If I have any regrets related to the years in which my wife and I were raising our four children, the biggest would be that I was not paying attention. Melinda has asked me several times in the past couple of years if I remember one incident or another in the lives of our children when they were small. My answer has sometimes been, “No, not really.”
Of course, she was much more focused on their day-to-day upbringing than I was. I was a busy solo pastor of a smaller church, trying to care for and build a congregation in the midst of acquiring property and constructing buildings. The truth is, I do remember many things about my kids from those days. They were cute and funny and we had some amazing and sometimes hilarious times. But my memories are in the form of snapshots, not video, and it is difficult for me to reconstruct some of what went on more than twenty years ago.
I was always focused on the future–the next Sunday’s sermon, the upcoming business meeting, the next step in the building program, dealing with someone’s urgent concerns, etc. The actual “now” was almost always sacrificed on the altar of the near or distant future. I suspect that my situation as a pastor is not all that different from many people whose lives are goal-oriented.
Recently, I have been in a minor crisis about God’s will for my life. For the past several years I have made my living as a part time adult ministries pastor, part time missions executive and part time college instructor. Talk about fragmentation! In all of this multi-tasking, I have begun to seek God’s will for a more focused future. I have prayed, “Father, which direction should I pursue? Where should I be five years from now (if you permit me to remain on earth that long)? What is the best use of my training, talents and experience?” Through months of prayer, I have received the same types of answers most sincere believers receive: impressions and difficult-to-interpret circumstances. This has led me to ponder the bigger question of what it means to live by faith in a providential God.
In this quest for personal direction, it has dawned on me that my need for more specific guidance is heavily influenced by my American culture. We Americans and other Westerners have come to believe that we have a certain right to know what is happening to us so that we can make informed choices affecting the outcome of our lives. After all, if we are going to be pursuing life, liberty and happiness it is important that we have at our disposal as much information as possible about what may lie ahead.
But as I have thought about it, there is really nothing in scripture which supports this assumption. On the one hand, in several places Proverbs teaches the wisdom of at least tentative planning. Yet on the other, James 4:13-16 plainly says that we are not to be presumptuous about either the ultimate wisdom of our plans or our ability to carry them out,“Now listen, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.’ Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.’ As it is, you boast and brag. All such boasting is evil.”
Scripture teaches that, though the making of goals is wise, goals should be made with enough flexibility so that God may direct us in ways we do not have the wisdom to plan for. Practically, this means that thinking about the future should never overshadow living in the present. The truth is, we do not know enough about God’s specific purposes for our lives to do that much advance planning. But we do know enough about God’s will to live full and abundant lives. Some things the Bible teaches very plainly and simply: we must honor God with the “now” each of us is given. We must love and bless people around us. We must fully enjoy God’s good gifts–family, friends, experiences, possessions. And any planning we may legitimately do for the future should be done with these very types of things in mind. In other words, we should get our neurotic fingers off the fast forward button and hit play.
(Finding Real Life in the Nick of Time)
Time flies. Steadily, unrelentingly time has an unfailing way of passing us by. If you don’t believe me, just remember the last time you thoroughly enjoyed yourself. The day or evening or weekend was over all too quickly and you were faced with the same routine once again.
As I write this, I am sitting in a room where a clock is ticking off the seconds. Perhaps a hundred ticks have sounded in the short time it has taken to type these opening words. One hundred seconds have come and gone, never to return. In those seconds, people have been born and others have died. Unique events have occurred which can never happen again.
Most of us live under the illusion that we have plenty of time. It is only when some sobering event happens that we are shaken out of our false security. We wake up to find that we have graduated, or we have turned thirty, that our marriage has dissolved, that our children are grown, that we are gravely ill–and we realize that those ticking seconds have come and gone in their hundreds of thousands.
I like the elegant way in which Psalm 90 expresses this bitter-sweet passing of time (verse 10), “The days of our years are three-score and ten (70); and if by reason of strength, fourscore (80), yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off and we fly away.” Ah yes. The King James Version is unbeatable for poetic expression. It simply says that the maximum most of us can expect is to live is seventy or eighty years, and that when we reach the end, it seems like such a short time. Then we die and cannot return to any of the days we once had. But although this quotation is indeed poetic, it certainly is no exaggeration —as people in their retirement years will testify.
But the Psalm goes on the give some reassurance that though life goes by with startling speed, there is a very definite consolation. Verse 12 counsels, “Teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.” Apply our hearts to wisdom? Yes, on at least two levels:
First, we must ask God to show us how to live each day fully. This means that we should make a practice of asking God’s guidance each day. “How shall I walk with you in the hours and seconds allotted to me today, Lord?” For all of us, there is a blessed urgency to each day because the opportunity to accomplish something, to enjoy someone or something, or to finish that particular day with a clear conscience will never come again.
