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.

The Necessities of Unity: 2. Christ in us

We’re watching Jesus pray for Himself, His disciples, and us on the night before He was crucified. His primary prayer for “those who will believe” (John 17:20) was unity, and He prayed for two things that would help us get there.

John 17:20-23.

  1. Pursue God’s Glory. Check last week’s post to explore this.
  2. Recognize Christ in us.
Continue reading

Ambition is a Dragon

I’ve found myself grappling with surges of ambition for the past few months, and I haven’t known what to do with it. At times, I’ve been frustrated, almost angry, because I know I could accomplish so much more, were I free to do it. At other times, I’ve been despondent, wanting to give up, because my efforts appear futile without the potential for real accomplishment.

Ambition is a dragon: hard to manage and never completely understood.

In 1960, no one had gone to the moon. What made people want to do it? Sure President Kennedy declared the goal, but the desire went beyond making a name for the scientists, astronauts, or country (Encyclopedia Britannica). I believe it was about seeing just how far humanity could go…about achieving something astounding primarily for the sake of achieving it.

Does ambition exist for its own sake? I don’t think so.

When I finally confronted my own ambition, I started by pushing and pulling on a definition for ambition, trying to understand this dragon that has awakened. Continue reading

We Don’t Have to Understand Everything

The treasure chest bulged between its straps and strained against its clasp. I paused, my eyes wide, and savored the moment. There was no lock on the clasp, so I heaved open the lid. It clanged back as gold coins spilled all around. I reached in, burying my arms in the treasures yet never hitting the bottom of the chest. I scooped out as much as I could hold and fell into a nearby chair. The chest remained full.

When we open our Bibles, we lift the lid on a limitless treasure trove of greater eternal value than any pirate’s booty—treasures we understand and enjoy now along with treasures we won’t understand until Heaven. What sort of treasures, you ask? Treasures of wisdom and knowledge, of perfect judgments and plans. The Apostle Paul knew about these treasures. The thought of such treasures struck him so that he paused in the middle of Romans to declare,

Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!  –Romans 11:33 Continue reading

There’s good, then there’s Good

“You’re good people.”

I heard it again last weekend. What do you say to that? “Umm…thanks?”

I live in the south, and most of us are good…at least we’re polite and nice. Our mommas told us, “Be good!” every time we went out the door. We wait our turn; we try to help people; we give Christmas gifts to our mailmen and garbage collectors. We try our best to be nice (except on college football Saturdays, but that’s another story). Continue reading

How Much More

A wobbly number line stretched across the classroom board, drawn without the help of a straight edge. Zero was near the center. To the left, the negative numbers. To the right, the positive numbers. You remember it from elementary or middle school, don’t you? For me, it was a green chalkboard and a teacher who was allergic to chalk. “Occupational hazard,” he said. At each end, the line was capped by an arrow just before the edge of the board. The arrow meant we hadn’t really arrived at the end of the line—that it continued into infinity in both directions.

As I read through Romans 5 this week, that number line returned to my mind. Four times in this chapter, Paul says “how much more.” It’s not a question but an exclamation, like when I (frequently) say, “What was I thinking!” or “How could I have forgotten that!”

I dug into the Greek a little. The phrase is pollō mállon (thank you, BibleGateway.com and my Complete Word Study Dictionary). It means simply “much more;” we add the “how” to get the right meaning in English. This word pairing comes up rather often in the New Testament, most notably (I think) in the Sermon on the Mount when Jesus said,

If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?  -Matthew 6:30 (emphasis added)

Much more.

With these words, the speaker (Jesus, Paul, etc.) creates a comparison between two concepts. There’s a first thing, which may be positive or negative, but the second thing so far exceeds the first as to make the first thing insignificant.

Like when David said, “My cup overflows” (Psalm 23:5), the image here is abundance, excess, extra to the point of wastefulness.

In the number line of life, we start out in the negative, somewhere to the left of zero. God’s generosity (saving us through Jesus’ death) doesn’t just return us to zero. It goes far beyond, bypassing even that arrow at the edge of the board on the positive side, into infinity or, in our case, an infinite eternity.

Let’s look at Paul’s how much more comparisons in Romans 5.

Since we have now been
justified by his blood,
how much more shall we
be saved from God’s wrath
through him! For if, while
we were God’s enemies, we
were reconciled to him
through the death of his
Son, how much more, having
been reconciled, shall we
be saved through his life!
Not only is this so, but
we also boast in God through
our Lord Jesus Christ,
through whom we have now
received reconciliation.
Romans 5:9-11

How much more are we saved from God’s wrath (v. 9)

Jesus’ blood gives us the right to be in God’s presence (justification), but it’s more than that. Because of Jesus’ death, we don’t have to worry about the final judgment. God will not release his righteous anger on us.

