Note: This blog post was written a week before we received a difficult medical diagnosis for my daughter. The words still ring true to me. These scripture passages and thoughts reflected here are providing encouragement to me--I hope they do for you as well.
The promises are strewn thickly through the pages of God's inspired word– as thickly, and, viewed by a spiritual eye, more gloriously than the stars which stud the midnight sky. These promises, so countless in number, so glorious in nature, are more certain in the fulfillment than the very rising or setting of those heavenly orbs; for their full accomplishment rests not on fixed laws of creation, but on what is more stable than creation itself, even the eternal counsel, determinate will, and unchangeable faithfulness of the Almighty Promiser.
So begins British minister J.C. Philpot's 1858 sermon on Isaiah 43. While the promises in this chapter of Isaiah are addressed to Israel, Christians have long applied them to the New Israel which is comprised of those who love the Lord.
God wastes no time in this passage to send encouraging words to those He loves:
Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name, you are mine. (verse 1)
Spurgeon, commenting on this verse said, "The Lord remembers the bonds which unite us to himself even when we forget them...Though our memory is treacherous and our faith is feeble, 'yet he abideth faithful'..."
I have had two spectacular incidents through which I concluded that I had irrefutable proof that God exists and that he cares for me....and I only remember one of them now! Yet, God remembers all and keeps His connection with me even while I wax and wane in my mindfulness of His great love. As far as the promise that He has summoned us by name, I think that there is something so precious about someone using your nickname when this someone really knows you and likes you. For me, hearing "Steph" used affectionately and familiarly is such a good sound. How much more so for God to know us, love us, and call us by name. Even in the hyper-individualistic United States, most of us value belonging to someone else...being someone's spouse or mother or child is a precious thing. How much more valuable to hear God say, "You are mine."
The promises continue:
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you...
Philpot points out that waters in scripture often are a stand-in for "trouble and sorrow." These can include the normal earthly problems that everyone experiences at one time or another, including losses of various types. They may also be spiritual afflictions, which he terms, "deep soul trouble." There are battles without and within. And, the waters may also involve temptations. Those who are afraid of adhering to a set of Biblical rules may see the word "temptation" and scoff at it, thinking that it's an archaic idea from eras full of "do's and don'ts." But everyone experiences temptation, and everyone recognizes the draw that things and people can have over us that, if we give into, will lead us down an unhealthy path. Temptations are worth avoiding, and the image of waters carrying us away is an apt one.
The rivers, even more so than waters in general, are constantly flowing. Philpot says that some troubles are continual, and indeed they are. We may not have a choice about these ones, but the promise is that "they shall not overwhelm you." God can keep our heads above the water.
When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze.
Fire is another powerful symbol in the ancient world, and is a fearsome concept even today as the United States suffers wildfires year after year in the west. Fires can be trials and it is impossible to not feel the heat of them. And yet, the promises is that we will not be burned.
But what if we are?
I'm reminded of Psalm 91, which also contains many promises:
Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the Lord, “He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.” Surely he will save you from the fowler’s snare and from the deadly pestilence. He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart. You will not fear the terror of night, nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness, nor the plague that destroys at midday. A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you. You will only observe with your eyes and see the punishment of the wicked.
Yet, righteous people can be robbed, get sick, or die in war. Jesus Himself, in Luke 13, talks about a tragedy that had recently occurred when a tower fell over and killed 18 people. He says that the people killed were no different than anyone else--the people who were spared were not necessarily more righteous than those who died. In this life, it "rains on the just and the unjust" (Matthew 5:45).
So, are these promises valuable or not?
Personally, I find them to be incredibly valuable. In moments of doubt, I think about research on hedonistic adaptation (because, of course I do!). That is, I think about research in my field that shows that we can only be happy about things for so long until we get used to them and then become bored or sad again (i.e. hedonistic adaptation). Everyone has troubles, and you can't buy your way out of it. Even if some aspect of my beliefs are inaccurate in some way, it is worth believing in a Being who is good, who is the epitome of Love itself, and who asks us to act like Him whenever and wherever possible. This life has suffering with or without the Lord in one's life--I'd much rather go through it with Him alongside me! His biggest promises to us, and to each of us individually, is that he is our Immanuel---God with us. It's right there in verse 2: "When you pass through the waters, I will be with you."
If you don't love and know God, that may sound like a "big whoop!", like some of us said in the 80s! Who cares if an invisible God is with us when we're going through something horrible.
But for those who do know and love God, there is nothing better. Just like it is amazing to have friends and family there for you during a difficult time--and what they're doing is less important than knowing that they're there for you--knowing that the Creator of the universe is not only there for you but is actually with you is the best encouragement one could have. If we have to go through this life, where we are ultimately not in control over whether we get terribly sick, have a tragedy happen, or have people disappear from our lives, the best news in the world is that a loving, all-powerful Being can be alongside us in the midst of this.
One reason why Christian contemplatives historically see detachment as the greatest virtue, I think, is that it helps us to see this more clearly. If we hold on too tightly to the things of this world, we will not notice the God who is beside us.
And sometimes we hold too tightly not just to things but relationships. If all we really care about is having fun with others, we will neglect union with God--the most important relationship of all.
Rightly ordering this relationship helps align all the others.
St. John of the Cross (famous for his "Dark Night of the Soul") said, "In order to enjoy everything [that is, to enjoy God, who is everything], do not seek to enjoy anything [do not seek any inordinate pleasure]. In order to possess everything, do not desire to possess anything. When you stop at anything, you do not reach the all.” (asides from https://spiritualdirection.com/2019/02/11/the-essence-of-detachment)
As Jesus said, "But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well." (Matthew 6:33).
This is especially good news for those for whom this life has been a constant struggle. The promises of Isaiah 43 continue, with these phrases excerpted for emphasis:
You are precious and honored in my sight
I love you
I will gather your children
The imagery in verses 4-7, to me, evokes a woman whose family is estranged and she is all alone. Perhaps her children are fostered out and the story of what got them in this situation is a sad and fraught one. She's stressed and beyond her own personal resources. No one has shown her much care and love.
And then God says that she who no one, including herself, sees as precious, is loved. She who is poor and pathetic and a failure in the world's eyes, is honored in God's. She who is unloved and is blamed and excluded is loved by God. And sometimes great redemptive actions happen on this earth, as when a child is reunited with his mother after many decades and forgiveness, reconciliation, love, and restoration can happen.
God's promises show us His very great love for us---and the action is all on His part. Our part is mentioned in verse 22: we can call on Him in our time of trouble.