Giggles peel through the air, a contrast to the rhythmic breaking of waves against the shore. My children run, full of joy, letting water crash against their ankles. Shovels plunge into sand. Fingers and toes curl, greedily exploring the texture as if made for sand and sea.
“Look at this beautiful shell, Mommy!” They shower me with shells indiscriminately, gifts of grace from precious hearts.
“Mommy, look at those huge birds!” Pelicans glide across the water in single file, gracefully swooping down beneath the surface. They are proud, showy, confident of their place in the world.
“There’s a man on a skateboard, and he’s using a parachute in the water!” My nearly three-year-old, who is blessed with the gift of many words, gazes in wonder at a kitesurfer. I marvel at her apt description of something she’s never seen before. Every minute is fresh with discovery. Every new sight met with delight.
I drink in the scene, admiring the horizon as it stretches endlessly until intersecting with the curve of the earth. Ocean, sand, sky—together resplendent—they can’t help but praise the One who made them. How naturally worship floods my heart! What a powerful, majestic God I have! Even the beauty of creation is a gift of grace.
Like Grains of Sand
I’ve 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. Taking my children to the ocean is every bit as lovely as I imagined it would be.
Playing in the water, building sand castles, eating sandy snacks—there’s no quiet contemplation or nose buried in a book. But the beach with kids is delightful.
The gears of time turn in my mind as I remember a different day at the beach . . .
It was windy, the precursor to rain and storms. I lay on a beach towel, soaking in the rays, yet aware of the stronger than normal wind. Sighing, I closed my book and propped my chin on folded arms. From my vantage point, I had a lavish view—nothing more than sand.
Alone with my thoughts, I contemplated this “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 a force outside themselves.
God, how precious your thoughts are to me;
how vast their sum is!
If I counted them,
they would outnumber the grains of sand;
when I wake up, 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 impossible to number all the grains of sand on every beach and under every ocean!
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’s countless thoughts include me? And each image bearer?
All I can do is marvel.
Writing Psalm 139, David overflowed with astonished wonder. How could it be that the God who is glorious and transcendent was 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
God’s thoughts about us are vast, and He deals with us in more unique and intimate ways than any human ever could. By Him we are thoroughly known and still thoroughly loved.2
All the days ordained for me were written in your book
before one of them came to be. (Psalm 139:16 NIV)
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, perfect nature of His plans.
There were times I did doubt. But God always brought me back.
I was reminded that 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 took 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 okay to be me without Jon, for my life truly is hidden with Christ on high (Gal. 2:20). As I gaze on Him, I know who I am.
Written by a Sovereign Hand
That day on the beach years ago, I closed my eyes, breathed in the salty air, and rested in the beauty of being fully loved and fully known. On that day I had long dreaded, I realized I had nothing to fear.
Sitting on the beach now, with my children playing happily in the sand, I smile. Sorrow still visits sometimes, but today there is nothing but joy and laughter. I watch my husband, David, playing just as gleefully as the kids are, 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, ten months and seventeen days with David. We’re closing in on six years quickly.
The narrative of my life that has been written by a perfect, sovereign hand is far beyond what I could have thought to pen. I wouldn’t have chosen widowhood for my story. But without it I wouldn’t have this man, these children.
These two days on the beach could not have been more different. One day lonely, quiet, filled with wondering what was next, fearing the piling on of days in which Jon would become a background character in my story. A second day full of laughter, contentment, and the boisterous play of three children under five years old.
But the truth is, 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.
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
When we’re lying crumpled in the valley of death, Christ is our hope. When we’re rising, limping, staggering up the slope, Christ is our hope. When we look forward as the path winds around the bend, Christ is our hope. And even on bubbling with joy, playing by the sea days, Christ is our hope.
This hope is not nebulous or wishy washy. It’s not the way the world thinks of hope. “I hope it doesn’t rain” or “I hope I can get that grass stain out of your pants.” We often think of hope as a maybe. As if something good may happen, but it isn’t guaranteed.
True hope in Christ is confident expectation. It is steadfast, sure, and guaranteed. He is exactly who He says He is and will do exactly what He’s said He’ll do.
My confidence may be shaken at times; it may even start to crumble. But hope is not built on my ability to believe. Instead, it’s built upon the one who holds together you, me, every blade of grass, every galaxy, and every atom. This God who is hope also purchased hope with His blood, and He lavishes hope on my soul like He poured innumerable grains of sand on every shore and under every ocean.
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.