I love worship music and the older I get the more I am falling in love with hymns. When I was very young, we would sing many of them as a family. I tried my best to stay on tune with the rest of my musical family members however, singing is not a strong gifting of mine. I am unsure if it is the influence of our Baptist family we’ve joined over the last year, but I have been rediscovering beloved childhood hymns as well as finding new ones that have touched my heart. Two days ago, I bumped into a hymn that I had not heard before and a single line in that hymn, along with a helpful explanation from a renowned pastor, revealed some clarity to me with a struggle that I have had with God for a long time.
In 1774, William Cowper published a hymn titled, “God Moves in a Mysterious Way.” The hymn was mentioned in a Family Life Podcast I was listening to with Pastor John Piper, talking about his new book Providence. The entire Hymn is quite good but there is one line that sent my brain spinning. It goes: “Behind a frowning providence, He hides a smiling face.” God’s frowning providence. God’s goodness and grace and His frowning providence…this is something I have wrestled with since surrendering my life to Christ…how can both exist?
I have a tendency to live my life in an either/or extreme. I am happy or I am sad. I am productive or I procrastinate. I want a big party or I want to go live like a hermit on a beach. And because of this, I have a tendency to understand things this way. My sin in living in extremes projects into my misunderstanding the character of God. God is either pleased with me or mad at me. God is either just or merciful. God is either close or far away. Or in the case of my initial irritation at this line in the hymn, God is either good, loving, gracious and forgiving of my sin or I have disappointed him, angered him, and he is now ready to unload my consequence onto me. However, this either/or is not the true nature of God. And my sin of both knowingly and unknowingly believing and living out this has had a deeper impact of my relationship with God than I have realized. I have struggled with concealing sin rather than confessing sin. I have struggled with running away from God rather than running to Him. I did not want to find God angry, disappointed or indifferent to me. I have had a lot of ups and downs in my walk with God and through processing this dichotomy, I realized this is a huge root that needs to be dug up. Some of the characteristics of God are not an either/or they are a beautiful both/and in a way that I will probably never be able to fully understand. Hopefully this explanation of this hymn line by John Piper will help bring some clarity to what I am attempting describe. It’s a little lengthy but I found it to be so helpful and profound.
“The whole idea that God might have this frowning providence seems to be contrary to how we’re supposed to understand the goodness of God. Let’s linger there for a minute…Believers sin; how does God look at a believer’s sin?—two ways: covered by the blood of Jesus and displeasing. A lot of people choose, they say, ‘If I’m justified by faith, if I’m totally accepted, if all my sins are forgiven, if He’s 100 percent for me, how could there ever be a frown?’ The answer is: ‘Because He’s displeased with how out of step you are with that kind of reality.’
In order to deal with God’s discipline and frowns, people have to have a rock-solid understanding of justification by faith—that in the moment that I am genuinely united to Jesus by faith, all my sins are forgiven—past, present, future. I am His child; I am adopted forever. ‘There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,’ forever—those whom He justified, He glorified—no dropouts. That kind of confidence is like the rock that you’re standing on. Then, you spend the rest of your life seeking to bring your life into conformity of that reality so that real sins get killed/put to death what is evil in you.
When you stumble into sin—your Father, who is 100 percent for you, frowns—you should feel that frown with dismay and sadness: ‘I don’t want my Father to frown at me!’ Thus, it brings you to repentance: ‘If you confess your sins, He is faithful and just to forgive your sins and cleanse you from all unrighteousness.’ You realize, “Yes, it was a frown; but behind it was a Father who never felt contempt for me. God never feels contempt for His children. He feels displeased, but the displeasure rises out of a fundamental: “You are Mine forever. I have an eternal happiness for you that cannot be taken away.”Wilson D, Wilson A. The Providence of God. Family Life Today. January 25, 2021
This may not have rocked your world as much as it did mine, but this helped me realize I was not afraid of God’s discipline or displeasure. I was afraid of God feeling contempt for me-punishing me for me screw-ups, waiting for me to mess things up again, that this time was one time too many. This is NOT, not, not, not who God is. God brought me into His family forever and it was a free gift of salvation. It has no bearing on my merit and therefore I do not have to live in fear of trying to prove that I earned it. I do not have to live my life, trying so hard, with my own might, not to mess things up, pretending to be perfect and sweeping my sin under the rug. My sin is covered by the blood of Jesus but is still displeasing to God and still has consequences. BUT, those consequences are there to draw me to repentance, bring me back to the foot of the cross. They are there out of love not out of contempt. While I may see the frowning consequences, I need to trust and believe His smiling face lies behind them. His love still reaches out as I grow through them and I can still walk in confidence and intimacy with Him as I experience them. The beautiful both/and.
I have known these things all my life but I have never emotionally connected with them until today. It was a beautiful moment that awakened freedom in my heart. Maybe this is not an area that you struggle with in your walk with God, but I know then that there is a different area for you. May I encourage you to keep asking questions and continue pursuing? I am 31, I have been following Jesus since I was 5 and this is just now starting to begin to make sense to me. We are never finished growing in our relationship with God. He is not finished with you. I am praying for your freedom too.