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spiritual life

God Does Not Have a Plan for Your Life

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When Paul—called Saul at the time—encountered Jesus on the road to Damascus, Jesus told him to go into the city and await further instructions. Then he revealed to Ananias that he had chosen Saul to carry his name to the Gentiles. Because of his reputation, the Christians at Jerusalem refused to accept him, fearing that his conversion was a ruse to infiltrate their ranks, so Saul went home to Tarsus where he spent many years not preaching to the Gentiles.

Some will read what I have just written and think that I have flatly contradicted myself. God clearly had a plan for Saul’s life. Bear with me.

Jesus told several parables about a master who leaves and later returns and demands an accounting of the servants he left behind. The early disciples evidently retold these parables in the expectation that Jesus would soon return and call them to account for what they had done after he left. In each of these parables, the master leaves no detailed set of instructions—no plan—for them to follow. He leaves them with a mission. The planning is up to them. For example, in the Parable of the Talents, the master gives each of his servants bags of money, then sets out on a long journey. He doesn’t tell them how to invest it or give them detailed plans about how to put his money to work. He leaves that to their abilities. When he returns, he finds two of the servants have doubled the money he gave them, and he elevates them to positions of greater responsibility. The third servant, however, did nothing with the money entrusted to him. He buried it and returned it to the master after he returned. He tells the master that he was afraid.

What was he afraid of? Did he fear punishment should he fail? Did he fear disappointing the master? The master calls him wicked and lazy, indicating that he regards the servant’s fear as an excuse for him to do as he pleases and not accept responsibility for the work needed to make more money from the money he was given. Because the master sees through the servant’s excuses, he rewards him with the very things the servant had feared: disapprobation and punishment.

None of these servants was given a plan for how to use the master’s money. That was their own part. The master’s part was to provide the money. Theirs was to put it to work. The success or failure of their work would depend on their own ability to make wise investment decisions. Two embraced that responsibility, and their efforts prospered. The third shirked it, and made no effort.

So it is with the life of every believer. God has a mission for your life. That mission always involves taking his name to other people and showing them his love. He may, as he did with Paul, give you a more specific mission, but the planning and work involved in carrying out the mission is your part. Of course, God may also give very specific instructions when a strategic part of his overall plan is especially crucial. He did that when he gave such specific instructions to Ananias about where and when to meet Saul. But for the most part he entrusts us with the mission and leaves the planning to us.

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The Ministry of Entertainment

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Northwestern University here in the Twin Cities operates a Christian radio station, KTIS, which, like all stations nowadays, promotes itself endlessly and shamelessly. I listen occasionally, partly because I am a Christian and these are my people, and partly because I get tired of the unrelentingly secular nature of secular radio stations, where prayer and reliance on God, despite being extremely widespread in the prevailing culture, are treated as oddities. KTIS plays an uneclectic mix of contemporary Christian music by such artists as MercyMe, Casting Crowns, Newsboys, For King and Country, and Lauren Daigle, sprinkled liberally with short feel-good stories, concert promotions, and station promotions. One of their catchphrases is, “a ministry of Northwestern University.” I got to wondering what that means.

“Ministry” is one of those words you hear frequently in Christian circles but much less often outside those circles. In Britain, what Americans call cabinet-level Departments—Department of Defense, Department of Health and Human Services, et al.—are called Ministries. Monty Python famously introduced a Ministry of Silly Walks to spoof the seriousness of British government agencies and their funding. However, especially among evangelicals, ministry almost always refers to a program of some church or parachurch organization intended to help people somehow. Presumably, therefore, Northwestern University sees KTIS as a means of doing good.

But I see it as little more than Christian entertainment.

When I try to discover what sets it apart from secular radio stations that make no bones about existing to entertain, I have a very hard time. One of their frequent taglines is “uplifting and encouraging,” and I have no doubt that for many listeners this accurately describes what they do. But, then, isn’t that what entertainment does? Helps you forget your troubles, cheers you up, or at least helps you feel that others have it far worse than you? It’s true that secular songs often include references to such morally reprehensible activities as drinking, dancing, and having sex, but it can’t be denied that people do those things because they are fun—at least in some degree—and listeners identify with them.

