Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Dealing With A Life Long Question - The Will of God

The night I was confronted with the possibility of going with a team from our church on a teaching mission to Southern Sudan I came face to face with another issue - God's will. On this occasion, as at other times in my life, my initial preference would have been to know specifically what God's will was in the matter. I am not so sure, though, that this did not have some selfish overtones. Some times we may be acting from a more self centered standpoint and we just clothe it with spiritual garb. We can approach the matter of "seeking to know" God's will before we decide because we want to know how everything will work out. We want to minimize the unknowns. This approach causes delay and can eventually render us unable to decide. I think in the initial days of deciding about the trip to Sudan I was not wanting to face the unknowns. I was too obsessed with the future. I was thinking, too, that I didn't want to be presumptuous and say I am going to do this or that without saying, as James does in James 4:15, "Instead you ought to say, If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that." I began to lapse back into thinking that I had to know or, at least, I thought I needed to show my dependence upon God by seeking to know His will.

What I have ended up doing most of the time, when the answers don't get specific, is to keep moving forward in varying degrees of struggle - praying that I would have the wisdom to take the right course or step - that I would be open and sensitive to God's guidance. Yet, I would still find myself wanting to "discover" God's will about the matter. That was true in the days I struggled with the decision about the trip to Sudan.

At times in my life as a Christian, I have had problems with the issue of God's will in decisions that I made or that I was planning to make. It was never clear to me how all that worked. It has not been until just the last few years that I have started to understand more. That means I have spent a lot of years in various degrees of darkness when it came to knowing how I was supposed to live and make life's decisions on the basis of God's will - a lot of years of thinking that I had to find God's perfect will in order to make right decisions in life or follow God's plan for my life. That created a problem. If God has a plan for my life (and your life) (and He does), then why is it that for the most part we can only discern it to any extent by looking back - looking back to trace God's hand in bringing us to where we are? The answer to that question is that while God will guide us, He does not burden us with the task of "divining His will of direction for our lives ahead of time." But I didn't know for a long time that this was true. My perspective, when it came to God's will of direction for my life, was as myopic as my eyes were - even more so. As this became clear to me, it made me realize how confused I have been in the past.

I think there is a lot of confusion when it comes to how God's will works in the decisions that we make. Some of that confusion and struggle surfaced for me in the days leading up to my "going forward - no retreat" decision about the trip to Southern Sudan- a trip and an experience that would turn out to be one of those defining moments for me in my journey with God. To get there was a journey in itself - not just the physical aspects of the trip. That was smooth compared to the spiritual journey.

Among the many things that I had to deal with in actually reaching the point of refusing to retreat was the matter of God's will - primarily learning a lesson that up to that point had been basically an academic one. It was ironic (but not really) that when this all began to unfold I had been reading a book on this very matter. I had no idea that I was about to be confronted with more than words in a book or in an article.

I had just purchased a book entitled, "Just Do Something - A Liberating Approach To Finding God's Will." I became aware of this book on June 1, 2009 through an article written by Geoff Ashley, the Discipleship Resource Pastor at The Village Church. It is the same Geoff Ashley who would later pose the Sudan question to me. As I look back on these events, it is fascinating to see how God works. I sure didn't pick up this book because I consciously needed to know the truth when it came to God's will and deciding to go on a mission trip to Sudan. God did know. I can see now how He was preparing the way. If you really want to kick it up a notch, that preparation just didn't start on June 1, 2009. Just think about that for a moment. As soon as I began reading the book and the article, I could feel clouds of confusion starting to lift. But that was not at the heart level yet. I had no idea how those thoughts were about to impact my life and enable me to keep moving forward toward one of the greatest decision I have made in a long, long time. I had no idea how God would use those thoughts to keep me from retreating - how they would keep me from indecision and from acting like a coward or resting in my own comfort. I didn't know how those thoughts would keep me from being paralyzed by the idea that if I went on the trip I might be going against some hidden will of God that could have led me into some bad situations. I didn't know that it would keep me from looking for a "no-risks" path of obedience. It would, instead, help me reaffirm that I didn't need to know the future because I could have confidence in the One who holds the future. It would keep me moving closer to the greatest of all plans that God had for my life and your life - being engaged through trials and triumphs that lead us to being transformed into the image of His Son. I would eventually come to the point of simply trusting Him - living and obeying and not missing one of the greatest moments in my life - Sudan III. I didn't know any of this when I first read Geoff's article and eventually the book by Kevin DeYoung. Even after God brought me into the classroom of life on this matter of His will, it took a while for it to dawn on me that what I was reading was about me. That is still strange to me; but it made me realize that this is not only true of the books we read, it is also true of the most important book, the Word of God. The light doesn't come on automatically. I am grateful that it did begin to shine.

