Man’s Plans, God’s Plans


ChecklistI read a Christian book on leadership when I was 20 years old. The major teaching I took away from it was that wise Christians plan out every part of life.

So, I did.

I prayed, fasted, and came up with 10 plans that covered my spiritual, financial, educational, social, and physical life. I would work on them for 10 years, and on my 30th birthday, I would review them all.

So, I did.

I’d sealed up those 10 plans in a plastic tube, time capsule-like. More dramatic that way when I opened them, I guess. Still, I knew what they all were. The grand opening—yeah, just drama.

At 30, one of those 10 items had been accomplished about halfway. The other nine and a half had stubbornly refused to play out as intended. Not that I hadn’t tried and tried hard. And with a lot of prayer. Fasting too.

To me, “circumstances” had walked all over those plans. Today, you might call them “black swans” instead. Unforeseen caltrops on the road to glory.

Perhaps I had been too ambitious. I sat down, rethought it all, and revised down to five plans. I vowed to work even harder on those plans.

So, I did.

At 40, I evaluated my five plans and saw that for all my determination to achieve those plans and goals, I’d accomplished one item on the list. Another black swan invasion.

Hmm. Perhaps I was working too hard on my plans.

This time, I revised the plans and vowed not to overthink them. Plus, I’d not let them go 10 years, only five.

So, I did. Sort of.

Turns out that perhaps I treated them too lightly, because it was seven years before I did the review. One plan out of five accomplished. Those pesky swans.

What was going on here?

For every Joseph or Nehemiah in the Bible, men who seemed to have a plan, whether surviving a famine or rebuilding a city, there were other men who didn’t. The Christian leadership books never use those unplanned men in their examples, coincidently.

Abraham, for instance, set out into the unknown. He had no plan except to follow God’s leading. When Abraham tried to force God’s plans, he birthed a son who was NOT the promised one. Any check of today’s news will tell us the unforeseen impact of that son Ishmael and his seed.

Peter had his plans knocked down by Jesus Himself:

“Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.”
—John 21:18

Paul had plans to carry the Gospel to Asia. Those plans didn’t go as he intended:

And they went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. And when they had come up to Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them.

So, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas.

And a vision appeared to Paul in the night: a man of Macedonia was standing there, urging him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.”

And when Paul had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go on into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.
—Acts 16:6-10

James warns about loving our plans too much:

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”—yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.

Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil.
—James 4:13-16

Or, as the old Yiddish saying goes:

Man plans and God laughs.

Time and again, when I go back to Scripture, I see the same truth over and over: God plans, and His plans are what come to pass. Man can plan all he wants, but ultimately, God is in control. Man is not. All a man’s plans are wishful thinking.

Which takes me back to all those Christian leadership books.

I was reading in one of those books the other day, and after tossing out all the pop psychology and pithy quotes from dead Chinese, Roman, and British leaders, there’s still an underlying message that if you wake up every day and say, “God, what would you have me do today?” then you’re an idiot.

That saddens me.

Jesus said this:

“Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”
—Mark 10:15

Anyone who has been around children for even a short time knows they are the most unplanned creatures on the planet. For this reason, they also have few cares and worries.

I had many plans. I worried about them too.

I think Christians who try to teach us to plan all parts of our lives have good intentions. I also think they are off track. The true leader IS the one who acknowledges all his lacks and goes to God every day and says, “God, what would you have me do today?”

Isn’t that in keeping with the following words from Jesus?

“But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.

“Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.”
—Matthew 6:34-35

This is not to say that we should never plan anything. But I think that man’s plans must take a distant second place to God’s plans. Always keep your plans subordinate to God’s and allow God to “black swan” your plans in favor of His—and without complaint.

Because that black swan is really a white dove.

Equipping the Saints: The Simple Genius


Roaming the Internet in search of genuine Christian expression paints what I believe is an unnatural picture of what constitutes the full expression of the Christian faith. Perhaps it should come as no surprise though, given the technical nature of the Internet and the costs involved to maintain an Internet presence, that the denizens of the Web, especially those who speak most loudly for the Faith, are college graduates.

But when I look over the people who have had the most impact on my life as a Christian, the majority never got beyond a high school education. And it never fails that I continue to learn the most about Jesus from people others might deem “simple.”

From a viewpoint of Christian education, these so-called simple people are often the ones with the most unshakable faith in Jesus. If anything, my experience has been that the people with the most degrees are the ones who flirt most often with doubt and who end up getting distracted by rathole theological discussions that ultimately never go anywhere or accomplish anything.

After a while, you start seeing that the difference between the simple person and the guy with the degree letters piling after his name comes down to whether they genuinely live with the Bible as their primary source of knowledge or some other tome (or set of tomes).

The people I know who never ventured into the ivied corridors of academia tend to have a more humble opinion of their own abilities. Ask the college graduate just who provides his living, and he’s most likely to point to himself. The simple person says, “I have all this because God is good to me, and not because of anything I have done.” Simple people say that whatever God says, that pretty much settles it. The college man says he will need to consult all sources before coming to an opinion. When simple people face disaster, they note that both good and bad come from the hand of the Lord, and are we not to accept both? The college grad wonders what he did wrong or to whom he should assign blame.

Are these generalizations? Sure, but I will argue they are not far off the mark.

