The Most Important Ingredient
September 15, 2005
When was the last time you played with modeling clay? It may have been a while unless you have a house full of preschoolers. As all parents know, children love modeling clay because they can make almost anything with it. When it first comes out of the can, the clay feels cold and clammy and mushy. It’s bendable and easily made into any one of a 1,001 different shapes. You can take modeling clay and make a little baseball with it. Or you can make it flat like a piecrust. If you like, you can roll it up and make a baseball bat. Or you can take that thing that looks like a bat and bend it into the shape of a little horse. Then you can turn the horse into a rabbit or a pig, depending on how fat you make it. You can do anything you like when the modeling clay is soft.
Wanted: Bendable Believers
But what happens to the modeling clay when you leave it out for three days? It dries up and becomes hard and brittle. When you try to shape it, you can’t because it’s not soft any longer. There are many Christians who are like that before the Lord. They are hard, brittle, and unbendable. They are set in their ways, with their own plans, their own agendas, their own desires.
Christians like that wonder why guidance is hard to find. But it’s really not hard to understand. When your life becomes hard and brittle before the Lord, God speaks, but you don’t hear. He leads, but you don’t follow. He opens doors, but you refuse to enter. That is why there is no principle more important than the principle of being able to be guided, being soft and bendable in the hands of God so he can shape you the way he wants.
We find many examples of this in the Bible:
Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening” (I Samuel 3:10).
David said, “Teach me your way, O Lord” (Psalm 27:11).
Solomon said, “In all your ways acknowledge him” (Proverbs 3:6).
Isaiah said, “Here am I. Send me!” (Isaiah 6:8).
Saul (Paul) said, “What shall I do, Lord?” (Acts 22:10).
These verses lead us to a crucial principle for discovering God’s will: Guidable people always receive guidance from God. Why is that? Because God always speaks loud enough for a willing ear to hear. Therefore, there is nothing more important than being open to receive guidance from God. How will you find the guidance you need? In one sense, that’s a tough question because God speaks to us in a variety of ways. We may hear a sermon, read a passage of Scripture, receive advice from our friends, feel some inner sense of direction, or have doors of opportunity open or close.
A Most Unlikely Text
There is a marvelous passage in Acts 16 that pictures for us some of the major ways in which God guides his children. Acts 16:6-10 tells the story of Paul and Silas at the beginning of their second missionary journey. They had joined forces to visit the churches, preach the Word, and strengthen the saints. As we shall see, their travel plans changed several times. Luke paints the picture in these five insightful verses:
Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia. When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to. So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas. During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.
You could read this text 150 times and you might say, “I don’t see anything in there about discovering the will of God.” Yet this little slice of life from the first century shows us how God’s will may be discovered in the ordinary affairs of life. What happened to them often happens to us. So then, how does guidance come? This text reveals four answers to that question.
Answer #1: Guidance comes through obedience in the ordinary.
Verse 6 tells us “Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia.” Paul was on a mission from God to preach the gospel. That’s the one motivating factor that explains his life. That’s why he made one hazardous journey after another. He determined to go wherever he could to spread the good news about Jesus Christ. The only thing that Paul didn’t know was exactly where he was going to do it. The guidance he needed concerned where to preach, not whether to preach. He would continue preaching wherever he found himself.
99 Percent of Life
That leads to a profound insight: 99 percent of life is ordinary. It’s just the same old stuff day after day. You get up in the morning, take a shower, put your clothes on, eat breakfast, get the kids ready for school, go to work, hope the kids are OK, come back from work dead-tired, read the paper, watch TV, try to be nice, eat supper, play with the kids, flop into bed dead-tired, then get up the next morning and do it all over again. That’s the way life is. It’s the same old thing day after day. Where do you begin in discovering the will of God? You begin by doing what you already know to be the will of God in your present situation. So many of us live for those mountain-peak experiences, those times when the clouds part and God seems so close to us.
Get Up and Do It!
Many people wish those spectacular moments would happen every day. Often when we say, “God, show me your will,” what we really mean is, “Lord, give me some feeling, some insight, some spiritual revelation.” And God says, “I have already shown you my will. Now, just get up and do it!”
• What is God’s will for a student? God’s will for a student is to do his/her homework.