Jesus gave us an excellent example of this. When the prodigal son returned to his father (Luke 15:11-32), the father could have said, “Yes, you’re my son, but you need to be punished.” He didn’t. The younger son not only returned to his status in the family, but he was also saved from his father’s wrath.

How much more are we saved through His life (v. 10)

We’ve also been brought into a healthy relationship with God (reconciliation), but He doesn’t stop there—oh no! Jesus’ continuing life in and through us, both saved us and continues our sanctification (the “shall we be saved” of this verse). We have an on-going, deepening relationship with God through Jesus.

Again, from Jesus’ parable: The prodigal’s father could have said, “I forgive you, now get out of my sight,” but he didn’t. He pursued a renewed relationship with his long-lost son, starting with a big celebration.

Next in Romans 5, Paul introduces the idea of the “one man” Adam and the “one man” Jesus Christ. This section is full of comparisons, but twice he uses our pollō mállon again.

But the gift is not like
the trespass. For if the
many died by the trespass
of the one man, how much
more did God’s grace and
the gift that came by the
grace of the one man, Jesus
Christ, overflow to the
many! Nor can the gift of
God be compared with the
result of one man’s sin:
The judgment followed one
sin and brought condemnation,
but the gift followed many
trespasses and brought
justification. For if, by
the trespass of the one man,
death reigned through that
one man, how much more will
those who receive God’s
abundant provision of grace
and of the gift of
righteousness reign in life
through the one man,
Jesus Christ!
Romans 5:15-17

How much more does grace overflow to many (v. 15)

Before Jesus came, many people died because of sin—Adam’s original sin instilled in them. But many more than that will live eternally because we get grace (our saving factor) through Jesus’ singular death and subsequent resurrection.

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.  –Ephesians 2:8

How much more will grace-receivers reign through Christ (v. 17)

Because of Adam’s sin, death reigns in our lives. When we receive God’s grace, He dethrones death and sets us up to reign in this life through Jesus.

How much more is there to say? (I mean this one as a question.)

I hope you can see the type of comparison Paul makes in these four verses. In the first two, he says, “What you know is good, but the reality is so much better!” In the second pair, he says, “If this is bad, the converse is not just good but amazingly good!” Every time, God goes the extra step to make our situation beautiful and remarkable.

Let’s end with a related “immeasurably more” from Paul.

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.  –Ephesians 3:20-21

Why does he give us much more? For His glory. We can draw a heavy line all the way across our number lines on the board and off, into infinity.

number line 2
(c) Carole Sparks

God isn’t playing a zero-sum game with our eternity. He gives us “much more” every time. My #more is #NotAboutMe via @Carole_Sparks. (click to tweet)

Can you think of a good image to help us understand God’s “much more”? My number line is just one example. Have these verses impacted your life in a particular way? In either case, we would love to hear from you in the comments below. Let’s glorify God with a discussion of His Word!

Authentic Generosity Springs from Humility

We get so we can give.

Why does God give us things (tangible and intangible)? First, because it’s in His nature. God is generous. But second, we get so we can give.

From my car to my children to the love I show my neighbor, everything I have is, in a sense, on loan from God and on its way to someone or somewhere else. I am the conduit of His blessing for others. The things He gives me are mine for the time it takes them to pass through my hands, through my circle of influence. Like an earthen ditch flowing full of water, some of God’s blessing soaks into the earth over which they pass, and so I am blessed as all these things pass through me.

That last paragraph is where I want my mindset to remain. I’m not often there, which is why I write this month about the connection between humility and generosity. Continue reading

Hope Let Me Down

The nurse met us in the sterile, grey hall again. “We weren’t able to do the procedure, but there’s one more thing we can try.” At least three times, one nurse or another met us in the hall with essentially the same statement. At least three times, my heart grabbed onto that slim chance and held on…hoped on.

I left the second, bigger hospital, sure that this new facility with different doctors and fresher equipment would make a difference. But when the phone rang the next morning, I had to face the facts: even our last option hadn’t worked. Continue reading

On Worship

A lifestyle of worship has been on my mind for awhile. It arises partly out of my study in Psalms and partly out of…well, a bunch of stuff. Anyway, I am glad to share some thoughts on worship this week with my blogging friend, Vanessa. Read the first bit here or click straight over to her blog and start from the beginning there.

As much as I am tempted to sleep in on Sunday mornings, I love worship time with my church. You see, we lived in a place without churches or church services for more than six years. Our corporate worship time involved gathering in the living room with some praise choruses pulled up on a computer screen. I think God was honored in those moments, but it was nothing like adding your voice to a few dozen (or a few hundred) other believers, singing out in praise and accompanied by talented musicians. Corporate worship and preaching fuel me for the week ahead.

But Sunday mornings are not the only time I worship.

