Thoughts On Discerning God’s Will for Your Life

Ease of circumstances does not confirm divine calling.  Not necessarily.

In seeking God in prayer for ten years about whether or not I should pursue doctoral studies in the United Kingdom, I found myself indeterminately waiting for the seemingly impossible circumstances to dramatically change, thereby signifying that I was indeed on the right path.  In the recent weeks before the move to England, I embraced the sobering reality that an un-obstacled course was not assigned to me.

During seven years of college ministry work, one of the most consistent concerns students would express was that of discerning God’s specific will for their lives.  What should I major in?  Who should I date?  Should my girlfriend and I pursue marriage?  Am I called to do mission work?  Should I drop out of school to chase my dream?

When you are 20 years old, these questions are freighted with such gravitas.  For an emerging adult from a middle, upper-middle, or upper class background in the Western world, the options can seem so vast (what a luxury!), and narrowing in on one particular path—relationally or vocationally—can seem so limiting.  As Christians, we are anxious to make the right decision.  And a definitive choice at age 20 feels as if we are hurling ourselves irreversibly into one specific trajectory which will be nearly impossible to alter should we discover mid-flight that we were wrong.

One of the ways we tend to interpret God’s will for us is by favorable circumstances.  “Open doors” we often call them.  When everything falls tidily into place, our eyebrows are raised and the impulse is to assume that God is revealing His will for the immediate course of our lives.

But throughout Scripture, following the divine will often requires muscling through a heap of formidable circumstances that intensify in difficulty the more faithfully His saints march onward.  If the Creator-God is in conflict with His wayward creation, then it serves to reason that following His call will often position us in uncomfortable tension with the circumstances and vicissitudes of life.

Paul makes this comment on “open doors” that has intrigued me for years—”…a wide door for effective work has opened to me, and there are many adversaries” (1 Cor 16.9).  A path crawling with adversaries does not sound like a very wide open path.  Abounding adversity does not attend what we normally think of today as an open door.

In 2 Cor 2, Paul writes again about an open door.  This time, the circumstances all seem favorable, but he does not avail himself of the opportunity before him—”even though a door was opened for me in the Lord, my spirit was not at rest…” (vv. 12-13).  In spite of what clearly seemed to be God’s opening of a path before his feet, other concerns compelled Paul to turn away from the opportune moment.

From these two texts where Paul uses the metaphor of an open door, we can make these conclusions: 1] “open doors” do not necessarily indicate God’s direction.   And 2] ease of circumstances does not necessarily clarify the path down which we are to trod.

Abram was called by God to leave his country and kindred for another life in another land.  But when he got to that land, he realized it was not only flowing with milk and honey, but also with hordes of Canaanites.  And soon after Abram spied those lovely hills and plains (and Canaanites), a famine hit, sending him off to Egypt (Gen 12.1-10).

Canaanites and a famine: welcome to your lovely new home, Abram.

When God called Moses to deliver Israel out of Egypt centuries later, the message to the Hebrew elders was that God would rescue them and bring them into that good land once again.  But God refused false advertising, describing the land not only as flowing with milk and honey, but also as crawling with Canaanites still (and “the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites” to boot—Ex 3.17).  And following the divine will in the wilderness was so hard that the rescued Israelites on occasion regretted their rescue.

Ease of circumstances does not necessary confirm God’s call.  It may actually be the evidence that we have missed a turn (the foxes have holes, and the birds have nests, but Jesus lacked a pillow to offer those following at His side).

Now, it must be acknowledged that God certainly does make the path strikingly clear and even easy at times—the psalmists rejoice over those moments.  But I think we have to keep in mind this phrase from the Sermon on the Mount: “the way is hard…” (Mt 7.14).

The way is hard.

I taught on the Sermon on the Mount throughout the summer, and I was haunted by this phrase in Jesus’ teaching on the two ways, one broad (and easy), the other narrow (and hard).  In recent months I found myself quite frustrated with God for not making the circumstances easier for my family and me as we set our faces toward England for a costly move and a costly degree program.  But I kept reading that phrase over the summer—”the way is hard…”.

I don’t think I am writing this post to justify my move, or to valiantly declare that I have followed God faithfully. I think I am writing to sort through some lessons.  And here they are again: ease of circumstances does not necessarily confirm God’s call, and “open doors” are not always indicators of God’s direction.

So counterintuitive….