• What is God’s will for a doctor? Get up and do your rounds early in the morning.
• What is God’s will for a pharmacist? Take extra care as you fill those prescriptions.
• What is God’s will for a banker? Take care of the money entrusted to you.
• What is God’s will for an accountant? Take care of those books, and do the job right.
• What is God’s will for a teacher? Do your lesson plans, and come to class ready to teach.
• What is God’s will for a salesman? Know your product, make your contacts, and move the merchandise
• What is God’s will for a football coach? Get your team ready to play the big game on Friday night.
• What is God’s will for an assembly-line worker? Show up on time, sober, with a good attitude, ready to work.
• What is God’s will for a flight attendant? Be on time, and be in uniform, with a smile on your face.
If you are a young mother and want to know what God’s will is, it has something to do with dirty diapers. God’s will for young mothers is more than dirty diapers, but it’s not less than that. God’s will for a secretary is more than typing, but it’s not less than that. God’s will for you is more than showing up and doing a job. But it is not less than that.
So many of us want to live only on the mountaintop. That’s not where you discover God’s will. You discover God’s will in the nitty-gritty of the valley every single day. The Bible says, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might” (Ecclesiastes 9:10). Why should God show you his will for the future if you aren’t doing the will of God in the present?
That’s all-important. What do preachers do? They preach. And that’s what you see in Acts 16 – preachers who are willing to preach anytime they get the opportunity. They are just looking for the right open door. Because they are willing to obey what they know to be the will of God, God is therefore free to show them the next step.
This passage reveals a second principle about how guidance comes to us.
Answer #2: Guidance comes through suddenly changing circumstances.
Paul and his team wanted to go east into Asia, but the Holy Spirit prevented them. Question: how did the Holy Spirit do that? I have no idea. It could have been the result of various circumstances preventing them. Perhaps the road was washed out, or perhaps there was Jewish opposition so they couldn’t get in. The Holy Spirit could have communicated through an inner impression or even a voice from God. A prophet might have delivered the message. No one knows how it happened. But somehow they knew they were not to go west.
So instead they went north toward Bithynia. Why? They intended to preach the Gospel there. They still had the same purpose – to preach the Gospel; only now it was redirected through suddenly changing circumstances. But as they tried to enter Bithynia, “the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to.” Another mystery. The Bible doesn’t explain how this happened. But somehow they knew the Spirit of Jesus was saying no. I tend to think that as they were praying they had a strong impression from the Lord or perhaps someone received a prophecy. But that’s only speculation. Somehow the Lord made it clear: “don’t go to Bithynia.” So they headed west to preach the Gospel and ended up in a place called Troas.
Has God Made a Mistake?
What was going on here? God was revealing his will through suddenly changing circumstances. Have you ever had that happen to you? You had your life all planned out. You were going this way. You were convinced that God’s will was this way. Then the phone call came that changed the course of your life. Or the boss called you in and said, “We’re downsizing. Your job has been eliminated.” Or the letter came that said, “You are an excellent candidate, but unfortunately our incoming class is full.” Or you asked her to marry you, knowing it was the will of God, but she hadn’t discovered it yet and so said no. A suddenly changing circumstance. Or perhaps the investment you counted on for retirement didn’t come through. A suddenly changing circumstance. Or you got cancer. When that happens we think something has gone wrong in the universe. God has made a mistake. It wasn’t supposed to happen this way.
Proverbs 16:9 is one of the most profound verses in all the Bible: “In his heart a man plans his course, but the LORD determines his steps.” You make your plans, but God determines which way you’re going to go. Suppose you say, “I’m going to Bithynia because they need the Gospel,” and suppose God wants you instead to go west to Troas. So you try to go to Bithynia, and you are turned away at the border. God says, “I’m going to wash out the road that way, and I’m going to lock the door this way.” So even though you wanted to go north, there’s nothing that way. You’ve got to go west! That’s what happened to Paul.
Please read the next sentence carefully. What you call circumstances is really the sovereign hand of God in your life. The circumstances that come into your life, whether good or bad – all of them together have come down to you from the good and gracious hand of God. They are all ultimately for your benefit and for his glory.
