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It's Okay Not to Know

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Article 5 of 13 from the Articles and Public Letters series

March 1996 – So much of what we need to know can’t be learned quickly. Nor can it be learned in a classroom. The things that really matter are discovered only in the laboratory of life.
Finding God’s will is often like that. As a pastor I am often asked questions about the will of God. I have discovered that almost every question deals with the subject of certainty–"How can I know in advance whether or not I should __________?” You can fill in the blank a dozen different ways—"move to Miami,” “sell my house,” “ask Rosa to marry me,” “sell my stocks,” “go to Georgia Tech,” “be a missionary,” “apply for a new job.” The answer is always the same: In seeking God’s will, you normally won’t know in advance how things are going to work out.
Sometimes you will decide and everything works out just fine. Other times you will decide and then your world begins to fall apart. Most of our decisions end up somewhere in between “just fine” and “total catastrophe” but you normally won’t know in advance how things are going to work out.

Abraham Didn’t Know

It takes time to learn these truths. In reality, God often uses uncertainty to humble us to the point where we are forced to be totally dependent on Him. Consider Abraham, the greatest man of faith in all the Bible. Abraham didn’t know. Nothing is more crucial than that statement. Hebrews 11:8 explicitly says that “By faith Abraham, when he was called to go to a place he would later receive as an inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going.” That last phrase is a truly amazing statement. He didn’t know where he was going when he left Ur of the Chaldees or how long it would take or how he would know when he got there. In fact, you could fairly say that what he didn’t know was much greater than what he did know at that point. But still he made the journey because God had called him.

Discovering God’s will is often like that. If you are looking for a formula that will provide you with a complete road map before you start the journey, forget it. God doesn’t work that way. Often He simply says, “Follow me.” At that point you have the choice of staying or following. But if you decide to follow God, please understand that you may feel like Abraham leaving Ur “not knowing where he was going.”

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Moving Time

Several years ago two men in my church suddenly decided to move from Chicago to a distant city. Len had landed a job there, but Dan hadn’t. The two men were very close friends, which explained part of it, but not all of it. Those of us who knew them both could understand why Len had moved to take a new job. That made sense. But why would Dan move with no job and no real prospects?

Partly he was driven by business concerns, partly by the need to find a warmer climate and partly because he felt that his family needed to make a new start. He and I had spent many hours together laughing, crying, talking, sharing, joking, discussing, praying, and playing together. Suddenly he decided to a part of the country he knew very little about, to a city he had visited once, to start all over again. His good friend was already there, but he quite literally did not know another soul in that city. To top it all off, he’s a native Chicagoan from the day of his birth and so is his wife.

As I thought about it, I couldn’t quite put all the pieces of the puzzle together. What exactly did God have in mind for my friend? Was this just another mid-life crisis in which a man decides to chuck the old life and start all over again? If so, moving is better than having an affair or some of the other wild options men choose.

The truth is, I didn’t know why this was happening, and neither did Dan, but deep in his heart he believed God had opened the door and he must go through it. Did I have some fears for him? Absolutely. Especially since he was moving to a new area without the promise of a new job. But I comforted myself with two bits of information. First, he truly is a godly man who wants to do what is right. Second, he isn’t the first person to make a long cross-country move with no secure future. Abraham already holds that honor. So I supported my friend even while scratching my head over the whole thing. God’s will is often inscrutable even to those who are attempting to follow it.

“How Did We Get Here?”

Just before Dan moved away, we spent several hours around a blazing fire at a family camp in Wisconsin. He and his wife were agonizing about what to do. As we talked, it was clear that the emotional stress of leaving the familiar for the unknown almost overwhelmed her. I think she would probably say that making this particular move was the single most difficult thing she has ever had to do. All along the way she was torn with inner doubts. “Are we doing the right thing? I’m not sure.” Then two weeks later she took a deep breath and moved to her new home. Just before leaving, she made an interesting comment: “How did we get here? In my heart I believe we’re doing the right thing, but looking back I’m not sure how we got from Point A to Point B. Only God could have done it because I never would have done it myself.”

A Difficult First Year

Doing God’s will often involves great uncertainty and periods of deep doubt. But if you are willing to do what He wants you to do, He then takes responsibility to reach into the chaos of life and lead you step by step to the place He wants you to be.

So now both families were living in that distant city. Len had a job, Dan didn’t. Those of us who watched from the sidelines couldn’t quite figure out what God was doing.

It would be fair to say that the first year in the new city proved to be quite difficult for both families. There was the culture shock, the language difference, the impact of moving from a huge metropolitan area to a much smaller city, the challenge of making new friends, getting the kids settled in school, and finding a new church. Dan eventually started his own business but didn’t have much work for a long time.

“Take Care of My Family”

But life changed forever when Len discovered that he had cancer. The diagnosis was not promising. It was a very unusual form of cancer that had invaded his bronchial tubes. Radiation and chemotherapy could not cure it. His only hope was a very difficult and risky surgical procedure. We prayed, oh how we prayed for him. By the hour we prayed and asked God for a miracle.

A few days before he returned to Chicago for the surgery, he and Dan had a last lunch together. Len knew full well that there was a good chance he wouldn’t survive the surgery or the recovery period. So he asked Dan to take care of his family in case he died.

He did survive the surgery but died of a blood clot in the lungs nine days later. After the memorial service, as Dan drove us to the airport the next morning, we passed by the restaurant where he and Len had shared their last meal together.

"Many people wondered we moved here,” he said. “I wondered myself many times, particularly when I didn’t have a job at the beginning. There were many times when I questioned whether we had done the right thing or not. But now I know understand why we had to make this move. He knew beforehand that Len was going to die and he wanted us here to help take care of Len’s family.”

Partial Answers

That story answers some questions, but does not tell us everything we’d like to know. Why did one man get cancer and not the other? I don’t know. Why did Len die at the age of 42, leaving behind a wife and four children? I don’t know.

But it does explain why two men moved at the same time even though one had a job and the other didn’t. It also poignantly illustrates a central truth about the life of faith. You never see the big picture in advance. Even if you think you see it, you don’t. When God calls, He doesn’t always explain himself. He always tells you just enough to get you moving in the right direction. The rest is up to Him.

But He Went

It is precisely at this point that Abraham’s greatness may be clearly seen. God called and he obeyed. Hebrews 11:8 says he “obeyed and went.” He may have doubted, but he went. He may have argued, but he went. He may have wondered, but he went.

When God calls, the only proper response is to obey and go. If it sometimes doesn’t make sense, you can trust God to work out the details. And even if it does make sense, you can rest assured that God’s purposes go far beyond your limited understanding. He knows what He’s doing in your life, whether you see it or whether you don’t. It’s okay not to know as long as you are willing to go.

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