As I try to explain what was happening, I have had to look at the momentary struggle that I had in sorting through things in light of this "liberating approach to finding God's will" as dealt with in the book, "Just Do Something" and in related Scripture. I really want to be clear about all of this and to look a little closer at how these truths about God's will affected my life during those days leading up to the trip and the awesome experience I found in Yei, Sudan with some brothers and sisters in Christ. Part of what I write in this section of the story will be based on the thoughts expressed in the book and article I just mentioned and the part it played in not letting me retreat from full scale, heart-felt obedience and the opportunity of a life time. It will be about how this experience in Southern Sudan became "heart-work" for me full of real joy and peace.

Even though I was studying and reading this book when the opportunity for the Sudan trip unfolded, I did not immediately relate it to what I was going through - at least in the initial days leading up to the decision to go on the trip. I think that it was the little words on the back cover of the book that caught my attention and served to explained what happened in my life and the struggle over the decision to go on the trip. It explains how I could go in peace and joy - I gave up. I surrendered to God and the things I knew to be true. I "just did something" and things began to happen. I came to realize that the issue for me was whether I would retreat in comfort or fall into some self appointed comfortable obedience rather than take advantage of an opportunity that I never envisioned would be mine. The questions about why I was asked to go on this trip also lifted.

One thing did weigh down on me, though, as I crossed the line. I became painfully aware of and burdened by the thoughts about the consequences of retreat from the path God had opened for me. Just thinking about it now brings a sense of dread. It is like suddenly realizing how close you came to a serious fall or an auto wreck. I know me well enough to realize that had I retreated, I could very well have given up. I am not sure that I would ever have recovered. I am not sure how the next page of my life would have been written. I have regrets in life as we all do; but a decision to retreat on this occasion could potentially have been my greatest regret. This is one reason I cannot say enough about the mercy and grace of God that He would not let that happen for one such as me. He did not let it happen when it came to the greatest moment in my lifetime - my salvation. And if I could see back over my life, I know that it is filled with those moments of mercy and grace. It does frightens me, though, when I think that I could have used muddled thoughts about God's will to shut me down. I could have missed out on a trip of a life time. I wonder how many could join me in expressing similar struggles - perhaps some going on now that are keeping you from making the decisions you should make concerning your journey with God?

I think that I knew that unless something happened - like not being approved for the trip or something else that stopped the process - that I would go on the trip. The problem was, though, I was not spiritually ready to go. I was resigned to the thought of going; but I was not at peace and that is not how I wanted it to be. I didn't want to go for the wrong reason or with the wrong attitude. Too much was involved. Live would affected. People were putting their confidence in me. As I dealt with the unknowns and with wanting God to clear all of that up for me, I knew that this presented another problem. I was coming to the point of no return once the application went in for consideration. I thought I was wanting it to be God's will; but it actually was a situation where I was wanting to know something that was not mine to know - at least in the sense that I was wanting to know it. I think I was wanting some type of express spiritual permission to go on this trip so bad things wouldn't happen and good things would. But even had that happened, I would have missed the greater lesson when it comes to God's will. As the author of the book, "Just Do It" says,

God is not a Magic 8-Ball we shake up and peer into whenever we have a decision to make. He is a good God who gives us brains, shows us the way of obedience, and invites us to take risks for Him. We know God has a plan for our lives. That's wonderful. The problem is we think He's going to tell us the wonderful plan before it unfolds. We feel like we can know - and need to know - what God wants every step of the way. But such preoccupation with finding God's will, as well-intentioned as the desire may be, is more folly than freedom.

The better way is the biblical way: See first the kingdom of God, and then trust that He will take care of our needs, even before we can know what they are and where we're going.

