Chapter OneWe Never Know How
Things Will Turn Out
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I spent the first twenty years of my life feeling certain I knew the will
of God for my life. I was going to practice medicine. I was as sure
about the future as I was about the difficulty of getting there, for making
it to the end seemed a daunting task to me. While still in high
school, I talked seriously with a plastic surgeon about joining his practice
when I completed my education, and he invited me to his summer
home to show me slides of his work. By the time I entered college, I was
eager to enroll in science and math courses to prepare for medical
school. I had one goal in mind. Everything else was a distraction and
inconvenience to me, like having to do chores on a hot summer day.
But I made a fatal mistake in selecting a college. Hope College,
located in Holland, Michigan, was a liberal arts institution, which
meant that it required students to take a broad range of general studies
courses. If I ever wanted to earn a degree from Hope, therefore, I
would have to do more than study science. I would also have to read
Dostoyevsky, listen to Beethoven, study the causes of the Crimean
War, and write a persuasive essay.
I was about as eager to study the liberal arts as I was to read a dictionary
for weekend pleasure. But I had no choice. In my first semester
I signed up for a freshman writing class. For years I had read
literature only under duress and had avoided writing altogether, except
when my teachers forced me to put pen to paper. Fortunately, my writing
professor, Dr. Nancy Miller, knew my type. Savvy and sociable, she
was adept at handling people like me. When I griped one day about
the writing requirement, she ignored me as if I had just made a bland
comment about the Detroit Lions. When I told her that I simply did
not need the course because I was not planning to write for a career,
she replied, "You never know, Jerry, how things will turn out."
She was right, of course. I ended up doing something far different
from what I had assumed was God's will for my life. I did not attend
medical school; I enrolled in seminary. I did not become a medical
doctor; I became a minister instead. Later I returned to graduate
school to earn an advanced degree. Now I serve as a college professor,
and I write in my spare time. Words are therefore central to what I
do. The writing course I took my freshman year of college became
very useful to me, and my writing teacher proved to be a prophet. As
it turns out, both course and teacher helped to prepare me for a vocation
I never imagined at the time I would be doing.
Inability to Predict the Future
From this experience, I learned a valuable lesson I will never forget:We never know how things will turn out. What appears in our minds
to be the pathway we should take might change as suddenly as
weather in the Midwest. So we would be wise to be attentive and
responsive to God along the way, even in matters that appear to have
little significance, such as crafting good papers in a freshman writing
class. Perhaps our attention to these little things is the will of God,
and our preoccupation with the future a foolish distraction.
As I look back on my forty-nine years, I see a pattern emerge. At
various points along the way I thought I knew the pathway I was supposed
to take, but I ended up doing something quite different. This
different "something" turned out to be the will of God. At twenty, I
was sure that God wanted me to pursue a career in medicine; I became
a minister instead. At thirty, I was planning to stay the course in pastoral
ministry; now I am a college professor. At forty, I didn't aspire to
be an avid writer; now I am finishing this, my fifth book. At every
step along the way I thought I knew God's will for my life. I thought
I had it all figured out. But it did not turn out as I had planned.
It occurred to me a few years ago that either I had developed the
bad habit of missing the will of God for my life, or I had a mistaken
notion of what God's will was and is. The first alternative terrified
me, for I had lived far too long and had made too many irreversible
decisions-like getting married and having children-to wish I could
start over in a vain attempt to get back on track. Besides, I have had
too much evidence at my disposal-such as contentment of life and
joy in my work-to assume that I had missed the will of God. It struck
me as odd that I could wander that far off course without intending
to, and yet not know it.
So I concluded that I had misunderstood what God's will really is.
Like a detective who had followed leads to one dead end after another,
I decided to pursue another course altogether. I began to explore a different
way of approaching the will of God. It proved to be one of the
most exciting decisions I ever made.
The inability to predict the future was the first clue that set me
searching in a different direction. But it was not the only clue I had.
A second clue came from suffering loss. My wife Lynda and I had four
wonderful children, two girls and two boys. We were deliriously happy.
But that happiness-what we assumed was the "will of God" for our
lives-came to a sudden halt in the fall of 1991 when a drunk driver
jumped his lane and collided with our minivan, killing Lynda, my
mother Grace, who was visiting us for the weekend, and my daughter
Diana Jane. Four of us survived. John, then only two, was seriously
hurt. Catherine (eight), David (seven), and I were injured, though
not badly enough to require hospitalization.
That experience set me to thinking about the will of God. I had
assumed that my marriage to Lynda was the will of God, that our
family of six was the will of God, that the happy, stable, prosperous life
we enjoyed together was the will of God. We were, as so many said,
"the ideal family." How could God allow such a tragedy to happen?
I could not believe that God had suddenly changed his mind about
what he willed for us-a good marriage and a healthy family. How,
then, could my life as a single father of three traumatized children also
be the will of God? The accident forced me to reconsider my assumptions
about God's will. Did God plan only "the good life" for me? If so,
I wondered how I could integrate suffering into my understanding of
God's will. Or did God plan something very different for me, something
still good, but also hard and painful at the same time? If so, I
had to face the prospect that my approach to the will of God was
I started to read the Bible with fresh eyes, too. The Bible provided
the third and final clue. As I will explain in the next chapter, I discovered
that the Bible says very little about the will of God as a future
pathway. Instead, the Bible warns us about anxiety and presumption
concerning the future, assures us that God is in control, and commands
us to do the will of God we already know in the present. Over
time I scrutinized my assumptions and reconsidered the "conventional"
approach to the will of God I had followed up to that point.
The Conventional Approach
I am not sure how or where I first learned the conventional
approach to the will of God. I think I simply accepted it from the very
beginning as gospel truth without much reflection, much as I accept
the way letters are arranged in the alphabet.
