Category Archives: Discerning God’s Will

It’s been 4 years… (of good and bad, but mostly good)

I essentially abandoned blogging after my PhD viva in October. Something had to give, I suppose, and I am thankful to my co-bloggers Joel and “Brez” for keeping things somewhat alive here at HR. Starting a new job which  has required starting a new academic route for “Free Church” folks at an Anglican seminary has been exciting, but unsurprisingly demanding.  And in February we were slammed with the news that Miranda’s dad was suffering from lung cancer, a scenario complicated by a frightful debacle in getting our visas sorted. The visas finally came through, but we lost Bob Waters in the early part of summer, a loss that will never not hurt. The entire ordeal took Miranda to the US 5 times (we received the visas the day before her 1st trip). It was around 7 weeks or so that I had sole care of 4 kids and a puppy while holding onto two jobs (the other as chaplain at St Mary’s College).

Hence, little blogging.

The dust is settling a bit, which leads to brief reflective moments. And it hit me recently that it was 4 years ago to this month that we moved to England (with 18 pieces of luggage and one swanky double stroller, which, incidentally, did not last long on cobblestone streets and public footpaths).

Photo By Paul Green

(Image from Unsplash. Since I live in Durham, we will presume that the plane is heading to the North East…).

We were hopeful that the most stressful, demanding season of our lives—the spring and summer of 2011—would give way to a new season of peace and restfulness… you know, since we had heroically embraced what we believed to be God’s vocational guidance into a new and different land.

Instead we got a much harder season.

I had just written a book on disillusionment and cynicism. As my friend Chuck said, “Bro, you should’ve seen all this comin’!”

Four years later, though, as prone as I am to general gloominess when it comes to self-reflection, I can say I am so glad we made the move. The relationships gained, the adventures experienced, the opportunities to grow in ministry, the opportunities to grow academically… I am so rich.

But the claim that I am glad we made the move is not lightly shared. It is a hard fought profession. I may bear some scarring till the end of my days from this short but intensive chapter. What I think I have learned, though, is this: Jesus is trustworthy.

Most of my (sometimes nearly pathetic) ramblings on the blog, the pitiful wrestlings etched into my journal, and the burdened prayer requests shared with friends and my church family over here would all have been considerably less taxing for everyone had I followed through with simply beliefs like Jesus is trustworthy.

It was a big laugh when I was assigned to preach at my church from Luke 12, that bit about not being anxious and trusting in Jesus. It was the kind of preaching you do not because you are a role model of the text but because you desperately need the text to shape you in ways it never has. I made the confession: Jesus is actually trustworthy, for crying out loud.

I keep thinking of the scene in Job when he asks his wife, “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” (2:10).

God dispenses both… both good and bad. The idea that he alone offers the former, especially when we are heroically faithful and thus deserving of some kudos from above, is an age old conceptual misstep that the book of Job explodes into shards. Good and bad go together. We have seen that reality as a family over the past several months in losing Bob. The pain and grief, however, have been powerfully punctuated with joy, laughter, and blessing. And we have seen this reality throughout the past 4 years.

It has been quite a painful and joyful journey. The good, I can now say, has outweighed the darkness. It sounds so Sunday-School-simple, but Jesus is trustworthy.




