The path of Christian faith is marked with periods of stress, difficulty, pain, and disappointment. In Part One of this two-part message, Alistair Begg begins to examine some basic truths regarding God's providence. The believer is not a victim of fate or chance, but can be confident that the Lord is aware of the details of everyday life and is working all things out according to His divine plan.
Can I invite you to take your Bibles and turn to the Psalms with me, if you would—to the book of Psalms. We begin reading at the first verse of Psalm 31:
In you, O Lord, I have taken refuge;
let me never be put to shame;
deliver me in your righteousness.
Turn your ear to me,
come quickly to my rescue;
be my rock of refuge,
a strong fortress to save me.
Since you are my rock and my fortress,
for the sake of your name lead and guide me.
Free me from the trap that is set for me,
for you are my refuge.
Into your hands I commit my spirit;
redeem me, O Lord, the God of truth.
I hate those who cling to worthless idols;
I trust in the Lord.
I will be glad and rejoice in your love,
for you saw my affliction
and knew the anguish of my soul.
You have not handed me over to the enemy
but have set my feet in a spacious place.
Be merciful to me, O Lord, for I am in distress;
my eyes grow weak with sorrow,
my soul and my body with grief.
My life is consumed by anguish
and my years by groaning;
my strength fails because of my affliction,
and my bones grow weak.
Because of all my enemies,
I am the utter contempt of my neighbors;
I am a dread to my friends—
those who see me on the street flee from me.
I am forgotten by them as though I were dead;
I have become like broken pottery.
For I hear the slander of many;
there is [a] terror on every side;
they conspire against me
and plot to take my life.
But I trust in you, O Lord;
I say, “You are my God.”
My times are in your hands;
deliver me from my enemies
and from those who pursue me.
Let your face shine on your servant;
save me in your unfailing love.
Let me not be put to shame, O Lord,
for I have cried out to you;
but let the wicked be put to shame
and lie silent in the grave.
Let their lying lips be silenced,
for with pride and contempt
they speak arrogantly against the righteous.
How great is your goodness,
which you have stored up for those who fear you,
which you bestow in the sight of men
on those who take refuge in you.
In the shelter of your presence you hide them
from the intrigues of men;
in your dwelling you keep them safe
from accusing tongues.
Praise be to the Lord,
for he showed his wonderful love to me
when I was in a besieged city.
In my alarm I said,
“I am cut off from your sight!”
Yet you heard my cry for mercy
when I called to you for help.
Love the Lord, all his saints!
The Lord preserves the faithful,
but the proud he pays back in full.
Be strong and take heart,
all you who hope in the Lord.”
Amen and amen.
You can keep your Bible open there; I want to turn you just to a phrase. But before we turn to the Word of the Lord, we turn for a moment to the Lord of the Word:
Our gracious God and Father, we pray now that you will be our teacher, that by the Holy Spirit we might be freed from all unhelpful distractions, all empty, sinful thoughts. Save us from simply listening to the voice of a mere man, but through the voice of a mere man, speak by your Spirit, through your Word to our waiting hearts, we pray. For Jesus’ sake we ask it. Amen.
I want, in the course of this Sunday morning and next Sunday morning, God willing, to draw our attention to one phrase in the reading that we just shared—namely, the opening six words of the fifteenth verse, which read as follows: “My times are in your hands.” “My times are in your hands.” Now, if anybody were to ask you, “What was the sermon about at church today?” you will be able to say, “It was about our times being in God’s hands.” And if you have a question about what it will be concerning next Sunday, then you will be able to answer in the same manner.
Now, my purpose is not to expound the Thirty-First Psalm. I want to deal with this subject topically, which I do sparingly, but nevertheless do from time to time. But I do need you to notice that in the Thirty-First Psalm, in the verses that we read, there is a cycle which repeats itself. In the opening verses, the psalmist is in anguish, and by the time he gets to verse 8, he has come to a position of assurance. And just when it appears that everything is hunky-dory, when everything is all right, when the clouds have gone and the rain has stopped, our eyes scan to the ninth verse, and we discover that after the clouds have gone, the rain has actually returned. And he says again in verse 9, “I am in distress.”
