April 1, 2013
 Golden Opportunities And God's Will
Weighing the Significance
Of Open Doors
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This article is adapted from Blaine Smith's book Should I Wait in Faith or Step Out in Faith? Balancing Patience and Initiative in the Christian Life.

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Here’s a problem you might say is nice to have.

You have an opportunity. A golden opportunity. The chance to develop a serious relationship, or to marry. Or a job opening with generous pay and benefits. Or an invitation from your pastor to direct one of your church’s important ministries.

At first you’re euphoric, stunned at your good fortune, flattered that someone believes in you so strongly.

Then, with time and reflection, come the reality checks: The relationship is too high maintenance. The job doesn’t fit you well. The church position doesn’t match your spiritual gifts.

Still, the door is so wide open. How could you possibly turn your back on such a wonderful prospect?

We each face this dilemma from time to time. And while we welcome the problem on one level (it’s nice simply to have an open door), the agony of deciding can be extreme. The problem is great enough for anyone, regardless of their spiritual outlook. For the Christian, though, questions about God’s will can add to the confusion. “If Christ is in control of my life, shouldn’t I assume that a shining opportunity like this is from him? Isn’t he showing his intention through this open door? Aren’t I sinning if I turn away from it?”

Some of our most confusing struggles about God’s guidance concern the meaning of open doors. We wonder if respect for God’s providence (“God opened the door, so I must go through it”) should override stewardship of our life and common sense (“the opportunity doesn’t work for me, so I shouldn’t pursue it”).

Different Responses to Open Doors

There is no question that God uses circumstances to guide us. Paul placed important weight upon open doors in determining which regions God wanted him to visit during his missionary travels. “I will stay in Ephesus until Pentecost,” he writes, “for a wide door for effective work has opened to me” (1 Cor 16:8 RSV). Paul says nothing here about God’s giving him direct guidance to stay in Ephesus, but merely notes that the situation is ideal for him to minister. This example isn’t isolated. Paul based many a decision to stay in a certain area and evangelize on the fact that a prime opportunity for ministry was present.

Yet Paul turned away from good opportunities as well. “When I came to Troas to preach the gospel of Christ,” he also writes, “a door was opened for me in the Lord; but my mind could not rest because I did not find my brother Titus there. So I took leave of them and went on to Macedonia” (2 Cor 2:12-13 RSV). Paul clearly perceived that God had opened this door for him in Troas, yet he also concluded that God didn’t want him going through it! His example shows graphically that God may provide us with an opportunity which he doesn’t wish us to accept. And this may be true even though we recognize that God himself has opened a particular door.

Jesus, like Paul, also responded to circumstances unpredictably. In general, he took open doors seriously. He healed every individual who asked for his help. And when it came to selecting his twelve disciples, he didn’t launch a world-wide search for the perfect dozen, but picked from those available in the small sector of the world where he had chosen to minister.

Yet he decided not to respond to certain beckoning opportunities as well. Once, when he was visiting Capernaum, his disciples reported to him, “Everyone is looking for you” (Mk 1:37 Phillips). They informed him that the situation in Capernaum was ripe for his ministry--that many were eager for his teaching and healing.

Jesus’ response? “Then we will go somewhere else, to the neighboring towns, so that I may give my message there too--that is why I have come” (Mk 1:38 Phillips).

What’s fascinating in this case is that the presence of a great opportunity to teach and heal helped Jesus resolve to go somewhere else! A significant opening for ministry in Capernaum helped him reaffirm his priority--that he was called to minister not just in one setting, but in a variety of them, during his brief earthly mission.

Not Jumping to Conclusions

The fact that both Jesus and Paul sometimes walked away from prime opportunities, after weighing them carefully, highlights a benefit of the open door that we seldom consider. When an opportunity to take a significant step with our life is actually present, we are able to interact with it, intellectually and emotionally, on a level not possible when we’re merely musing about it as a distant possibility. Having a real-life option to grapple with breaks us out of the realm of fantasy and focuses our thinking remarkably. We are able to gaze down the road, and grasp more realistically what it would be like to truly live out this role.

Even if we conclude that the opportunity isn’t right for us, we have still benefited greatly from its being present. This explains why God might open a door for us--even a wide one--yet not expect us to venture through it. This aspect of God’s guidance is immensely liberating, for it means we’re not obligated to any assumption about his will when a compelling option presents itself, but are free--indeed, expected--to weigh it along with other factors. While God gives us guidance through every open door we encounter, he means for us to accept the opportunity in one case, but to learn from it and turn away from it in another.

