“For years it has made me queasy to hear someone say, “I guess it just wasn’t God’s will.” Usually, it is said about an enterprise attempted with faith and obedience to Jesus that didn’t appear to work. When something fails, attributing the failure to God is not the only option. We ought to place the responsibility where it belongs.
As I see it there are five possible stop signs.
The God Stop
It is certain that God does stop some things because they are not his will or at least his timing. But that is no time to lay down at the altar of fate and lose heart.
In Acts 16:7-10 we read this, “When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to. So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas. During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.”
This incident teaches of the possibility that when you think you should go “that-a-way” God may have a better idea. The Spirit of Jesus stopped Paul and his companions. We don’t know the nature of how they knew that, but it was certain to Luke as he recorded the episode that it was clearly the Holy Spirit — herein referred to as the Spirit of Jesus (a term of great interest for another time) — that stopped them.
But note what happened next. First of all, they kept moving. They hadn’t yet had clear instructions about where to goAll I can do is all I can do. And all I can do is what I should do. but they didn’t lay down and rest. Secondly, Paul received what we know as the Macedonian call. The rest is rich history. Why not “that-a-way” but a divinely directed “this-a-way?” All we can say for sure is that Paul concluded it was the call of God to preach the gospel to one group of people instead of to an equally needed other group of people.
Sometimes God orders circumstances in such a way that you don’t get to do what you want to do. Paul was well aware of this. “For I do not want to see you now and make only a passing visit; I hope to spend some time with you, if the Lord permits.“ 1 Corinthians 16:7
The basic lesson of the God Stop is that when God stops one endeavour He always opens up another possibility. Therefore, it is never appropriate to end the episode with, “I guess it just wasn’t God’s will.” There must be a new found excitement for the direction that is God’s will yet to be uncovered. A God Stop always has a pending redirection. A God Stop is no time to let your shoulders slump. It is time to get going in another direction ASAP. Do the next good thing whatever that may be and get excited about that!
The Satan Stop
We don’t fully understand this any more than we grasp the nature of the other unknowns when we are impeded from doing something. However, it is clear that sometimes Satan stops what otherwise should be happening.
In 1 Thessalonians 2:17-18 we read, “But, brothers and sisters, when we were orphaned by being separated from you for a short time (in person, not in thought), out of our intense longing we made every effort to see you. For we wanted to come to you certainly I, Paul, did, again and again but Satan blocked our way.” Paul leaves no doubt about his personal desire and intention but concludes that he couldn’t do what he longed to do because Satan blocked it from happening.
When something good goes awry it is probably more often Satan that is the inhibitor than God — that is, if we are down to two choices. It is difficult to accept that Satan has enough power to stop something good but it is clear from many places in Scripture that the Lord allows him to do this in concert with people. The problem of evil is one that people have struggled with since the days of Job. Job knew that the Lord allowed certain things he could not understand. But he did understand his requirement to keep a clear conscience before God. This verse has been a great challenge to me over the years when bad things happen, “Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him; I will surely defend my ways to his face.” (Job 13:15)
Ya gotta love that boldness. It isn’t arrogance as I see it. Job decided that he was going to trust the Lord regardless of his circumstances. He was convinced he would get his day in court beyond the grave. The thing is, Job didn’t know about the conversation that started his whole mess. (Job 1:6-12) Job didn’t know through his satanic trials that he was a test case of an unhedged man who was given the stewardship of how to live when Satan rushes in. This has been the great story of the ages comforting so many millions down through the millenia.
Even when Satan wins, he loses. Maybe the righteous thing you long for that never comes true in your lifetime is another cosmic failure for Satan. You never know.
The People Stop
As much as it is difficult to grasp the Satan Stop, the People Stop challenges us even more.
People have been given the capacity to resist grace. Frankly, I don’t fully get this. I know that some of us are given grace we couldn’t resist if we wanted to but other people find the obstinacy to resist the Lord. I love the compassion of Jesus when his own hands were tied. That is always a great comfort to me. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.” (Matthew 23:37) That is Jesus himself speaking of his own people.
Of all people, the people at the centre of the Hebrew nation in Jerusalem should have gotten it. But they didn’t. They just killed the prophets and those actually sent by God as messengers. Godly messengers don’t always see the fruit they should. Notice that Jesus longed for their response. Was it God’s will for them to respond? Yes! Jesus is God and he willed their repentant response. Often. Repeatedly. And they “were not willing.”
Thus, and I really don’t understand what I believe here, God’s will was trumped by the will of the citizens of Jerusalem. I don’t try to dance around that with an explanation. I used to. I just got a headache doing so. It comes down to this for me, I shouldn’t be terribly surprised when my best efforts to reach people with the Gospel go unheeded. Why would I blame me after I give it my very best shot? I am no Jesus and they didn’t listen to him then, nor would they listen to him today were he here to do the reaching out. But he has left me with the job to do. I just give it my best and leave the results up to him.
It still hurts when I run into a People Stop. The People Stop that hurts the most is the one I have experienced with the people in the church who name the name of Jesus but resist him. They don’t simply resist my program; that would be understandable. They don’t have a program themselves. They simply know what they think is the wrong thing to do rather than demonstrate in behaviour that they have a better idea.
