God’s Will is Never to Quit the Painful Field by Martyn Lloyd Jones
All the passages below are taken from Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ book “The Assurance of our Salvation.” The sermons were preached at Westminister Chapel, London, from 1952 to 1953. It was originally published in four volumes: Seed in Eternity, Safe in the World, Sanctified through the Truth, and Growing in the Spirit. It was published in one volume in 2000
I pray not that thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that thou shouldest keep them from the evil (John 17:15).
As we start on this final study, let me remind you of our analysis of this second section of our Lord’s great high priestly prayer which he prays as he is under the very shadow of the cross. Our Lord, having prayed for himself, proceeds to pray for those he is leaving behind in this world of time, and we find he gives various reasons for praying for them. And so we have this wonderful description of the Christian, found especially in verses 6, 7 and 8 but also running right through the entire paragraph. Then we come to the petitions which he offers for them. The first petition is that God should keep them—`Holy Father, keep through thine own name those whom thou hast given me’—though they are in the world—`that they may be one, as we are.’ He says that while he was with them he kept them all but the son of perdition—Judas—that the Scriptures might be fulfilled. And now he commits them to his Father and prays God urgently to keep them.
Our Lord asks his Father to keep them because of the world which, he says, hates them: `I have given them thy word; and the world hath hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world.’ The world is opposed to the Christian and we have considered the various ways in which it manifests this opposition and hatred. If there is one thing,surely, that is emphasized constantly in the Scriptures, in the Old Testament and the New, it is that the Christian is a stranger and a pilgrim in this world. He is different. He does not belong to the world; he is in it but not of it. His mentality and outlook, his whole central position, are entirely different from that of the world, and it is a fact that the world hates him because of that. As our Saviour has already told these men: `The servant is not greater than his Lord’ (John 13:16); `If they have called the master of the house Beelzebub, how much more shall they call them of his household?’; ‘Ye shall be hated of all men for my name’s sake’ (Matthew 10:25, 22). That is why, of course, there is a great conflict going on in this world between unseen spiritual forces, a great and mighty conflict between God and all who belong to him, and the devil and all who belong to him. And the world is controlled by the devil; he is the god of this world; he rules in the midst of men and women who belong to the world. He is ‘the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience,’ says the apostle Paul in Ephesians 2:2. The devil hates God and the Lord Jesus Christ with all his might and being and power, and he hates all who belong to him, and the result is that all who are controlled by the devil are of necessity antagonistic to those who belong to God.
There is no question at all about this. The life of our Lord proves it, the lives and experience of the apostles prove it, and the lives of the saints throughout the centuries prove it. To the extent to which a man is godly and living the life God would have him live, to that extent he will experience malignity and opposition in the world. So our Lord prays to God to keep them against all that. And he likewise prays that God should keep them from the evil one and from evil in all its forms, however it is manifested under the power of the devil. Our Lord’s prayer is that God should keep us from the evil, keep us, as it were, out of the clutches of the evil one. As we saw, the devil comes to us and attacks us in various ways, filling us with pride and elation, or depressing us with despair and he works and plays upon us between these two extremes. He knows us all. He is well aware of our every mood and state and condition, he can even affect our physical frame and body and by such things can depress us and hold us down. There is no end to the ways in which the devil in all his subtlety and power is able to attack the children of God, and so our Lord prays that we may be kept.
But we must now go on to consider how it is that God keeps us. In what ways does our Lord ask his Father to do this? The first answer to that question is here in verse 15, and strangely enough we find that it is a negative answer. Now it may surprise us that our Lord should specifically have uttered this negative thought and petition. He says, I do not ask you to take them out of the world, that is not my request. And people are often perplexed at this. Indeed it is often the cause of much questioning and misunderstanding.