It’s not an uncommon experience in life, at a superficial level and at a more serious level. As I was thinking about it this week—I don’t know why; I’m plagued, as you know, with songs—but the phrase that came, and it is from a different genre, but the phrase that came as I got to the ninth verse was:
Just when I thought I was over you.
Just when I thought I could stand on my own.
Oh baby, those memories came crashing through.
Now, whether that’s a sign of a misspent youth or not, I don’t know, but it is the pain of a guy who thought that he had managed to weather the storm, the clouds had gone, the rain had ceased, and it was all fine now, and then all of a sudden it broke over his head once more. That is the experience of the psalmist here, and it is the not unusual experience of Christian pilgrimage. If we’re going to be honest, we need to admit the fact that on the path of faith there is the reoccurrence of pain and disappointment and distress and difficulty and burden and disappointment. And the key issue is, what are we going to do with those realistic experiences?
Now, I come to this because we’re in the final days of 1997. And this year has been marked for each of us by a number of events, some of which have brought us encouragement and others of which have brought us pain. Few have been neutral. Simple things have brought us joy—for example, my favorite letter of 1997, I want to read to you, because you know I get some other letters that aren’t my favorites, and I can derive great joy from something like this—written by a nine-year-old girl; I preserve her anonymity. It says, “Dear Pastor Begg, I like the way you preach each sermon. I also liked it when you came to Tapawingo and preached.” That’s a little island up in the Adirondacks. “You’re a very nice man.” See, she’s a perceptive young girl. “You are also a funny man. I hear you on the radio a lot. You don’t stutter a lot. Let me be honest: you do stutter once in a while. You say good and strong words. I like you. Your friend.” Doesn’t take much to cheer me up at all, but I don’t want a whole succession of letters written by nine-year-olds, because then I have to reply to them all. But nevertheless, there have been those, and then there have been others. But you know I only keep the good ones.
And there you sit, and here we are, a jumble of emotions, a cross section of experiences. The good, the bad, and the ugly has washed over us in the last weeks and months. And one of the distinguishing marks of the believer as opposed to the unbeliever, the Christian as opposed to the person who just talks about Christian things, is to be found in the way in which the believer views the passing of time and the ordering of the events of life. One of the really key distinguishing features at the end of the twentieth century is the way in which we view our world. And I want to make that clear to you in a moment or two.
And here is the affirmation of the person who knows himself or herself to be—despite the disasters, despite the difficulties—under the care of Almighty God: in a phrase, says the psalmist, “My times are in your hands.” Now, this is a truth that is true for every believer. You actually may want just to say that out loud. Just say that out loud: “My times are in your hands.” Again: “My times are in your hands.”
Now, you see, it is this truth which will bring equilibrium to us in the span of events which would inflate our ego or crush our souls. And there are nine things that I would like to tell you which emerge from this simple statement.
Now, the reason I said we’ll deal with it this Sunday and next Sunday is because it is highly unlikely that we would be able to go through nine subpoints this morning. But you don’t need me to tell you that.
The first truth is this: since “my times are in your hands,” number one, I am not trapped in the grip of blind forces. I am not trapped in the grip of blind forces. I am not stymied, if you like, by fate.
When Paul, addressing the intellectuals of his day, in the city of Athens—and you can read this in Acts chapter 17—began to speak to the people both in the marketplace and in the synagogue, and then, eventually, in a more rarefied environment, he discovered that the minds of the people had been percolated by two fundamental ideas. These ideas were largely attributable to the influence of two characters who had lived in the third and fourth century. And the first character was a chap by the name of Zeno. And this guy Zeno is the father of stoicism. You remember, he says that he was talking with some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers who were interested to find out what the babbler had to say, because, according to Luke, Paul was bringing some strange ideas to their attention. Because these individuals were now finding out that there was a different way to view the world.
