Navigating the River of Life …
…is an apt and wonderful illustration for our venture in life ‘under the sun.’ I am currently looking for a good picture to hang on the office wall to use for counseling, and of course, as a reminder of the principles we learned.
The river represents God’s preordained course or plan of history. The only sovereign Lord of the universe in a moment before history made a plan. God can do this because he has absolute control (Ex. 3:20; 6:6; 3:14; Isa. 41:4) and has total authority (Ex. 3; 20; Lev. 18-19; Psa. 33:6; Jn 1:1ff). This plan would have a beginning and an end. It would be worked out according to his own pleasure and for his own glory (Psa. 33:6,10-11; Isa. 46:10; Heb. 6:13-18; 11:3). God determined before history that he would create a universe that included creatures. So God created the universe and all creatures in it (Gen. 1-2; Heb. 11:3; Psa. 8). And he created a particular kind of species called mankind with whom he would have an intimate, covenantal relationship (Gen.1: 27; 2-3). To do so God created them in his likeness (Gen. 2:7; Jas. 3:9).
So the river represents God’s plan. God ordained in eternity past what was going to happen, and the course the river would run (Rom. 9:22-23; Eph. 1:4, 11). The river flows through history and carries history to a predetermined destiny or goal. Because God is good, fair, and loving the destiny, the goal of this river is grand and very good (Gen. 1:31; Psa. 73; 84:11; Mk. 10:18; Lk. 18:19; Phil 2:13; 1 Tim. 4:4).
Not long after man was created he rebelled against God and God’s good plan (Gen. 3; Eccl. 7:29; Rom. 5:12-19). This rebellion by man caused an upheaval in and around the river. This rebellion is called sin. Instead of a beautiful, smooth flowing river it is now beautiful but in many different places rough. But since God is so great and powerful he is in charge of everything that happens. He is a providential (governing) God who does his good works in history and through the river of life. His providence is universal (Eph. 1:1; Rom. 11:36; Psa. 115:3). He governs and preserves all creation, all creatures and their actions (Heb. 1:3; Psa. 103:19; Matt. 10:29). God governs even through natural events (Psa. 29: Isa. 44:27). He does so because he is set apart from everything in the universe and because he is wise (Psa. 1145:17; Isa. 28:29). Even though the river seems at times serene and restful, then wild and unruly, peaceful and then unpredictable, God still has total control of it (Psa. 8:3-8; 146:6; Neh. 9:6; John 1:3; Acts 14:15; 17:24; Col. 1:16). He is indeed in control of all things in all time according to his word and power (Eph. 1:11; Heb. 1:3; Psa. 147:15; 148:5).
The sin of mankind could not disrupt the mighty and good plan of God. He will still bring it to its good and wonderful destiny. This is because God himself is wonderful. He is love, wise, powerful, holy, just, true and good (Jn. 4:24; Job. 11:7; Psa. 90:2; Jas. 1:17; Ex. 3:14; Psa. 147:5; Rev. 4:8; 15:4; Ex. 34:6-7; etc.). We must never forget this. In fact we must always bring this to mind as we ride both the calm current or the rough rapids.
We must understand too that God is not merely some unknowable entity beyond the universe. Though he is not part of his creation, he is still present and intimately involved in it (Gen. 45:5; Psa. 29:3ff). He is present at every point, turn, and the ups and downs of the river (Ex. 6:8; Isa. 26:4-8; Mal. 3:6; Hos. 12:4; Dt. 32:9; Psa. 135:4). God is not an absentee ruler. He is also present with and in the affairs and lives of people as they travel along the river (Ex. 3:12-14) because he still has a loving, covenantal relationship with them (Rev. 21:3) and intends to bring them to that good destination. We cannot even begin to imagine the wonders and beauties and goodness that lay ahead for those who trust in God through Christ (1 Cor. 2:9).