Faith Without Illusions at Jesus Creed

I am just so grateful for Scot McKnight’s willingness to make posts on each chapter of Faith Without Illusions.  His comments and summations at Jesus Creed are so helpful even for me to read.  Access to the perspective of a senior writer and scholar on one’s work is quite a privilege.  If you want to see the posts, you can get started with the most recent one by clicking the icon for Patheos (which hosts Scot’s blog) below.

A minister’s nightmare… and brewing a cup of coffee in England

Had a nightmare the other night.  I had been asked by a dear friend, whose ministry I deeply respect, to preach to his congregation and a group of other ministry leaders.  I showed up on the scene, bedraggled and worn down from a hard move to England.  There had been no time to prepare for the message, and I usually take 10-15 hours at least for prep time before preaching.  But in certain situations I have had to be ready at the moment, without preparation, and God has faithfully come through.  In this dream, however, I stood before the congregation and had absolutely nothing.  Nothing.  I was so spent, so exhausted, so wrung dry that I had no true food and true drink to offer the people of God.  I remember stumbling through a few words, hoping some wellspring of life would emerge, but there nothing.  So I, the guest preacher, had to take a seat.

I suppose the dread of this kind of scenario lurks in the dark shadows of every minister’s heart.

The truth is, I am indeed spent, exhausted, wrung dry and worn down.  I have been this way before.  After my 3.5 years of seminary at Beeson, after moving to North Carolina to do student ministry at Gardner-Webb University, after finishing my thesis for Duke’s Th.M. program, and after moving to Birmingham to lead University Christian Fellowship.  The most enduring season of exhaustion came after I finished up at Duke, having shoved through the Th.M. in one year while pastoring, rearing a family, and applying to doctoral programs (and repeatedly retaking the GRE).

But this season of preparing to move to England for doctoral work nearly did me in.

The PhD is the hardest thing I have ever done in my life, and I have not even begun the program yet.  My mind, body and soul need time to relax and restore.  So allow me to write about something mundane and simple right now.  Not about Barth or eschatology or pornography or natural disasters.  But about brewing a cup of coffee here at my new home in Durham, England.

It helps that I have good coffee.  Really good coffee.  Stuffed into the 19 pieces of luggage were three 12 oz. bags from Primavera Coffee Roasters.  Brett and Brian, the guys behind the magic at Primavera, have a laptop hooked up to their roaster displaying a graph of sorts portraying the desired “roasting profile.”  Whenever the temperature settings of the roaster are off a bit, an alarm goes off, a series of urgent beeps like the annoying sound that wakes most of us up in the morning.  I have seen Brian leave customers at the coffee bar to bolt to the roaster and make fine-tuned tweaks.  So yes, the coffee is good.  Really good. 

I grind the coffee beans looking out on the “garden,” a term used here in England to refer to a back yard.  I am not sure yet if the figurative grass is greener on the other side or not, but the actual grass certainly is.  Our new kitchen is very small, but it does have a large window looking out on the garden.  So the tight space comes with a wide view.  For grinding the beans, I use a standard blade grinder.  My wife bought a used one off a postgraduate family now moving back to the States.  The piece of equipment is made by Whittards, and the 220 voltage running through the wires here gives that blade way more rpms than the one I have in storage back in the States.  I know a burr grinder is more ideal, just unaffordable (and where would I put it in our tiny kitchen?).

The 220v also comes in handy when it comes to heating the water.  I need 12 oz of it almost boiling because I use a French press (a “cafetiere” over here), and the voltage drawn by the electric water kettle makes the process fast.

The cafetiere is from Tesco.

The mug has a better story.  I got it in the town of Dingle in the Southwest of Ireland during a week-long backpacking trip with my wife along the coast of the Dingle peninsula.  The handle has a perfect thumbrest.  The weight is perfect.  The Celtic designs are perfect (subtle, not souvenir-ish).  And its shape holds the heat in the mug… a handy feature since I nurse my coffee slowly over an hour or more.  Okay, so I love my mug.  Along with my Gospel of John commentaries, it is my “luxury item.”

My watch has a digital timer that is always set at 4 minutes (I love the way it looks when hot water pours over coffee grounds).  When the 4 minutes are up, I depress the plunger on the cafetierre and pour it into my adored mug.

And then I take a seat at an old wooden table that I hear used to belong to a well-loved Bishop of Leeds.

