plans, providence, and the fork in the road
Are you wrestling with deciding on a major? Are you at a vocational crossroads? Have you been downsized? Has a relationship turned sour? Are you goals eluding you? If you answered yes to any of these questions read on... I have a story for you:
My son took a trip to Austria several years ago. He was going to meet up with me because I was over there teaching in a wonderful Bible School. This was the travel plan: Plane/Train. He was 19 and it was his first time out of the country. Instead, here's what actually happened: plane delay (24 hours), plane, train (but a 100 year storm that dropped trees on the tracks in Europe), back up the train to try another track; same problem on the second track; be told (in German, which you don't speak) to get off the train and wait for a bus instead; get on the bus; be told (in German) that buses don't cross boarders from one country to another so this is the end of the line; watch as everyone gets off the bus; get off the bus; call your dad (it's 11:45PM) and say, "I'm in a town in Germany, the name of which I can't pronounce. What do I do?; wait while your dad calls a friend who lives in Salzburg. When your dad spells the name of the town she says, "O, that's only 15 minutes from here, across the boarder in Germany - I'll be right there"; get picked up in a car by an Austrian woman; spend the night with her and her husband; catch train to destination, arriving 72 hours later than planned...
"Later than planned".... "Other than planned" - These are the realities, not only of travel, but of life with Christ. Read Acts 16 and you get this eery sense that Paul has no idea what he's doing or where he's going. Look at verse 6: "forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia", and then verse 7: "the Spirit of Jesus did not permit them". Paul had plans, strategies, goals. But Proverbs 16:9 exposes God's little secret, because that's where He says (in my paraphrase) "Go ahead and make your plans. That's an important part of living. But I have the trump card. Love, God"
As I read through this story, which reveals the interplay of Paul's plans and God's sovereign overruling, several truths jump out at me:
1. God uses our desires. As you read Acts 16, you discover the simple truth that, when Paul met Timothy, Paul wanted to Timothy to join him on the mission, so he invited him along. Again note the simplicity of the statement: Paul wanted this man to go with him. We're suspicious of desire sometimes, secretly believing that if we enjoy something, there's no possibility that it will be God's will. That's rubbish. Of course, it's true that God has the freedom to call us into contexts that we'd never choose, and all of us will find the path of the cross in our lives. But along the way, there are "good and perfect gifts". I LOVE Seattle, because of the mountains, music, coffee, and rain. That God has called me here gives me great joy, and this joy is important, because this same calling is filled with monumental challenges as well. Don't despise desire. Instead, express it to the Lord.
2. God says no because there's something better. Though we have both plans and desires, the reality is that God says no. He said no to Paul preaching in Asia. He said no to Bithynia. He said YES to Macedonia. Within this "NO" principle, I find something beautiful: God doesn't punish Paul for trying to go to Asia or Bithynia, as if Paul should have been isolated in a cave somewhere, fasting and praying in order to find God's will. In fact, the reality of the Christian life is that we find God's will, not by surfing the web or watching "The Office" but by getting off our butts and doing "whatever our hands find to do".
My own journey towards finding God's will was a little bit like my son's trip to Europe. I was going to be an architect and so attended Cal Poly. God spoke and I changed my major to music and attended Seattle Pacific University, thinking I was going to be a musician. Then I taught a Bible study, loved it, and headed to seminary to become a teacher of the Bible. Along the way, I accepted an interim pastor position on an island in Washington state, which turned into a six-year gig, where God shaped my heart to be a pastor, which I now am in Seattle.
Looking back, I could never have fabricated this script. There have been desires granted, desires denied. There have been doors opened, doors closed. It's unfolded though, as the great adventure that the Christian life is supposed to be. So if your plans aren't unfolding perfectly, can I encourage you in Jesus name: You're in good company. Abraham; Joseph; Moses; David; Jeremiah; Isaiah; Mary; Peter... need I continue? You're in the company of great adventurers who learned to hold desire and plans with an open hand, allowing God to shape it all uniquely into the calling He had for each one. May such be your story as well as you follow Him.
Note: a podcast of this develops these themes more fully and is available here.