Some time ago, I received a letter from a young man, one of our past students at East London Bible Training Centre. This man, whom I will call Dan, is a leader in one of the London churches with which we have had significant involvement. In the letter, Dan outlined his involvement with the church, his leadership role, and then expressed some concerns he had about his effectiveness as a church leader.
Dan referred to the great expectations he and his wife and the other leaders had about his leadership role. He mentioned some very positive and encouraging prophecies he had been given specifically about his leadership and the fulfillment of God’s purpose for him with relation to the local church.
Then Dan expressed the concern that he had failed to completely and wholeheartedly respond to the call and challenge of leadership and that through distractions and half-heartedness he had betrayed or failed God, the church, and himself.
Dan said that he was feeling that perhaps he should step down from leadership and perhaps even move from the church to make room for others to develop into effective leaders.
Then Dan asked me two specific questions:
- If, in terms of God’s promise, purpose, and requirement, we fail at some point, is that it? Are we finished? Of course, we know that God in His mercy and grace will forgive, but does that mean we are finished in terms of God’s good plans and purposes for us?
- Is it possible, if we have once failed, to again receive God’s anointing and to fulfill God’s purpose for effective service? If we have missed God’s original plan for us is there a way to get back in the game?
These are good questions and address issues that each of us has wrestled with at some point in our lives. Is there only a plan A, or is there also a plan B? If I miss plan A, does that mean that the best I can ever hope for is an inferior plan B?
Before I go any further on this topic, let me point out three people in Bible accounts who missed it at some point in their lives and ministries:
- David, God’s anointed Shepherd King of Israel, sinned terribly through an adulterous relationship with Bathsheba and the conspiracy to murder her husband. After repentance and accepting God’s discipline, he carried on as God’s chosen king. He wrote many of the Psalms that teach us and help us to understand God better and provide a vehicle for our praise and worship.
- Simon Peter, who in a time of crisis denied three times that he even knew Jesus, went on to preach the church’s inaugural message on the day of Pentecost. Peter became a key leader in the growing church and helped the Jewish believers see that the Gospel was Good News for Gentiles as well as for Jews. He wrote 1 and 2 Peter, very challenging and encouraging letters to leaders.
- John Mark, who failed to follow through on his missions commitment to Paul and Barnabas, went on to write one of the four gospels. His gospel, probably written with the assistance of Simon Peter, shows us much of the humility, goodness, and practicality of Jesus.
So be encouraged, friends. There’s still hope, even when you miss it!
Now, I’d like to take a look at Dan’s concerns and questions about the callings and purposes of God in another way.
Years ago, I first read the poem “When Earth’s Last Picture Is Painted”, by Rudyard Kipling. The poem contains a phrase which spoke to me very deeply. I don’t base my theology on the poems of Kipling, but I know when God takes a thought or phrase and plants it in me in a foundational and formative way that it is truth. Kipling’s poem, “When Earth’s Last Picture is Painted” closes with this phrase: “….The God of Things as They Are.”
That phrase became a revelation of God to me. When I begin to get pressed down by thoughts of “What I should have done”, “What they shouldn’t have done”, and “What might have been”, God reminds me that He is not the God of “What might have been”, but He is “The God of Things as They Are.” He is my God, now, in the situation exactly as it is. I am His child and servant, now, in my situation exactly as it is.
I have a tendency to waste time with “If Only’s” and “What If’s”. The “If Only’s” tend to focus on things done or not done in the past that cannot be changed. (There is no future in the past.) The “What If’s” tend to focus on things in the future that may or may not happen. (This is also called worry or anxiety.) Mark Twain said, “I’ve lived through some terrible things in my life, but most of them never happened!”
God’s purpose for Jean and me has led us to make a number of major decisions, changes, and moves over the last forty-plus years: selling our business, going into full-time ministry, moving to another state to pioneer a church, moving to Jamaica to serve as missionaries, moving to the UK to start and develop the Bible Training Centres, writing the Foundation For Christian Service course for African churches and conducting Pastors Training Workshops in Central Africa, then eventually moving to Oregon, in the USA, for a season of fruitful ministry in ways and situations we could not have imagined!
