by Will Peycke
Have you ever said to someone (or has someone ever said to you), “God’s ways are not our ways”? If so, what did you (or they) mean by that?
We usually think of this statement as a reference to God’s providence. He is the all-knowing, all-powerful God who works out his purposes in this world and in our lives in ways that are beyond our ability to grasp. (The Gospel Project our kids will be engaging this Sunday focuses on this truth from the book of Job, by the way.) As a result, you may have heard the phrase “God’s ways are not our ways” as an encouragement to trust God’s providence during a difficult situation or to hold onto hope in a time of unexplained suffering, believing God would work it for good.
I learned something recently that surprised me. As true as our common conception of the phrase “God’s ways are not our ways” may be, and as much as Scripture teaches this doctrine of God’s providence… that is not actually what is in view in in the Bible passage this phrase comes from.
I’ll get back to that thought in a minute. But first, some context: over the past two months, one of the adult Connection Hour classes has been going through Dane Ortlund’s book Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers. (For an overview, see the previous post here.) The theme of the book (and class) focuses on Jesus’s statement in Matthew 11:29 that he is “gentle and lowly in heart.” If Jesus is going to tell us what his heart is, who he is most deeply, then we should pay attention!
After beginning in the New Testament to see how Jesus showed himself to be “gentle and lowly,” the last two weeks have focused on how God described himself in the Old Testament. The Jesus we read about in the gospels was demonstrating in flesh and blood who God had already revealed himself to be in the Old Testament. For example, even when his people’s sin requires the strongest discipline, God “does not afflict from his heart” (Lamentations 3:33). When God reveals his glory to Moses, he shows him his goodness: grace, compassion, forgiveness, and faithful love (Exodus 33:18-19; 34:6-7).
This past Sunday, we looked at this familiar passage from Isaiah 55:6-9—the biblical source of the phrase I cited above:
Seek the LORD while he may be found; call upon him while he is near; 7 let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. 8 For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. 9 For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.
When you read verses 8-9 in context, "God's ways are not our ways" is actually not a reference to God’s providence but is instead a statement “of the surprise of God’s compassionate heart” (Ortlund, 156).
If we follow the line of reasoning in the text, we see that this is true. According to verses 6-7, we should seek the Lord and return to him because he will have compassion and “abundantly pardon.” Why will God respond to sinners with such warmth and forgiveness? According to verses 8-9, it is because “God’s ways are not our ways.” In fact, when it comes to compassion and pardon, the gap between God’s ways and our ways is “as high as the heavens are above the earth.” Dane Ortlund sums it up this way: “God’s ways and thoughts are not our ways and thoughts in that his are thoughts of love and ways of compassion that stretch to a degree beyond our mental horizon” (Ortlund, 158, emphasis added).
Have you seen Isaiah 55 in this way before—not as a statement about God’s providence but about his compassion? As we approach Easter, consider God’s compassionate heart as expressed in Isaiah 55:6-9 and thank him for loving you in ways far above and beyond what you ever would have imagined.