Before entering a new season of rigorous ploughing though old texts in old languages, it a sweet luxury to take the time to think and write about these little rituals, to take time to contemplate a simple pleasure.  Thanks for joining in with me.  If you are having a cup of coffee with me, then cheers….

[And just to bring some surrounding background reality to the seemingly perfect scene of having a cup of coffee in England, let me just say that I heard weeping in the other room from my 3-year old who just dropped a hunk of playdough into his hot chocolate... cheers.]

 

A New Blog…

I am announcing that there is a new blog out there you may want to check out.  My wife, Miranda, has begun writing about our lives in England while she works for a local church and while I work on a PhD.  The blog is Twice (she will explain the title eventually).  I will be sharing about PhD work in England from time to time here on my blog, but Miranda’s blog will likely include more personal details about life and ministry from across the pond.  Her writing will be sourced in the wisdom and concerns of a mother and a manager of a household of six people.  It will be, as they say over here, brilliant.  If you know the Byers family personally and want to keep us with us while we are abroad, I definitely encourage you to subscribe to her posts!

E N G L A N D (and witing about “boredom” from an exciting place)

I am having a cappuccino.  The coffee shop is situated on the banks of a river.  A stone-paved pedestrian street is below from my view at the window.  Looking up, I see the parapets of an old castle silhouetting the blue of sky.

Ok, I admit that I just wrote an article warning against serving Jesus for the sake of cool Facebook updates or exciting blog posts.  But allow me just a bit of indulgence.  I’ve struggled ten years to be able to write this post, to write that I am in England.

I am in England.

I live here now.  And I assure you I am the only person in this coffee shop wearing Carrharts and a Samaritan’s Purse t-shirt colored crimson red (for volunteer teams out of Alabama).

I wrote the article in Relevant Magazine not to dissuade the adventurous from adventure… but maybe to call the wandering out of wanderlust.  (Subtle is the difference, I suppose.)  I wrote about faithfulness in the mundane and non-exotic not as a man who begrudges exciting travel but as a man who was packing his bags.  19 of them, to be exact.  My wife and I traveled with 19 pieces of luggage and four children—two of them in diapers.  Let’s see… there were  two cars to the Atlanta airport,  two planes, a bus or two somewhere in the mix, a (large) taxi, a train, and then two more cars.  24 hours.

We are here for me to begin a PhD program in New Testament at Durham University.

I wrote the Relevant article from a rather unique position of sobriety.  That’s saying a lot, coming from a big dreamer.  Over the past months, the enormous costs and sacrifices—financial, logistical, emotional, etc.—ceased to be easily ignored abstractions.  Reality has its shadows… even beautiful reality.  Those shadows were almost too much for me.

But now, thanks to the loving encouragement and help of so many, I am here.  And it truly is glorious… my children gawking at the rose window in a 1000-year old cathedral.  Picking blackberries alongside footpaths that have been trodden for centuries.  Breathing in the fresh, 60-degree breeze.  Sipping an espresso drink from a window with a castle-view.  But as I wrote in the Relevant piece, so much of life in the exciting places lacks luster.  Like when one of your kids tries to crawl over the tomb of a celebrated saint in that 1000-yr old cathedral, or when you are trying to dry clothes without a dryer in a that (quite moist) 60-degree breeze.  Trying to get a bank account set up.  Trying to find dishwashing soap that works….

I am noticing that my greatest challenge, now that I am here, is not writing for the kingdom or doing research in theology for the church, but in striving to rely on God’s strength to be patient in not having a vehicle, to be patient with my kids when they are too loud or too tired, to be patient while we look for proper furniture for storing the clutter of our clothes.  My prayer this morning was not that I might be an extraordinary voice in the cybersphere today, or that I would even be able to share the Gospel with the students populating this coffee shop, but that I would be patient and calm so as not to miss the simple beauty and joy in my kids as they play and eat snacks and process their new daily grind.

So grace and peace… this time–and for a some time to come–from England.

Article at Relevant on Radical Christianity

RELEVANT Mag: We Need Boring Christians

The folks at Relevant were kind enough post something I wrote on the idea of radical Christianity.  Please note that I am NOT trying to attack David Platt or his excellent book Radical.  The article just offers some warnings as we pursue Jesus with all our heart, mind and strength.

I drew on two previous blog posts for this piece at Relevant.  To read more beyond the article, you can read these posts: “The Un-Romance of Radical,” “The Dangers of ‘Radical’ Continued… Spiritualized Escapism.”