By Martin Carey
“He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say to the LORD, ‘My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.’” Psalm 91:1-2
When I was a kid, I had trouble understanding Psalm 91; I found it hard to believe. All those promises of protection seemed exaggerated. I wondered, if those promises of God’s sheltering us are true, why was Mom always quoting that psalm out loud? She didn’t seem to feel safe either.
Our little house in Takoma Park, Maryland was not a happy place. There were good reasons to feel fear in our house, with frequent, ugly conflict between my parents and between us kids. Both parents were at fault, each feeling disrespected and unloved, and they eventually divorced. With everyone yelling and complaining, our home was a chaotic mess. Besides the usual couple issues, my parents’ conflicts often focused on religion. Dad was becoming an atheist while Mom was a loyal Seventh-day Adventist. Even when our house seemed peaceful, sadness and foreboding hung in the air.
Beneath the unrest in our home, however, there was an underlying spiritual influence. We sincerely believed in the great controversy, a core doctrine of our Adventist faith. Some theologians have called it the Adventist “theory of everything” on which their whole system of thought rests.
The great controversy portrays a vast cosmic conflict between Christ and Satan that has raged since before the world’s creation. It began when the angel Lucifer rebelled against God and accused Him of being unjust, enforcing His arbitrary laws. Lucifer as Satan was able to put God on trial before the entire universe, questioning God’s basic goodness. God needed to save His reputation before intelligent people inhabiting billions of unfallen worlds who might also doubt Him. God was in a weakened position, forced to allow Satan to run amok throughout the entire universe, to tempt and destroy. Now unleashed, Satan became disruptive, ruthless, and omnipresent. According to the Adventist prophet Ellen White, God was forced to allow all Satan’s evil to prove how bad he is. The great controversy invaded every part of our lives, and for us, the universe was a dangerous place.
We believed the Bible as we understood it, but in our world view, God was only a Frustrated Fixer with Jesus as His meek little assistant. We wanted to trust Jesus, but Satan’s power seemed much more real that Jesus’ power, especially at our house.
It seemed that God was not really in control, so He was taking risks with our lives in hope of someday winning the game. We understood that He was trying to protect our free will—our precious freedom to reject Him, but that was cold comfort to our fears. Actually for us, God was like a great gambler, playing the cards of our fate, dealt to Him by Satan, and limited in His ability to protect our futures. “Loving Jesus, meek and mild,” we would pray before bedtime, but we believed Jesus could have failed. His failure would have destroyed our lives and made evil last forever. So Jesus being human like us wasn’t all that comforting.
What God really needed, we were told, were end-time demonstration people—people who could perfectly keep His commandments—to vindicate God’s good name. His warning to us seemed to be, “Obey Me, or else Satan wins!” Worse, God was a political God campaigning for votes. He was an “almost God,” almost in charge, almost believable. We believed that vindicating God’s name rested on our shoulders—we could become perfect commandment-keepers, with God’s help, of course. But what we demonstrated at home was closer to reality.
Mom truly trusted in Jesus, even though she believed those Adventist doctrines. When we were angry and negative, she would break out into song. We’d get irritated and say, “Mom! Stop singing! We wanna stay mad!” Her favorite hymn was, “Under His wings, I am safely abiding, though the night deepens and tempests are wild…” She was trying to be momma hen for her squabbling little chickens, and protect us. Tempests were wild, alright, and how could our little souls be safe? We had night terrors and were plagued with the horrors of death. How could God promise anything?
From an early age, I always loved the stars, but I also feared them. I knew God made them, but where was He out there? We believed that the universe was contested territory, with its ownership still in question. The stars were magnificently powerful and distant, yet cold and hostile.
These doubts and fears deepened as I got older, turning childish faith into cynicism. As an Adventist, I enjoyed our “we have the truth” privilege—but what was true? We were supposed to be end-time perfect examples, through character development and sheer force of will. I believed, “If it is to be, it is up to me,” and this was surely a fool’s errand! I repeated this sad cycle:
1. Revival – Get all excited at an evangelistic meeting.
2. Resolution – Make lots of promises to be good.
3. Obedience – Keep the 10 commandments, and Mrs. White’s 10,001 rules for the Remnant.
4. Failure – stumble, fall, and get discouraged. Time for another revival!
I couldn’t show that failure at church, so I learned to wear a mask, concealing my doubts and discouragement behind a pious face. I decided I would abandon my certainties from childhood and discover truth for myself. Living with unrelenting uncertainty, it seemed no one was really in charge of the universe, so I had to take charge of me. I became very prideful and stupid. My do-it-yourself-truth program was pure vanity, and I got depressed with pointless intellectual games.
