I once ran a 20-mile obstacle race that started at midnight on a summer weekend in the Canadian Rockies. We decided to turn it into a little family vacation and have Carey and the kids come along, which we were all excited about at first. But then it became clear that the race was going to end up falling in the middle of a 2-month period when we were between houses, staying with various friends from our church.
Pulling off this silly little idea of mine ended up involving a ridiculous amount of planning. There was, of course, a fair amount of physical training I needed to find time for, but there were also things like thinking ahead so the gear I needed for the race, and that our family needed for a vacation, didn’t get buried at the back of our storage unit. We had to find lodging, get everyone passports, and arrange for my sister-in-law to come with us so she could watch the kids overnight while Carey served as my support crew at the race. (Yes, she continually reminds me that I still owe her for this). Then there was the fact that, at the same time, we were dealing with all of the stressful details that go along with selling one home and buying another one. And of course I was still leading a church, and Carey was still raising our three children in someone else’s home. Did I mention the race was on the Saturday after the last day of the school year? When I finally stood at the starting line, ready to run through the woods in the dark, crawl through mud, swing from ropes, and climb walls for the next 7 hours, I honestly felt like the hard part was already over.
The point of this story, believe it or not, is not that my wife is an incredibly patient woman, although obviously she is. The point is that I am a planner. I love it when a good plan comes together. I typically have my sermons planned out six months in advance, and often God works it out so that they align perfectly with holidays, guest speakers, monthly communion, and so on. I find it greatly satisfying to set my sights on a target, figure out what steps I’ll need to take to get there, and then see it all work out in the end. That Canada trip is still one of my favorite planning victories. Paying off our church’s building debt was another one. Sometimes God blesses our plans, and the results are beautiful.
But sometimes not. This past year, like a lot of people, we have had a lot of plans that didn’t work out at all. My last Sunday at Faith Baptist Church of Lincoln City was March 15th, 2020. Our plan was to leave there and go on a long road trip, visiting several national parks. Of course, that didn’t happen. COVID-19 happened, and we spent 4 months living with my parents waiting for our house in Oregon to sell. At the time, I was somewhat grumpy about the fact that things were not going according to plan. Then a couple of months later, my dad passed away, and I was really grateful that we had spent that time together. It turns out my plan was not the best plan.
In fact, I’ll go further than that. As I Iook back, I have to admit that the very best things in my life were the unplanned things. When I did a youth ministry internship in the summer of 1995, I wasn’t planning to meet my wife, but that was God’s plan. And at several key times in our marriage, Carey and I have been happily moving in one direction when God has come along and nudged us in another, and the results have been some of the biggest blessings in our lives. Homeschooling our children. The opportunity to pastor a church in my hometown. Having another child, our son Caleb. In every case, these are things that at one point we would not even have considered doing. And in every case, it’s sobering to think what we would have missed out on if we’d insisted on sticking with our plans.
In general, it’s wise to plan. The Bible, especially the book of Proverbs, has a lot to say about the importance of being prudent. There is a place for thinking ahead, and some people don’t do it nearly enough. But as believers in Jesus Christ, we walk through life not only with a guidebook (the Bible) but with a Guide (The Spirit). Our faith is not a matter of following instructions, but of following a Master. And our Guide, our Master, is unpredictable. He’s creative. We know and trust His character, but we do not always know His mind. I like to tell people that God always has the freedom to be God. It’s appropriate to plan our lives up to a certain point, as long as we remember that we will never be the Lord of our lives. That position is already filled.
What this means for you and me is that the Christian life has to be one of continual openness. We are never done listening to God. We are never done obeying. He always has the freedom to do something new and unexpected, and if we deny Him this freedom, we are the ones who miss out. This past year has been a hard one for many of us, with much that we didn’t plan on. But there have also been opportunities that we never could have anticipated. And our creative God is not done yet. If we make it our goal to keep in step with Him, who knows what He has planned for us next?
In their hearts humans plan their course,
but the Lord establishes their steps.—Proverbs 16:9
“The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”—John 3:8
Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.—Galatians 5:25