We live in unprecedented times.
Church membership in the US has fallen below 50 percent for the first time. According to Barna research, 42 percent of pastors have considered quitting full-time ministry within the last year. Of the reasons cited, 56 percent note the “immense stress of the job,” followed by 43 percent who say, “I feel lonely and isolated.”
Here’s one way to face such an uncertain future and the stress it brings: stop facing the future.
When Dak Prescott broke his thumb
When I began studying the philosophy of religion many years ago, one of the first insights that impressed me was the Greco-Roman insistence that time is a line on a page. This linear approach to history contrasted with a cyclical Eastern view and led Western civilization to view life as progress toward a predictable future.
From then to now, we have fixated on planning our time and our lives. I remember when day-timer notebooks were popular, followed by calendar apps on smartphones and now software that programs your days according to a variety of variables.
We in the West are committed to controlling the future. But the future cannot be controlled.
Two weeks ago, few knew that Fort Myers would face the worst of Hurricane Ian. A year ago, few believed that Vladimir Putin would invade Ukraine. When he did, few believed that Ukraine could stand up to his assault.
When Dak Prescott broke his thumb, few Cowboys fans thought the team would win the next three games without him. When the season began, few thought Aaron Judge would hit more than 50 percent more home runs than a year ago and chase baseball immortality.
It’s hard to name a single consequential event of recent years that was predicted before it occurred.
“His feet were hurt with fetters”
The Bible knows that the future can be controlled by no one but God. It teaches that he is the great “I Am,” not the “I Was” or the “I Will Be.” No one in the Bible gets a five-year plan.
Paul thought he should go east when he was called west to Macedonia and beyond. When Joseph dreamed of being exalted over his brothers, he had no idea he would have to go through Potiphar’s prison to arrive at Pharaoh’s palace.
Psalm 105 tells us that “his feet were hurt with fetters; his neck was put in a collar of iron; until what he had said came to pass, the word of the Lᴏʀᴅ tested him” (vv. 18–19). Then, “the king sent and released him; the ruler of the peoples set him free; he made him lord of his house and ruler of all his possessions, to bind his princes at his pleasure and to teach his elders wisdom” (vv. 20–22).
It’s hard to think of a single major event in Scripture that happened the way we would have predicted.
- Abraham “went out, not knowing where he was going” (Hebrews 11:8).
- Moses, a fugitive from Egyptian justice, was called back to Egypt to seek justice for his people.
- Joshua was told to cross the Jordan River at flood stage with the promise that when the priests stepped into the water, God would stop the flood.
- Jesus chose Galilean fishermen, not Judean rabbis, for his apostles.
- Saul of Tarsus, the great persecutor of the church, became its great champion.
- John met the risen Christ not in Jerusalem but on the prison island of Patmos.
The pattern is clear: they trusted God with the future while serving him in the present.
Three ways to live in the moment
C. S. Lewis noted that if we think of time as a line on a page, God is the page.
Consequently, we can trust him to prepare us today for tomorrow. He will show us how we are to “count the cost” before building (Luke 14:28) while trusting him for the future of the enterprise.
The key, as a wise mentor once told me, is to stay faithful to the last word we heard from God and open to the next. Three principles have helped me follow his advice over the years:
One: Use my mind as fully and fruitfully as I can.
I am to love God with “all” my mind (Matthew 22:37). As C. S. Lewis reminded us, our Lord “wants every bit of intelligence we have to be alert at its job, and in first-class fighting trim.” Many years ago, a wise elder statesman spoke words I’ve never forgotten: “The Holy Spirit has a strange affinity for a trained mind.”
Two: Listen for his voice in every moment of the day.
I love this promise: “Your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, ‘This is the way, walk in it,’ when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left” (Isaiah 30:21). His will is not a searchlight illuminating our destination but a flashlight showing us our next step. Then, step by step, he leads us home.
Three: Trust God when I cannot understand him.
God reminds us, “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:9). Just as I could not teach calculus to my eight-year-old granddaughter (brilliant though she is), so God cannot reveal his mind fully to my fallen mind. If I could completely understand God, either he would not be God or I would be.
When we cannot understand his ways, it’s not that he refuses to explain himself but that we cannot understand the explanation. But one day, we will see him “face to face” and “know fully” as we are “fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12).
In the meantime, we prove that he is Lord to the degree that we trust him when we do not understand him.
Oswald Chambers observed, “We are apt to forget the mystical, supernatural touch of God. If you can tell where you got the call of God and all about it, I question whether you have ever had a call.
“The call of God does not come like that, it is much more supernatural. The realization of it in a man’s life may come with a sudden thunder-clap or with a gradual dawning, but in whatever way it comes, it comes with the undercurrent of the supernatural, something that cannot be put into words.”
English playwright Fay Weldon noted, “If you do nothing unexpected, nothing unexpected happens.”
Can God do something unexpected with you today?