How did Paul decide to go north in the first place? When east was cut off, he had to go north. What made him decide to go west at the end? When the north was cut off, that was all that was left; so he went west and preached the Gospel. That’s what I mean by suddenly changing circumstances. Proverbs 16:9 tells us that it didn’t happen by chance. It never does for the people of God. Who is it that opens the doors? It’s God! Who is it that shuts the doors? It’s God! Who gives opportunities? It’s God! Who takes them away? It’s God! He is the one who is in charge. Sometimes his will is seen by nothing more profound than suddenly changing circumstances.
There is a third principle we must consider when seeking guidance from God.
Answer #3: Guidance may come through supernatural events.
This happened in Troas. When they got to that seaport town, Paul had a vision of a man from Macedonia standing and begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” Paul was in Troas, which was in Asia; but Macedonia was in Greece – the continent of Europe. In between is the Aegean Sea. What is the significance of the man from Macedonia? If Paul goes to Macedonia, he’s taking the Gospel from one continent to another. That represents a major, historic expansion for the Christian faith. From the moment Paul stepped on Macedonian soil, Christianity was no longer an “eastern” religion.
Sometimes God speaks through dreams, visions, and supernatural signs. I don’t think it happens all the time, and I don’t think we should demand such signs from the Lord. But God can do it when he wants to. That’s what he did here. It was a vision, but the vision was in line with the Great Commission to take the Gospel to the whole world. This dream was completely compatible with the Word of God and with Paul’s previous experience.
Answer #4: Guidance comes through wise counsel joined with common sense.
Acts 16:10 reveals the final principle of God’s guidance: “After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.” The word “concluding” means to discuss the matter with other people, to debate the alternatives, to figure out the best way to go, and then come to a conclusion. It’s a word that implies the strategic use of the mind. It’s what happens when you put a puzzle together. You put the pieces together to make it all fit. This particular Greek word was used for taking different colored threads and putting them together to make a beautiful pattern.
Paul, Silas, and Timothy talked it over, discussed everything that had happened – where they had come from, where they couldn’t go – and talked about the open door and the vision of the man from Macedonia. When they put it all together, they concluded that God wanted them to go to Macedonia. That’s the final way that guidance comes – through wise counsel and simple, plain, ordinary, garden-variety common sense.
Just Do It!
Notice that once they figured out God’s will, they immediately did it. “We got ready at once.” Once you have determined the will of God, what’s the next step? Just do it! Once you’ve figured it out, don’t sit around and talk anymore. Get up and do it!
Why were they so quick to do it? Because God had called them to preach the Gospel. He had told them what to do, he had told them how to do it, and now he’s told them where to do it. But that brings us full circle, back to where we started. Back to the ordinary affairs of life. The reason they went in the first place was because of obedience in the ordinary. Because they were so committed to doing God’s will, they weren’t blown away by a vision; they just fit it into the big picture and said, “Okay, that’s where we go.” And off they went. When they went to Macedonia, did they know what was going to happen? Did Paul know in advance who was going to be there to meet him or what the outcome of the trip would be? No! When you decide to do the will of God, will you know in advance what the results will be? No! Why? Because though God shows us His will, he doesn’t show us the future. What does he show us? The next step! How does God reveal his will to us? Step by step by step!
A Pastor’s Pilgrimage
I have had several chances to put my words into practice. Like most pastors, I have moved more than once. Looking back, I can see God’s hand clearly at work in each circumstance, partly by nudging me in the right direction through the inner urging of the Holy Spirit, partly through the advice of friends, and very much through the outworking of the ordinary circumstances of life. Nothing dramatic happened; just a slow unveiling of God’s will, one step followed by another by another.
The decision to come to Chicago in 1989 was different than my previous moves from Texas to California and back to Texas again. In the first place, I was born and raised in the South. Never had I dreamed of moving to the Midwest. But when the time came to make a decision, I found myself torn between a church in Oak Park, Illinois, and another church in Arizona. After praying and seeking godly counsel, I truly didn’t know what to do. I wanted to go to Arizona, but my wife wasn’t so sure. My friends were divided – one of them telling me that deep down I was an “Arizona kind of guy.” I never got to find out what that meant because for various reasons the church in Arizona interviewed me and then decided to look elsewhere. At the time, their decision devastated me. I remember writing God a three-page letter expressing my frustration that he would make such an obvious mistake.
