The third stanza of “How Firm a Foundation” probes one of the deepest mysteries of how God meets us in our suffering:
When through the deep waters I call you to go,
the rivers of sorrow shall not over flow;
for I will be with you, your troubles to bless,
and sanctify to you your deepest distress.
Words from Isaiah 43 (especially 43:2) flow through this stanza. Our troubles are envisioned as deep waters and flooding rivers. Isaiah alludes to when God’s people faced the Red Sea with enemies at their back, and to when they faced the Jordan River at flood stage. No human being could carve a path through such difficulties.
God again states his core promise, this time with an eye to the future: “I will be with you.” That itself is significant, because the effects of significant sufferings usually extend into an indeterminate future. We need much more than help in the present moment. What exactly does it mean that God will be with you amid destructive forces? What does it mean that he will “bless and sanctify” you amid your troubles and distress?
In promising this, God explicitly does not mean that he will give you mere comfort, warm feelings because a friend is standing at your side through tough times. God is at your side, but he plays a much more active and powerful role.
This stanza fills in the meaning with four vast truths, four ways God personalizes on the “small screen” what he is doing on the “large screen” of Israel’s history (the original context of Isaiah 43):
- God himself calls you into the deep waters.
- God sets a limit on your sorrows.
- God is with you, actively bringing good from your
- In the context of distressing events, God changes you.
This is heady stuff: high and purposeful sovereignty—a big God who comes close to speak tenderly, work personally, make you different, finish what he begins.
In other words, your significant sufferings don’t happen by accident. There’s no random chance. No purposeless misery. No bad luck. Not even (and understand this the right way) a tragedy. Tragedy means ruin, destruction, downfall, an unhappy ending with no redemption. Your life story may contain a great deal of misery and heartache along the way. But in the end, in Christ, your life story will prove to be a comedy in the original sense of the word, a story with a happy ending. You play a part in the Divine Comedy, as Dante called it, with the happiest ending of any story ever written. Death, mourning, tears, and pain will be no more (Rev. 21:4). Life, joy, and love get last say. High sovereignty is going somewhere.
People miss that when they make “the sovereignty of God” sound fatalistic and deterministic. But God’s active providence in our affairs is not like Islamic kismet; or que será será; or just being realistic, philosophical, and resigned to life’s hardships. God’s sovereign purposes don’t include the goal of just accepting your troubles. He’s not interested in offering you some cognitive perspective to help get you through a rough patch. He is working so you know him, so you trust him, so you love him.
This stanza expresses the kind purposes of the Most High God. But it does not make light of your hardships. There is no chilly objectivity in these words. Every line carefully refers to the pain of deep sufferings. God speaks poignantly, not matter-of-factly, about “deep waters,” “rivers of sorrow,” “troubles,” “deepest distress.” In fact, the original hymn (with the eighteenth-century’s thees and thous) expresses the second line even more graphically: “The rivers of woe shall not thee overflow.” Woe is the keenest edge of anguish, the extremity of distress, sorrow raised to the highest degree of pain.
The rivers of woe shall not thee overflow.
Those rivers sweep many good things away. Your deepest distress is deeply distressing. But the God who loves you is Master of your significant sorrow. He calls you to go through even this hard thing. Though woe feels impossible, though woe devastates earthly hopes, God sets a boundary (but not where we would set it). He convinces you that this hard thing will come to good beyond all you can ask, imagine, see, hear, or conceive in your heart (Eph. 3:20; 1 Cor. 2:9). You will pass through the valley of the shadow of death that is filled with evils and enemies. But you will come out saying that goodness and mercy followed you all the days of your life as you were coming home to your Shepherd’s house (Psalm 23).
Content taken from God’s Grace in Your Suffering by David Powlison, ©2018. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, Il 60187, www.crossway.org.