This little Jewish man, who was proclaiming the name of Jesus Christ, was calling in question what many of them had taken as self-evident—namely, that the ideas of this man Zeno, who had lived between 335 and 263 BC, were really true; namely, that the events of the world are determined by a merciless, cold, and impersonal fate. And so, taught Zeno to his followers, instead of trying to struggle with this, instead of trying to change your circumstances, if you’re going to be truly stoic in your response, then what you need to do is simply cast yourself on this merciless Mover, and learn to say,
Que será, será,
Whatever will be, will be.
The future’s not [mine] to see
Que será, será.
No matter what comes—the good, the bad, or the ugly—you just grip your steering wheel a little tighter, and you say, “Hey, that’s just the way it is.” Life is held in the grip of a cold, merciless, faceless power called fate.
And this blind, impersonal force is often referred to simply as nature. It was then, and it is today. At its most evidential level, you hear it every two or three days as you listen to the weather forecast, as the chap on the Weather Channel or the lady on Channel Three, or whoever it is, introduces, as brightly as she can, the subject which is before her with the phrase, “Well, let’s see what Mother Nature has for us today.” Now, what she’s actually declaring there, whether she realizes it or not, is a form of stoicism—that, in point of fact, the way in which rivers run to the oceans, the cycle of the planets, the trajectory of the moon, all of that is somehow or another simply like a spinning top that was wound up at some point in eternity and was spun once, and it is now just spinning hopelessly. And there are from it, if you like, these forces which determine the way in which life goes.
At a more profound level, this notion is evident in the pantheistic ideas of “earth prayers,” which are frequently propounded now in not only New Age gatherings but also in many church buildings. And the notion is that we are simply individual cells in a single global organism that constitutes the earth, which is Gaia. If you haven’t picked up on it at all, then if you bought James Taylor’s latest album, then you found yourself listening to it in the car and saying, “I wonder what in the world Gaia is? And I wonder why James Taylor would be so interested in Gaia?” Well, it is because he has bought the idea. He has bought the philosophy that we are somehow simply caught up as organisms in the mixture of all that God has done, and that he—God himself—is not distinct from his creation but is trapped in his creation, and what we have then is a form of late twentieth-century pantheism. Now, what this brings with it is all kinds of chaos.
I say to you again that one of the most distinctive features of the Christian now, as we anticipate the twenty-first century, is the way in which we will be able to articulate our view of the world. We have lived through Marxism, which said life has meaning in the dialectic, which we hope will move us in the struggle towards a classless society. So at least a Marxist in the ’50s and the ’60s knew that there was a purpose, and that’s why they were so passionate in what they were doing. And in certain areas of the world they remain equally passionate; they know why they exist, they know what they hope to achieve, and they’re giving their very lives to achieve it. For the Hindu, life is simply an endless cycle of birth and rebirth. And you hope that as you go through the cycle, you will eventually strike it rich and move on. For many of our friends—and this is especially true of university students at the present time—they have embraced a form of nihilism—nothingness—whereby they are convinced that life has no meaning at all: there was nothing before you were born, there is nothing after you have died. And so they have concluded that they are trapped in the grip of a blind force.
Some of you have come to worship this morning, and that’s exactly… I just propounded your philosophy for you. How do you sleep at night? What do you do? Do you drink whiskey to get off to sleep? And when you waken in the morning, what puts a spring in your step? Living life trapped, encaged, by a blind, cold, merciless fate, “to die, and go [to] who knows where.”
Now, in contrast, the believer says, “Oh, no! My times are in your hands. I am not trapped by a blind force.”
Secondly, I am not tossed about on the ocean of chance. This brings us to the other character in Acts 17; his name was Epicurus, from which we get epicurean. He lived between 341 and 270 BC. He passed on a system of ethics which has come right down to the twentieth century. For Epicurus, “the good” was what life was all about, and the good could be determined by what brings most pleasure. Therefore, you spent all of your life trying to achieve the good, and the way you achieve the good was by getting as much pleasure as you possibly could. And so, he would have been really happy in the ’60s. He would have been on Carnaby Street, turning on, tuning in, dropping out. Because the underlying philosophy declared that everything happens by chance—propounded the notion that since there’s nothing after death, we should simply live the life of Old King Cole. Remember him?
