How many times have you heard someone say, “God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, and His ways are not our ways”? Think about the context in which those words tend to be spoken….
The death of a loved one, a difficult time you are going through, plans that don’t work out, change you long for doesn’t happen, or unexpected change throws your life into chaos: these are the kinds of circumstances in which these words are often spoken.
Bad things are happening, or the good things we hope for seem never to come. That’s when someone says, “You know, God’s ways are not our ways.” The implication is that we should trust Him anyway, and that is good advice, but it’s often not very comforting in the moment.
Speaking those words in those kinds of circumstances also takes them completely out of the context in which they were spoken by the Prophet, Isaiah, whose words they are:
“Seek the Lord while he may be found; call to him while he is near. Let the wicked one abandon his way and the sinful one his thoughts; let him return to the Lord, so he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will freely forgive.
“’For my thoughts are not your thoughts, and your ways are not my ways.’ This is the Lord’s declaration. ‘For as heaven is higher than earth, so my ways are higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.'”
Isaiah 55:6-9 CSB
Until today I had not considered these verses in the context of the previous two verses. Or in the context of the whole chapter, for that matter. In fact, Isaiah 55 begins with the words, “Come, all you who are thirsty!”[i] I encourage you to read all of Isaiah 55, which I have provided at the end of this article.
But the focus of this article is the two verses spoken right before the enigmatic words of comfort that we often hear: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, and your ways are not my ways.”
These verses are spoken in the context of encouragement to seek God and return to him so that God may have compassion on you, for God freely forgives. This is the context for the statement that God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, and His ways are not our our ways.
The implication here is that God forgives where we are not likely to forgive. God has compassion where we fail to have compassion. God freely forgives where we have much difficulty forgiving, and He has compassion when we would not have compassion.
That God’s thoughts are higher than our thoughts is often mentioned in the context of things we do not understand about life, such as the death, tragedy, catastrophe, and hopelessness. We think of the negative things that happen to us and the good things for which we hope that never seem to come about.
While it’s true that God sees things we do not see, and He has purposes that He is working out in history, throughout the earth, and even in our own loves that we do not understand, Isaiah’s statement that God’s way are not our ways, and His thoughts are not our thoughts, was not spoken in that context at all.
God’s thoughts are not our thoughts because He has compassion that we do not have and do not understand! God’s ways are not our ways because God freely forgives those who turn to Him.
Thank about that: This means that God is much more compassionate and forgiving than we understand or give him credit for.
We sometimes fixate on God’s judgment. We struggle with God’s wrath and the problem of pain and suffering in the world. In these contexts is when we heard it said that God’s thoughts are higher than our thoughts, and His ways are higher than our ways.
God is much more compassionate and forgiving than we understand or give him credit for
The real import of these versus, however, it’s not that God is mysterious in some dark and tragic way, but that God is mysterious in a compassionate and forgiving way!
We may actually have more difficulty understanding the compassion of God, than the wrath of God sometimes. We may have more difficulty understanding the forgiveness of God than the judgment of God. We may not like the idea of God’s wrath or judgment, but we somehow grasp it in a twisted kind of way, even if only to hold it against him.
Yet, we sometimes struggle to understand His great compassion and forgiveness.
Why would God empty himself of His glory, give up His divine privileges, make Himself nothing (Phil. 2:7), and enter into His creation in the most vulnerable way? Why would He humble Himself in that way and be obedient like a servant (Phil. 2:8) to submit himself to the worst that his own creation could do to Him? Humiliating and excruciating death on a Roman cross!
And then, after all of that, the words of Christ, who was God Incarnate, spoken as he died on a Roman cross are the most mysterious thing we could ever imagine:” Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34)
[i] “Come, all you who are thirsty,
come to the waters;
and you who have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without cost.
2 Why spend money on what is not bread,
and your labor on what does not satisfy?
Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good,
and you will delight in the richest of fare.
3 Give ear and come to me;
listen, that you may live.
I will make an everlasting covenant with you,
my faithful love promised to David.
4 See, I have made him a witness to the peoples,
a ruler and commander of the peoples.
5 Surely you will summon nations you know not,
and nations you do not know will come running to you,
because of the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel,
for he has endowed you with splendor.”
6 Seek the Lord while he may be found;
call on him while he is near.
7 Let the wicked forsake their ways
and the unrighteous their thoughts.
Let them turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on them,
and to our God, for he will freely pardon.
8 “For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,”
declares the Lord.
9 “As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.
10 As the rain and the snow
come down from heaven,
and do not return to it
without watering the earth
and making it bud and flourish,
so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,
11 so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.
12 You will go out in joy
and be led forth in peace;
the mountains and hills
will burst into song before you,
and all the trees of the field
will clap their hands.
13 Instead of the thornbush will grow the juniper,
and instead of briers the myrtle will grow.
This will be for the Lord’s renown,
for an everlasting sign,
that will endure forever.”
The overarching meaning of the ubiquitous phrase, God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, is that we can trust God, but the focus of that phrase is not that we can trust Him despite the negative things in the world. The reason we can trust God is because He is not like us in His compassion and willingness to forgive those who turn to Him! God is mysterious in His compassion and willingness to stoop to our level and lift us up, give us hope, and assure us of His love eternally. Though this life may not be what we want, the life we want awaits us because God has shown He compassion towards us!