It is all too possible to have one’s joy rooted in a sweet providence. A bitter providence is God’s way to wean us from a superficial joy in a sweet providence, so that we end up with a pure joy in the Lord himself, independent of circumstance.
This quote has been on an index card not far from my nightstand for many years. I believe it’s from a message that C.J. Mahaney preached, but I’m not certain. My notes from the message have long been lost in a journal somewhere; however, this quote has remained. These words have followed me through college, my first years of teaching, and now stand as a reminder of God’s faithfulness and care for me as I walk through my first years as a wife.
My hope and dream as a teenager was to be a wife and a mother. I counted down the days until I was legally old enough to get married and then began to wait and watch to see who God might bring to me. The sweet providence I dreamed of was marriage, motherhood, and all the joys I believed would come with these things. God, however, had another plan. As each man I prayed for seemed to be interested in someone else and each prayer was answered with a “no,” I began to learn the beauty of a bitter providence. A battle for joy began in my heart. Would I trust the Lord and his timing? Was he still good? Could I find true joy in him even when my dreams were unfulfilled? These were the questions that plagued my heart and that I wrestled with on the long nights I felt alone.
My prayers got pretty desperate at times: “Lord, tonight I can’t sleep and more than ever I feel this dream slipping away. Please give me strength and wisdom and rest and help me to fight! I don’t want this to be hard. Help! I need you!”
Prayers like this one were not uncommon in my life. God used my longings to push me into him. Graciously he showed me that I was looking to circumstances for joy and then revealed to my longing heart that He could and would satisfy. Every “no” led me to a deeper understanding of his care and faithfulness. I never once was left entirely to myself. I never once failed to experience God’s comfort in the midst of my sorrow. Each disappointment led me closer to him.
After one particularly disappointing “no,” I wrote this journal entry:
God is good and I will stand where he has me. In the words of George Muller, “I kiss continually the hand that has afflicted me.” God knows what he is doing in my life. And this has not surprised him. One day this will be seen for what it is… a momentary light affliction, something that is common to man. But right now it’s hard. Tonight I am disappointed. It won’t ruin me because I know that God’s plans are best, that under his sovereign reign is where my heart longs to be. This is where he has me, and this is good.
Yes, disappointed, but not without hope, and not without a lasting, real, confident joy in the fact that God was good!
This is the beauty of a bitter providence. God becomes real, his promises become rocks to stand on, and His faithfulness roars like a fire giving strength to the weary heart. When I look back on all the times God told me “no,” I see his loving hand at work in my life.
I’m grateful that God has answered my prayer and brought me my wonderful husband, Destin, but I’m also grateful that before that time, God showed me how to wait and trust, and not put my hope in his gifts, but the Giver himself.
I know I am not done learning this lesson. My prayer is that God continues to use all the bitter providences I experience to show me more of himself. Jeremiah Burroughs in his book The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment puts it beautifully when he writes:
Why, Lord, it is true that I would be glad if I had these and these comforts which others have, but you have cut me short. Though I lack these, yet you have given me what is good and better, you have given me a quiet, contented heart, to be willing to be at your disposal.
May this be my prayer in the midst of every circumstance!