I totally get why people would reject the idea of an omniscient, benevolent God. It’s true that it is something that simply doesn’t make sense.
How could an all-powerful God see what is happening in our world and not intervene? How could a good God have known what evil was going to happen from before the foundation of the world, and have decided to flip the on-switch anyway?
This is a legit argument. It is one to which I have no receivable answer or even counter-argument. When I am feeling powerless, I have heard myself make that argument. Just the other day, when a friend was telling me about her struggle with her son, I felt that horrible sense of helplessness. How is this possible?
The awful things of this world shake my faith intellectually. It’s a cycle that starts with “How could you let this happen?” that can quickly degenerate, if I let it, to “Either God is not good or he isn’t all-powerful.”
I say, if I let it, because on this main road of intellectual understanding of our lives, there is a strange little oft-missed off-ramp to a secondary road that runs parallel for a good long distance: the perilous road of faith.
I’m bad with directions in general, so I would be hard-pressed to tell someone how to recognize that off-ramp. I know that very often, I travel back and forth between the two roads, zooming along the highway of intellectual understanding, when I will catch a glimpse of that tantalizing off-ramp and decide, “Hey, maybe today I will take the scenic route.” Or…and this happens more often than I would like, there is a traffic jam on the highway…there just ain’t no forward progress. The little off-ramp is the only option.
I am an unabashed fan of the book of Isaiah. I have one chapter in particular that I come back to: Chapter 40. There isn’t anything about it that I actually understand, but I love it anyway. It’s like a favorite song. Even though I may not know what the songwriter was thinking when they wrote it, it speaks to me on some deeper level. Familiarity breeds affection, so the more I listen to the song, the more I feel like the songwriter and I have in common and the more pleasure I take in the listening. Yeah, Isaiah 40 is like that.
Isaiah 40:28 starts with two questions, then proceeds with some pretty big statements: Do you not know? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom.
I absolutely love these little audience participation questions. It is one thing to just make a blanket statement: The Lord is the everlasting God… It is another entirely to interrogate the listener so that she pays attention to the question. Hey! You! Have YOU not heard? Do YOU not know?
I picture Isaiah standing there, arms across his chest, waiting for an answer from me. “So? Do you not know? Have you not heard?” Sometimes following up with, “Come on girl, if you don’t know you must be stupid and if you haven’t heard it is because you are stubborn as a mule.”
It is into this context that I want to put a spotlight on my favorite hymn of all time, “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty…” The hymn was written in 1680 by Joachim Neander (whom I know nothing about) and translated into English from the original German in 1863 by a woman (scandalous, I know) named Catherine Winkworth.
Here is the text, modernized in part (but really, only in part), with a tiny little emphasize by yours truly.
(Here is that rehearsal audio again, just in case you need a reminder. But hey, it’s a rehearsal. Don’t get judgy!)
1 Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of creation!
O my soul, praise him, for he is thy health and salvation!
All ye who hear; now to his temple draw near,
join me in glad adoration.
2. Praise to the Lord, who o’er all things so wondrously reigneth,
Shelters thee under His wings, yea, so gently sustaineth!
Have you not seen how your longings have been
Granted in what He ordaineth?
3 Praise to the Lord, who doth prosper your work and defend you;
surely his goodness and mercy shall daily attend you.
Ponder anew what the Almighty can do,
if with his love he befriends you.
4 Praise to the Lord! O let all that is in me adore him!
All that has life and breath, come now with praises before him.
Let the Amen sound from his people again;
gladly forever adore him.
The melody on the third line of the hymn is, naturally, the most fun line to sing. It’s the belt-it-out climactic moment. It also happens that the most delicious lyrics fall on these four notes.
That second verse never fails to stop me in my tracks.
Have you not seen?
It goes back to my “audience participation” thing with the book of Isaiah…the “how could you be so blind as to not see?” This little line, every single time, causes a cinematic flashback in my mind.
Have you not seen how all your longings have been…
I have told you how I am eternally unsatisfied. It does not matter what the bounty I receive, I am never satisfied with it. So when it comes to the matter of “longings,” I have quite a bit of experience on the topic. So, in sum, we have the Isaiaic heads up that, “hey, girl, I’m talking to you,” and then the personal victimization of being reminded that I am nothing but an ambulant ball of longings… (This is true as much in the matter of finally deciding to have children and wanting them enough to face my own paralyzing fears, as it is for coveting a zebra dress or a pair of boots.)
Granted in what He ordaineth…
That’s the cinematic moment. Right there. Every single time.
By the end of the second verse of this hymn, I have found my way to the little teeny tiny oft-missed off-ramp from the highway of Intellectual Understanding, to that parallel road of Living by Faith.
Faith and being the center of the universe
Just, FYI, I know the world doesn’t revolve around me. But I have moments nearly every week when I question this truth with some seriousness.
Here’s how I see it: Although it doesn’t make sense, God wrote the story of the world before he set it all in motion. He knew the plan. He set it in motion.
I believe he revealed this plan to us, sometimes in overt ways, like he did through the prophets of the Bible. But I also believe that he planted it in each of our hearts. Not the whole vision of the whole plan, but he planted seeds. Just as a seed looks nothing like the plant it will eventually become, so the seed in our hearts is not explicitly descriptive of the plan. But it is enough.
Faith is what it takes to get that seed to sprout, and it still might look nothing like the plant it is destined to become…
So, the “what he ordaineth” part of my favorite line of this hymn is the plan. It’s the overarching plan for humanity, yes, but also the miniscule details of my life and your life. It is what he has granted to each one of us as our “lot in life.”
The life of faith that I have chosen does not mean that all the things I covet are mine, but rather that there innumerable times when my longings and God’s plan have matched up. When the longings in my heart have been sufficiently watered by faith, and then start looking like the actual plan. When that happens, I feel like I am the center of the universe.
Have you not seen?
As I head into Thanksgiving week, I have this little line echoing as a soundtrack to the cinematic, sweeping flashbacks in my memory.
This year, Lily Fields, have you not seen how all your longings have been granted in what He ordains?
This week, I am going to celebrate Thanksgiving with a look back at some of the times I have felt like the center of the universe in 2021.