I suppose that ultimately the sin of which we are all most frequently guilty is the sin of asking certain questions which we would never ask if we were truly mature Christians. Because of our frailty and unbelief we say that there are certain things we do not and cannot understand. Here, surely, is one such question and it is one of the most common of all. Why is it that when we become Christians God does not immediately take us out of the world, especially in view of the state of the world in which we live? But consider what we are told here. If ever anyone experienced the malignity of the world our Lord did, but we see him specifically praying that the disciples should not be taken out of it, even though he knew exactly the kind of world it was. He saw it and knew it, and saw through it, in a way no one else has ever done. He knew its persecution and its scorn and its derision and all its opposition. He knew all about that, for he had experienced it, and yet, though he knew that and though he knew the weakness and the frailty of these men, he did not ask God to take them out of the world. He left them in the world knowing all about what was going to meet them and to confront them. Now that often puzzles many people. They wonder why it is that we are not immediately taken to heaven and to glory when we become Christians—and of course this is one of the questions which we ask far too often.
Another question that is asked is: why is it that when we become Christians we are not immediately made perfect and sinless? We argue that God has power to do this. We know that God the Holy Spirit can do this, for we know that ultimately we shall be presented faultless and blameless in the presence of God. Therefore, we argue, if God has this power, and if God can completely and entirely sanctify us from all sin, why does he not do it immediately? Why, when we are born again, are we not completely delivered at once from the old man and nature and everything that belongs to sin and its polluting effect? Why are we not immediately made entirely sanctified and holy? You have often asked that question—it is one of those questions which fall into this self-same category. Why are we not entirely taken out of the world? Why are we left in this struggle and in this life?
Or take another question. Since the Lord Jesus Christ dealt with sin upon the cross and in his resurrection, why are we not automatically delivered from all the consequences of sin? As it has been dealt with finally and conquered once and for ever, why is it that its evil consequences are not removed? I refer to things such as sickness and illness and disease which are undoubtedly the consequences of sin and of the fall. Why were they not all immediately taken away? Why do we still inherit these things—the frailties, the weaknesses, the infections and all these diseases to which we are still subject in this world of time? Since sin was dealt with in the matter of guilt and so on, why was not all this removed? You notice I am putting it in question form. There are people who teach that this has been done, but that is an error and a heresy, Scripture itself makes that perfectly clear. I put it in the form of questions, and the people who ask these questions often go on to the error and the heresy.
There is also the fact of death—that is a consequence of sin. If man had not sinned death would not have entered into the world. But God has dealt with sin, so why are we still subject to death? Why does it not come to pass that people who become Christians no longer see death—why do they have to go through that? Why was death not taken right away, once and for ever, as a consequence of Calvary and the resurrection?
Or again, to ask still another of these questions: why should there have been this terrible long interval between Christ’s first and second coming? If it is God’s plan and purpose that Christ should come back to rid the world of all evil and sin, and conquer death, why this long interval? Nearly 2,000 years have gone and still we have this evil world and we are still confronted by all these terrible things. We believe that he is coming, but why did he not come at once? That is the kind of question we ask, and that leads us right back to a prior question, namely, why was there such a long interval between the fall of man and the first coming of Christ? That is a great question which we often put like this: we believe that even before God made the world and created man, it was his purpose to save the world. Why, then, did he allow 4,000 years to pass between the fall of man and the coming of Christ? Why all this long degraded history with its record of apparent failure and frustration? Why all the long story of the years? Why didn’t he send Christ at once? These are the questions we ask and they all arise out of these words which we are considering here: `I pray not that thou shouldest take them out of the world…’ Why not? Why should we be left in it to suffer and endure? Why is the second coming so long delayed when the whole world will be turned again into a state of paradise?
These are the questions and it is vital, therefore, that we should answer them. Now I am tempted to say that in reality there is only one answer, and that if we were what we ought to be as Christian people, this answer would be enough. The one fundamental, final answer is that it is God’s way, it is the way which God has determined and the way that God has planned. And all that I shall say now is really going to lead up to that—that is the beginning and that is the end, and the position of faith is one in which man is content with God’s way though he does not understand it. In other words, I really am suggesting that we should never ask these questions at all. It is impudence and impertinence on the part of feeble man to do so. We should never ask such questions because our attitude of faith should be that what God did and what God does is always right and that there is no need for us to ask the reason why. It is for us to believe and accept and above all to submit to it.
However, I believe that Scripture entitles us to give supplementary answers and it is here that we see the mercy and the condescension of God. He does not merely leave us with the words, `That is my will and you must accept it.’ He stoops to our weakness and gives us glimpses into his great and inscrutable reasons. He enables us, while still here on earth and still in our imperfection, to have some kind of inkling of what we shall see perfectly when we arrive in glory. So let us proceed to consider some of these subsidiary or supplementary answers to the question as to why God does these things in this way.