Secondly, in all of our activities we must hold onto an eternal perspective. What is the purpose of life in general? What is my particular life’s purpose? How have I been gifted, trained and provided with opportunities to make a significant contribution in the world? Money, fame, prestige and power–the things so many people spend their lives pursuing–are all sadly temporary and ultimately unfulfiling. As enjoyable as many things can be, real life is found in Christ. Listen to his words in John 17:3, “…this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” (New International Version).
Let me be very clear. Jesus isn’t saying that eternal life is in church. Neither is he saying that eternal life is in Christian activities and programs. They are, at best, channels through which we may find God and Christ. Jesus is promising that we will find life in its fullest sense (the Greek of the Gospel of John describes it using the term “zoe”–the highest form of life) only in knowing God through himself.
There is so much to this that a few brief paragraphs can’t begin to do it justice. The enjoyment of the blessings God makes available, as good as they are, cannot give us life. That’s why so many people who have so much are so empty. Things simply can’t give life because it isn’t in them. Life comes from its source: God. God has made that available through his Son who has become one of us precisely to make it accessible. Until we draw our lives from God through Christ, and stop trying to draw it from other people and things, we will remain unfulfilled.
Just one more thing: don’t put this off. Those seconds continue to tick away, stopping for no one.
At the age of fifty, Celeste Brown wondered how she had made such a mess of her life. She had worked hard most of that time, raising two children and trying to be a good wife. Now, looking back, she wondered what she had to show for it all.
The truth is, Celeste was going through a time of feeling lonely and unfulfilled. It wasn’t that she had no one in her life: she knew people at work, enjoyed a few of her neighbors and had her mother and brother living close by. She had a pretty comfortable life with enough to live on and the ability to indulge some of her wants as well. But as she pondered her situation, she kept coming back to feelings of emptiness.
Josh Miller had been thinking much the same thing for the past few years. At thirty-six he had a challenging job, made good money, had friends and enjoyed recreational activities– but nothing seemed to satisfy. There was a hollowness that seemed to dog his steps. Then, when his wife left him last year, taking their 10 year old, his world just caved in.
Though the circumstances of their lives were different, Celeste Brown and Josh Miller had made the same fundamental mistakes years before they became so unhappy. Both of them were genuine Christians. Because of this, they both knew their eternal destiny with God was assured. They were members of solid churches. Neither were living openly sinful or rebellious lives
In both cases however, their mistake came shortly after their initial step of faith in Jesus. Neither had felt early on that it was important to take their commitment to Christ seriously. They each had their own goals and desires to pursue, and since they believed their salvation was secure, it couldn’t make that much difference how they lived. Jesus Christ, whom they named as Lord, had come to make very little practical difference in their lives. As a result, they experienced a very stunted spiritual growth.
What directions their lives might have taken had they chosen to take their faith in Christ more seriously is difficult to say. Josh had felt a strong calling to the ministry in his early walk with Christ, but instead, he chose a career, which gave him immediate financial returns. His financial success had indeed brought him closer to several of his life’s goals, but in his more lucid moments, Josh wondered whether his success was a blessing or a curse. For her part, Celeste had been painfully aware that her plans to marry Bryan were not God’s perfect will, but she was determined. She had assured her worried parents and friends that Bryan’s open distaste for religion would not affect her faith negatively. Now, she had to admit that at least some of the concerns about her marriage she had resented so vehemently were actually justified.
At the very least, the lives of Celeste and Josh would have been much different had they actually trusted God and seen his will as the source of joy, rather than as a roadblock to happiness. But all that was water under the bridge now. Any joys, growth, ministry and blessing were reduced to might-have-beens.
How sad for an entire life to be summarized as a “might-have-been”. Josh and Celeste are merely characters invented to make a point. The real tragedy is the fact that there are thousands of people whose stories fit theirs. Before I conclude, it is important to make it very clear that I am not one of those preachers who continually push people to be better Christians or be more faithful in church activity. In my experience, that is a quick way to get burned out on the whole business. Jesus came with the message “I have come so that they might have life and have it more abundantly,” (John 10:10). I take these words at face value: following Jesus is nothing less than the way to fulfillment and joy and peace.
The truly good news for the many people like Celeste and Josh is that they still have a choice. In God’s loving lordship, it is never too late to make a fresh start. So, whether you are 36, or 50, or 21, or 87—simply stop and ask God to help you make a clean and long-lasting break with the old ways. Take the first steps toward that new life of abundance by plugging into a church or group which can help you not only develop new life patterns, but encourage and equip you in serving others. Find some folks to hold you accountable. Take some risks for God (be sure they are the kind of risks affirmed in the Bible). Look for God’s blessings and watch your life change!