Old King Cole was a merry old soul,
And a merry old soul was he;
He called for his pipe, and he called for his bowl,
And he called for his fiddlers three.
Some of you are not very well educated; I can tell by the blank look on your face. The nursery rhymes have not made a sufficient transition across the Atlantic Ocean. You say to yourself, “And thank goodness for that. It sounds dreadful.” But anyway, Old King Cole was simply that. He was a hedonist; he was epicurean. All he wanted to do was have a great time. Party! There’s no tomorrow; it’s now!
Now, the fact is that Epicurus and his followers never pushed it to its logical conclusion. They didn’t have to, because there were gonna come people after them who would do that for them. For example, what you have in Sartre’s philosophy—which all of you, when you went to school, took as part of the foundational courses of philosophy, if you lived at a certain era—Sartre says, “Okay, I’ll take that, and I’ll push it to its logical conclusion.” And he writes his first novel, called Nausea, and he puts in the lips of one of his key characters, Roquentin, the expression of the ultimate futility, which is at the flip side of the statement of faith, “My times are in your hands.” Roquentin is pictured walking in the city park, and he is overcome by the nausea of the meaninglessness of life. And as he looks around, he concludes, “Every existent is born without reason, prolongs itself out of weakness and dies by chance.”
Now, that is contemporary existentialism. At the grassroots level, where do you get it? Everywhere. For example, Robin Williams, Dead Poets Society: gathers all the guys out in the corridor of the boarding school and shows them all the pictures of the fellows that went before them, and where we have a display of their success in life. And he shows these young boys, he says, “Now look, this fellow was here, and look what he did and he achieved and he achieved,” and he says, “Now here’s the thing: fellas, carpe diem—seize the day! You must do your best in the moment that you have.”
Now, in one sense that is a very fine piece of advice, because we need to make use of the time that we have, because the time that we have is the time that we have. But the underlying notion in it is that there was no yesterday and there will be no tomorrow. What he is actually doing is propounding the empty of philosophy of Nietzsche, who declared, “There remains only void. Man is falling. His dignity is gone. His values are lost. There is no difference between up and down. It has become chilly, and the dark night is closing in.”
Don’t you get that sense? I get it at different places. I get it in springtime in Coventry, outside the Arabica Coffee Shop, when it’s seventy-four degrees and a ton of really interesting young folks are sitting on the wall. And despite the springtime sun on their shoulders, I know that they would be prepared to say, “It has become chilly, and the dark night is closing in.” Because, you see, they are living without hope and without God in the world. They cannot say, “My times are in your hands,” because they believe their destiny to be in their own control.
So what does the Christian say? If to say “My times are in your hands” means that I’m not trapped by blind fate, that I am not tossed around on the sea of chance, what is it? It is this: I am being trained in the school of God’s providence. I am being trained in the school of God’s providence. While men and women are smothered by the pessimism that we’ve just described, and others embrace the kind of superficial optimism of hedonism—and characterized by the guy who fell out the thirty-story window, and as he hurtled down past the tenth floor, somebody heard him shouting, “So far, so good!” And there are many people whose lives are just like that. They don’t want to know that we’re gonna hit the ground. They don’t want to know that there’s only nine floors left. They don’t want to hear anything about that. All they want to know is they are free falling, they haven’t hit the ground yet, and “Leave me alone!” The psalmist says, “No, we can’t simply go to that.”
The Christian affirms the truth that God has not abandoned the world that he created. That’s deism. Nor has he become absorbed by his creation. That’s pantheism. But rather, he is distinct from what he has made, and he is working everything in relationship to his creation out according to his plan.
Oh! You’ll be interested to know: I got a globe. So you can relax. I know many of you were planning on buying me one, and you have it on order. Cancel the order. But I got the globe. Actually, I got three globes. I got an air-filled globe that I can kick around the office, I got a beautiful paperweight globe that I can lay on my desk, and I got the mother of all globes from my wife, which I will show to people on rare occasions. But I’ve had the privilege now, for the first time in my life—and you know this has been a problem for me, living forty-five years without a globe—for the first time in my life, I’ve been able to spin the globe and have, right there at my fingertips, the whole world, as it were, and the vastness of it all.