“I Think You Should Go to Chicago”
Meanwhile, the church in Oak Park continued to talk with me. During that period of confusion I traveled to Chicago to preach at Calvary for the first time. There was no problem with that because I knew I was not coming to Chicago. So it was just a fun weekend. Or so I thought. Things went so well that I agreed to return as a candidate – albeit a bit reluctantly. A few days before our trip, we got a phone call from a friend who told us, “I think you should go to Chicago.” Still doubting, we traveled to Oak Park for the candidating weekend. The Pulpit Committee put me through 24 different meetings, interviews, and services in four days. On Friday night several hundred people gathered in the church dining room to listen as I answered questions from the audience for over two hours. By the time that session was over, I was tired and not feeling very well. The five of us were jammed into a single hotel room. I just wanted to go home to Texas. It was a combination of things – the schedule, the unending questions, the unfamiliar environment, the enormity of the move, and a feeling of extreme exhaustion. That night I hit bottom. I told my family in very colorful language that under no circumstances were we coming to Oak Park. After I finished, my wife looked at me and said what wives have said to husbands in similar moments since the beginning of time: “Grow up.” That was the last thing in the world I wanted to hear. She went on to say that we didn’t have to come to Oak Park, that we could go back to Texas and see what God wanted us to do next. Although I wasn’t happy to hear that, I couldn’t argue with her advice, so I decided to go to bed and sleep on it. The rest of the weekend seemed to go much better. I also recall that, after the Sunday morning service, I was meeting with someone in the pastor’s office when I heard someone tapping on the window. Our middle son Mark (who was 7 years old) had crawled through an open window and was exploring the roof of the church. When I looked up, he grinned at me through the window. It was a portent of things to come. By the time we flew back to Texas, Marlene and I both felt that if God wanted us to come, we could do it. Within two months, we had moved to Oak Park.
Sixteen Happy Years
As I write these words, I am wrapping up my ministry as the pastor of Calvary Memorial Church. These years have been exciting, turbulent, and unpredictable. They have also been the most fruitful years of my ministry. Many people have asked, “Why leave now?” I can only give a partial answer to that question. I never planned to come to Oak Park and I never thought I would be here this long. It turns out that I have served longer as pastor than anyone in the 90-year history of our church. This decision was the most difficult I have faced since graduating from seminary and beginning my pastoral ministry 26 years ago. It was a hard decision to leave Texas and come to Chicago in 1989. It seems much harder to think about leaving now. When we came to Oak Park, everything seemed new and strange to us, and we felt very much like outsiders. But the church embraced us wholeheartedly. I have always felt that God gave me the heart of the congregation from the first Sunday I preached here. Through the years, I have slowly become a Midwesterner, albeit with a Southern accent. Oak Park is home to me. I realized recently that I have lived here longer than I lived in my hometown in Alabama. Marlene reminded me that we have lived in Oak Park over half our married life. And – most importantly – Oak Park is home to our boys. What Alabama is to me and Montana is to Marlene, Oak Park will always be to our boys. This will always be home for them.
Calvary has been very good to us in every way. The congregation gave us a chance to grow. They listened to hundreds of sermons and were willing to try many of my outlandish ideas. The church let me dream and grow. The leaders encouraged me to write and travel and speak, and they allowed my ministry to grow far beyond the boundaries of this local church. And together God blessed us enormously. It’s hard to remember what Calvary was like when I came. The church has been transformed and expanded and changed in so many ways. For anything good that has been accomplished the Lord alone deserves the glory.
Lord, Speak to Us”
So why leave now? I suppose the only way to answer that is to say that about two years ago, I began to sense a restlessness in my spirit that would not go away. I sensed that God might be moving us in a new direction. In May of 2004 Marlene and I went to the elders to talk to them about my ministry here and how they saw the future. They affirmed us wholeheartedly and encouraged us to stay for many more years.
In July of last year, Marlene and I left for a month of ministry. Before we left, we asked the Lord to speak to us. That turned out to be a hugely important decision. God did begin to speak to us and we began to write down what he was saying. Out of pages and pages of notes came three convictions:
1) Intentionality. The Lord impressed on us the need to live on purpose and not just drift through life.
