially overruling everything for his glory and for our good—number one, prosperity should never be the occasion of pride. Prosperity should never be the occasion of pride.
You will not have attended as many funerals as I have done over these last thirty-six or -seven years in pastoral ministry, and here in America I’ve been staggered to discover that the favorite song that is played, either sung or in the background, for pagan funerals—for people who have no knowledge of God or of his grace and goodness—they go out to the song made famous by “Old Blue Eyes” himself: “I did it my way.” It’s a quite sobering and salutary thing to stand there and watch a coffin being loaded into the back of a car with the refrain ringing out,
To think I did all that,
And may I say, not in a shy way;
Oh no, oh no, not me,
I did it my way.
The Christian never says that. It is an absurd folly that we as mere men should choose to act as if we were in charge of things, and in—is it Henley’s “Invictus”? (it’s a long time since high school)—that we are “the master of [our] fate and the captain of [our] soul[s].” It just isn’t true.
So if you’re a farmer and you have a wonderful crop, then you can thank God, because he makes things grow. As I was stumbling around the campus early this morning, I was picking up little bits and pieces of the wonderful fragrances that’re there. I don’t know what flowers are called; it might be called a gardenia. I don’t know what it is, but it is a wonderful fragrance. And as I picked a piece and carried it with me, as I continued to stumble out into whatever avenue I was on—Imperial Avenue or somewhere—I was remarking on the fact that God is a great God, isn’t he? A wonderful creator. And if you’ve been very successful in business or you find out that one day you will be, just remember this: you didn’t do it. It is God who gives you the ability to get wealth. And when you find that even your enemies begin to live at peace with you, it’s not because you’re so wonderful at conciliation and reconciliation, but it is because, according to Proverbs 16:7, that God is a God who is able to make even our enemies live at peace with us.
And the reason that I read from Exodus chapter 3 was because the principle is amply illustrated there in the approach that Moses is going to take to Pharaoh. He’s patently aware of the fact that unless God intervenes, he’s not going be able to do anything at all. And, of course, that is perfectly true, so that there was no sense of self-congratulation. “My times are in your hands, O God”; therefore, prosperity should not be the occasion of self-congratulation or pride.
Secondly, uncertainty should not be the occasion of panic. Providence is a soft pillow on which to put your head in the evening. [Spurgeon] described it as an anodyne for pain, as a grave in which to bury our despair.
You know, the Bible knows—God knows, the author of the Bible knows—that we are prone to fearfulness and we’re prone to anxiety. We know that because of how many times in the Bible we’re told not to be afraid, whether it is Jesus with his disciples, whether it is Paul writing to the Philippians, whether it is the psalmist speaking to his own soul. And the reason that these things ring so true is because we know each of us are prone to worry and to anxiety. And in every case, ultimately, I put it to you, our fearfulness and the sense of being overwhelmed is always due to a loss of confidence in this one essential fact: “My times are in your hands.”
Listen to how one of my friends put it, an older Scotsman: “The Lord sits enthroned over all the military, political, social and economic forces of our generation …. Nothing has got out of hand, nor will it. We can therefore live day by day knowing that the hands which hold our lives are the same hands which hold all things.” You see, without that awareness, without a certainty concerning the providence of God, life is ultimately unbearable. And people then need to go and find some other way, as we said on Monday morning, to answer Gauguin’s three questions: “Where did I come from, what am I, and where am I going?” And that is then followed through in the various things that people embrace, whether it is atheism, or skepticism, or humanism, or modernism, or post-modernism, or nihilism, or consumerism. “I think I’ll just go to the mall and run up my credit card again. I try and eat myself into satisfaction. I’ll try and exercise myself into significance.”
In the ’60s, a long time before most of you were born, there was a country western guy, a funny little guy called Ray Stevens. And he put a song out that was actually banned on many of the radio stations because they thought it was anticapitalist. I don’t know whether it was or it wasn’t. But it went like this:
Itemize the things you covet
As you squander through your life:
Bigger cars, better houses,
Term insurance on your wife,
Tuesday evenings with your harlot,
And on Wednesdays it’s your charlatan, your analyst,
Is high upon your list.