A friend of mine, Victor, entered college intent on becoming a physician. His father, a prominent surgeon, had long encouraged him to pursue a medical career. As a college senior, Victor applied to various med schools and, due partly to his father’s influence, was admitted to the one he most wished to attend.

Acceptance by any medical college is a cherished accomplishment for a pre-med student. And admission to your top choice is an extraordinary victory. Add to this the family pressure, and Victor had strong reasons to stay the course toward his longtime goal of becoming a doctor.

During his junior year of college, though, Victor had become a Christian. He became actively involved in a campus ministry and in a local church as well. By the time he was ready to graduate, he had discovered that he had significant gifts for ministry and a strong motivation to become a pastor. He found the courage to turn down the prestigious med school’s offer in favor of going to seminary. Though it was difficult to decline such a tantalizing prospect, the fact that it was available helped him resolve firmly that his self-understanding had changed, and that God had placed a new aspiration in his heart to which he must be faithful.

His is a good example to keep in mind, for we need all the reinforcement we can get in striving to think clearly about open doors. We easily default to thinking God wants us to proceed through them. It can be excruciating to decline a great opportunity, and the decision can be complicated further by our view of God's guidance. Yet even the best prospect may be God’s means of educating us and sharpening our vision for taking a different direction.

Remarkable Coincidences

If it’s natural to think that God is giving us a clear message through golden opportunities to go forward, it’s even more tempting to think so when circumstances are highly coincidental. I know of a man and woman who met each other while each was traveling separately in Europe. They enjoyed some time together, but returned to the United States not expecting to meet again. Later, they encountered each other unexpectedly in a large metropolitan church. They took this unlikely occurrence as God’s sign they should marry.

Tragically, the marriage lasted only six months. Theirs was a classic case of reading too much guidance into a coincidence. It was an exceptional coincidence, to be sure. They would have been justified in concluding that God was showing them something through this unusual occurrence--perhaps that they should get better acquainted. But they jumped to conclusions about his ultimate intention for their relationship, without doing the hard work of getting to know each other thoroughly.

Over the course of a lifetime--and by the law of averages--each of us will experience certain turns of event so unusual and coincidental that it appears for all the world that God is giving us special guidance through them. We should be extremely cautious of our conclusions at such times. God may be using a coincidence to get our attention in some way. But we should stay tentative about what he is prompting us to do until we’ve looked at all the related factors. Sometimes the conclusion we reach, after a deep breath and many second thoughts, defies our first assumption.

Confidence in Providence

While we can be too quick to jump to conclusions about God’s will when circumstances are favorable or coincidental, we can also be too slow to recognize when opportunities truly are right for us. This is the other challenge we face in weighing the significance of open doors. We need to be properly cautious in considering them; yet we also need to learn to see them with the eyes of faith. God provides us with many opportunities that are well suited for us, and that are his means of moving us forward. Yet they sometimes fall short of certain ideals or expectations we have, and so we fail to perceive them as God’s best alternatives.

The problem in this case is that fantasy is always more enticing than reality. God provides us with real-life options, which he sees as ideal for us. Yet the fact that they're available may keep us from appreciating them as fully as we should.

In his missionary travels, Paul often settled for opportunities to minister that fell short of his expectations. One night a man appeared to him in a dream, pleading, “Come over to Macedonia and help us” (Acts 16:9). In the morning, Paul and his companions concluded God was calling them to travel to Macedonia. They ventured forth to that city, surely expecting to find the man of Paul’s dream active in ministry there.

Instead, they found a Jewish woman, Lydia, leading a women’s prayer group by a river. Paul spent some time with these women, and through his influence Lydia committed her life to Christ. She then persuaded Paul and his team to lodge at her home, where a church soon blossomed (Acts 16:13-15).

Paul had come to Macedonia in response to a vision he had experienced--of a man active in ministry who was begging for his help. Yet to accommodate himself to the reality he found once in Macedonia, Paul was willing to modify his vision in two important ways: He accepted that the person he was to assist was a woman, not a man. And she wasn’t active in Christian ministry when Paul arrived, but had to be converted first!