2) Working as a team. God showed me that from here on out, Marlene and I are to minister together as a team in a way different from anything we’ve done in the past.
3) Who we are matters more than what we are. The Lord reminded us that the only geography that matters is the geography of the heart.
Early this year I began to pray, “Lord, do things we’re not used to.” God has certainly answered that prayer in many ways. For one thing, God called all three of our boys to China, at least for the short-term, and he put China in the middle of our family’s personal agenda. Then in June Marlene was diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer. I am glad to say that she is doing well and will complete her radiation treatments next week. The doctors feel confident that she will be completely cured. But as many of you know from personal experience, cancer changes the way you think about what matters most in life.
Interestingly, since making my announcement last Sunday night, many people in the congregation told me they sensed this was coming. Perhaps in reading my messages, you’ve felt the same thing, too. When God tugs at your heart, you can’t hide it forever.
I have no intention of leaving the ministry or of not preaching any longer or not writing. If anything, my desire to make an impact for the sake of the Kingdom is greater now than it has ever been. Marlene and I are wide open to whatever God has for us in the future. After a period of waiting and resting and praying and seeking to hear God’s “still, small voice,” we want to invest ourselves in some new way for the cause of Christ around the world. That might involve China somehow. I am certain it will involve the Internet in one way or another. One of my personal burdens in recent years has been to help train the next generation of young Christian leaders from the nations of the world. I did that a little bit in June at the Global Proclamation Academy at Dallas Seminary and found it profoundly satisfying. We’re open to whatever God has for us.
And in some way that I can’t fully explain, we know we have to leave Calvary in order for this to happen. That’s incredibly difficult for us because we love these people and this community so much. Last weekend we were in northern Montana for the funeral of Marlene’s mother. Before sunrise on Sunday morning, we left Joplin and drove on the long, deserted road through the flat prairie from Chester to Fort Benton. We went 50 miles at one point without seeing another car. The only light came from our headlights piercing the darkness that enveloped us. “That’s where we are right now,” Marlene said. What do you mean? “You’ve always said that when God leads us, he only gives us enough light to take the next step. If you want more light, you’ve got to step into the light you already have. When you do, the light moves forward.” By faith we’re stepping into the light we have right now. With great reluctance we leave a wonderful congregation God has allowed us to serve for over 16 years. And we step out, believing that God has called us to go forward.
Many people have asked how we are doing since Sunday night. It depends on the moment, of course, but fundamentally we are at peace. The decision to leave is entirely our own, prompted we believe by the Lord. So it’s onward for the Pritchard clan. I have been teaching people for years that living by faith means taking the next step even when you don’t know the end of the journey. Now we get to put that into practice in a brand-new way.
Life Is Like a Roll of the Dice
Before we wrap up, there are two other verses of Scripture we need to consider. Proverbs 16:33 says, “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD.” Most of us don’t understand the concept of “casting lots.” In the Old Testament, the Jews often used this method to determine God’s will. It sometimes involved using different colored balls or rocks, mixing them together, and then seeing which one fell out of the bag first. In that sense, casting lots is like rolling dice. It appears to be a random act of chance. But God oversees those colored stones. He determines which one falls out of the bag first. This means that there are no “accidents” in life, no “random” events, and no such thing as “luck.” Even seemingly meaningless things fit into his plan. I paraphrase that verse this way: “Life is like a roll of the dice, but God is in charge of how the numbers come up.” Because that is true, you can trust him to give you whatever wisdom you need to make wise decisions and to bring about proper outcomes so that you can do his will every day of your life. What’s the most important factor? Guidability! “Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart” (Psalm 37:4). As you delight yourself in the Lord, his desires are going to become your desires. You are going to be changed on the inside so that the things you really want are the things God wants for you.
Can you discover God’s will for your life? Thank God, the answer is yes! How do you discover God’s will? You discover God’s will today the same way the people of God have always discovered his will: step by step by step. God has promised to guide you safely on your journey through this life. You can depend on that. He has said he will be your guide even to the end. He has promised, and he cannot fail.