Giggles pealed through the air contrasting the rhythmic break of waves against shore. Children ran, full of joy, letting water crash against their ankles. Shovels plunged into sand. Fingers and toes curled, greedily exploring the texture as if they were made for sand and sea.
“Look at this beautiful shell Mommy!” They showered me with shells indiscriminately, gifts of grace from precious hearts.
“Mommy look at those huge birds!” Pelicans glided across the water in single file, gracefully swooping down. They were proud, showy, confident of their place in the world.
“There’s a man on a skate board, and he’s using a parachute in the water!” My nearly three year old who is blessed with the gift of many words, gazed in wonder at a kitesurfer. I marveled at her apt description of a concept she’d never seen before. Every minute was fresh with discovery. Every new site met with delight.
I drank in the scene admiring the horizon stretching endlessly, intersecting with the very curve of the earth. Ocean, sand, sky— together resplendent—they couldn’t help but praise the one who made them. How naturally worship flooded my heart! What a powerful, majestic, God I have! Even the beauty of creation is a gift of grace.
I had waited for this day. Illinois has some lake beaches, but they’re kiddie pools (or cat pools as my little ones say. See the sweet misunderstanding there?) compared to the ocean. I longed to take my children to the ocean, and their first experience with it was every bit as lovely as I imagined it would be.
Playing in the water, building sand castles, eating sandy snacks—there was no quiet contemplation, or nose buried in a book. But the beach with kids was delightful.
Gears of time turned, and in my mind I contrasted another, earlier day.
It was windy, the precursor to rain and storms. I lay on a beach towel, soaking in the rays, yet aware of the more than average wind. Sighing, I closed my book, and propped my chin on folded arms. From my vantage point, I had an up close and personal, lavish view of nothing more than sand.
Alone with my thoughts, I contemplated “the long dreaded day”- the day he would be gone longer than we had been married. Two years, eight months, and three days I was married to Jonathan Atkins. Two years, eight months, and three days he had been gone.
My mind swirled with implications. “I’m facing a day most widows never experience. So many get to be with their husbands for decades.”
Sand whirled, reacting to the force of the wind. My face inches above the beach, I searched for an indiscernible pattern, noticing individual grains whisked along by something outside themselves
“How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! If I would count them, they are more than the sand. I awake, and I am still with you.” (Psalm 139:17)
If I tried to count the grains of sand in the square foot in front of me, it wouldn’t take long to realize the futility of my endeavor. How ridiculously more impossible to number all the grains of sand on every beach and under every ocean!
But a string of zeros marching across my imagination is the best I can do to comprehend the number of God’s thoughts toward me. Now multiply that by seven billion people on the earth. It’s unfathomable. God has countless thoughts about me? About each image bearer?
All I can do is marvel.
Writing Psalm 139, David overflows with astonished wonder. How can it be that the God who is glorious and transcendent is also personal and intricately involved in his small life?
“The intimacy of David’s relationship with God is put on beautiful display through this Psalm. David knows that God’s care for him is so deep and thorough that every step he takes, every word he speaks, is known fully by the Lord who has numbered all of his days before they began. Indeed his days began as God formed him while yet in his mother’s womb. His very inward parts and every aspect of his life have been designed by God himself. No matter where David may travel, far or wide, he knows that God’s Spirit is always with him, that God always knows the situations he is in. To imagine the detailed and exhaustive nature of God’s thoughts toward his own children, as David here exemplifies truly is precious.” (1)
His thoughts about us are vast, and he deals with us in more unique and intimate ways than any human ever could. By God we are thoroughly known and and still thoroughly loved (2)
“In your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.” (Psalm 139:16)
Before I was born God established the course of my life, a tiny though meticulously planned subplot in His epic redemptive tale. He was sovereign over the length of days I had with Jon. He orchestrated our meeting, and His timing was perfect. To wish for more time, is at its root to doubt God’s character. It is to doubt the vast, detailed, and utterly perfect nature of His plans.
There were times I did doubt. But God always brought me back.
Even if I stopped being known as “Mrs. Atkins,” or slowly became surrounded with friends who didn’t know Jon or the me I had been with him, I was still known.