Now it is always good to start with a fact, so let me begin by saying that the great fact here is that God acts as he does because it is his will. I wonder if you have ever noticed that there are three recorded requests in Holy Scripture about which we are told that God did not grant the request? These were from three remarkable and saintly men and the interesting thing is that it was the same petition each time, it was a prayer to the effect that they should die and that they should be taken out of the world.
The first was Moses. Moses had been chosen as God’s leader among the people and here he was struggling with this recalcitrant mob. He had gone up to meet God on the mountain and in his absence the people had made a golden calf and were worshipping it. Moses became frantic and said to God, in effect, `Will you grant me my petition? If not, take me out of this life because I would sooner be dead.’ His prayer was not granted.
The second was that mighty man Elijah, one of the most outstanding characters in Scripture, the man who greatly appeals to everybody because he could stand alone and defy a king and a collection of eight hundred and fifty false prophets. But in 1 Kings 19 you will see this self-same man sitting under a juniper tree thoroughly miserable and unhappy. The man who defied the whole world yesterday is today running away from a woman. He does not understand things and his prayer to God is that he should be taken out of it all. He wants to die but God does not grant him his request.
The third case is the prophet Jonah. Poor Jonah! He knew exactly the state of affairs in Nineveh. It was a terrible, sinful city and Jonah wanted it to be blotted out. God sent him to preach repentance to that city but to his amazement God said he would withhold his judgement—and Jonah did not like it. He felt that God was against him and he wanted to die. But he was not taken out of the world and he did not die. So here are three notable saints of God each of whom prayed the same prayer but God did not grant their request.
We are thus confronted by this great fact and, though we have to say that ultimately we do not know the complete reason, we do recognize that in the wisdom of God this is not his way of dealing with his people. `I pray not that thou shouldest take them out of the world’—but, why not? Well, I think that we can feel after certain answers to that question. Why is our Lord thus concerned that God should not take the disciples out of the world? A part of the answer is that if they were removed like that, who would be left to preach the gospel to the world? Indeed, our Lord says that quite specifically—`As thou hast sent me into the world, even so have I also sent them into the world.’ God sent the Son into the world to preach the truth and to present the gospel and to make a way of salvation and now, as he is going out of the world, he is sending them into it and leaving the message with them. They are going to be the preachers, in their lives as well as with their words—they are going to represent him. As we have seen, he says, `I am glorified in them.’ Therefore they cannot ask to be taken out of the world because they are being sent there to perform this specific task.
It is so tragic to notice how often we forget that, and it is because we forget that as Christians we are God’s and Christ’s representatives in this world that we sometimes ask to be taken out of it. But we have a great and mighty and noble task to perform. We are the salt of the earth, we are the light of the world shining brightly amidst the gloom and despair and holding forth the word of life—if only we always realized that this is our calling and our business! If I may put it like this it may help us to understand. What if our Lord himself, when he was in this world, had turned to God and said, `Why do you send me? I do not want to stay here, it is such a terrible, sinful, evil, dark world, let me come back to you, take me out of it’? But he never did—no, he had come deliberately to do the work, to perform the task. He knew why he had come, so he says here to the disciples, `I did the work and you are to do the same.’ That is sufficient reason in and of itself for not desiring to be taken out of the world.
Then the second reason I deduce is that there is no doubt at all but that we are left in this world because it is part of the process of our being perfected. We need to be perfected, a gradual work has to be done in all of us even after we are born again and regenerated, and God, I believe, leaves us in this world in order that we may be so perfected and prepared for him. We all need to be humbled, to be brought down to the dust. It is obviously very clear that the fact that a man is a Christian does not mean that he is entirely delivered from pride and conceit, self-centredness and self-interest; you sometimes see these things in a rampant form even among Christian people. We must be delivered from all that, and if the positive truth of the gospel does not deliver us from it, then God has another way of doing it, and he humbles us by such things as disappointment, failure, weakness, or illness.