Spending counterfeit incentive,
Wasting precious time and health,
Placing value on the worthless,
Disregarding priceless wealth,
You can wheel and deal the best of them
And steal it from the rest of them;
You know the score, their ethics are a bore.
Eighty-six proof anesthetic crutches
Prop you to the top,
Where the smiles are all synthetic
And the ulcers never stop.
When they take the final inventory,
Yours will be the same sad story everywhere;
No one will really care, no one more lonely than
This wretched more than man.
Can I have your autograph? Endorse your epitaph.
And did you see your children growing up today?
And did you hear the fragrance of their laughter
As they set about to play?
And did you smell the fragrance of the roses in your garden?
Did the morning sunlight lift your eyes
And brighten up your day?
And do you qualify to be alive?
Or is the limit of your senses so as only to survive?
Hey, you better take care of business, Mr. Businessman.
Walk out off this campus. No, stay on the campus. Gaze into the faces of your friends and your fellow students and your faculty members. See the furrows on their brows. Pick up the hints from their responses. And I guarantee you, without a deep-seated conviction that our times are in God’s hands, this is one fragile existence.
If you like to read Calvin and his Institutes, I have a wonderful section for you there that I was going to quote from, but I don’t have a lot of time, and so it wouldn’t be good to do. What he does is he says, “You know, if you think you’ve got reason for being worried, then, you know, I can give you a few more.” He refers to our body as the “receptacle of a thousand diseases.” You know, so for those of you who are paranoid and always going for blood tests and whatnot, you don’t want to read this section in Calvin. It’s actually quite good. Well, I’ll give you a little bit of it. Who cares? I’m not coming back again in any case, so…
Listen to what he says:
Embark upon a ship, you are one step away from death. Mount a horse, if one foot slips, your life is imperiled. Go through the city streets, you are subject to as many dangers as there are tiles on the roofs. If there is a weapon in your hand or a friend’s, harm awaits. All the fierce animals you see are armed for your destruction. But if you try to shut yourself up in a walled garden, seemingly delightful, there a serpent sometimes lies hidden. Your house, continually in danger of fire, threatens in the daytime to impoverish you, at night even to collapse [on] you. Your field, it is exposed to hail, frost, drought, and other calamities, [threaten] you with barrenness, and … famine.
And then he says—there’s no end to this—he says, “I pass over poisonings, ambushes, robberies, open violence, which in part besiege us at home, in part dog us abroad. Amid these tribulations must not man be most miserable, since, but half alive in life, he [meekly] draws his anxious and languid breath, as if he had a sword perpetually hanging over his [head]?”
“Hey, thanks, Calvin. That’s good! I’m feeling so much better. That’s good. And I thought I had reason to be worried. I didn’t realize I had so many reasons to be worried.” What is the antidote? What is the antidote? “My times are in your hands.” Are they? Or are we just cast about on a sea of chance? Are we held in the grip of blind, deterministic forces?
So, prosperity should not be the occasion of pride, anxiety should not be the basis for despair, and thirdly, adversity should not be the occasion of self-pity. Of self-pity. When we indulge ourselves in self-pity, it is almost inevitably traceable to the fact that we are unprepared to acknowledge that God is sovereign over all these things.
So, for example, if you consider the life of Joseph: if Joseph had merely focused on all of the treachery that had led up to his position in Egypt, he would have been one miserable character with whom to spend time, wouldn’t he? He would have had reason to curse his father for getting him the jolly coat in the first place: “I didn’t ask for the coat. What in the world was he giving me that dumb coat for?” he could have said. All of his life, “The coat is the problem. My father’s the problem—the father, the coat, the coat, the father, everything. That messed my entire life up. Who would’ve thought that a coat could destroy your life? And my brothers! Yeah, sure, I had a few dreams; I said, you know, they were gonna bow down to me, but they were… ahhh. And why would they put me in that pit? Miserable rascals that they are, every last one of them. I hate my brothers, I hate everything about them, I hope I never see them again in my life. Oh, look, here come my brothers.”
