It’s one of those verses. Everyone quotes it, but few people know the reference, and even fewer people know the context. “God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, and His ways are not our ways.” This line gets trotted out when things happen that we don’t understand. Don’t know why you can’t get a job? Well, God’s ways are higher than man’s ways. Get a flat tire and then later hear about an accident on your route home? His thoughts are higher than ours. I suppose these statements are true, though they’re not usually terribly insightful.
Yes, the ways of our infinite God often mystify us finite humans. We sometimes can’t even see the iceberg, let alone its tip, let alone the whole thing. God is always doing millions of things in and around us, and we know of maybe three of them. He often chooses to work in ways that utterly confound us. Consider the stories of Joseph or Samson, for example. However, while these things are certainly true, they do not accurately convey the meaning of the verse with which we began. We must ask, then, what exactly are these “higher ways” and “higher thoughts” of God?
A Context of Compassion
To answer that question, we need to read the verse in context. If you have time, I highly recommend diving deep into all of Isaiah 55; however, we have space here to look at just the immediate context of the verse in question.
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;
And let him return to the LORD,
And He will have compassion on him,
And to our God,
For He will abundantly pardon.
“For My thoughts are not your thoughts,
Nor 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 spends most of the first 37 chapters of his book with warnings of judgment, both for Israel and the nations. In the second portion, however, the focus shifts, and Isaiah gives the reader hope. He foretells a remnant of God’s people and redemption from their wickedness. Obviously, chapter 55 falls into this latter category.
Here we see Isaiah calling his readers to seek the Lord before it’s too late and to forsake their wicked ways. He doesn’t call them to repentance out of fear of judgment but because of the assurance of forgiveness. Notice the promise: “He [the LORD] will have compassion on him . . . For He will abundantly pardon.”
How can this be? How can God make such a promise? He tells us: His ways are not our ways, nor His thoughts our thoughts.
Higher Thoughts, Higher Ways
Perhaps Christ had this passage in mind when He told the parable of the Lost Son (Luke 15:11-32). The Master Teacher tells of a father with two sons. The younger demands his inheritance and then leaves home to squander it on wanton, godless living. The elder boy stays with the father, the picture of loyalty and love (or so we think). Eventually the younger son comes to the end of his money, and a famine leaves him destitute. He finally comes to his senses when he realizes that his father’s servants don’t have to stoop as low as he currently does for food. Tail between his legs, he heads for home.
At this point, the expectations for both sons are identical. Each expects their father to reprimand and berate the younger son for the dishonor he has brought to the family. If he’s lucky, perhaps he will be permitted to stay on in a capacity of service.
But the father’s thoughts are not the sons’ thoughts, nor his ways his sons’ ways.
The father sees his son from a distance, and (in a very undignified way for a man of his status) he hitches up his robe and runs to meet him. After embracing his son in an all-out bear hug, he calls for a robe for his son’s back, a ring for his finger, and a feast to celebrate his return.
Neither son can believe it. The younger son is humbly elated at the grace he has received; the older son, however, is incensed. Their ways are not their father’s ways, nor their thoughts his thoughts.
My friend, the biggest mystery of God’s ways and His thoughts is not that He sometimes allows “bad things to happen to good people” or that He has allowed sin and suffering into this world. The greatest mystery of all is this: that He would have compassion on rebellious sinners like you and me, abundantly forgiving them and adopting them as royal sons and daughters.
I wish I could stop with the “wow factor” of that last statement. However, God’s Word won’t let me. My friend, you and I tend to be like the older son. Yes, we identify with the younger son when it comes to salvation, but our attitude toward our brothers and sisters is often more like that self-righteous elder son. Believe me, I speak from my own experience when I say that. I like to believe that my preferences are the right ones. Differ with me, and you’ll drop a little in my estimation. I also tend to remember hurts perpetrated against me. Yes, I’ll forgive, but the hurt often still niggles at the back of my mind. Have a sin problem that I don’t share? My flesh wants to label you as “weak” and me as “strong.” Can you relate? (I sure hope so!)
We must admit that we are older-son forgivers.
The Good News
That’s the bad news. And it seems even worse because we tend to think that God deals with us like we deal with other people. And when other people treat me and my forgiveness with arrogant self-righteousness, I’m not very likely to deign to grant it to them again any time in the near future!
But God’s ways are not our ways.
The fact is that God still shows compassion, and He still abundantly pardons—even self-righteous arrogance and stingy forgiveness.
Ephesians 4:32 captures it perfectly:
Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.
If I want to move from being an older-son forgiver to be a God-like forgiver, I must remember that the unexpected, mysterious, and downright baffling forgiveness that was extended to me the day I came home smelling of of pig slop and covered head-to-toe in the mess my own sin had created is the very same forgiveness that’s extended to me today in my arrogant self-righteousness.
How can I do otherwise than to have the same type of surprising compassion and extend the same mystifyingly abundant forgiveness to someone who has not lived up to my standards?
Praise the Lord for His compassion. Praise Him for His extravagant forgiveness! Praise Him that His thoughts are higher than ours, and His ways than our ways!