I think that too much of my problem when it came to wanting to find God's will was a lack of trust in God's promises and provisions. Kevin DeYoung said on page 47 of his book, "We don't just want His word that He will be with us; we want Him to show us the end from the beginning and prove to us that He can be trusted. We want to know what tomorrow will bring instead of being content with simple obedience on the journey." James 4:15, quoted above, is often seen as an expression of submission on our part to God's will and that is the sense in which I referred to it earlier. In another sense though it is a statement that recognizes the awesome truth that God is sovereignly in control of our lives. The author also says, "We must live our lives believing that all of our plans and strategies are subject to the immutable will of God. Therefore, we should be humble in looking to the future because we don't control it; God does. And we should be hopeful in looking to the future because God controls it, not us." As I write these words now, I realize that this is the point to which God brought me in those days leading up to boarding the plane on October 5, 2009 for Sudan. It explains why I could leave here in peace and be able to deal with all that followed and return home with a heart of gratitude that God would have allowed this to happen in my life.

I was reminded at some point in the struggle, that I was trying to walk by sight and not faith. I realized too that in the mix of all that was happening was the matter of sin on my part in wanting to be in control and chart my own comfortable course. "We risk because God does not risk. We walk into the future in God-glorifying confidence, not because the future is known to us but because it is known to God. And that's all we need to know." That is more or less what Dr. Steve Glaser was telling me that morning when I spoke of my concerns about the trip. "What is the worse that could happen to you?" The answer, when you are walking by faith, is nothing. I never could say in all of this that God was telling me to do this or that. I could say as things progressed, "It seems like the Lord is leading." In that sense, I was doing what I should have been doing all along - expressing my dependence upon Him. It didn't mean that I was passive either. This trip was one of the most "unpassive" things I have ever done. It was like Josh Patterson told me, "You just keep moving forward, placing these struggles before God."

I reached the point, by moving forward, where I could experience the truth expressed by Jesus in Matthew 6:25-34 - and the rebuke - "O you of little faith." I could take "tomorrow" out of the mix. I could concentrate on His will to "seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness." I could start running hard after Him. I could focus on the truth that His will for each of us to grow in holiness in daily life. Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 4:3, "For this is the will of God, your sanctification." I could focus on rejoicing, praying without ceasing and giving thanks in all circumstances because, according to 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18, that too is the will of God.

An interesting thing was happening during all of my struggle as "Mr. O-You-of-Little-Faith." My wife, Betty, never wavered in her conviction that this was something I should do and that God wanted me to do. She was very gentle about this conviction and looking back I am grateful for the way she would express it. She didn't let me retreat. I am blessed to have someone like that - someone who was praying for me and trusting God that I would make the right decision. It didn't mean that she wasn't apprehensive. I think she was just a little but it never really showed. I think God was working in her life as well. Actually I know He was. On this occasion God placed her strong faith in my path and cut off any retreat that I might have had out of "concern for her." She put that to rest the night Geoff asked me to go. Through all of this, I knew she was on track. I knew she was right and I knew that I would get to that point once I got the clutter out of the way. That supportive role concerning the trip didn't end with my decision to go. It continued even when I was on the other side of the ocean. Those times will be part of the story down the road. Her trust help me to get my focus back where it belonged - on God's Word.

One verse that came to mind was found in Colossians 1:9. There Paul said to pray that we "may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to Him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in he knowledge of God." I began to see that in a number of areas God had already told me what to do. For example, to live in the power of the Spirit. That, I was not doing and yet God had made it clear that was how we are to live. This is the approach to life that He was always wanting from me - and for you. The sooner that truth is seen and accepted the sooner we can get on with the matter of joyful obedience. That meant the sooner I could get on with the trip to Sudan. I could make the trip and I can now live each day knowing that while God doesn't reveal many, many things to me, He is guiding me and His will, as expressed so clearly in Scripture, if followed, will enable me to move forward and not retreat.

There is still much more I need to understand about God's will in terms of life; but one thing has become clear in all of this. When I really looked at God's will, as revealed in Scripture, it went from a question about knowing to a matter of doing what God had already revealed - of moving forward in dependence upon Him. In Texas history there is a story of an event that took place in the final hours of the battle at the Alamo. A line was drawn in the sand. When the men stepped across the line, that meant "no retreat." I am thankful for the morning of July 9, 2009. I don't mean this to be an overly dramatic statement; but knowing the direction my life could have taken and knowing, to some extent, the impact it would have had on my life, and knowing now what was waiting for me in making this trip, a very life defining thing happened to me. I don't know all that happened in my life that day; but I do know that on that day, in a sense I came to a line of "no retreat." I stepped across that line. Instead of death, as the men of the Alamo would find, I found a new experience in living.

“Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.”

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