Do you remember what he says to his brothers? ’Cause they weep at his self-disclosure. When he comes out from underneath his Egyptian mask, as it were, and he says, “Ego eimi. I’m Joseph!” And they began to weep. And he says to them, “Do not be distressed or angry with yourselves.” “Do not be distressed or angry with yourselves.” Why not? “My times are in God’s hands. For God sent me before you to preserve your life.” Do you get that? “You malevolently determined to take my life on account of your jealously. On account of the intervention of one of you, my life was spared, and I have lived separate from you and separate from my father for all these years. But I want you to know that I don’t harbor any bitterness against you. I don’t harbor any bitterness against you for the time I spent in jail. Don’t be distressed, don’t be angry with yourselves. God sent me before you to preserve your lives, God sent me before you to preserve a remnant,” and then he says, “so it wasn’t you who sent me here, but God.”
But it was them that sent him there. They sold him into slavery. Yeah… but God overruled all of their individual actions without ever once violating their freedom. Their jealousy was a real jealousy; they weren’t programmed to be jealous. Their animosity was a real animosity. And in the vastness of the purposes of God, he was orchestrating things so as to preserve a remnant for himself and a people who would be there in Egypt.
It’s amazing, isn’t it? You see, there’s a lesson in this as well, and it is this: that the providences of God are seldom self-interpreting. Do you get that? The providences of God are seldom self-interpreting. So when you and I are going through things, if we are constantly, immediately saying, “How does this affect me? What does this mean to me? How can I explain this in terms of the immediate and the here and now?” we will seldom get it right. Joseph could never have got it right when he was in that pit, if he started to try and explain the providence of God to himself in the midst of all of that animosity, when he was stripped naked and put up in front of the people before he was taken into the home of Potiphar, when he was on the receiving end of the seducing glances and insinuations of Potiphar’s wife, when he ended up in the jail, maligned and accused—and innocent! What is it allows somebody who lives a life like that to stand up and greet his brothers and say, “Don’t be distressed, don’t be angry with yourselves”? What it is allows somebody to do that? He understands, “My times are in your hands.”
As I have lived my own life and faced some of my own challenges—and continue to do, as well—I have to remind myself on a regular basis that the God who is involved—profoundly involved—in the life cycle of a sparrow is actually committed to my life as well, and that he will sustain me and watch over me in the face of everything.
There are few funerals that I’ve done—I guess it’s funeral morning for me—but there are few funerals I’ve done that have stood out for me so much as the funeral that I did of a lady probably twenty years ago or more. She was a young lady; she died before she was forty. She had a disease that those of you who are going to be medics will understand, that I don’t understand, but it essentially was some kind of epidermal disease that began to close down her existence. Her hands, her face, everything was finally turned in, and it essentially, in her thirties, squeezed the life out of her.
She was from a Roman Catholic family, a big family. She had come to trust in Jesus; she discovered that religion didn’t have the answer but that Jesus set her free. And she left a letter that she wanted me to have, so that on the occasion of her funeral I would be able to tell her family how she had viewed the way in which her life had unfolded and the way in which it had been taken away from her. And this is the verse that she wanted me to read. Job 10:12: “You gave me life and showed kindness, and in your providence watched over my spirit.” “You gave me life and showed kindness, and in your providence watched over my spirit.” How’d she get there? “My times are in your hands.”
Do you have a moment for a now what? Let me give you a now what, whether you have a moment or not. What? “My times are in your hands.” Therefore, I’m not cast around on the sea of chance, I’m not held in the grip of blind, deterministic forces; I’m being trained in the school of God’s providence. That’s the what. So what? Prosperity should not be the occasion of pride, anxiety should not be the occasion of despair, and adversity should not be allowed to overturn us. Now what? Here we go.