1-Year into the PhD: 12 Months of Living Squeamishly

[The map above is an inset in a map of “The Bishopric and Citie of Durham”—the inset shows the peninsula where I study, between the castle and cathedral.  You can find more of these at]
“Don’t be too timid and squeamish about your actions. All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better.”
― Ralph Waldo Emerson, Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson, with Annotations – 1841-1844
A friend of mine sent me that quote.  To be clear, though I certainly respect Emerson, I would not invest in him an authority by which I would live my own life.  But the timing of my friend sending me that quote seemed providential.
Looking back on this past year, I am disappointed that I was miserably squeamish throughout so much of it.  Here I am living in one of the most beautiful little cities in the United Kingdom, studying everyday within 25 yards of a 900-year old cathedral, watching my kids as they fend off corrupt knights from Sherwood Forest and resist Viking invaders, and, on top of all that, I have actually, finally, commenced in doctoral work on the New Testament—something I have been tentatively hoping in for more than a decade now, something I have sensed a divine appointment to pursue.
To boot, Durham’s Department of Theology is outstanding.  I admit bias, but Durham is fairly well recognized as the best place to study theology in the UK.  And I could not be more pleased with the learning, wisdom, perspective, and guidance of my supervisor (Prof. Francis Watson).
My squeamishness is due to the costs, of course… and not just the price tag of tuition and UK living expenses.
Along with the squeamishness, there has been a debilitating, overpowering sense of shameShame over the impracticality of moving a family overseas for an expensive doctoral program with no funding.  Shame for not drawing an income.  Shame that my wife was working so hard to help offset the debt just a bit.  She was gone 2-5 nights a week (usually 3 or 4).  That’s a really tall order for a mom with 4 kids with a full-time PhD student as a husband.  We LOVE, just love her place of employment (our church here in town) as well as the folks she works with.  But we are not at a life-stage for the sort of schedule required of a youth and children’s ministry worker.  Though our marriage is strong—the bonds of our friendship, to God’s praise, are so tough and enduring and joyful—it was hard to live a year passing each other by, sometimes literally on the streets as we met on the road here or there to exchange kids or a car or something.  It has been a maddening year in terms of scheduling.
Hence the squeamishness.  And the shame.  Strange how you can pray and pray and pray over a span of years for clarity, make some really costly decisions as an act of devotion to Christ—decisions that you would feel ashamed for NOT making—only to endure an awful season ashamed that you did make them… yet feeling simultaneously that you did the right thing.
(If any professional counselors are reading this, they may have already diagnosed me with some psychosis endemic to my personality type: ‘squeamishness disorder,’ maybe, or something like that).
I am not sure how to reconcile all this, to be honest.  Seems as though there are two people for me to be angry at and lay the blame for being so cornered on one end by a powerful sense of divine calling and on the other end an implacable obstacle providence has yet to remove.  The parties to blame seem to be either me or God.  Me for being a fool and mishearing God.  God for… well, for not doing something right.  Because something is just not right… at least according to the figures.  And so when those are the options for directing one’s disappointment and frustration, I try to default to myself.  Hence again, squeamishness and shame.
I’ve counseled so many dear folks who were at vocational crossroads wondering how to place the next foot forward.  I seem to have lived in those crossroads for quite some time now.  What I guess I am finding is that the hardest part of following the vague voice of Christ up ahead in the fog is not deciding which way to go, but being content in the path you’ve so painstakingly chosen.
My wife has left her job (and on good terms).  We are so relieved.  And I do get a small stipend for my writing on a website here in the UK devoted to increasing biblical literacy in the digital age.  Actually, I am working so many hours, mornings, days, nights, but mostly for stuff that just happens to not come with a salary (writing a second book, trying to get my mind around German and Hebrew, trying to write a thesis on Johannine ecclesiology).
Student loans are an inevitable part of academic life for most of us slogging down this path.  And there are all sorts of policies embedded in the repayment process that make them manageable.  Still, they are emotionally and spiritually indigestible for me.  Yeah, they make me squeamish.  And ashamed.
All this to say that I need to repent.  Not by leaving Durham—everything besides the funding issue has been so powerfully affirming that we are in the right place at the right time.  I need to repent of my attitude.  I think I have been practicing “faith” like one make moves in a card game.  I’ll lay this down… now God, you lay your card down.  There is a sort of cat and mouse strategy at work in the way I trust the Lord.
But you can’t play God, can you?  So I am going to try to believe in the Gospel, the Gospel I am devoted to studying and paying so dearly to do so.  Far be it from me to think that the Crucified doesn’t know what to do with my debts….
Of course, many a fool has chased some dumb dream and slapped the word “vocation” on it in Jesus’ name.  That has been my greatest fear, I think.  “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.” (Prov 14:12).
Even so, I can’t live in that sort of anxiety any longer.  My constitution just won’t take it.  And it certainly doesn’t honor the Lord.  Sometimes, you drain your cup to its dregs, even if you are not sure if it is the right cup.  The Lord knows I am a blind fool, and He also knows I have begged and wept for Him to take my feeble hand in His.  As far as I can tell, the right cup is in hand.  The other  hand is on a plowshare.  And He had strong words to say something about putting one’s hand on such an implement (Lk 9:62).   So I am gripping tighter.  Tighter.
Here comes year 2.

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….