“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
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.