I believe that the apostle Paul is referring to this in 2 Corinthians 12. He had had a great struggle over it. There was a danger that he might be exalted and lifted up because of the revelations that had been given to him, and God had had to deal with him by giving him what he calls `a thorn in the flesh’, which humbled him and kept him down. Paul admits it, and it is true of every one of us. We live in this world and we sometimes think that no temptation is ever going to affect us. We have risen above it—we are above and beyond these things! We are even insulted at the word that says, `Wherefore let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall.’ So, for our humbling and our good, God leaves us to ourselves. Then the devil takes advantage and we fall, down to the very dust, and it is there that God says to us, `whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth’ (Hebrew 12:6).
He also tries us, tries our faith to see what we are made of, as it were, and it is all part of our development. We start as children and as babes. At first everything seems to be so easy in the Christian life, but a time comes when we realize that it is not. There are many Christian people who look back with longing to the days of their conversion, but they are absolutely wrong in doing so. It is a terrible thing for us to say, `Where is the blessedness I knew when first I saw the Lord?’ We should never say that, and Cowper was a deeply depressed man when he wrote those words. But we, too, tend to say it because we rather like a life of ease; we are like spoilt children, but, thank God, our heavenly Father does not deal with us like that. Times come when we are confronted by problems and difficulties. I have heard of and known men in the ministry who, when they start, are given texts and sermons as gifts from God, but they very often find that as they go on they have to struggle much more than they did at the beginning. They have become men, and are no longer children, and it is right that they should know the difficulties. Mr Spurgeon said he found he had to work much harder in the ministry, making and preparing his sermons, when he was older than he did when he was the famous boy preacher at the age of seventeen or eighteen. It is right, it is part of this process. In other words, God has to show us ourselves, he has to reveal to us our own limitations; the babe in Christ may be happy, but he is very ignorant and he has a lot to learn. Thus, you see, a part of the process of our being made fit for heaven and glory is carried out through our being left in the world and not taken out of it.
But let me give you some other reasons which are more important. We have looked at reasons taken from our side, but there are many reasons from God’s side. It is only as we are left in this world in this way that God’s marvels and glories are really displayed in us and through us. I suppose that in the last analysis there is nothing that so displays the wonder of God’s power than the way in which he can keep people like us as his own in this world. Have you ever thought of it like that? Have you considered the power that is necessary to keep a Christian as a Christian in this world of time, surrounded by suggestions and temptations and everything that is calculated to get him down? I would say that it is a miracle. It is a manifestation of the supernatural power of God that a Christian ever arrives in heaven at all. God leaves us in this world and shows that he has the power and the might to keep us and to hold us and to perfect that which he has commenced in us. It is a display of God’s power which nothing else produces.
It also shows us his long-suffering and patience. Can you read the Old Testament without being impressed by these facets of his character? I like the verse that puts it like this—`And about the time of forty years suffered he their manners in the wilderness’ (Acts 13:18). And what a bad set of manners they were! Oh how they ill-treated God and ignored his patience, and it is equally true of us. Though we are Christians, what poor Christians we are! But how patient God is with us and how amazing his long-suffering as he listens to our questions and tolerates us. And so, while leaving us in this world, he shows the fulness and the many-sidedness of his salvation and its completeness. In Ephesians 3:10 Paul talks of the `manifold wisdom of God’, and what a perfect description that is—many-sided, variegated. You do not know what you want, but you will always find that Christ comes to you and meets you just where you are. And thus it comes to pass that as we live in this world with its trials and troubles and perplexities and problems, we come to know God in a way that we could never know him were it not that we have to go through these things. Do you not find that he is ever surprising you; that you are always making some new discovery, arriving at some fresh knowledge of his grace, because of some peculiar circumstance in which you have been placed? You have had some new experience and God has met you there in a way he has never met you before, and so you have come to know him better. He leaves us here in the world, therefore, partly to display to us the riches of his grace and the manifold character of his loving kindness and his mercy.
Those are some of the reasons, but I want to end on a practical note, and so we will consider the practical application of all this by drawing certain deductions from this great doctrine that we are considering together. The first must be that all attempts at delivering ourselves or removing ourselves from this world must be wrong. . . . .