I have learned that worship shouldn’t be a noun. It’s not a person, place, or thing; it’s an action. Sometimes it’s an active verb, like on Sunday mornings when we worship together. And sometimes it’s more like a state-of-being verb, a mindset that pervades everything else.

Dig into God’s call to worship–including some gleanings from Romans–at Vanessa’s blog. Otherwise, what do you think of as worship and when does it occur? Share your thoughts there or in the comments below.

One Foot in Front of the Other

Uphill. How long had she been trudging uphill? One foot in front of the other. One foot. No stops. No detours. Some people raced along the road, excited about what lay beyond the next slow bend. She’d been around enough bends to know the only thing awaiting them was more trudging uphill. So she kept walking. One foot in front of the other. Uphill.

She stayed in the middle
and tried to be good.

She tried to stay near the middle of the road even though the crowds were thickest there. On her right, the edge of the road topped a steep cliff. She once saw a whole family fall, but she turned away before they hit the bottom. Better not to see. On her left, a high wall bordered the road. It was smooth, sometimes even warm, but she could imagine herself crushed against it if the mass of people swelled. So she stayed in the middle and tried to be good. One foot in front of the other.

The movement of her own feet sometimes mesmerized her. She’d once gotten dizzy from staring down at them. Better to look ahead, look where she was going.

But where was she going?

“No idea,” she said aloud. A few people turned in surprise. She shrugged and lowered her eyes.

Maybe she was turning into one of those crazies who stood on the walled side of the road and waved at people. They always looked friendly, but why did they wave instead of walking? A few didn’t wave. Instead they screamed or held signs, but their words—spoken or written—made little sense. “Repent?” “Believe?” “Kingdom?” What Kingdom? Would a king stop the uphill trudge? Would a king explain the point of walking? Would a king let people fall off the edge of the road? A bunch of crazies, that’s what they were. All of them.

But some seemed so sincere. She was almost tempted to stop once when some guy gestured to her and pointed at a crack in the wall. He’d thought they could escape through the crack. He said it was a gate. Still crazy. That had been a long time ago. Why was she thinking of it now?

Her eyes were
drawn to the wall.

“One foot in front of the other, Jeanne.” This time, she muttered so that no one else heard. But her eyes were drawn to the wall even as her feet continued their steady rhythm. She made eye contact with one of the crazies. Uh-oh.

Instead of waving or yelling or pointing, this woman stepped into the crowded road and weaved toward her. Without asking, she reached for one of Jeanne’s heavy bags, but Jeanne hesitated and the woman smiled. Why did she trust this woman already? Jeanne released the bag. The woman fell into step beside her, even pointed out a pothole to avoid.

After a while, she began to talk. Her name was Mary, and her story felt both strange and familiar to Jeanne. They laughed together. How long had it been since she laughed? The woman talked about a gate that would lead them out of this never-ending uphill drudgery. She had found it and gone through it. When she experienced the peace and lack of struggle on the other side of the wall, she knew she had to come back and show people the gate.

“So those crazies along the wall… Oh, sorry!”

“No, that’s okay.” Mary smiled. I used to think they were crazy, too, but they’re telling the truth. They just have…unusual…ways of saying it.”

Jeanne continued. “There really is a gate? There really is another way? There really is a better life?”

“Yes, yes, and yes.” The whole time they talked, Mary had been steering Jeanne very gradually toward the wall. Now they stopped. A couple of people behind them grumbled and jostled around them. “Look, Jeanne.”

Jeanne had to tear her eyes away from Mary’s glowing face. Mary was pointing at the wall. But it wasn’t a solid wall anymore. There was a clearly a gate. Jeanne did a double-take. Yes, definitely a gate. Why hadn’t she seen it before this moment? “Is this the gate you went through, Mary?”

“Yes.”

“But you joined me back there,” Jeanne pointed down the road, “and the gate is here…,” her voice trailed off.

There’s only one gate.

“There’s only one gate, Jeanne. It appears when you’re ready to see it, but in reality, it’s always been right beside you.”

“That’s weird.”

“I know. I don’t exactly understand it myself, but that doesn’t stop it from being true, does it?”

Jeanne’s voice belied her hesitation: “I guess not.”

“Come on. Let’s go!” Mary was already touching the gate, but Jeanne felt rooted to the spot. The uphill trudge might not be exciting, but it was familiar. She knew what to do and how to manage. Beyond that gate…well, who could know for sure?

Mary turned toward Jeanne without taking her hand off the gate, patience and desire somehow mixing on her face.

Jeanne slowly filled her lungs with air. On the exhale she moved her right foot toward the gate. One foot in front of the other, into new life.

Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.  -Matthew 7:13-14

Jesus said, “I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved.”  -John 10:9

…And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?  -Romans 10:14

One Foot in Front of the Other: Bible-based #flashfiction to challenge all of us. (click to tweet)

Any thoughts? How does this image sit in your mind? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.