Weighing Open Doors in Light of Our Priorities

Paul was able to adjust his expectations and to act decisively in this case because he had a keen sense of his priorities. His chief goal was to present the gospel in regions unfamiliar with Christ--a role that fit Paul’s gifts and motivational pattern extremely well. In light of this overriding intention, Paul simply looked for open doors. His confidence in God’s providence was so strong that he assumed a suitable opportunity to evangelize new territory was God’s will for him, unless proven otherwise. The chance to work with Lydia and her friends to launch a church in Macedonia was a good opportunity--and so even though it meant revising his initial assumptions about how he would evangelize this country, he chose to proceed.

On the other hand, Paul felt equal freedom to turn down a good opportunity to minister, if it didn’t fit his priorities well or presented significant obstacles to his being an effective icebreaker for the gospel. He chose to walk away from an open door in Troas, as we’ve seen, because a key associate--Titus--wasn’t present to assist him.

The most important lesson about guidance and circumstances that we learn from Paul’s experience is that we should evaluate open doors in light of clear priorities. We need, first and foremost, to come to grips with which of our gifts, talents and desires are the most significant and the ones that God most wants us to emphasize. We should keep this self-understanding in the forefront of our mind as we consider committing to various opportunities.

We should operate also with strong confidence in God’s providence--believing as a matter of faith that he will provide us with significant opportunities which allow us to realize our potential. We should carry a bias--that an option which matches our potential and interests reasonably well, and has had a fair chance to prove itself, is one that God wants us to accept. If we’re analytical by nature, we must be especially cautious not to write off a good opportunity because of its imperfections. In order to recognize God's best options for us, we will likely need to modify our expectations.

At the same time, we should remember that God brings along certain golden opportunities for their educational value, to help us better refine our vision for taking a different path. We aren’t obligated to go through an open door, and if a prospect truly fails to match our potential well, we are free to disregard it.

Take the case of Harrison. He is thirty and has long wished to be married. For three years he has dated Alicia, who longs to marry him. He has leaned toward marrying her for much of this time, too, and sees many strong points in their relationship. Yet he has also wavered at times, wondering whether he might find someone more perfectly suited for him if he waited longer. The fact that God has allowed him to tie up such a substantial portion of his life in this relationship, though, given his desire to be married, is significant in itself. He should put the burden of proof on why he shouldn’t marry Alicia, rather than on why he should; in other words, apart from a compelling reason not to marry, he should go ahead.

Suppose, though, that Harrison lacks the desire to be married to begin with, and is confident he would be happier staying single. No opportunity to marry--no matter how wonderful--should convince him to get married in this case.

Expectant Freedom

We have, in short, an extraordinary basis for confidence and hope as we pursue our goals and dreams, and weigh various alternatives that we face. If Christ is Lord of my life, I may assume he’ll be providing me with important opportunities to employ my gifts and to realize the desires he has placed in my heart. This conviction should add a note of anticipation to each day--that on any given day, options may arise that will forever affect my destiny in a positive way. My default assumption should be that a good opportunity is Christ’s provision for my needs and his way of prodding me ahead.

Yet I am also free to weigh each prospect that comes along, and am not obliged to any conclusion about God’s will until I’ve done so. In some cases, I’ll find that even an exceptional opportunity isn’t right for me, but is God’s way of helping me recognize that another option fits me better.

Call this perspective on open doors “expectant freedom,” if you will. It means good news for us as Christians, as we live each day and confront each opportunity.

More than anything, we should take great encouragement in knowing that God will enable us to resolve even our most difficult choices, when we ask for his direction. This is the most enlightening insight we learn from Jesus’ surprising decision to turn away from the harvest opportunity in Capernaum. He was praying, in the early morning, at that time; it was through prayer that he gained the clarity of mind to make this complicated choice (Mk 1:35). We’re reminded of our critical need to prayerfully seek God’s leading when we're facing a challenging decision. And we’re shown that he may be trusted fully to guide us when we do.

Our need for his guidance is never greater than on those occasions when we face golden opportunities that don’t seem quite right for us. Yet we may approach these decisions with unspeakable confidence that Christ will give us exactly the insight we need to resolve them successfully--when we open ourselves to his help.

To say it in the most positive possible way: His availability to guide us, and his willingness to do so, is unceasing. This is the best news. That door is always open.

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This article is adopted from Blaine Smith's recently-published book Should I Wait in Faith or Step Out in Faith? Balancing Patience and Initiative in the Christian Life.

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