February 1, 2011
Revising the Map
When Finding God's
Best Takes Flexibility
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A friend once told me he had let go of a major dream. When he was young, his parents had promised him that they would one day move from their plush, suburban home, and allow him to purchase it at a nominal price. For nearly twenty years Nate looked forward to the day when he could move his family there. Though only a short distance from where he now lived, it would be a big improvement in house size and yard space, and a much quieter neighborhood setting. And he would still have easy access to his city job.

But then Nate and his wife, Sherry, decided to consider a more radical change in lifestyle. They were attracted to a modest home for sale in the distant suburbs, which was close to recreational pursuits they enjoyed. They could reduce their living expenses by moving there, and with a smaller house to care for, would have more time for other activities.

It seemed like the right move for them. But while they were weighing this possibility, Nate’s parents announced that they were finally ready to move on to the next chapter in their lives. Nate could now buy their home. It was a wrenching decision for Nate and Sherry. After much consideration they decided to tell Nate’s parents no. While disappointing his folks was difficult enough, Nate confessed there was a greater challenge: “The hardest part was admitting to myself that I no longer wanted to do this.”

Knowing my friend to be an unusually tenacious soul, I was impressed with his willingness to abandon a long-time desire in light of his new priorities. This showed remarkable maturity, for stubbornness could easily have kept him from changing course.

The Challenge of Staying Flexible

Nate’s experience reminds us not only of the need for staying flexible as we plan our lives, but of the challenge involved in doing so. Our goals and aspirations, no matter how well thought out, are always based upon limited information. Each day brings with it new insights, and the need for changing our outlook at least slightly. From time to time our understanding has grown to the point where a major mid-course correction is indicated. Yet letting go of old ambitions can be the most difficult part of changing directions. Pride, stubbornness, or the conviction that we must be true to ourselves, can keep us bound to a dream that we’ve outgrown.

A critical part of maturing is learning to adjust our dreams to account for reality as we now know it. As I heard a pastor aptly express it in a sermon, “Life is a continual process of revising the map.”

This is a principle that every successful person in business learns. An article in Nation’s Business notes, “Almost without exception, the eventual performance of a prospective business will be influenced by external factors over which the business has little or no control.”* Businesses that are able to adjust to changing market conditions survive and prosper. Those that insist on continuing to dispense a product or service that is no longer needed--or that others are providing more effectively--lose their edge and go under.

This same principle applies to relationships. We bring into friendships and fellowship experiences a “wish dream,” as Dietrich Bonhoeffer terms it in Life Together, which can never be realized.* Finding meaningful friendship requires that we let go of our expectations of what others should be like and learn to love them as they are. The same is true with romance. Some adjusting of our image of the ideal partner is always needed if we are to find a suitable companion or build a healthy marriage.

Finding God’s best for any area of our life always requires some revising of the map.

Locking God in--And Ourselves

As obvious as this principle may seem to be, it’s one that Christians have a particularly hard time appreciating. Many carry an idea about God’s guidance that makes it difficult to be flexible. They assume that when God guides us, he provides a revelation of our future. This notion is reflected in popular language used to speak of God’s guidance: he provides a “call” to a vocation--suggesting an obligation laid on us for life. Or he gives us a “vision” for our life.

It’s a small step from this idea to thinking that our dreams of the future are inspired by God to the extent of being revelations--and thus a mandate to be followed. To renege on them is to disobey God and show that we lack faith that he will bring them to pass. It’s hard enough to rethink our life’s direction without this perspective on God’s guidance. With it, revising the map becomes even more difficult.

I remember a Christian couple who were convinced God had revealed to them that they would come to own a certain house that was for sale, even though it was well beyond their financial limits. Even after it sold to someone else, they continued to assume that they would one day be the owners.

While some Christians insist on holding onto dreams beyond a reasonable point, others become disillusioned when their plans don’t work out. A highly respected pastor told me that he was deeply frustrated over the failure of a radio ministry he had attempted to launch. “I carefully followed all the procedures for discerning God’s will, and am certain that the Lord led me to do this,” he said. Yet he encountered unexpected problems and was compelled to abandon the project. He couldn’t understand why it failed, considering the clear guidance he had received. He felt that God and the Christian community had let him down.

The Dynamic Factor in Guidance

One certainly cannot blame the Christian couple for setting their heart on what appeared to be their dream home. Nor can one fault the pastor for following what seemed to be God’s will, then feeling disappointed when his efforts weren’t successful. Yet both the couple and the pastor held a concept of God’s guidance that set them up for disillusionment.

In truth, Scripture gives little support to the idea that God reveals our future when he guides us. Both the Old and New Testaments picture him as One who guides incrementally, in a step-by-step fashion. This is stated in beautifully symbolic language in Psalm 119:105: “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path.” When you walk through the woods on a dark evening carrying a lantern or flashlight, the illumination is merely enough for taking the next step. Only after you take that step, do you have light for the step beyond. But that is all you need.

This suggests that reassessment will often be needed in finding God will. This is a liberating perspective, for it will keep us from the presumption of the Christian couple who couldn’t let go of their dream to own the home. It will also save us from the severe crisis of faith that the pastor experienced. I don’t believe that the setbacks he encountered implied that he had misread God’s will in beginning the radio ministry. They simply meant that reevaluation was now needed. God may have brought him to this point not to help him succeed in this particular endeavor, but to give him enough light to understand a new and better direction to take from there.

This isn’t to say that determination is unimportant in the Christian life. We should always move forward enthusiastically in view of the light that we have (Eph 5:17). Yet we shouldn’t become unsettled when new insight suggests a change in direction. We should take heart, rather, that we’re not locked into an outmoded understanding of God’s will, but can move forward as he throws fresh light on our path.

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This article is adapted from chapter 24 of Blaine Smith's The Optimism Factor: Outrageous Faith Against the Odds (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1994).

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