As I sat the other evening and I spun this thing in my hands, I said, “Man, this is actually what… this is what God does! He actually moves this thing for us.” That’s why we don’t live in the Ice Age. That’s why we haven’t been burned up. Because we’re in the exact spot, according to his divine plan. And that by the same power with which he created this universe in which we live, by his same divine energy, he preserves all of his creatures, he operates in all that comes to pass in the world, and he directs everything to its appointed end. Did you get that? The God who created the world, by his same divine energy, preserves all of his creatures, is operative in everything that comes to pass in the world, and he directs all of the events of life according to his appointed end.
And that appointed end, says Paul in writing to the Ephesians, is to bring “everything in[to] conformity with the purpose of his will.” And in writing to the Romans, he makes it clear that his purpose is to conform people to the image of his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. So that as bizarre as it seems, the sovereign creator of the ends of the earth fashions everything that happens in time and in history to this eventuality: that he will redeem for himself a people who are his very own, and he will use the good, the bad, and the ugly in our lives in order to conform us to the image of his Son and to enable us to say, “I’m not like a cork on the sea of life, I’m not trapped in the cage of fate, but rather, my times are in your hands.” That is an expression of belief, and that is an expression of faith.
Psalm 139 probably gives it to us as clear and as well as any psalm to which we might turn:
O Lord, you have searched me
and you know me.
You know when I sit [down] and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down;
“You see me when I drive my car; you know me when I’m lying in my bed.”
Before a word is on my tongue
you know it completely ….
You hem me in—behind and before. 
You say, “Well, this is all sort of generic stuff. Does it stretch to the specific?” You bet your life it does! Look at verse 13:
For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
You talk about dignity? Do you think it’s really dignified to be told that you are the product of some chance explosion in a slimy pond somewhere, where DNA introduced itself to DNA and you emerged out of a little phbbtt to become what you are today? No wonder people are going around half dead.
This doesn’t make any sense at all. It doesn’t make any sense at all! “The fool [has] said in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” Behind a facade of wisdom, people have become fools who would worship creatures and created things and stuff that you put on dressers rather than bow down and say, “You know what? My times are in your hands! I can’t even breathe unless you allow me. I cannot get enough of the juice in my eyes to keep them opening and closing as they need to.” What a proud, arrogant rascal is man, as we stand and thumb our noses at the Creator, who holds our very breath in his hand. “You made me in my mother’s womb. You determined my O-positive blood. You determined my DNA. You knew whether I would have hair or no hair. You knew what color it would be. You knew my eyes would be blue. You knew it all! And indeed, not only did you know it, but you planned it.”
Now, loved ones, this sounds so bizarre, doesn’t it? A hundred years ago, men and women, by and large, took it for granted. But we have lived in a hundred years of the diminishing of God and the elevation of man. And so we find ourselves trapped in cages and floating in boats with no compass and no oars and no nothing. And
All the days ordained for me
were written in your book
before one of them came to be.
That is not fate. That is, “My Father, who loves me with an everlasting love, has determined the span of my life. And I trust him. I am not stuck with an impersonal force.”
Now, you see, loved ones, this is the basis of great comfort. You might as well believe there is no God as believe what people believe. They tell me, you know, “Well, I believe there is a God, but I don’t believe he sees, I don’t believe he hears, I don’t believe he cares, and I don’t believe he acts in human affairs.” Well, what do you even believe in a God for? What does he do? If he’s on vacation for all of that, what does he do when he works?
