Our first missionary term was murder. In four years we lived in three countries, eleven houses, ended up in something of a war zone all while tending to two toddlers—the toddlers are the thing that put us over the edge.
Side issue but important lesson learned: Never negotiate with terrorists, teenagers or toddlers.
When we were at the breaking point our company sent us to Bangkok to see a counselor. It felt safe in Thailand, the counselor had a PhD and the breakfast was unlimited buffet with real bacon. It was heaven.
The counselor began by asking Ellie what it was like living in Kashmir and she gave him a brief insight into her day-to-day life. He was intrigued and asked more questions about security, her limitations as a woman in that culture, her isolation, etc. and after a while, he started whispering the word, “untenable” under his breath. He asked her how other women, in similar situations with our company, were coping and as he listened he kept whispering, “untenable.” I finally asked him what untenable meant and he told me that it referred to something that was impossible, suggesting that it is impossible for a young American blonde woman to function with young children in the environment that Ellie was describing. I’m still not sure he was using the word right.
He then recommended that we return to America and added that we had our understanding of theology wrong. Following Jesus, he said, is not like going down a path but is like going into a sheep pen. Once you enter through the gate you can roam anywhere that you want to.
That night was our wedding anniversary and we went to bed barely speaking to each other. Ellie had heard what she wanted to hear; it was okay for her to leave. I, on the other hand, didn’t want to quit.
I got up from bed about twenty times that night to pray and finally got to sleep as the sun was coming up. When I finally got up in the morning, Ellie came to me in tears, holding me tight. She had been praying and, as she put it, “God told me that He doesn’t want us to quit.”
For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. Ephesians 2:10
I could be wrong on this one, but I think the counselor got it wrong. Yes, grace is like a sheep pen where you can wander around in freedom, but following Jesus is a line, sometimes zig-zagging, but still a line. Sure, getting saved is God’s primary purpose for us, but doesn’t He have some more purpose for us after we get saved? Shouldn’t someone filled with the Spirit of God desire to go out and do those things consistent with the agenda of God?
In retrospect, the meeting with the counselor was hugely beneficial because it allowed us to compare conventional wisdom/poor interpretation of the New Testament, with the personal voice of Jesus and isolating out His voice gave us the strength to return to something that was untenable (I still don’t think that is the right way to use that word).
Main point: It isn’t a meaningless cliché. God did create you, when you were re-born into Christ Jesus, for a purpose.
So what: Are you finding and doing the good works that God prepared in advance for you to do?
In my 20+ years as a Christian, I have struggled a lot with the imagery of following a straight line. But I think I see what you are saying and would agree… Anytime I have used my “theology” as an excuse not to do something for the kingdom, it was disobedience. I am so thankful that Jesus did not look at the cross and say “untenable.” Additionally, I am thankful that we really, truly can trust that the promises of God are true. In using that word, “untenable” I have to wonder if the counselor had a weak understanding of Paul’s claim that he could do “all things” through Christ who strengthened him. Untenable places are the ones where we can learn so much more about ourselves and our God, what Christ is really capable of as he lives through us.
My favorite part about the blogging thing is when I get a comment. People’s comments open up my mind to new ideas and I really loved your comment about not altering the following of Jesus because of something as human as “theology”.
More than twenty years ago I did the “Experiencing God” workbook and the author had us write a list of key events in our life. I had been following Jesus for twenty years at that point and, in retrospect, I could easily see that God had led me down a path–even more so now.
Think of the second journey of Paul. I guarantee it was messy. In fact, they were headed to Bithynia and the Spirit of Jesus prevented them from going that way. But, they wandered to Troas and Paul had a dream of Macedonia. The family of the Phillipi jailor and of Lydia were saved because of that wandering.
In retrospect, especially as it is written down by the trustworthy Dr. Luke, one can see that they were led by the Spirit the whole way. It seems to me that you can’t really be led anywhere if you are thinking of life like a sheep pen.
Thanks, again, for your great comment.
By the way, you are also right about the comment of us being able to do all things in Christ’s strength. Ellie and I returned to the untenable situation and saw many Muslims come to faith. Looking back we wonder why we were trying to depend upon our own flesh rather than daily plugging into His power.
I really like the idea that following Jesus for us is often a “zig-zag” line. It seems that each zig prepares us for the next zag, which we couldn’t have been prepared for except for the previous zig.
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I am truly enjoying your thought-provoking blogs. Thank you!
I think the “how do I follow/know the will of God” question is the most confusing and frustrating that most Christians face. A reason it is confusing is because most are taught it’s either total freedom “in the sheep pen” with no direction (which seems like a strange hybrid anarchy to me), or absolute toe-the-line, fear-the-failure slavery. Because neither give opportunity for God-knowing comfort or God-honoring achievement, many believers either drop out, or sit quietly unfulfilled in the pews longing for the promised abundant life.
Your “zig-zag line” is an excellent and helpful picture, but I would like your opinion on a more detailed aspect of this discussion. On the zig-zag line I believe there are times when God gives believers choices within His plan. As I have grown in my walk with God, I have come upon many cross roads where I feel that God gave me the freedom to choose and still be purposefully using my gifts and talents in direct accordance with His calling/will.
I know at this point many will enter into the “perfect vs permissive will” discussion, but I don’t think that is the case. When you look in Paul’s life, there were times that it appears he chose (e.g. 1 Cor. 16:8-9) and other times when God clearly changed Paul’s choice (e.g. Acts 16:6-9), but in all cases, he was in God’s will. In my life, this understanding has encouraged me to know God more intimately so I will make good choices to honor Him, but it also gives me great comfort to know that if I choose unwisely, He will redirect.
Sorry for the long reply (reading time 1:16 mins – lol)
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So glad you enjoy the blog, and thanks for the long comment. It keeps this very important conversation going so that it may help others sort through, as you point out, a very important question for disciples.
I looked up your two verses, one of God directly leading and one where Paul makes a choice, and I agree with you. In fact, when looking at the Pauline missionary journeys I am impressed that, in the first journey Paul and Barnabas were “sent out by the Holy Spirit” (Acts 13:4) but most decisions about where to go in the rest of the book seem to be related to choice. My favorite is in the second journey when Barnabas takes John Mark to go one way and Paul “chose” Silas to go back to Asia Minor.
Was Silas called to missions or was the idea just presented to him by Paul and he decided to go? And what about Timothy? There is not even any evidence that these two guys were called to missions. Strong specific callings about where to go and what to do get many sermons but I think they are rare compared to the stories where an apostle decided to do something because it was good strategy for building the Kingdom of God. And I believe that that is the key point.
An authentic disciple crucifies personal ambition and is driven by Kingdom ambition. Regardless of what happens to us, even if we are separated from the ones we love, are thrown in prison, or are killed, we want to give our lives to do whatever is best for the Kingdom. With that “mind of Christ” thinking in place, we can make strategy choices.
So, here are the priorities, in order:
1. Have Kingdom ambition—seeking God’s agenda above my own. This is the heart of an authentic disciple.
2. Obey the voice of Jesus.
3. Execute on my best guess for God’s kingdom, in the absence of a discernible voice.
4. If two options seem to be equal in their Kingdom value, choose either one and trust God to redirect you if needed.
5. Be flexible only on number 3 and 4.
Using these principles, you cannot mess up because God will direct you where He wants you to go. If you deceive yourself, and make a decision out of selfish ambition, you are forgiven and you can move forward with the above principles from wherever you find yourself. The zig zag line of following Jesus is always inside the sheep pen of his grace.
What do you think?