What is more, God providentially rules over man’s life and hearts (Pro. 16:9; 21:1; Isa. 44:28; Psa. 33:15ff; Jas. 4:13-17). We should take comfort in this because the ride of life sometimes becomes torturous especially if we happen to share a raft or boat with wicked people. God is even in control of evil hearts because, as we said, he intends to bring everything along and in the river toward a good end. So God over rules evil men to accomplish good things (Gen. 50:20; Judges 9:24; 1 Kgs. 12:15; Psa. 2; 7, 12-13; 11:6; Isa. 6:9f; Dt. 29:4; Rev. 17:17). God even controls the river in such a way so as to bring people to a saving faith in Jesus Christ (Mic. 4:7; Isa. 1:9; Acts 16:14; Jn. 3; 2 Cor. 4:6; Eph. 2:8-10).
The river is life ordained and overseen by a good and perfect God. The banks of the river are the limits that define the river. The banks of the river are God’s revealed will.
This is not some theological abstract; it is a very real and personal truth that addresses people’s issues, problems and questions. As Dr. Stuart points out, it is crucial for us to understand the nature and character of God to get a proper perspective of our lives. It is crucial to understand God’s involvement in our lives, and learn some essential truths about him that are relevant to us. Those truths have been depicted as four pegs or legs of a chair or stool called trust. Those truths are (a) God is Lord and therefore the sovereign in good and bad circumstance, (b) God is now and will accomplish his perfect plan, (c) that plan is good and complete, lacking in nothing because it is based on his love for us, and finally (d) God’s will for us is truly the best since he is re-forming that broken, rebellious image into the good image of his Son Jesus Christ (Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10).
If we have a weak understanding of or dismiss one of these legs then we will have a terrible time trying to express a faith-rest in God. It would a great challenge to trust that God IS in control of my circumstances and my life even though, like a swift and violent river, my life seems out of control if I do not have all four of the legs upon which to sit.
God determined with perfectly good wisdom to place us in the river at a given point of time and space (Psa. 139:16; Gal. 1:15,16). He could have placed us in the river 5700 years ago or 200 years from now. But we are in the river of life just when and where God put us. That should give us comfort, because we are not subject to chance, fate or unknown force. We are not out of our element or in the wrong environment of history. We are just where God placed us and ride the current for as long as God determines. Nothing is by accident, and the life we have is not a mistake.
The second part of the analogy is the vehicle in which we ride or navigate the river. At times it could be a simple float, a canoe, a raft or a boat. Those vehicles represent the choices he makes, the place where he is at, and the people with whom he shares that portion of the river. The vehicle always falls within the parameters of the banks of the river (God’s revealed will).
Sometimes a person may desire and attempt to swim upstream in defiance. That is futile because ultimately the river will carry him to the place God has destined for him (Psa. 104:14; Matt. 5:45). This demonstrates that God allows man to freely move within the bounds of the limits of God’s moral will. Even when a person is defiant, God is still at work (Gen. 50:20; Ex. 14:17; Isa. 66:4; Rom. 2:4; 9:22; 2 Thess. 2:11). While an individual might work hard to travel against the currents, God restrains him and limits his sinful efforts (Gen. 6:3; Job 1:12; 2:6; Psa. 76:10; Isa. 10:15; Acts 7:51).
If a believer finds himself in a particular carrier on the river that appears to be filled with evil, God still brings him and his life along the river for his good just according to God’s wonderful design (Gen. 50:20; Judges 9:24; 1 Kgs. 12:15; Psa. 76:10; Isa. 6:9f; Acts 3:13; etc.)! This is the great news of lie for the believer in Jesus Christ, that God moves the believer along the river in such a way that even though the vehicle changes, and the fellow passengers change, and the nature of the river seems to change, God brings it all for his ultimate good (Rom. 8:28ff).
