God’s Best Plan and Our Stumbling (lack of) Strategy

I’ve been in three pre-strategy meetings in the last two weeks. I have another before the actual strategy meeting this weekend. While I’m looking forward to next year (It’s December 2020.), it all seems a bit much.

A business strategy or even a personal plan is something we must hold loosely–something to keep us going in the right direction, not keep us on a single, exclusive track. Strategy rarely accounts for a pandemic…or personnel/family changes…or cultural shifts…or, perhaps most importantly, human error.

When I look back over Acts, it’s clear Paul’s strategy was not about where he would go or what he would do or how long he would stay. Did Paul even have a strategy? I don’t think so. Paul “hung his hat” on his mission statement and played everything else “fast and loose.”

Paul summed up his mission statement in Romans 15:

It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation.  –Romans 15:20

Along the way, however, he made some mistakes…some things we can be sure were not part of the plan. But God used him anyway. In fact, God even used his mistakes—his non-strategic moves–to further the expansion of the Kingdom.

Paul Disagreed with his Partner (Acts 15: 36-41)

When Paul and Barnabas returned to First Church Antioch after the Jerusalem council, Judas and Silas (both prophets) accompanied them. “Some time later” (Acts 15:36), Paul wanted to visit all the places they had established groups of believers on their first journey. Barnabas thought they should give John Mark another chance to assist them even though he had left them early into the first journey. Paul absolutely refused.

They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Acts 15:39

How embarrassing! How unchristlike! As church leaders, how did their disagreement affect the church in Antioch? We don’t know, but it can’t have been good.

We would never build dissention into our annual strategy, but God used it. This division doubled the missionary force out of First Antioch (from two to four).

Paul Lost His Patience (Acts 16:16-24)

In Philippi, Paul’s group started a new church in Lydia’s house. There was a woman in town who had an evil spirit. She started following them every day, shouting, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved” (Acts 16:17). Seems like a good thing, doesn’t it: some free publicity? Well, it got on Paul’s nerves. One day, he “became so annoyed” (Acts 16:18) that he cast out the spirit.

  • He didn’t do it for God’s glory.
  • He didn’t do it because he wanted to free the woman.
  • He didn’t do it because he wanted to gain a hearing among the influential people in the city.

He lost his patience. As a result, Paul and Silas were stripped and beaten, thrown into prison, and put in stocks (Acts 16:22-23). (I hope Paul apologized to Silas while they were sitting there in prison.)

We would never advise losing our patience as a strategic move, but God used it to save the jailer and his family (Acts 16:29-33), probably doubling the size of the church in Philippi.

Paul Yielded to Peer Pressure (Acts 21:17-26)

When Paul visited Jerusalem after the third missionary journey, he found many new believers among the Jews. He also found rumors which had been circulating about his teachings. Thing is, the rumors were true. Paul taught that Christ-followers lived under a new covenant, that circumcision was merely an outward rite (1 Corinthians 7:19, Galatians 2:3) and that dietary restrictions were moot (Romans 14:6, 1 Corinthians 10:25). While Paul directed most of his teaching toward Gentiles, He never said Jewish believers shouldn’t follow Old Testament law, but he also didn’t say they must continue to follow the old laws.

Now back in the heart of Judaism, Paul let the church leaders convince him to participate in a religious ritual that would show Jewish believers he was still Jewish and imply that Jewish believers should continue adherence to the Law. Why? The church leaders said,

Then everyone will know there is no truth in these reports about you, but that you yourself are living in obedience to the law.”  –Acts 21:24

Did Paul “live in obedience to the law” when he was travelling around the known world? He knew the law better than anyone, yet I can find no proof he always observed Pharisaic restrictions/rituals. Now back in Jerusalem, would it not have been better for Paul to dialogue with Jewish leaders regarding expectations for all Christians? Didn’t his participation increase the divide between Jewish and Gentile Christians at a time when they needed to unite? And by the way, what did Paul’s companion, Trophimus the Ephesian (v. 29) think of this action?

I think Paul missed an opportunity here. We would never plan to misrepresent ourselves or the Gospel, but God used it. Paul’s appearance in the temple to set a plan in motion that sent Paul to Rome at the expense of the Roman Empire (Acts 21:27-30). This plan made room for Paul to write several books of the Bible and witness to many people at the heart of a pagan system.

Conclusion

We can write beautiful, God-centered, ambitious strategies, but more than likely, we will fail to follow them. If it’s not human failure, it’ll be a pandemic, a change in our family situation, or something else. However, God will not let our strategy flubs derail His perfect will. So as we go into end-of-year strategizing/planning, let’s hold our plans loosely and show ourselves some grace when we inevitably fail. We know God will be showing us plenty of grace!

Many are the plans in a person’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails.  –Proverbs 19:21

Strategy: have it but don’t hold it too tightly. Things are gonna fall apart, usually due to our own failures. But we can count on God to redirect our path when strategy goes askew. My #NewYearPlan is #NotAboutMe.

What’s your experience with “strategy”? I love it but I always find it lacking. Please share your thoughts in the comment below. I’ll respond to each one.

Blessed Are: the Pure-Hearted

King Solomon questioned, “Who can say, ‘I have kept my heart pure; I am clean and without sin’?” (Proverbs 20:9). He’s right. It’s hard to find an Old Testament example of someone who is pure-hearted.

For one thing, the Hebrew idea we typically translate as heart means “the center of the human spirit, from which spring emotions, thoughts, motivations, courage and action” (NIV Study Bible notes for Psalm 4:7). It’s a tall order to keep all that pure! Continue reading

Generosity Lets People In

Hospitality, as we’ve learned this year, is an essential aspect of generosity. We looked at opening our homes and other spaces not only to our friends, but also to those who are different from us. But here’s a sad fact: We can open our homes without opening our lives. We can put on a happy face, decorate beautifully, and entertain graciously without ever letting people into our personal space. We can have inhospitable hearts.

I enjoy being in homes where they say, “Get whatever you want out of the fridge,” and they don’t bother to say, “Sorry I didn’t get the upstairs bathroom cleaned.” In such homes, I feel welcomed into their lives, into the space where they really live, not just into their square footage. And if their teenager left his clothes on the upstairs, uncleaned bathroom floor? Well, then I know we have something in common.

When we practice generosity of relationship, we break into our own personal space to offer understanding and authenticity. It’s a hospitality of the heart.

Jesus did it. He allowed us to enter His personal space and intimate relationships. Continue reading