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My second deduction is that God’s way is not to take us out of the difficulties and the trials, nor to avoid them. His way is to enable us, and to strengthen us, so that we can go through them with heads erect and undefeated, more than conquerors in them and over them. And that is a wonderful thing.
My next deduction is that we must never grumble at our lot, nor ask these doubting questions. We must rather believe that there is always a purpose in these trials, if we can but see it; we must believe that God has laid this thing upon us and that he has left us in this situation in order that we may show forth his glory. The disciples were left in the world to do that, and you and I can be certain that whatever we may be passing through at this moment is a part of God’s plan and purpose for us to show forth his glory. The world may not recognize you, it may ignore and dismiss you, and others may get all that they want from the world. Do not worry about it, Christ knew something similar. The saints have experienced the same thing: `Woe unto you, when all men shall speak well of you!’ (Luke 6:26). Yes, `And all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution’ (2 Timothy 3:12). All is well, you are fulfilling the glory of God as you go through that trial. Paul came to see that about the thorn in the flesh. `All right,’ he says, in effect, `I asked you three times to remove it but you are leaving it. I see now that your glory is going to be shown through me. Very well, I will glory in this infirmity. I will stop asking you to take it away. It is really when I am weak that your power is made manifest in me and through me.’ So we must never grumble. We must gladly accept what he allows, and remember that we are fulfilling the glory of God.
I can put that still more strongly. We must never desire peace and ease in this world. As the hymn says:
Shrink not Christian, will ye yield,
Will ye quit the painful field,
Will ye flee in danger’s hour,
Know ye not your Captain’s power?
F. S. Colquhoun
Oh we must never `quit the painful field’ or `flee in danger’s hour’. We must never change our position or go out of the situation simply because it is difficult. It is in the difficult situations that God manifests his power. Now it may be God’s will for you to change your position. That is all right as long as it is God’s will for you; but never take the decision yourself simply because things are difficult. Never hand in your resignation because things are going against you [but pray for direction and take active steps to change your position inside or outside the organization—my comments]. Never come out of anything simply because it is problematical. Stay there until God moves you. He leaves his people in the world; he does not take them out of it.
And that leads me to my last point, which is that in the midst of all these situations and problems we must always look to him and to his power; we must always look to the ultimate that is destined. We know we are going on to glory—`We have a building of God, an house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens’ (2 Corinthians 5:1). So, whatever may be happening here, keep your eye on that, hold on to it. You know that he has a purpose in leaving you where you are, but you know, too, that you are going on. Keep your eye on him and on that for which you are destined. And if you do that, you will be able to put into practice my last exhortation—let us therefore live every moment of our lives to the full. Never let us waste a second of God’s time in asking these foolish, unnecessary questions, in grumbling or in complaining. Having settled this great question in principle, once and for ever, let us never ask it again, but let us take every moment and live it to the maximum. Let us manifest the praises of Christ and of God every split second of our lives, redeeming the time, and clutching at the opportunities.
Look at it like this. Instead of saying, `Why does God leave me in this world? Why is he leaving me here for another five, ten, or twenty years?’ Rather say this: I have another five, ten, twenty years to manifest his praises, to tell his sinful world about him and I am going to take every opportunity I can to do that. Time is passing, it is short, there is so much to be done and so little time in which to do it. So I will live my life to the full and to the maximum, thanking him that he has counted me worthy to fulfil my station in life as his servant, thanking him that Christ has ever sent me, as God the Father sent him, to do these things in the world. I see myself, therefore, as an imitator of Christ, as a re-enactor of the life of Christ.
Yes, let me rise to the height to which the apostle Paul rose in Colossians 1. He said that the afflictions of Christ were being brought up to the full in his body. Paul was making up that which remained of the sufferings of Christ and he regarded that as the greatest privilege that he was allowed in this life and world. He meant by that, that Christ had left him here as his representative, to be a kind of Christ-man, to be living the Christlike life to the glory of God the Father.
`I pray not that thou shouldest take them out of the world.’ Can you say `Amen’ to that? Let us seek to do that and let us thank him that he has sufficient confidence in us and in the power of his Father to leave us even in a world like this, knowing that he can keep us. And in the meantime let us ask him to enable us to serve him and to tell forth his praise and his glory in the world. Amen. (335-348)