As we have seen, along the river there are times when things are peaceful and smooth. We sit back and relax under the green fabric of pine or oak, and basking comfortably below the winking sun. We are lulled to rest and sleep by the gentle undulation and the musical rhythm of a soft river band. Whether it was because we managed to steer our way into a wet alcove or that we just happened upon the calm, the rest is good. But this kind of serenity is really only a taste of the perfected water to come when the river pours us onto God’s everlasting sea (Rev. 4:6, 21:18ff). It is only one part of the long river we ride. And it does not serve God’s purposes to change our hearts, reform our character, and transform us into Christ-like beings (Rom. 8:28ff; Eph. 4:24f).
So by God’s design he has a river that twists and turns, is calm and then violent, carries us swiftly or drives us slowly, parks us in pools or sends us down unbearable rapids. God keeps us hopping. Though we might be, God is neither worried nor surprised about it. Whatever the circumstance of the river, and whatever the vehicle in which we find ourselves, God calls us to trust in him, that faithful creator and then do what he calls right (1 Peter. 4:19).
Those tumultuous times are given for many reasons. First, that we might not be lazy. Second, that we would be challenged to grow. Think about it. If you are in a boat and coming to a swift-currented curve with category four rapids slightly ahead what could you do? Panic? Sure, but often times brings disastrous consequences. You could be thrown overboard, and maybe even drown. You could be injured. You could panic and not be in a position to help another, resulting in their injury or death. Regardless, it is not what God intends for us to think or do. He wants us not to fear and always have a sound mind (2 Tim. 1:7; 1 Thess. 5:6ff).
Even in such times we must be reminded to look back and remember what we know about the character of God and the nature of his plan for us. We should be encouraged to recall that God was not only looking down from above, but even in our circumstances with us. We should force ourselves to look intently at those moments and see God’s gracious hand in them!
God is challenging those of us who trust in him to grow and change. Turbulent events can motivate us to think, to apply what we know or have been taught, to exercise wisdom. If we come across some bad rapids and are caught off guard the first time, but learn from another how to navigate and ride the rapids well the next time then we are better prepared. We then come to learn how to plan for those contingencies or halfway expect to encounter them again. For some of us that means going through the experience several times in order to navigate well. Such occasions can teach us to think less about ourselves and think how we can protect or save others. Those events along the river can cause us to develop fit bodies and firm hearts. Those situations can instruct our hearts to fully trust God. If we learn about the Lord and learn from him while in our boat riding the river’s course we might even come to enjoy the next rapids ahead?
But as with any great and long river, there are always places we cannot see. Sometimes we cannot even imagine it. Certainly God has the bird’s eye view, and we can merely strive to peer as far ahead as possible. But there just probably are those contingencies we don’t want to encounter – like a waterfall or a whirlpool. Nevertheless God created those things too.
Whether through calm or calamity God does not leave us alone to navigate. He gives us just exactly what we need, not only for our relationship with him, but for everything imaginable in life (2 Pet. 3:3-11). He gives us Jesus Christ. In Christ we belong to God. We are the very things Jesus inherits from God the Father (Psa. 2:6-9; Jn. 3:16; 17:11). Further, we have everything that belongs to Christ (Eph. 1:6, 18; Jn. 17:22; Rom. 8:30; Col. 3:4), though we cannot comprehend it we will be able to claim it all at the end of the river (1 Pet. 1:4; Eph. 1:14; Col. 3:24; Heb. 9:15)!
He provides us with his navigational guide – the Bible. In itself that is sufficient
God gives not only supplies us with his direction (learning to read the banks of the river), but the ability to do so by his Spirit (1 Cor. 1-2). The Holy Spirit becomes our pilot. God sends him to come alongside and inside to help (Jn. 14:16; 15:26; Acts 9:31; 2 Cor. 1:3; 7:4). What does he do to help us in the river?