Well, I want you to know, I do believe that God sees, and I do believe that God hears, and I do believe that God knows, and I do believe that God cares. Because he wrote this whole book to make that absolutely clear. And furthermore, he stepped down onto the globe from the glory of heaven. And he revealed himself in the person of the incarnate Son, the Lord Jesus Christ—God with us. And Jesus, in affirming the same truth in the crowd that has gathered around them, says to them with simplicity and with power, on one occasion… “Let me ask you a question,” he says. “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny?” They must have looked at one another and said, “Yes.” And says Jesus, “Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father.” Sparrows do not fall dead into the Metroparks except for the unfolding of the will of the creator of the ends of the earth, who knows the end from the beginning and knows every detail of our lives. Then he applies it: “And even,” he says, “the very hairs of your head are … numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”
I don’t know what your résumé’s like. Mine is not that great. But here’s something you can write on it if you’ve been stuck for stuff. You could put this on: “I went here, I went there, I did this, I did that, and by the way, I am worth more than many sparrows.” Someone may like to try that; I’d like to see what happened. I’d try it myself, but I don’t have a reason to give anyone a résumé—I hope! But can you imagine the guy reading down? You know, you’re at Glaxo Wellcome or something because you want to get involved in biochemistry, and he goes through your thing: “Case Western Reserve. Uh-huh, yes. ‘I am worth more than many sparrows.’ Would you like to tell me about that?”
“I’d love to tell you about that. Do you know what it means?”
“It means I’m not trapped in a cage marked ‘fate.’ It means I’m not adrift on a boat marked ‘chance.’ It means I’m being trained in the school of God’s providence. It means, in short, that my times are in his hands.”
See, this is how you can go to sleep at night. This is how you can get up in the morning. This is how we must live, presumably, in light of the fact that any one of us may fall foul of anything at any moment in time.
In Scotland we used to sing the hymn—which I would use as a closing hymn if we knew how to sing it, but we don’t. But I’ll come back to the other six points next time. This is what we used to sing:
My times are in your hand;
My God, I wish them there;
My life, my friends, my soul I leave
Entirely to your care.
My times are in your hand;
Whatever they may be;
Pleasing or painful, dark or bright,
As best may seem to thee.
My times are in your hand;
Why should I doubt or fear?
My Father’s hand will never cause
His child a needless tear.
It all sounds so trendy, it all sounds so cool—all the Gaia stuff. It is total, abject hopelessness. It’s a train going nowhere. It’s a boat with a hole in it. It’s an airplane with no engines. It’s a life without purpose. Is that where you want to live, unbeliever? You want to jam me in a corner and make me explain to you why I’m so stupid as to believe what I believe? I beg your pardon. I beg your pardon. “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” But as for me, “My times are in your hands.”
God, you know our hearts, and you know our minds, you know our words. Some of us have come to worship this morning; we’re here just because someone brought us along. We felt we got jammed, we got caged in. Or that we bounced in by chance. If you’re beginning to rethink that. It seems possible that we’re here by divine appointment—to think the issues out, to realign our coming and going, to admit our need of you, to believe in your Son, to cry to you for mercy, to set the compass of our lives according to the truth of your Word. Hear the cries of our hearts.
And now, Father, in light of our joys and sorrows, our hopes and our fears, we come afresh to you. May your grace be our portion today. May your love fill our hearts and flow from our lives. May your peace guard and keep our hearts and minds, today and forevermore. Amen.
 Norman Sallitt, “Here I Am” (1981). Lyrics lightly altered.
 See Acts 17:16–20.
 Ray Evans, “Que Será, Será” (1956).
 William Shakespeare, Measure for Measure, 3.1.
 Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea (1938).
 Dead Poets Society, directed by Peter Weir (Burbank, CA: Touchstone Pictures, 1989). Paraphrased.
 Walter A. Kaufmann, Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist, 4th ed. (1950; repr., Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013), 97. The quoted words are not Nietzsche’s own but rather Kaufmann’s summary of Nietzsche’s philosophy.
 See Ephesians 2:12.
 Ephesians 1:11 (NIV 1984).
 See Romans 8:29.
 See Titus 2:14.
 Psalm 139:1–5 (NIV 1984).
 Psalm 14:1 (KJV).
 See Romans 1:25.
 See Daniel 5:23.
 Psalm 139:16 (NIV 1984).
 Matthew 10:29–31 (NIV 1984).
 William F. Lloyd, “My Times Are in Thy Hand” (1824). Language modernized.
Copyright © 2020, 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.