It had taken me a while to figure out who I was after death ripped me in half. But as I walked farther down the path away from the valley of death, I started to look forward. It was ok to be me without Jon.
For truly my life is hid with Christ on high (Galatians 2:20). As I gaze on him, I know who I am.
I closed my eyes, breathed in the salty air, and rested in the beauty of being fully loved and fully known. On a day I long dreaded, I realized I had nothing to fear.
Fast forward, back to children playing in the sand. Sorrow mingles sometimes, but on this day there was nothing but joy and laughter. I watched my husband, David, playing just as gleefully as the kids were, scooping them up then dipping them in the waves.
I was given two years, eight months, and three days with Jon. To date I have had five years, 10 months and 17 days with David. We’re closing in on six years quickly.
How much more striking is the narrative of my life written by a perfect, sovereign hand than what I could ever think to pen. I wouldn’t have chosen death. But without it I would never have this man, these children.
This is a story of two contrasting days drawn together by a common theme. One day lonely, quiet, wondering what was next, fearing the piling on of days and Jon becoming a background character. And a second day, full of laughter, contentment, and the boisterous play of three under five.
But both days drew my heart to worship. Both reminded me of an unfathomable God who also knows me precisely. The same God who created vast oceans and innumerable grains of sand knows me.
I tend to share my struggles openly and deeply. I want to be as known as people will let me be. However, though our culture loves the words “real” and “authentic,” we only want them to a certain extent. Somewhere there is an invisible line we dare not cross.
Sometimes we want just enough of others’ messiness to feel better about ourselves. Other times we truly do care, we just have no idea how to respond. Too much confession, too much grief, too much depravity makes others uncomfortable. And besides who wants to always be the “broken” friend? So sometimes I do what we all do— put on my respectable face. Don’t overshare. Don’t weigh everyone down. Don’t be “too much.”
But it is not so with God. Even if I tried to put on my respectable face, he knows all of my ugliest parts; he is not afraid of them. And he loves me anyway. I have learned I can always run to God with my sin and struggles. I need not hide because the transcendent God, bowed low enough to be born a helpless newborn and bowed even lower still to die on the cross. He always meets me with mercy and grace.
Although he knows everything about me, he still dwells with me. Though he has countless thoughts about me, he remembers my sin no more (Isaiah 57:15, Hebrews 8:12).
All I can do is marvel and respond with lifted hands.
“What is our hope in life and death?
Christ alone, Christ alone
What is our only confidence?
That our souls to him belong
Who holds our days within his hand?
What comes, apart from his command?
And what will keep us to the end?
The love of Christ, in which we stand.” (3)
Lying crumpled in the valley of death, Christ is the hope. Rising, limping, staggering up the slope, Christ is the hope. Looking forward as the path winds around the bend, Christ is the hope. And even on bubbling with joy, resplendent, playing by the sea days, Christ is the hope.
And this hope is not nebulous or wishy washy. It’s not the way our vernacular uses hope. “I hope it doesn’t rain” or “I hope I can get that stain out your clothes.” We think hope is a “maybe.” Perhaps something good will happen, but it isn’t guaranteed.
However, true hope in Christ is confident expectation. It is something steadfast, sure, guaranteed. He is exactly who he says he is and will do exactly what he has said he will.
My confidence may be shaken. It may even start to crumble. But hope is built not on my ability to believe, but on the one who holds me, you, every blade of grass, every galaxy, and every atom together. This God who is hope knows every fear, worry, and every wretched thought I have. He knows the beautiful ones too. Fully known, yet fully loved. This God purchased hope with his blood, and he lavishes it on my soul like innumerable grains of sand poured on every shore and under every ocean.
To be known. To be thought of countless times. To be met each day with precise hope.
All I can do is marvel.
1 Commentary on Psalm 139, ESV Gospel Transformation Study Bible: Christ in All of Scripture, Grace for All of Life: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018).
2 Timothy Keller and Kathy Keller, The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2016).
3 Keith Getty et al., “Christ Our Hope in Life and Death,” Getty Music, accessed August 23, 2022, https://www.gettymusic.com/christ-our-hope.
An edited version of this article first appeared at Revive Our Hearts