This e-Pistle post is the twelfth entry in a series and is a continuation of the last four articles.
In 2 Peter 1:5 – 8, Peter lists qualities that characterize spiritual growth. In the past several e-Pistle articles, we have examined the quality that is placed in the middle of Peter’s list: perseverance. Some ideas have been discussed concerning practical strategies for training our children and young people in the development of this quality. Now, let us consider one of the most profound spiritual truths of the believer’s relationship with his heavenly Father. Apart from this truth, none of the strategies we have discussed will be efficacious.
“How Firm a Foundation”
A bit of mystery surrounds the marvelous old hymn, “How Firm a Foundation.” There is no certainty about the authorship of either the tune or the text. Nonetheless, the hymn has a rich heritage in the hymnology of the Church, appearing in some of the most widely used English and American hymnals for the past 220 years. Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson considered it a favorite. An earlier president, Andrew Jackson, had it sung by his deathbed before he passed away. Robert E. Lee chose it for his funereal hymn. (101 Hymn Stories, by Kenneth W. Osbeck and www.cyberhymnal.org)
There is, however, no mystery about the inspiration for this great hymn of faith. The message is firmly rooted in the clear teaching of God’s Word. Passages such as Isaiah 41:10 and 43:2; Romans 5:3 – 5 and 8:28; 2 Corinthians 12:9; Hebrews 13:5; and James 1:2 – 4 are God-breathed declarations of the truths the anonymous author articulated so beautifully in the hymn’s poetry.
Great Biblical themes are communicated in this wonderful old song. Faith in Christ; contentment in all circumstances; courage in the face of difficulty and opposition; the sufficiency of God’s grace; God’s use of trials in the refinement of our faith; the faithfulness of God’s love; and the unfailing grip of God upon the souls of His children are all addressed in the seven known verses of “How Firm a Foundation.”
This hymn was recently chosen by the man who leads music in the Sunday school class in which I was teaching. I, in turn, used it for the singing time of a family fellowship in which my family participates on Sunday evenings. The middle verse of the hymn struck me so strongly that I was unable to hold back tears of wonder and gratitude to God. I felt that it contained an amazing truth. Since then, it has reverberated in my mind, prompting waves of awe and joy in my spirit. As I have contemplated the spiritual growth quality of perseverance for this series of articles, I have come to feel that this verse communicates a pivotal Biblical teaching on the subject – a teaching that is the key that opens the door from simple endurance of suffering to authentic perseverance that leads to greater spiritual maturity.
When through the deep waters I call thee to go,
The rivers of woe shall not thee overflow;
For I will be with thee, thy troubles to bless,
And sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.
We are reminded in the first two lines of this verse that God is intentional about suffering in the life of the believer (Genesis 50:20; Romans 5:3 – 5 and 8:28; James 1:2 – 4 and 12; 1 Peter 1:6, 7), and that He will not permit us to be overtaken by these difficulties (Romans 8:35 – 37; 1 Corinthians 10:13). In fact, we are taught that God actually calls us to go through “deep waters,” echoing the Scriptural truth that this is following in the steps of Christ (1 Peter 2:19 – 21). In the last two lines of the verse, God’s faithful ever-presence with us is affirmed (Isaiah 41:10 and 43:2; Hebrews 13:5), and we are encouraged that God can make a blessing even of our troubles (Romans 8:28; 2 Corinthians 12:9, 10). This last insight sets the stage for the staggering claim made in the final line of the verse.
“And Sanctify to Thee Thy Deepest Distress”
The word, sanctify, conveys two main ideas: “to set apart” and “to make holy.” With this in mind, it is evident that the author of this encouraging hymn concludes, from the teaching of Scriptures like those we have cited in this article, that God sets our “deepest distress” apart in our lives for holy purposes. It is being asserted that suffering and difficulty and heartache, even death (Psalm 116:15), are sacred matters to the believer and to our heavenly Father. What a profound comfort! And what a motivation to perseverance! Surely, were this not the truth, there could be little incentive to respond to suffering in any other way than despair.
It is the presence of evil and suffering in the world that turns more people away from a belief in God than anything else. No greater questions and doubts about God and His purposes are prompted in the heart of an individual, even a believer, than where such evil and suffering has touched upon his life. As C. S. Lewis put it, “human suffering raises almost intolerable intellectual problems.” On the surface it would seem that confrontation with the reality of suffering in a fallen world is the best means of driving people away from God. And so the devil himself thinks.
But the deeper reality is this: suffering is a thing of intimacy between God and His child. It is through suffering and hardship that God most completely manifests His power in a believer’s life (2 Corinthians 12:9, 10). As the hymn writer suggests, God weds the believer to his suffering in such a way that the darkest times in life become rites of passage to holiness and are themselves holy articles, indispensable to the true worship of God.
All the effort that might go into training our children in the spiritual quality of perseverance hinges upon our understanding of this truth and our conveyance of that understanding to them. We must believe and know that we are not simply teaching them a fact, but are pointing them to a relationship with their Creator who “works in (them) to will and to act according to his good purpose” (Philippians 2:13). They must not simply respond to hardship with cheerful acceptance and “make the best of it,” but become fully persuaded that such perseverance is the pathway to an intimacy with God and a spiritual growth attainable in no other way.
Certainly, it is the Spirit of God alone who can enlighten the heart with such deep spiritual understanding. But I believe that we Christian parents must faithfully communicate the profound perspective which the author of “How Firm a Foundation” so eloquently articulated. By God’s grace, our children will not yield to doubt and anger or disbelief in God, but implicitly place their trust in Jesus, having heard the message of His heart to them:
The soul that on Jesus has leaned for repose,
I will not, I will not desert to its foes:
That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,
I’ll never, no never, no never forsake.
The study of this passage (2 Peter 1:1 – 11) will continue in next month’s e-Pistle article.