One, there is a responsibility that we have to face up to. Because some of you are beginning already to say to yourself, “Well, in that case, I’ve got nothing to do with anything at all. Somehow or another, this notion of God’s sovereignty has exempted me from everything, as if, somehow or another, it relieves me of all responsibility.” No. No, that’s wrong. Although the Lord overrules all things according to his purpose, we are still responsible to him for all that we are and all that we do. Therefore, we are responsible to make sensible decisions. We are responsible to be righteous in our planning. We are responsible to be involved in the problems of our world. “A man’s heart devises his way, but the Lord directs his steps.” Therefore, we are to look ahead, we’re to make plans, we’re to put our affairs in order, and we are always to be in submission to his will.
You have this juxtaposition, classically, in the story of Nehemiah. You remember, where he is confronted by enemies in the work of reconstruction in Jerusalem and—wonderful verse!—Nehemiah 4:9: “We prayed to our God and [we] posted a guard.” “We prayed to our God and we posted our guard.” Somebody would have said, “No, all you have to do is pray. That’s all you do. You just pray.” Sounds very pious, doesn’t it? “I just pray. I leave my car open, I leave my keys there, I leave my briefcase in the car. I just pray. I just pray and just walk away.” Idiot!
When Joab encourages the troops under his care, he says, “Be strong, and let us fight bravely for our people and the cities of our God.” You know what the next sentence says? “The Lord will do what is good in his sight.”
So, there is a responsibility that we cannot avoid; there is a humility that ought to be fostered in us. You see, this is the other side of the coin, isn’t it, from the idea that prosperity would produce pride in us? No, the providence of God actually humbles us. So, for example, Joseph’s response to Pharaoh when he asks for an interpretation of the dream. Joseph does not say, “Oh, I’m glad you asked. I’m your man. Ha! Dreams, I’m big on, I’m good on dreams. Yeah. In fact, I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for dreams. I had a couple of dillies. I’ll tell you about them, maybe, later, but what is it you’ve got for me?” He doesn’t say that at all. He says, “I can’t interpret dreams. But God can.” “I can’t. But God can.”
David against Goliath: “The Lord will give you into my hand, and I will chop off your head.” What was it that he was so ticked about with his brothers was that they all went out there and stood in front of Goliath every day. Got their clothes on, got the battlements on, ready to go, out they go every morning, Wednesday morning same as Tuesday, same as Monday. There they all stand. Out into the field of battle comes Goliath: “Come on out! Come on, I’ll fight every one of you, any one of you. Come on out here. Come on, let’s go.”
And the king says, “You know, you can marry my daughter, you can have a kingdom, you can have everything. Just go out and fight the guy!” Nobody moves. David shows up with some cheese for his brothers, sent down by his dad. He hears all this chat. He says, “I’ll fight the guy.” His brothers said, “Who do you think you are, coming down here, you sniveling little rascal? You just came down here to watch the battle.” And the only thing that I’d like to insert in the Bible is a little verse that’s not in the Bible—but when they say to him, “You just came down to watch the battle,” I want it to say, “And David said, ‘What battle?’” ’Cause there was no battle! There were just guys standing there like this, and a big giant going, “Hey, come on! Come on!”
So he says, “I’ll fight him.” So, pragmatism says, “Well, if you’re going to fight him, then you’re gonna need all this clobber.” So he gets all clobbered up, and then he can’t walk. It’s a tragic-comic picture—all in Saul’s armor: “I don’t think this is gonna work, you know?”
“Well, you can’t go out. What are you gonna do? Are you just gonna walk out there?”
“Yeah, I’ll just do what I usually do.”
“What do you usually do?”
“Well, I got this sling thing, and I got a few stones…”
This guy’s like, “You’re nuts!”
“Well, maybe! But, you know, I once killed a bear. I ripped the face off a lion.”
