Over 60,000 subscribers
Back in 1981 Pippa and I felt that God was calling us to full-time ministry in the Church of England and for me to become an ordained minister. We also felt that we should do our training in Durham starting in September 1982. I was on the top of the waiting list for the theological college at Durham University. I was told it was almost certain someone would drop out and I was virtually guaranteed to get a place. Based on this I announced our plans widely, including telling the set of chambers, where I was practising as a barrister, that I was leaving.
Just before I was due to start we received news that, exceptionally, no one had dropped out that year and it would not be possible for us to go. We tried everything to persuade them to change their minds. We desperately tried to find another theological college that would accept us. We prayed and pushed as hard as we could but to no avail. The door was firmly shut.
The following year was extremely difficult. I was given very little work by my chambers as they knew I was leaving and so had no incentive to build my career. It was a huge disappointment and mystifying at the time.
In the end, we went to Oxford to study the following year and eventually started a curacy at HTB in 1986. With hindsight, had we got the place at Durham, the timing would have meant that a curacy at HTB would have been out of the question and we would not be doing what we are doing today. I am so thankful to God that he blocked our plans and that what we now believe were his purposes prevailed.
There are times when life is not easy. It is difficult to work out what God is doing in terms of our work, family, temptation, finances, disappointments, bereavement or opposition. How do we cope in these situations?
1. God’s purposes and our plansProverbs 16:8-17
It is right to plan. However, we need to do it with the necessary humility, recognising that our plans will only succeed ‘if it is the Lord’s will’ (see James 4:13–15). The writer of Proverbs says, ‘In your heart you may plan your course, but the Lord determines your steps’ (Proverbs 16:9).
His purposes are ‘good, pleasing and perfect’ (Romans 12:2). Sometimes we align our plans with God’s purposes, but from time to time – certainly in my experience – God thankfully overrules our plans. We should always bear in mind that we may have got it wrong and ultimately it is the Lord who determines our steps.
God often works out his purposes through good leadership. Good leaders motivate others (Proverbs 16:10). They do not base their decisions simply on what is popular: ‘Sound leadership has a moral foundation’ (v.12b, MSG). They cultivate an environment of candour: ‘Good leaders cultivate honest speech; they love advisers who tell them the truth’ (v.13, MSG). They ‘invigorate lives; they’re like spring rain and sunshine’ (v.15, MSG).
Thank you, Lord, that although we make plans in our hearts ultimately it is your purpose that prevails. In making our plans may we always say, at least in our hearts, ‘If it is the Lord’s will’.
2. God’s purposes and human plotsActs 22:22-23:11
Are you facing difficulties in your life? Are you in a time of crisis? Do there seem to be plots and plans against you?
There are a number of competing plans in this story. How do these human plots interact with God’s purposes?
- The crowd
First, we see the plots of the crowd. Their plan was to ‘rid the earth’ of Paul (v.22) and it is not without impact. It causes Paul hardship, but ultimately it fails because their plans do not align with God’s purpose.
- The commander
Second, we have the plot of the 'commander’, a man of military power. His plan was to have Paul flogged (v.24). Paul is taken to the torture chamber. He is stripped and stretched out to be flogged in such a way that might have left him insane, unable to preach, or even led to his death (vv.24–25). The plan failed because it was illegal to flog a Roman citizen before being convicted and the commander had not realised that Paul was a Roman citizen.
- The court
Third, we have the plots of the religious authorities, the Sanhedrin, who plan to kill Paul (23:12). Paul is taken to court and placed in the dock (22:30). He points out his innocence. ‘Ananias ordered those standing near Paul to strike him on the mouth’ (23:2). Paul’s response is, ‘God will strike you, you whitewashed wall!’ (v.3). It is not quite the reaction of Jesus, but understandably human. He gives a half apology (v.5).
Then Paul manages to divide the tribunal (vv.7–8), which consisted of Pharisees (who believed in the resurrection of the dead) and Sadducees (who did not). Paul decides ‘to exploit their antagonism’ (v.6, MSG). Paul says, in effect, ‘Look, the reason I am on trial is that I am a Pharisee and believe in the resurrection of the dead’ (v.6).
This leads to a massive argument which splits the Sanhedrin. Some of the Pharisees rightly shouted ‘We don't find anything wrong with this man! ... What if it turns out we’re fighting against God?’ (v.9, MSG).
