This post is Steve’s chapter from Disquiet Time by Cathleen Falsani and Jennifer Grant. Don't miss Cathleen and Jennifer on Steve Brown, Etc!
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.
Isaiah 55:8–9 ESV
It’s said that when Moses was first given the commandment to be circumcised, his initial reaction was, “What? Wait! Let me make sure that I’ve got this straight. You want me to do what with what?”
All my life, I’ve struggled with knowing what God wants from me and, on those occasions when I found out what he wanted, I’ve struggled even more to do it. In both of those cases (the knowing and the doing), my record isn’t altogether that good. In fact, if God is keeping count, I’m in serious trouble. Now I’m an old, cynical preacher who thought he would be clearer on God’s will and better at doing it than he is.
I teach at a theological seminary, and I love theological students. They wash out my soul and sometimes make me less cynical. But still, I’m amazed by the passion (it sometimes smells like arrogance) of seminary students. I often find myself wishing that I knew as much as they know and that I could be as sure as they are. When the frustration level gets unbearable, I often say to the students, “You guys aren’t old enough, and you haven’t sinned big enough, to even have an opinion on that subject.”
Well, I’m old enough. And God knows, I’ve sinned big enough. So listen up: I’m not your mother, and I don’t know.
If you’ve stood before God and haven’t been confused, you’re probably not worshipping God. You’re worshipping an idol. Not only that, but God’s ways are circuitous, and whatever you think God is doing, he probably isn’t. If you want to make God laugh, someone has said, tell him your plans. But even more relevant, if you want to make God really laugh, tell him what you think he told you.
Steve, are you leaving and becoming a Buddhist or something?
I’ve thought about it. Buddhists don’t seem to care about diets, and they’re always smiling; but frankly, I’ve gone too far here to get out. Besides, I hate change, and I wonder who will forgive me and love me the way Jesus does. So I’m probably going to stay―bloodied and wounded sometimes, afraid and angry sometimes, sinful and rebellious sometimes, confused and lost sometimes…and always needy―because I don’t have any other place to go.
I’m just not as sure as my students. And I’m not as sure about God’s ways as I once was, either. Saint Paul asked a rhetorical question in Romans 11:34: “Who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” (ESV). The obvious answer is that I certainly don’t, and nobody else here does, either. The eternal verities of my faith are perhaps more sure now than ever. But what I once thought was important isn’t so much anymore, and the list of those things for which I would “die on a hill” is much shorter than it used to be.
There is an interesting comment in the book of Acts related to Saint Paul’s plans for ministry. Saints Paul and Barnabas had separated (they had a major fight…so much for returning to the pristine days of the New Testament church!). Saint Paul had some big plans to preach in Bithynia, perhaps even to start a church there.
Luke wrote: “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’” (Acts 16:7–9 ESV).
Interrupted plans. Shattered dreams. Truncated ministries.
It goes with the turf of doing traffic with God. If we can’t deal with that and somehow process it, we should spend our time doing something far more productive and conducive to control—like, say, vinyl repair. But if there is a God (and there is), if he calls us to define ourselves by him (and he does), and if we are somehow to represent him and his love in the world (and that’s what he calls us to do), then a high tolerance for ambiguity is the essence of godly maturity.
Henri Nouwen wrote in his book In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership, “I am deeply convinced that the Christian leader of the future is called to be completely irrelevant and to stand in this world with nothing to offer but his or her own vulnerable self…The leaders of the future will be those who dare to claim their irrelevance in the contemporary world as a divine vocation.”
I’m not altogether happy with that, but it rings true to all I know about the Bible…and I know a lot. It’s all over the place in those passages that I didn’t underline when I was younger.
I just read what I wrote, and it sounds so bleak.
The truth is that there is an incredible release and freedom when we finally come to the realization that God is God and we don’t have to be. At first, not having a vote seems unfair and somewhat less than empowering. But when we deal with the fact that God really doesn’t need us or our help, and that he was doing fine before we came along, we can do all we can with the little we know and it will be enough. God’s power really is made perfect in weakness.
And then there’s the love. It’s true that if you haven’t stood before God and been confused, you’re probably not standing before the real God. But it is also true―and far more important―to realize that if you haven’t stood before God and been loved unconditionally and without reservation, you’re not standing before the real God, either.