“Yeah, sure. Go ahead, David. Whatever.”
And then he goes out there and he says, “Hey, I’m David!” No, he doesn’t. He says, “You have defied the armies of the living God. That’s the issue! And so today, God—the living God, the providential God, the sovereign God—will give you into my hand, and I will chop off your head.” And he did. Didn’t make him proud. Made him wonder!
At every level—listen!—at every level, our lives are utterly dependent upon God. So don’t draw attention to yourself. Don’t go out as a proud, arrogant person. Don’t trumpet your own achievements. Acknowledge that you cannot even open your eyelids in the morning apart from the providence of God.
And finally, since our times are in God’s hands, not only is there a responsibility that we need to face and a humility that we need to foster, but there is a security that we find in this truth. Says Calvin, “Ignorance of providence is the ultimate of all miseries; the highest blessedness lies in the knowledge of it.” So instead of living in the fearfulness of what fate might bring, instead of viewing our lives in the world as a kind of tumbleweed blowing out there down the freeway in Albuquerque… no, as humble believers, we just fearlessly, again, commit ourselves to God.
The believer’s solace, says Calvin, “is to know that his Heavenly Father so holds all things in his power, so rules [everything] by his authority and will, so governs by [all] his wisdom, that nothing can befall except he determine it.
Listen, young folks: we are not at the mercy of arbitrary and impersonal forces; we are in the hands of a heavenly Father who loves us with an everlasting love. Does this answer all our questions? Clearly not. But it is in this central fact that I am then set free from the regrets of yesterday and I’m strengthened for the challenges of tomorrow.
So, do your best. Try your hardest. Love passionately. Live joyously. Engage imaginatively. Investigate unrelentingly. But every night, when you put your head on the pillow, remember, “My times are in your hands. You know all about my mom and dad. You know all about the divorce. You know all about my fears. You know all about my cancer. You know all about these things. And God, you are my God, and I will trust you.”
Let me quote from a hymn, and we’ll use this as kinda like our benediction, and then after I finish the hymn, then I’m supposed to say, “You’re dismissed.” It’s kinda like the most powerful thing I get to say all day. And people actually leave, like I’m very powerful. But actually, you’re leaving ’cause you can’t wait to get out. I understand that.
Here’s our couple of verses as our benediction:
All the way my Savior leads me,
Cheers each winding path I tread;
Gives me grace for every trial,
Feeds me with the living bread.
Though my weary steps may falter
And my soul athirst may be,
Gushing from the rock before me,
[There’s] a spring of joy I see.
All the way my Savior leads me;
O the fullness of his love!
Perfect rest to me is promised
In my Father’s house above.
When my spirit, clothed immortal,
Wings its flight [through] realms of day
This my song through endless ages:
Jesus led me all the way.
 Psalm 31:15 (ESV).
 Paul Anka, “My Way” (1969).
 William Henley, “Invictus” (1875).
 C. H. Spurgeon, The Treasury of David, vol. 2, Psalm XXVII. to LVII. (London: Marshall Brothers, 1881), 62.
 Bruce Milne, Know the Truth: A Handbook of Christian Belief, 3rd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2009), 118.
 Ray Stevens, “Mr. Businessman” (1968). Lyrics lightly altered.
 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 1:223.
 Calvin, 1:223.
 Genesis 45:3 (paraphrased).
 Genesis 45:5 (ESV).
 Genesis 45:5–8 (paraphrased).
 See Matthew 10:29−31.
 Job 10:12 (paraphrased).
 Proverbs 16:9 (paraphrased).
 Nehemiah 4:9 (NIV).
 2 Samuel 10:12 (NIV).
 Genesis 41:16 (paraphrased).
 See 1 Samuel 17:1–51.
 Calvin, Institutes, 1:225.
 Calvin, Institutes, 1:224.
 Fanny Crosby, “All the Way My Savior Leads Me” (1875).
Copyright © 2023, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.