As the old hymn says, God moves in mysterious ways, but how often are we willing to trust that fact, or do we attempt to unveil the Lord enigmatic designs?
Blaise Pascal was a mathematical genius and science prodigy who helped invent the first mechanical calculators and laid the foundations for the modern science of hydraulics. He was largely indifferent to God and religion until he was 31 years old.
His conversion came with a fiery passion that would last until his untimely death only eight years later. Many might assume that such a brilliant scientist turned Christian would begin using his field of expertise for apologetics, but as far as Pascal was concerned, the universe spoke for itself.
Writer and modern philosopher Malcolm Muggeridge observed, “What Pascal was concerned with essentially was not an institutional Church or a temporal State, but man himself: that fugitive from reality who must somehow be persuaded to confront his own imperfection and despair, and see through them into the bright light of eternity, his true habitat. ‘Since men are unable to cure death, misery, ignorance, they imagine they can find happiness by not thinking about such things.’ Well, Pascal would set them thinking.”
His arguably most famous book Pensées would be a philosophical challenge to people’s assumptions about their own agency and power in the world. Muggeridge sagely noted, “Blaise Pascal…took upon himself the task of defending the Christian faith against the arrogance and pride of those who believed they could live without God or mold His purposes to their own.”
Either arrogance or despair would perfectly sum up most people’s mentalities today, not only as we consider our own issues but also the problems of the world which constantly lie right at our fingertips, thanks to the news and internet. As Pascal wrote, our greatest shame and glory has always been that “Man is only a reed, the weakest in nature, but he is a thinking reed.”
Transforming the Impossible
So often we’re tempted to view situations or people as impossible to redeem. An individual seems so broken or so demented that nothing could reach them. The therapy would last decades; no amount of medication could stabilize them; they’ll never have normal relationships. We can easily become overwhelmed by another’s needs. Even if we’re someone who looks like we have it all together on the outside, all it takes is one really, spectacularly bad week at work, in our marriage, with our families to reveal how false that self-sufficient front truly is.
“When we first started our church at Woodward Ave in Six Mile in Detroit,” Tim Dilena recalled, “we took over a 900-seat XXX movie theater…. When we first started, they found three prostitutes strangled to death at the end of my street; and when two weeks was over, they’d found 11 strangled prostitutes. There was a serial killer going through this city called Highland Park, which is the center of Detroit. The city was on lockdown going, ‘Who's going to be next?’ Eleven people strangled and killed, three of them on my block, and we're just trying to open up a church. How many know that's not the best way to open up a church, with a serial killer going around?
“Ben Atkins was apprehended after two weeks and was in prison. When our prison ministry teams heard about Ben Atkins in jail, we started praying that we would have opportunities to share the gospel with Ben. Not only did they get a chance to share the gospel with Ben, but Ben became born again….
“I watched on TV with my own eyes that man sitting there and with literally a peace that he'd never known for his 26 years of life, holding one of the Bibles from our church in his hand, knowing that God was going to help him through this. You know what the people of Detroit were saying?
“If God can save that man, God can save any man.”
Jesus was confronting his disciples with this reality before he offered them the solution when he said, “‘Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.’ When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished, saying, ‘Who then can be saved?’ But Jesus looked at them and said, ‘With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.’” (Matthew 19:23-26, ESV).
Only God can actually fix the brokenness in our world and in each of our hearts, no matter how impossibly broken we may seem.
The Source of the Fire
The flip side of this discussion, though, is that we happily believe God can do anything, accomplish any level of transformation, provide any necessary component to our personalities or lives. We just want to be the one who cues God as to when he’ll be supplying the miraculous. “Okay, God, you’re on in three. One…two…”
The Bible doesn’t shy away from recognizing this mentality and stamping God’s reaction to it boldly right on top.
Scripture introduces us to a man most of us could easily relate to: “There was a man named Simon, who had previously practiced magic in the city and amazed the people of Samaria, saying that he himself was somebody great” (Acts 8:9). Who hasn’t wanted to be great on some level? Who hasn’t wanted to be seen with awe and respect?
At any rate, Simon hears the gospel from Philip and repents. He’s among the believers Peter and John find when they visit the city. “Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles' hands, he offered them money, saying, ‘Give me this power also, so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.’ But Peter said to him, ‘May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money! You have neither part nor lot in this matter, for your heart is not right before God. Repent, therefore, of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you.’” (Acts 8:18-22).
Peter’s backlash is strong. Today, he’d probably get reprimanded for being ‘too harsh’ to Simon, but he was appalled by what this man had just done. You don’t use the Holy Spirit like a weedwhacker so you can win the neighborhood ‘Best Yard’ contest. You don’t call the shots with God. That’s breathtaking arrogance.
Looking at this passage of scripture, Tim Dilena concluded, “It's the spirit of Simon that thinks, ‘If we put the right stuff in place, God has to show up.’ I'm telling you that's not true. That's magic talk. It's trying to buy power and miracles, and it doesn't work that way. It's trying to buy something on earth that can only come from heaven. It's trying to spend money to do something that only heaven can do. It's confusing the price tags, that what you think costs money only comes through sacrifice and prayer….
Tim reflected on a recent conviction he’d had about how Times Square Church’s new equipment in the sanctuary was nice but nowhere near the most essential thing, saying, “We need the Holy Spirit's presence, and God was making sure that I don't think like a magician. God was making sure I remember where the fire comes from.”
We can’t ever lose sight of God’s power over impossible circumstances, but neither must we lose sight of our own inability to force his hand. As the characters of C. S. Lewis’s Narnia series often remind one another about Aslan, the true King of Narnia, “He’s not a tame lion.”
Those Who Have Been with God
When we hold trust in God’s almighty power in one hand and the knowledge of his supreme sovereignty that will not be manipulated in the other, we will discover a unique mentality and peace that stands out in a world where power must always be either bought or influenced.
In the disciples’ intimate knowledge of Christ and submission to the Spirit, they displayed this imperturbable conviction of God’s control over any given situation but also peace with when, where and how their Lord chose to work. Outsiders could see the effect this belief had on them too. “Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus” (Acts 4:12).
“Folks, that's it,” Tim Dilena stated. “You can't pay money for something that comes through spending time with Jesus.” Reflecting on how we practically do that, Tim said, “Spend time in God's word…. There's so much noise in society today. Let God talk to you through his Bible today.” Alongside that, he added, “Spend time with God in prayer. I heard someone say before, ‘Don’t have your concert first and tune your instruments afterward.’ Begin your day with God…. Can I help you with prayer for a second? We will never have time for prayer. We must make time for prayer.”
Like grass or reeds that must helplessly rely on heaven for rain and sunlight, our lives are in God’s hands. Unlike the natural world, however, God gave us a unique capacity to be aware of both him and our own frail dependency on him.
As we read, as we pray, we have the opportunity to align ourselves with this reality of who God is and how he works. Everything we are, do and say must submit to him, and it will either in this life by our choice or afterward, at the end of time.