Meanwhile, the real God had not left me, and all the while, He was orchestrating my misery. He obviously didn’t respect my freedom to rebel against Him, but instead, had backed me into a corner. I suddenly became filled with dissatisfaction and desperation.
There had to be truth somewhere. I started re-studying Adventist beliefs, but got thoroughly confused, again. If only I could hear the real Jesus speak to me directly, I could believe. So I began slowly reading His words, and noticed He often started sentences with, “Truly, truly I say to you.” Strange, but I realized this was no politician; He really meant what He said. He called out the hypocrites and His bold words got Him killed. This was real integrity, and kingly authority. No one ever had spoken like this man. I wondered, if he isn’t God, then who is he?
At His trial Pilate asked Jesus, “Are you a king then?” Jesus answered, “For this purpose I was born, and for this purpose I have come into this world—to bear witness to the truth.” This was direct, with no cowardly side-stepping or deception. Jesus was alone against the mob, His reputation destroyed, yet He was faithful to the death. His bold honesty was a mark of royalty.
He told Pilate, “Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” Those words hit home. Would I be like Pilate and turn away, or was I able to honestly listen?
Then I saw the simple elegance of the gospel for the first time. What Jesus offered was amazing, really good news, unlike the great controversy. The good news wasn’t about a fight between Christ and Satan. It was all about what Jesus has already done in bearing sin for us and rising for our new life. I loved that gospel, but I still had trouble believing it applied to me.
One night I was studying some tedious theological article on judgment, and suddenly, I realized Jesus’ words were speaking to me directly:
“Truly truly I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes Him who sent me, has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.” Jn. 5:24
That got my attention. “…Has passed from death to life.” Wow. I can know my eternal future right now because He was judged instead of me. But was I a genuine “whoever”? I can actually be certain of my eternal future, right now, because He was judged instead of me. I would never, ever live under His condemnation. I knew at that moment He was really speaking to me.
But He offered more: He will remember our sins no more, He will live in us forever, and we will all know Him (Jeremiah 31:34). He said it simply: I will not come into judgment, but will have already passed from death to life.
Light suddenly shone into my dungeon. For the first time, I saw God’s majesty. Like the old hymn said, “Love so amazing, so divine, Demands my soul, my life, my all.” Finally, I was caught, I had no place to hide – humbled and convicted, I repented and trusted in Jesus.
When you know the universe has a real King, everything looks different. Nature isn’t cold and hostile anymore. You see His splendor not only in the stars, but also in strange places, even rocky cliffs and merging galaxies. How so? It’s in Jeremiah 31. To show He really meant His promises to His people, God attached a universe-sized promise to His everlasting covenant. He links His faithfulness to the order of the sun and moon, the roaring sea, and to the whole order of nature (Jeremiah 31:35-36).
“If this fixed order departs, then shall the offspring of Israel cease…” The Old Covenant from Moses was made to fade, but the New Covenant is everlasting. If you doubt it, just look at His heavens. There’s the proof!
In the King’s Realm, the fixed order makes life possible. We live on a privileged planet orbiting a dependable star, in a safe pocket in our galaxy. This is design, the ancient, faithful, glorious purpose of our Creator. The universal, unchanging laws of the cosmos testify that every galaxy is the undisputed territory of One Owner. Furthermore, He never gambles with His creation, and He will never gamble with your life. The Fixed Order of nature shows He is a good king.
The frightening, awesome glory of nature shouldn’t disturb us, for the King has never stopped ruling. The Bible and Science both testify to that fact. His name is faithful and true (Rev. 10:11).
So now at last, I know Mom’s annoying, embarrassing old song told the truth. No matter where we are, in the worst moments of our lives, “Still I can trust Him, I know He will keep me; He has redeemed me and I am His child.”