I continue to get more from so-called simple people, the ones ignored in a lot of churches because they never went to seminary, didn’t graduate from a prestigious Bible college, can’t talk about Proust or quantum physics or how Wall Street schemes up new derivatives. Do we know what she knows of our Lord?Simple people often work simple jobs also, the kind that don’t get them a cover story on Business Week. Simple people who farm the land or work as greeters at WalMart aren’t the ones that churches push front and center when the photo op comes; they’ll choose the captain of industry with the Harvard M.B.A. And when Christian publishers fight to place another Christian Living bestseller on the top shelf of the local bookstore, they’re not beating down the doors of the old waitress at Denny’s, no matter what 50 years of walking close to the heart of Jesus has taught her. No, they want legitimacy, the kind found in clobbering home runs, or running a megachurch empire, or having once been a cohost on The 700 Club.

Not a day passes when I don’t consider that I have learned the most in my walk with Jesus from people who would otherwise be ignored because they don’t have flashy credentials. And I wonder just as much how it can be that we routinely pass by these repositories of simple faith and hard-won wisdom gained at the feet of Jesus. They languish, not because they have nothing to say, but because we’re ignoring them.

If you take all the Christians blogs out there, including this one, and pile their collected wisdom against the pile comprised by what the simple people know, it would seem like the smallest foothill on the way to K2 and Everest.

I think the greatest loss of wisdom in our churches today is that we’ve pushed out the simple people. We’ve done a lot of that to the elderly too. And when that elderly person is some simple soul, it’s the double whammy.

It’s time to take the microphone away from the 35-year-old Th.D. and give the podium to the stooped old lady in the back pew who never made it past 10th grade. I’ve heard what all the self-appointed church genuises have had to say and it hasn’t gotten us anywhere. Let someone else talk for a change.

You know that I’m not disparaging education, far from it. I’m saying that some education can only be gained in simple faith and through the crucible of time.

When I was in college, a friend once asked me if I had a wish for my education. I told him bluntly that I would trade every single bit of arcana I had picked up in my collegiate travels to know the Bible backwards and forwards.

There are people among us who have done just that. We need to get those people to share what they have learned. Many of those people are the ones who truly live by “give us this day our daily bread,” who actually spend two hours a day in prayer rather than just trying to impress others with all the theological treatises on prayer they’ve read. They know the Lord, not just about Him like so many of the rest of us do.

You can read all the Christian books in the world, but one saint who has lived it all is the more precious library. That’s the person I want to hear from. Don’t you?

Then please, let us step out of the way and encourage them to speak.

Never Walk Alone


In the course of the last two years, the major lesson God has been teaching me has hit home. That lesson is this:

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?
—Romans 8:26-31

I used to think that the worst thing anyone can do is to quote Romans 8:28 to a hurting person. Such a wielding more likely leaves marks than heals the hurting. When life is waterboarding you, and the person uttering that verse is completely safe and sound within her ivory castle, that verse has all the comfort of a kick in the teeth.

I’m sure many of you reading this know what I mean.

Recently, I was thinking of some songs that I really like, even if some people consider them corny. John Denver’s amazing “Rocky Mountain High” is perfect from start to finish, even down to the ride triangle. I loved “Could It Be Magic” by Barry Manilow from the first second I heard it. Paul Williams’s “Love Theme from A Star Is Born (Evergreen)” as sung by Barbara Streisand is a great one. And Karen Carpenter’s lush vibrato on “For All We Know” never fails to grab me.

Yeah, I know. Not very hip.

Last night, I recalled an old Rogers & Hammerstein tune from Carousel. Plenty of people have done it as their own, but I particularly like Jim Nabors’s take on “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” That song may very well be a product of the 1940s, but it still works for me.

I think that most people walk alone. They have themselves alone to count on. And when they reach the end of their rope, when it’s too much to bear…well, that’s tough. The darkness settles in like a black, malevolent mold, the rope frays, and all that is left is the numbing fear.

Yet in the last year, especially, I have learned that I am not walking alone. I knew that mentally. Most of us do. But I didn’t really know it in my heart of hearts. I still relied on my own smarts to get us in and out of tough situations. The last year cured me of that.

Never walk aloneI also see that no matter how grim things might be, all thing work together for good for those who are in Christ Jesus. I learned that Romans 8:28 isn’t for people who have reached the end of their ropes. It’s for those who lost track of even that end and are falling from the high point of where they once stood. That verse is for people who are dying, for those who are learning what it means to abandon self. It’s for people who trust God from their hearts, not their heads.

The funny thing about this post is that I intended to write it for Monday morning. Today seems more appropriate, though.

On the island in the kitchen sat a nondescript envelope. As I stumbled downstairs and slogged into the kitchen this morning, that lone envelope seemed out of place. I didn’t recognize the return address or the company represented. After less than six hours sleep, I wasn’t sure I was reading the letter enclosed correctly after I opened it. Less than a page, it stated a very clear reality that may change our future and make me rethink everything.

A couple years ago, I think I would have been storming around the house, racking my brain to come up with some ingenious plan, some way out, some buffer against what the letter said. But I don’t have a plan, and I probably won’t have one. I realized in the last year that I am not smart enough to outwit life. And when that truth finally dawned on me, when I finally made peace with Romans 8:28, I found that no matter what the world throws our way, we are not walking alone. The world may be against us, but God is for us. Always, and in everything.

And that makes all the difference.