So many times when I look back at the situations, events, and seasons linked by that series of moves, I think, “If only I had moved more quickly in that case”, “If only I had waited a little longer that time”, “If only they had followed through on their commitment.” The list of “If onlys” becomes unending when I let my mind go in that direction. There may be lessons to learn from the “If onlys”, but the key is to learn them and move on.
Sometimes when contemplating an upcoming step of faith, I begin to think “What if I get it wrong – wrong move – wrong timing?” or “What if I discover I can’t handle it?” or “What if they don’t follow through?” It’s easy to become paralyzed by fear when you get into the “What ifs”. The fact is, the “What ifs” are not only unknown, they’re unknowable. If we spend too much time with “What ifs”, we’re dead in the water.
In the book “Prince Caspian”, from the Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis, the Pevensie children and Trumpkin the dwarf are making their way from Cair Paravel to the Table Mound and are getting quite lost. Soon Aslan appears to Lucy and shows her the way to go. However, she is the only one who can see Him and the way that He is indicating is less logical than the way that all the others want to go. She eventually gives in to the pressure from the others and goes their way which gets them all into trouble. Later, Aslan comes to her and tells her that she should have followed him. She complains that she would have been alone, and asks what would have happened if she had acted correctly. Aslan answers her, “To know what would have happened, child? No, nobody is ever told that.” “Oh dear”, said Lucy. “But anyone can find out what will happen,” said Aslan.
When we dwell on “If only..” and “What if..”, on “What would have happened” and “What might happen” we are asking God to be “The God of what might have been”, or “The God of what might be.” The God we worship and serve is “The God of Things as They Are.”
It is appropriate to ask some questions when we are dealing with a difficult situation in which things haven’t turned out as we expected, or when we’re facing major decisions. We need to realize that there are “good questions” and “bad questions.”
Some Good Questions may be:
• What have I learned from this situation?
• What should I do now?
• Where do we go from here?
Some Bad Questions might be:
• Why does this stuff always happen to me?
• What might have happened if I had / had not done..?
• What’s the use in trying anymore?
I am coming to realize that God is not so much the God who has a “plan A” for me and then no plan or option if I fail to fulfill it to the letter, nor is He the God who has a “plan A” for me and then switches to a possibly inferior “plan B” if I don’t fulfill “plan A.”
God is the God of things as they are. My situation, my mistakes, my right and wrong decisions, the things others did or didn’t do that I had no control over yet they affected my situation… All the positive and negative factors, all the consequences of right and wrong decisions, all of my strengths and weaknesses…. He is the God of all that!
So there is no longer “What might have been” to deal with, only “what is”. And there is not a “What might be” to worry and fret about, only “what will be” as I move ahead in faith, dealing with this present reality and moving into God’s future reality and purpose for my life.
So let’s accept the present, learn from the past, and press on into God’s future and His purpose for each of us!
I’ve included the full text of Kipling’s poem here:
When Earth’s Last Picture Is Painted
When Earth’s last picture is painted and the tubes are twisted and dried,
When the oldest colours have faded, and the youngest critic has died,
We shall rest, and, faith, we shall need it—lie down for an æon or two,
Till the Master of All Good Workmen shall put us to work anew.
And those that were good shall be happy: they shall sit in a golden chair;
They shall splash at a ten-league canvas with brushes of comets’ hair.
They shall find real saints to draw from—Magdalene, Peter, and Paul;
They shall work for an age at a sitting and never be tired at all!
And only the Master shall praise us, and only the Master shall blame;
And no one shall work for money, and no one shall work for fame,
But each for the joy of the working, and each, in his separate star,
Shall draw the Thing as he sees It for the God of Things as They are!
As always, I’d love to hear from you and I welcome your comments and questions. If you’re reading on the blog, leave a comment below. If you’re reading from the email, click “Reply” and tell me what you’re thinking.