My wife and I recently traveled to San Antonio, Texas, for a few days of Christmas vacation and nostalgia. We first went to this beautiful city on our honeymoon forty-two years ago. We stayed this time at the same hotel, walked the same Riverwalk, ate ice cream at the same ice cream shop, and wondered where the years had gone.
Our sons are much older today than we were then. We knew so little of what the years to come would bring. I cannot imagine that any of our expectations in 1980 would have included the actual events of the decades that followed.
But looking back, we can see the hand of God in ways we could not at the time.
A flashlight rather than a searchlight
This is how the providence of God typically works: in the moment, it’s hard to detect his overall plan and purpose.
As a wise mentor once taught me, we are to be obedient to the last word we heard from God and open to the next.
Another mentor explained God’s will as being more a flashlight than a searchlight—it does not show us the final destination, only the next step on the journey.
Across more than four decades, Janet and I have seen so much and been blessed in so many ways. Our sons and now our grandchildren are such a joy to us. The seminaries and churches we have served have been so gracious to us.
The ministry God led us to begin in 2009 has grown beyond anything we imagined; it is a daily privilege to serve alongside such talented and godly ministry partners and with a board whose members are so committed to our mission and to our Lord.
Take a moment to look back over the years of your ministry.
How many of the events you’re remembering would you have predicted?
How has the Lord led you in ways you could not have imagined?
“Not knowing where he was going”
Our culture embraces a Greco-Roman philosophy of history, which imagines time as a line we can understand and predict. In contrast to the cyclical worldview of Eastern cultures, we see history as past, present, and future, and we work hard to predict and control the days and years to come. We build five-year plans and strategic models. We imagine ourselves as the central figures of a story whose narrative we can control.
However, no one in the Bible gets a five-year plan. Consider the pattern of Scripture:
- Abraham “went out, not knowing where he was going” (Hebrews 11:8).
- Moses had no way to predict the Exodus with its plagues and the miraculous crossing of the Red Sea.
- Joshua could not have imagined conquering Jericho as he did.
- Daniel could not know that an angel would stop the lions’ mouths.
- When he failed Jesus on Maundy Thursday, Peter could not know that he would soon preach the first sermon in church history at Pentecost.
- Saul of Tarsus could not know he would meet the risen Christ on the road to Damascus or bring the gospel to the Western world at Philippi.
- John could not know he would meet his risen Lord on the prison island of Patmos.
We see this pattern most vividly at Christmas. Who of the shepherds gathering to see the Baby of Bethlehem could have imagined his miraculous ministry, atoning death, and victorious resurrection? Who of us, if we had been invited to the event, could have foreseen all that would come?
If I had been writing the script, I would have sent the Son of God not as a helpless baby but as a conquering hero. I would have sent him not to Bethlehem but to Jerusalem or Rome, not to a cow stall in a cave but to a palace or a theater, not to shepherds but to kings and generals.
Of course, this is how that Baby will return one day (Revelation 19:16). And we have only today to be ready.
Planting trees we’ll never sit under
To be ready for the conquering King of Christmas, let’s follow my mentor’s advice. Let’s stay faithful to the last word we heard from God and open to the next.
When we do, God uses us in ways we can seldom imagine at the time. We plant trees we’ll never sit under (to paraphrase Alfred North Whitehead’s definition of greatness).
And on that day when we “know fully, even as [we] have been fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12), we will look back at where we came from and remember all the ways God has been faithful to us.
What if it were today?