The dispute became so violent that the commander was afraid Paul would be torn to pieces by them. He ordered the troops to go down and take him away from there by force and bring him into the barracks (vv.9–10).
- The crises
Finally, we have the plans of Paul. Paul seeks to align his plans with God’s plans. He was guided by God. He resolved in the Spirit to go to Jerusalem and then to Rome (19:21). However, in spite of this he hit crisis after crisis.
Paul must have wondered whether he had missed out on God’s purposes. But in the middle of this ‘crisis’, the Lord stood near Paul and said, ‘Take courage! As you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify in Rome’ (23:11).
God’s purpose was that Paul should testify about Jesus. He was called to testify both in Jerusalem (maybe the equivalent of testifying to the church) and Rome (maybe the equivalent of testifying to the state, government and political leaders).
The sovereignty of God means we don’t have to worry about the ultimate outcome. God is in complete control. It may not always be easy to see it at the time.
God’s purpose was that Paul should be a witness. Everywhere he went, Paul witnessed. He gave his testimony. Even when he was not speaking his life was a testimony. He didn’t wait until all was going well. In fact, in times of difficulties sometimes our testimony is at its most powerful.
Lord, thank you that so often you speak to us in a crisis. Thank you for the way in which you guide us. Thank you for the encouragement of Paul’s life, that although we may still hit many difficulties in following your purposes, you are with us in these difficulties and you speak to us and reassure us. Please give us the same courage you gave to the apostle Paul to testify about you wherever we go.
3. God’s purposes and human agents2 Kings 6:24-8:15
God works out his purposes through human agency.
The suffering of the people of Samaria was almost unbearable: famine, food prices soaring astronomically and even cannibalism resulting (2 Kings 6:24–31). The king of Israel made a pathetic excuse for not helping the woman who cried to him, ‘Help me, my lord the king!’ (v.26). He replied, ‘If the Lord does not help you, where can I get help for you?’ (v.27). This is the wrong reaction.
The sovereignty of God and his plans is not meant to be an excuse for human inaction. God works through human agents. When we see needs, we are called to be God’s agents responding to those needs. This is what Elisha did. God used Elisha. He prophesised ‘Listen! God’s word! The famine’s over. This time tomorrow food will be plentiful’ (7:1, MSG).
He also used four men with leprosy who discovered where this plentiful food was. As they ate and drank they said to each other, ‘We’re not doing right. This is a day of good news and we are keeping it to ourselves’ (v.9). Food prices dropped over night. Every word Elisha had spoken proved true.
This is a wonderful illustration of our motive for telling others the good news about Jesus. These starving men came across a mountain of food. They realised that God had delivered them from their enemies. They could have kept the good news to themselves, but that would have been utterly selfish.
Yet they were tempted to do so. We have far better news than they had – the good news of Jesus and the gospel. We must not keep it to ourselves. We are the human agents responsible for carrying out God’s plans.
Similarly the people in the city could have just stayed there in their lost condition refusing to believe the good news. Indeed, at first the king does not respond very positively. He suspects a trap (v.12). Likewise today some people do not respond to the offer of life Jesus makes to every human being because they suspect that there is some trap.
Not only does God work out his purposes through human agents, he sometimes reveals these plans to his prophets. Elisha prophesied at a time of famine that within twenty-four hours food would be in ample supply (v.1). It seemed totally unbelievable at the time (v.2), but God rescued his people (v.6). Elisha’s prophecy came true, ‘As the Lord had said’ (v.16). God also revealed to Elisha what was about to happen to the king (8:8,13,15).
Lord, thank you that you have good plans for our lives. Thank you that your purposes will ultimately prevail. Help us never to make plans that are in conflict with yours. Help us always to have the humility to say, when announcing our plans, ‘if the Lord wills.’
Thank you that we know that you plan for us to be bearers of the good news of Jesus. Help us to take every opportunity to bring this good news to a desperate and starving world. Help us to testify everywhere we go, whether in Jerusalem or Rome.
2 Kings 6:24–8:15
God chooses the most despised (four lepers) to discover the abandoned Aramean camp. What fun they must have had, stuffing their starving bodies with delicious food, as they tried on beautiful clothes. They got the best, first.