1. He teaches us (Jn. 16:12-15; Lk, 12:12; 1 Cor. 2:10-16; 1 Jn. 2:27; Jn. 14:26; Rom. 8:16; 1 Thess. 4:9; Eph. 4:21). All we need to do with the capacity to hear him is listen! Often the problem is, we are too absorbed with the waves and currents of life that we allow them to drown the Spirit’s voice out. Sometimes we hear him but refuse to be taught, or to do what he tells us (1 Thess. 5:19; Eph. 4:30). Of course, that almost always leads us where we really ought not to be (and probably don’t want to go)
2. The Spirit guides us. After all, being God he knows the best course to take down the river (Rom. 8:14-16; Jn. 16:13; Psa. 25:9; 31:3; 32:8; 23). He does so through God’s Word and mysteriously by the river.
3. He convicts us – shows us where we are wrong in our course. If we try to run upstream, or run aground of the bank he lets our consciences know (2 Tim. 3:16,17; Jn. 16:8-11). This gives us an opportunity to turn about (repent) and get back on track (exercise trust).
4. He assures us. He assures us that God loves and cares for us because we are his (Rom. 8:16; 1 Jn. 3:19; 5:11-13). He gives us the peace of Christ that is sometimes incomprehensible (Jn 14:27; 16:33; Rom. 1:7; 15:13; Gal. 1:3; 5:22).
This is possible because the Holy Spirit places us into Christ who is our peace and joy. Like Peter exclaims in the first chapter of his first letter, we not only find peace in the midst of turmoil and trials, but we find that the turmoil and trials are found in the midst of God’s blessed joy (1 Pet. 1). Hear what it says, “May grace and peace be multiplied to you. Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time!” (1 Pet. 1:2-5). Then he says “In THIS you greatly rejoice…” In what? In the trials? No! In the blessings of Christ the living hope who gives us a wonderful inheritance. In him and in this fact you rejoice, even though right now you are going through trials (paraphrasing 1:6).
It is a wonderful thing the Spirit gives us. But what’s more, look at what he teaches us about our trials found in the midst of joy. He has several things to teach us about the rapids and falls:
a. The event and circumstance are only for a little while. They might seem like an eternity for us, but in the face of eternity, measured against the length, depth and breadth of the river they are but a small section.
b. They are needed (“if need be”). God has given us everything we need for life and godliness, and he has given us even the rapids and falls because we need them. They are instruments in the hands of God to remake us for our own good.
c. They are multifaceted (“various”). The idea of this word is that there are all kinds of trials, many colors, shapes, sizes, and types!
d. They are to prove our faith to see if it is real (1 Pet. 1:7). Not that God needs to know, but to show us where we are at in the scale and scheme of life, and how much more we need to learn, grow and change.
God then gives us others to help us. Certainly he brings unbelievers into our lives for many reasons. Sometimes to use them to help us in the river. But most assuredly he supplies us with fellow Christians who can come alongside of us. We are not alone in the river. There are other believers who commingle with us. They are “fellows on the ship” (Lk. 10:20; Jn 17:11-23; 2 Cor. 5:8, 20; Eph. 2:19; 4:1-3; Phil. 3:20; Heb. 12:22; 1 Pet. 2:9-11; Ti. 2:14). Co-laborers and partners in life.
God ordained for some that a few people remain pretty much in the same vehicle through most of life. God also ordained quite a few who dart in and out of our boat or raft to have a share in the suffering. In fact, all believers ultimately share in the same kind of suffering since we all share in the sufferings of Christ (2 Cor. 1:5; Heb. 2:10; 1 Pet. 1:11; 2:21; 3:18; Phil 3:10; Col. 1:24). It would be good for us to understand that Christ did not escape the river of life. He endured testing, trials, temptations and sufferings (Isa. 53:3ff; Mk. 15:34; Lk. 22:44; Heb. 2:10; 5:8; 13:12; Phil. 2:8; 1 Pet. 1:11; etc.), even though his navigation along the river was perfect and flawless! This is how we know God truly loves us because he sent Christ who suffered for us who believe (Rom. 5:8ff; 2 Cor. 8:9; 1 Jn. 3; 4:7-9).