How about you? Are you a part of a People Stop? Do you stay with the crowd who resist or do you step out and make an effort that could cost you to make a difference in the world? Any fool can pick holes in some plan to win the world when others try. It takes wisdom to move beyond someone else’s honest failures and work out another positive plan. So, I ask, “What is your plan?” If you don’t have one to lead yourself you had better join someone else’s.
The Circumstantial Stop
Sometimes things don’t happen simply because circumstances change. It is quite possible to intend to do something important; create a plan to do it; fine tune a schedule to get it done; start off. Then boom. Something hits. It could be health or weather or something much less dramatic. The circumstantial stop may be a people stop from someone or group from the other side. But for you the stop is circumstances. The economy could crash; you could get fired; even war could break out.
Often the testimony over time is that “it was the best thing that could have happened to me.” It certainly doesn’t feel like it at the time. The classic story of Joseph brings his own summary with “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” (Genesis 50:20) Adoniram Judson intended to be a missionary in India and ended up in Burma. Others forced these redirections. And the Lord used them. Never let the disappointment of a circumstantial stop keep you from moving on. History may well tell the tale that your unintended redirection was the best thing.
I have seen far too many people take a circumstantial stop as a final stop. They float down the river of life the rest of the way. My hunch is that many who start out intending to go into vocational ministry just quit the first time they hit a circumstantial stop. They get fired once; dump their intentionality and go stack shelves at Walmart. The next thing I know is a decade later they are managing at Target and living a generic life in the middle of a Christian crowd. They can lead at the Dollar Store but they won’t lead the Kingdom. I get heartburn.
The Me Stop
The worst stop of all is the Me Stop. When we run into the cumulative effect of many Me Stops we create a People Stop. Many would join a crowd if they liked the direction but can’t find a crowd to hide in that is moving forward. Personal responsibility is so easy to evade. We are masterful at creating excuses for not stepping out in faith. Our personal example within the framework of our supposed deficiencies is what this world needs. Nobody is ever inspired by another who refuses to try. I won’t bother to create the list of circumstantial excuses. But I can\’t resist the urge to name a few. A big one is the feeling of lack of capacity in health, education, age, opportunity, partners or whatever. If I truly lack all the capacity I wish I had then I get to blame God. But I have some capacity so I must use what I have.
I love some of the things Abraham Lincoln said. For example, “I do the very best I know how — the very best I can; and I mean to keep on doing so until the end.” Great approach to life, don’t you think? I haven’t read his whole story but I do know a little. He had it very tough. Family tragedy. Political failure. Opposition from both sides. He bobbed and weaved like a boxer through the punches thrown his way. Lincoln took plenty of hits but he never stopped. He said, “I will prepare and some day my chance will come.” You already know the part of the story that his chance did come. He led a nation out of a bloody, stormy path. Then he was assassinated. And the story lives on as an example for all to see. Me Stop? No, not him.
Many stop because “it” is too hard. For example, few who start out in vocational Christian service make it in that service until retirement age. Some slap on the side of the head creates a personal wound from which they never recover. That is simply a Me Stop.
Paul exhorted us by his own example, “Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. All of us, then, who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you. Only let us live up to what we have already attained.” No, Me Stop there.
I once asked a young man I love who had taken an early hit if he would ever long to start another church. No. I asked him if someone else were to do so would he join the endeavour as “Chairman of the Board.” No. But he went so far as to say, “I might be the Cheerman of the Board.” Clever. But no. He has never gotten off the mat to even be on a Board. That is a classic Me Stop. And I continue to remind myself in the infamous words of Yogi Berra, “It ain’t over ’til it’s over” because God isn’t finished with him yet, and I haven’t finished praying for him though we are separated by half a continent. No Me Stop for me. I won’t allow it even though I fight it off on many days!
There is another form of Me Stop that raises its ugly head. I have found all too few people who are willing to learn what they might need to know. They fail with the Me Stop of partial effort with insufficient knowledge. I know this as an author. I write what I suppose to be good stuff. Few ever read through any complete book I have written. It isn’t my book that is under the microscope because they never read through any book. They don’t take courses. They don’t attend seminars. They don’t ask questions. They don’t do a lot of things that are necessary for success. They do have time to keep up with the latest movies — particularly fantasy movies. They watch reality TV and often become the biggest loser without ever losing an ounce. Then they sanctimoniously with hand over heart mutter, “I tried.”
Here is the conclusion of the matter from my perspective. Every Stop must lead a person to more intense effort to win on purpose for the Lord. If you find yourself without a growing intensity for making a difference in serving the King of Kings then something is desperately wrong. One cannot grow in grace without a corresponding growth in intensity. Intensity is hard to maintain let alone grow. However, intensity is essential. I do not refer to the kind of intensity that reaches beyond capacity and ends in burn out. Life is a marathon — not a hundred metre dash. It takes wisdom to overcome the desire to quit on Heartbreak Hill. Anyone who finishes the Boston Marathon knows about that hill in advance and vows to overcome it. But many quit when they actually get there. I see that as a metaphor for life.