“My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” –Isaiah 55:8–9
God doesn’t promise to protect you from all harm here and now. He loves you too much for that. He cares too much to guard you from every pain and trial. But in and through every hurt, every suffering, every hardship, he is unfolding his purposes for your everlasting good. He is working this — even this — for your final joy.
God gives us glimpses into his peculiarly loving ways throughout the Bible, but he does so with particular power at the very turning point of Jesus’s own ministry (Matthew 16:15; Mark 8:27; Luke 9:20).
Having asked his disciples for a briefing on who others thought he was, Jesus now asks for their opinion. “Who do you say that I am?” From here, he will pivot toward Jerusalem to fulfill his surprising calling, and along the way he will brace his men for the coming shock.
In response, Peter steps forward as spokesman for the twelve. “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16). He has answered rightly. But this is not to his own credit, but a gift from God. “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you,” Jesus says, “but my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 16:17).
At long last, Peter and the rest of the disciples are catching on, and yet they still have a major obstacle ahead of them. They still need to be turned upside down. They have human expectations, that the Christ will conquer his foes and come directly into his glory. So, Jesus must begin to dispel their man-made ways and thoughts. He announces he must “go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Matthew 16:21).
Then Peter, perhaps with newfound confidence having answered the previous question and received commendation, takes Jesus aside and begins to rebuke him. “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you” (Matthew 16:22). Jesus turns on Peter: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man” (Matthew 16:23).
Higher Than Ours
Peter and the disciples may have accurately identified Jesus as the Christ, but they do not yet understand what that really means — what it means on God’s terms. They are setting their minds on the things of man, rather than the things of God. Jesus is indeed the Christ — but he will be crucified. He will triumph and come into his glory. But on the way to conquering, he first will give himself to be conquered. He will walk the path of suffering and shame.
Peter’s paradigm, with his mind set on the things of man, is this: Jesus is the Christ; therefore he will not die; and we will triumph with him. But Jesus’s paradigm, which he now begins to introduce to his disciples, with his mind set on the things of God, is this: I am the Christ; therefore I will be shamed for my people, and rise in honor; and my people too will be shamed with me, and then rise with me in honor.
Peter was right about the end (glory and honor) but not about the means (suffering and shame). He still was thinking naturally. He was setting his mind on the things of man. He still had human expectations.
And so it has been for God’s people from the beginning.
Joy in the Heaviness
Finite and fallen, we are not just prone to human expectations; we are trapped in them. And as God declares through the prophet Isaiah, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways. . . . For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8–9).
Left to our own ways and assumptions, we would never see our darkest day as a time for us to discover peace. We would never see the wilderness as a place where we could find life. We would never see in our heaviness the possibility of supernatural joy.
But God’s ways and thoughts are higher than ours. He takes the pain and suffering we never would have chosen, and — not just despite them, but in them and because of them — he makes us increasingly like his Son, even as his Son embraced his darkest day and wilderness and heaviness at the cross for our everlasting salvation.
No matter how much we seem to be surrounded by foes now, we will see the enemy run. No matter how inevitable defeat may appear, we will see the victory come. This we know: God’s ways are higher than ours, and in our hardest moments here and now, Jesus is unfailing.