God determined to have us share many things in many ways with others of the same faith while navigating the river. This is so that we can build others up and they can build us up (Acts 20:32; Rom. 14:19; 15:2; 1 Cor. 14:26; Eph. 4:12-13; 1 Thess. 5:11). God puts individuals or groups of people in our boat or we in theirs in order to encourage each other along the way (Heb. 3:13; 10:24-25; 1 Thess. 4:18; 5:11). Sometimes we need fellow navigators who have learned well from God so that they can teach us the ropes (Deut. 6:4-9; Col. 3:16; Heb. 5:11-14).When we go astray, a loving shipmate can admonish us to stay the course and steer rightly (Rom. 15:14; 1 Cor. 10:11; Eph. 6:4; Col. 1:28; 3:16; 1 Thess. 5:12-14; Ti. 3:10).
We are not only shipmates, but are bonded together in Christ so that the spirit of the same Christ pulsates in our veins. We are family (Ex. 4:22; Deut. 14:1; Isa. 1:2,4; 63:8; Jer. 31:9; Jn. 1:12; 11:52; Rom. 8:14-16; 2 Cor. 6:18; Gal. 3:7,26; 29; Eph. 3:14-21; 1 Jn 3:1) who are to actively demonstrate compassion for one another (Rom. 12:10 16:16; 1 Cor. 16:20; 2 Cor. 13:12; 1 Pet. 5:14). That means whether there is one or dozens, they are there together with you to care for your needs (1 Cor. 12:25; Gal. 6:2) just as you are to care for theirs.
In other words, God did not intend that we go it alone! He is with us. Christ is with us. The Spirit is with us, and God sends fellow believers to be with us all because God is for us!
Some of those people come ready to employ Spirit-endowed abilities and gifts (Rom. 12; 1 Cor. 12; Eph. 4:11ff). A believer might find at one intersection of lives along the river a fellow Christian who has the gift of giving whose gifts are sufficient to provide temporary material needs. Or, like the teacher previously mentioned, given the gift of teaching to instruct in God’s Word so as to navigate wisely and well. Perhaps life seems too overwhelming, balanced on the precipice of a large waterfall or because he was thrown overboard, swept uncontrollably around in the undercurrent and nearly drowned. That is when God might send a person gifted with the ability to give mercy (Galatians 6:2; Ephesians 4:32; Colossians 3:12). It could be that the believer is angry, hostile, demanding his way, trying to fight the current of life and all that are in the boat. God may then introduce a person who can exhort or counsel with a tough love (Rom. 12:8; Gal. 6:1ff; Hebrews 3:13; 10:25).
All these things, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, God’s Word and fellow believers are there by the plan of God, and one part of that plan is to bring you to the place God intends: to be like Jesus Christ.
No one is alone. That is especially so with Christians who have a love relationship with God by a genuine, saving faith in Jesus Christ. We may feel alone. It may seem that we are alone. But we are not. And, none of God’s people are without hope. His plans are good and loving and they will be accomplished. Granted, it might be hard for us to fathom. It may seem impossible for us to understand. Most of God’s divine design is unknowable (Deut. 29:29); so they are his secret. But we have just what we need in life and just what we ought to know to navigate in life, if we take advantage of those resources.
It is futile for us as Christians to insist on fighting the river’s current. It is down right silly! We make choices; but those choices ought to be consistent with what God has revealed that he wants for our lives. If not we will spend our time on the river fighting the current, thrashing about in our boats, unable to skillfully navigate through the calm and the rapids. We must cease demanding a river of our own making on a cruise liner of our own choosing going in a direction God never intends for us to have. We must choose the way of life, and the way to navigate well in it.
We must be thankful that God loves us enough to give us what we need for life and godliness so that in the end we indeed become Christo-morphs, transformed into Christ-like beings. No matter how we feel we should praise God that he is good enough and sovereign enough to bring all things in and along the river together for our ultimate good.