Have you ever been so sure that the Lord wanted something or someone for you, some particular way of serving Him, only to find in the end that you and the Lord were apparently not on the same page? How are we to handle these disappointments, especially as they raise unsettling questions like these: How could I have been so wrong about God’s will for me? Did I unknowingly do something to disqualify myself from the blessing I so deeply desired, and if so, how will I ever know? Or perhaps most painfully: “Now that He’s taken from me what I was certain He was giving to me - what do I do now?”
Sometimes we react to these disappointments with denial. When God in effect tells us “no”, we desperately hope that what He really means is “not yet.” It can be brutally difficult to let go of a dream, an aspiration for ministry, or a relationship which seems to be so evidently of the Lord. So how do we cultivate a posture of heart to pursue passionately an open door God sets before us while remaining willing to walk away when He clearly closes that door?
We must begin by grounding ourselves in the biblical means of determining God’s will. Deuteronomy 29:29 tells us that the secret things belong to the Lord, but that the things He’s revealed to us belong to us and to our posterity so that we may live according to God’s law. The written word of God, that which is revealed, gives us everything we need for life and godliness, and yet it does not give us specific details about how and with whom our lives and the pursuit of godliness will pan out. Whether we’ll be married and have children, what jobs we'll gain or lose, our physical health and relative success in society – these are all “secret” things in the mind of the Lord, things revealed by providence rather than prophecy. And that fact is freeing!
Christians are free to make one good, godly choice instead of another and to not worry that we’ve violated God’s will for us in the process. We can breathe easy as we navigate uncharted waters, guided by biblical principles of decision making (James 1:19), including especially our making these matters the subject of frequent prayer (James 1:5). As we acknowledge God in all of our ways, we can truly trust that He is making our path straight, even when, from our perspective, it takes unexpected, jarring turns (Proverbs 3:5-6).
Secondly, we must watch our hearts carefully for signs that our enthusiasm is infected with a sense of entitlement. Though we may affirm easily at the outset of a godly pursuit that “the Lord gives and the Lord takes away” (Job 1:21) it can be much more difficult to mean it when providence suggests a different direction. We might try to force open doors which the Lord is closing and end up resenting Him when they won’t budge. The Lord knows how hard it is for us to stay objective when we’ve set our hearts on a certain course, so He provides us with avenues of objective guidance through other believers, especially those whom He charges to keep watch over our souls (Malachi 2:7, Ephesians 4:11-12, Hebrews 13:17). The following questions help keep our hearts open to those avenues.
As Christians, we’re often told to be open to whatever God has for us, to ask Him “What would you have me to do?” So far, so good. Sometimes, though, when we have a burning desire to serve the Lord in a certain way, we must ask: “Lord, what will you have me not to do?” It’s essentially the same question, but constructed this way, it opens our hearts not only to the possibility of being directed, but of being redirected (Acts 16:6).
We should also keep asking ourselves if we are truly willing to hear counsel contrary to our desires and what proof there is of that willingness. If, when an idea strikes fire in our hearts, we only seek counsel from those whom we have every reason to believe will fan that flame, we have little reason to believe that we’re truly open to whatever God wants (Psalm 141:5).
Proverbs 11:14 tells us, “Where there is no guidance, a people falls, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety.” Having counselors in abundance allows for a diversity of opinion, the possibility of hearing contrary counsel as well as the possibility of detecting consistent patterns of counsel among a varied group of counselors. When several counselors alike in their Christian maturity but different in their life experience say the same thing about our plans, we have good reason to believe that our practical plans are well-suited to our pious passions.
As we lean on the Holy Spirit’s leading through the means God has ordained, we guard our hearts from false hopes as well as from halfhearted hopes. We may hold on to our aspirations, not with the loose grip of indecision or apathy, nor with the white-knuckled clutch of fear or entitlement. If we hold to our dreams with a firm but flexible grip, we may walk with joy in the direction the Lord seems to be leading, confident that the twists and turns along the way form the straight and level path he’s laid out for us from all eternity. And if our highest aspiration and the aim of all of our efforts is greater conformity to the character of our Christ, living a life that looks increasingly like His moral law (Psalm 119:5), then we can rest assured that though we cannot see the secret script, we and the Lord are very much on the same page.
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