Convention teaches us that the will of God consists of a specific
pathway we should follow into the future. God knows what this pathway
is, and he has laid it out for us to follow. Our responsibility is to
discover this pathway-God's plan for our lives. Unfortunately, it is
not always obvious. If anything, it is often ambiguous. We must figure
out which of the many pathways we could follow is the one we should
follow, the one God has planned for us. If and when we make the right
choice, we will receive his favor, fulfill our divine destiny, and succeed
When a decision has to be made, everything suddenly becomes like
a maze. We believe there is only one way out. All the other ways are
dead ends, every one of them a bad choice. We believe that God knows
the right way. He has, after all, willed it for us, and we must discover what
that will is. The consequences of our choices are therefore weighty. If we
choose rightly, we will experience his blessing and achieve success and
happiness. If we choose wrongly, we may lose our way, miss God's will for
our lives, and remain lost forever in an incomprehensible maze.
As a result, we pray for guidance, we look for signs, we seek advice,
we read the Bible for insight, and we search our hearts. We wait in
the hope that God will give us a clear signal. We think that a voice
from heaven would be nice. The moment finally arrives, however,
when we must choose. We must select one college among the many
to which we have applied. We must accept or decline a job offer. We
must marry or get out of the relationship. We must take one pathway,
turning away from all the others.
Meanwhile, a nagging question hovers in the back of our minds.
What if we make the wrong decision?
What's Really Important, Anyway?
For many years I followed this conventional approach to discovering
the will of God for my life. Not that I did it consciously or critically.
If I had been more critical, I would have certainly raised
questions about it. I simply assumed it as true and then pursued it with
considerable anxiety. I wanted to get it right the first time around.
But over time I discovered problems with this conventional
approach. For one, it focuses our attention on what appears to be the
important decisions, which might not be as important as we think.
For example, we think long and hard when we choose a college, a
job, a career, or a spouse. This makes good sense, considering how
consequential these choices are. But we give little thought to how
much TV we watch or how often we talk on the phone or how seldom
we praise our children. Yet the little choices we make every day
often have a cumulative effect far exceeding the significance of the
big choices we occasionally have to make.
As I look back now on the ordeal of deciding between medicine
and ministry, I am both amused and embarrassed. I was preoccupied
with that decision for months. I prayed, sought advice, and thought
long and hard about the benefits and defects of both options. I wanted
to know which one was God's will for my life. But regardless of how
fervently I searched, I could not make a decision with the assurance
that I would know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the one I chose
was right. Like a traveler on a long journey who comes to a major
crossroad with no signposts marking the way, I had to choose without
the sure knowledge that I was going to end up on the right path. I felt
confused and miserable.
In the meantime, I did not realize what was happening to me. I
had become as self-absorbed as a child standing in front of a mirror
and as unpleasant to be around as a nervous cat. My wife, Lynda,
finally jolted me out of my self-absorption. "Who really cares what
you decide?" she asked. "I just want my husband back!" Ironically, I
was worrying so much about my decision that I had ignored what was
staring me right in the face. I was neglecting Lynda, losing interest in
my studies, and overlooking mundane responsibilities. I thought
almost exclusively about myself.
As it turns out, Lynda asked the right question. It broke the spell
of obsession. I began to ponder the choice itself. "Does it really matter
which option I choose?" I was familiar with physicians and pastors
who were rogues. So I knew that neither profession guaranteed that I
would become a good person or serve a noble cause. How I functioned
in either field of service would depend on the quality of my character,
the depth of my convictions, and the degree of my competence,
which are developed as we do our daily routines.
I finally concluded that the choice of medicine or ministry was
beside the point, for if I was not attentive to the little choices I made
every day-to be a diligent student, a kind husband, a disciplined
Christian-then whichever path I chose would never lead to the kind
of fruitfulness I really desired for my life.
We do not, therefore, need to fret when we have to make big decisions
about the future, worrying about the terrifying possibility that we
might miss God's will for our lives. We simply need to do what we
already know in the present. God has been clear where clarity is most
needed. The choices we make every day-to love a spouse after an
argument, to treat an unkind coworker with respect, to serve food at
a soup kitchen-determine whether or not we are doing the will of
God. If we have a problem, it is not lack of knowledge; rather, it is
our unwillingness to respond to the knowledge we have.
As we will see, of course, we still have to make difficult choices
regarding the future, as I did when I had to choose between medicine
and ministry. But these choices are secondary all the same. Who we
choose to become and how we choose to live every day creates a trajectory
for everything else. Perhaps that is why the Bible says so little
about God's will for tomorrow and so much about what we should do
to fulfill his will today.
Is God Hiding Something?
The conventional approach to discovering the will of God has a
second problem. It betrays a false and negative view of God. It implies
that God for some reason "hides" his will and thus forces us to look for
it, as if God were playing the celestial equivalent of "hide-and-seek"
with us. According to this way of thinking, God hides his will, and
we must go searching for it. In the process, he appears to delight in
making things difficult for us. He prefers hiding over being found, frustrating
us over making us joyful.
Raising my own children, however, has changed my understanding
of both God and the game of hide-and-seek. When my children
were little, we used to play hide-and-seek indoors during the winter
or on rainy days. I was better at hiding than my kids were. But I always
gave them hints, like little squeaks or hoots, to help them find me.
When they discovered my whereabouts, they would squeal with
delight because they loved to find me. I never once wanted to hide so
well that they would never find me, because the joy of the game came
in being found, not in hiding.
Playing that simple game with my little children helped clarify my
understanding of the will of God. Is God's will something he hides?
Does it consist primarily of what we don't know? I assume, rightly or
wrongly, that God is always clear when he needs to be. He does not
play a celestial game to frustrate us. He cares about us much more than
we care about our children. He delights in us.