His Ways Are Not Your Ways

Expectations vs. Reality

We tend to project our natural expectations about who God is onto him instead of fighting to let the Bible surprise us into what God himself says. Perhaps nowhere in the Bible is that point made more clearly than in Isaiah 55. “There is nothing that troubles our consciences more,” said John Calvin on this passage, “than when we think that God is like ourselves.”1

When life takes a difficult turn, Christians often remind others, with a shrug, “His ways are not our ways”—communicating the mysteries of divine providence by which he orchestrates events in ways that surprise us. The mysterious depth of divine providence is, of course, a precious biblical truth. But the passage in which we find “his ways are not our ways” comes from Isaiah 55. And in context, it means something quite different. It is a statement not of the surprise of God’s mysterious providence but of the surprise of God’s compassionate heart. The full passage goes like this:

Seek the Lord while he may be found;
call upon him while he is near;
let the wicked forsake his way,
and the unrighteous man his thoughts;

Let him return to the Lord,
that he may have compassion on him,
and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isa. 55:6–9)

The first part of this passage tells us what to do. The second part tells us why. The transition comes toward the end of verse 7 (which concludes, “for he will abundantly pardon”). But notice the exact line of reasoning.

God calls us to seek him, to call on him, and invites even the wicked to return to the Lord. What will happen when we do this? God will “have compassion on” us (v. 7). The parallelism of Hebrew poetry then gives us another way of saying that God will exercise compassion toward us: “He will abundantly pardon” (v. 7). This is profound consolation for us as we find ourselves time and again wandering away from the Father, looking for soul calm anywhere but in his embrace and instruction. Returning to God in fresh contrition, however ashamed and disgusted with ourselves, he will not tepidly pardon. He will abundantly pardon. He does not merely accept us. He sweeps us up in his arms again.

New Eyes

But notice what the text then does. Verses 8 and 9 take us deeper into this compassion and abundant pardon. Verse 7 has told us what God does; verses 8 and 9 tell us who he is. Or to put it differently, God knows that even when we hear of his compassionate pardon, we latch on to that promise with a diminished view of the heart from which that compassionate pardon flows.This is why the Lord continues:

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.

What is God saying? He is telling us that we cannot view his expressions of his mercy with our old eyes. Our very view of God must change. What would we say to a seven-year-old who, upon being given a birthday gift by his loving father, immediately scrambled to reach for his piggy bank to try to pay his dad back? How painful to a father’s heart. That child needs to change his very view of who his father is and what his father delights to do.

The natural flow of the fallen human heart is toward reciprocity, tit-for-tat payback, equanimity, balancing of the scales. We are far more intractably law-ish than we realize. There is something healthy and glorious buried in that impulse, of course—made in God’s own image, we desire order and fairness rather than chaos. But that impulse, like every part of us, has been diseased by the ruinous fall into sin.

Our capacity to apprehend the heart of God has gone into meltdown. We are left with an impoverished view of how he feels about his people, an impoverished view that (once more, due to sin) thinks it is in fact an expansive and accurate view of who he is—like a grandson who, shown a crisp one-hundred-dollar bill, concludes that his grandfather must be very wealthy, not knowing the billions in real estate of which that gift is just the tiniest reflection. So God tells us in plain terms how tiny our natural views of his heart are. His thoughts are not our thoughts. His ways are not our ways.

Notes:

  1. John Calvin, Commentary on the Prophet Isaiah, vol. 4, trans. William Pringle (repr., Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2003), 169.

This article is adapted from Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers by Dane C. Ortlund.

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