It might be argued that Christian music lifts up Jesus, something secular music hardly ever does. Indeed, there are songs that exhort the listener to trust God, imitate Jesus, and worship him. But there are also songs that sound an awful lot like spiritual self-help songs, where the hero is not Jesus but the singer, and by extension the listener. Occasionally, the station will play brief clips from listeners who call in to tell how a particular song has had an especially meaningful impact on their lives, but I’ve heard similar claims on secular stations. Artists are popular because their songs connect with people whether they are Christian or not.

Now, I have no objection to Christian entertainment apart from the objection I have to all entertainment: that too much of it distracts us from actually living life in our own bodies, but I do object to the faint air of spiritual superiority that pervades Christian entertainment, the slightly smug condescension with which we Christians tend to view secular music and art, as if to say that ours is superior for what it lacks: drinking, smoking, cussing, sex, drugs, and the less socially acceptable sins. When we call entertainment ministry, we imply that it’s better, that we are better. It’s not. We are not.

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Why Not Rather Be Wronged?

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This is something that is really hard for me to write about because it cuts so close to my own natural proclivities. My wife and my children know that I speak the truth when I confess that I am defensive. I easily bristle at slights, often even when they are meant as jokes or completely unintended. I know rationally that such defensiveness betrays insecurity and an ego that is easily wounded, that my guard goes up because I do not want to appear vulnerable, but despite my best efforts, I can’t seem to remain open and affable when berated or insulted. Nevertheless, I continue to strive against defensiveness.

Jesus was not defensive. In fact, it would be hard to find anyone more mild-mannered while facing his harshest critics. After Jesus accused his detractors of being children of the devil—harboring in their hearts the same antipathy toward life and truth that characterizes the devil—they said to him:

“Aren’t we right in saying that you are a Samaritan and demon-possessed?”

John 8:48

To understand the full impact of this insult, we need to put it in more contemporary terms. In calling Jesus a Samaritan, the Jewish leaders were questioning the legitimacy of his birth as well as his racial purity, something they regarded as very important. In effect, they were calling his mother a whore and claiming that he was not really Jewish. “You are a half-breed bastard,” we might say today.

Likewise, in calling him demon-possessed, the Jews were questioning his mental stability. They were calling him crazy, or, more politely, mentally ill.

Jesus carefully frames his response in a way that patiently answers their charges while preventing them saying he is self-aggrandizing. It is a very delicate matter to claim to be God’s unique son in a culture where such claims are regarded as blasphemous! Jesus defends himself without being defensive. Later, of course, he faces much worse: insults, blows, torture, and an ignominious death. He says nothing in his own defense but suffers cruelly and unjustly for a purpose greater than his own life.

His followers quickly gain a reputation for the same kind of attitude. When they are beaten, they rejoice (Acts 5:41). When they are put to death, they pray and forgive (Acts 7:59-60). When they are imprisoned, they sing (Acts 16:25).

It is in this context of a willingness to suffer rather than fight back that we must understand Paul’s frustration with the Corinthians in I Corinthians 6:1-11. The believers in Corinth were taking disputes to the civil courts instead of resolving them among themselves. In our litigious and rights-obsessed culture, this seems only fitting. Why shouldn’t we go to court and involve lawyers to resolve disputes? That’s how we avoid bruises and bloodshed. But Paul has no quarrel with the civilizing influence of the courts. His concern is for the unity of the church, and what he finds is a willingness to assert individual rights against that unity. The unity of believers is so paramount that it takes precedence over our own sense of injury. “Why not rather be wronged?” he asks. “Why not rather be cheated?”

This same impulse to privilege personal justice over collective unity has done great harm throughout Christendom. Where I see it most in the online world is in comments from Christians defending some supposed biblical point of view with all the condemnation and vituperation they can think of. Whose purposes does that kind of behavior serve? It is not loving toward the one with whom they disagree, nor is it attractive to those outside the faith. When we fight—for conflict is inevitable—let us do so with vigor but also with grace and love, as those who value the bonds of Christian intimacy above our own righteousness.

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