Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Search for God's Will

As we get older, we naturally look back on our lives. We have good memories and many things we wish we could change.  We each have a unique story, but there are always aspects of our life that fall on common ground with someone else's life journey. This is why I love biographies. We can learn so much from each other. 

This post is from my husband, known as Pastor Dave to most of you. He is also a father, uncle, brother, and son. To you this letter is sent, hoping you will be able to understand him better. But mostly, it is written to give you better insight on your own journey with the Lord. Even though I was walking this journey with him, after reading this, I understood it all so much more. 

I will write more later on my thoughts on this journey, and my role, but today there is enough here to read and think about. 

From Dave:
"I guess there's just so much to know about the Christian life that it’s taking me longer than one lifetime to learn it all. 

My parents came to Christ when I was a toddler, so all my memories of them are as Christians, even devoted Christians, but they were still new to Christian living when I was a kid, and they themselves had not yet had enough time to learn some of the many important nuances of Christian wisdom.

Very soon after their conversion my parents became core leaders in our small Midwestern church, one that had a solid enough ministry, such as it was. It became the hub of my weekly (sometimes daily) routine, and I have a lifetime of great memories from my childhood church. In fact, I have no bad memories of church from my formative years.

What I didn't know in those days was that my family and church experience, in concert with my own personality flaws, was fostering in me a somewhat West Point-esque approach to the Christian life. In my mind, being an elite Christian had too much to do with discipline, grit, grim determination, "going hard," and "going big." Unfortunately, Christian faithfulness too often meant having strong opinions (“convictions”) about things that are never regulated in the New Testament (like Bible versions, fashion trends, music styles, and the debatable implications of certain biblical statements). To round out the problem, real discipleship to me too often meant having a “prophetic” boldness that involved "calling out" the compromisers in the Church for their spiritual anemia.

Of course, being an elite Christian, to me, also meant having an extraordinary love and loyalty to Jesus—a go-to-the-mat-for-Him kind of loyalty (which is part of the reason why I originally intended to become a missionary in a dangerous field). But even this deep desire for true discipleship (and it was a deep desire!) may have been partly animated by the motivation to do—without even blinking an eye—what the more worldly Christians of the Baby Boomer generation were just too soft and too spoiled to ever take seriously.

Naturally, there were numerous Bible passages at my disposal to reinforce all these ideas, and there were also people all around me—other “elite” Christians—with similar convictions (and there will always be plenty of these people in Christ’s Church). No Bible-aware Christian from any generation is unfamiliar with Jesus' earth-shaking words about "counting the cost," "taking up one's cross," "forsaking houses and lands," etc. These concepts are, after all, the same ones that helped to propel David Platte's Radical and Francis Chan's Crazy Love into recent Christian best-seller lists.

It was in a frame of mind like this, as a very young man, that I had to decide what “the will of God” for my life must be. In some ways—my unwavering willingness to lay down my life for the Savior—I was in a very good frame of mind. But in other ways, there were such staggering deficiencies. Still, that particular mind, with its weird mixture of helpful and unhelpful conclusions, was the only mind I had, and it was the only one I could bring to bear on the subject of how I was to live out the early adult years of my life.

They say that John Wesley once said (but some doubt that he actually said it) that if a Christian sets himself on fire for God, people will come from miles around just to watch him burn. For all of my very many faults, maybe I did that, at least a little bit, at least sometimes, because I was approached again and again about teaching one class or another. In my early college days, "Would you like to substitute for the junior high class?" Then, "Would you be our youth pastor?" Then, "I'm in your homiletics class, and I'm really into preaching. You did a great job. Can I have your notes?" Then the Bible college teacher said, "You have kind of an 'aw-shucks' attitude in your public speaking, but you're very good and you need to take this seriously." Then our home Bible study could no longer accommodate those who came. And another pastor said my reputation at church was that I would be the next Chuck Swindoll. And the young-adults class became mine. And the homiletics professor in seminary recruited me to teach a class at his church, and then invited me to be his full-time youth pastor when I graduated. 

I remember hearing things like, "The greatest thing a young preacher can do is arrive in town with nothing but the clothes on his back and a Bible in his hand and start a church for the glory of God." So that's what I was determined to do. I prayed. I picked a town. I was excited and inflamed with love for Christ and a vision of what I would present to Him someday when He returned. I was, without exaggeration, ready to lay down my life. Grit, love, loyalty, “all in,” go hard, go big, no turning back. I had been given a vision for my young life.

But starting a church felt like trying to run through quicksand. I advertised as well as I could—flyers around town, advertising space in the local paper, short radio spots, open-air evangelism, door-to-door canvassing, a free roller skating activity for teens, a game room hang-out for teens. Like the apostle, I labored day and night, often well into the night. Nothing really worked. 

True, nothing really worked, but I was not soft or spoiled. I was all in, just like all my heroes—C.T. Studd, Hudson Taylor, George Muller, Adoniram Judson. True grit, right? There was no limit to my commitment and willingness to sacrifice. In fact, if God was not going to help plant a church in my town, then I would just have to do it myself without Him. How could He watch me go to the wall for Him, and not be impressed, not bless me, not come through for me with some great miracle just when I needed it most? I knew He would come through.

Far from getting paid for this ministry, it was costing me dearly to plant a church. I was trying to support my little family by selling credit cards to doctors' offices. No one was buying. I was in an oncology clinic one time waiting to talk to the office manager about what I was selling. All around me were amputees waiting for their cancer treatments and check-ups. I prayed very, very sincerely, telling the Lord that I would gladly give my legs or arms or eyesight or anything else if only I might be more effective in His service. As usual, I saw personal sacrifice as the key to almost all success in Christian service.

But sometimes when we pray, "God, please use me," our prayer is tainted, at least a little bit, with other ideas like, "God, please make me elite in your heavenly kingdom. Please let the extraordinary spirit of C.T. Studd, Hudson Taylor, Muller and Judson fall on me. Please let me be the special one, the chosen one. Please let me sit at your right hand or on your left. Please let me be ‘one up’ on the soft and spoiled believers around me (with whom I am comparing myself). Let the mantle fall on me. Let the baton of the great runners of Christian history be handed off to me. Please let me be at least a little famous, a little popular, have a little extra status, at least in certain circles."

In that season of my life our children were born without health insurance, including one miscarriage at five months (may God repay my faithful wife forever). I ran out of money and called my dad for help to pay the rent. And then I did the same thing again only a couple months later. And then I sold my last asset in the world—a vintage Arizona car that precisely fit my needs and tastes. The truth is, it didn't even seem like that wise of a thing to do, really, but it was the only thing I had left to sacrifice.

And then it was all gone. There was simply nothing left to give away for Jesus—no more money to give away, no additional hours to give in a 24-hour day, no additional talents to offer. And no healthy congregation to show for two and a half years of all-out sacrifice. Even worse, there was no breakthrough in sight. I wondered what had happened to all of that "Please be our teacher," "Please be our pastor," "next Chuck Swindoll," "You're a very gifted speaker" stuff.

So when another offer came to try the same thing again in another state—complete with a millionaire's financial backing and a gifted evangelist's partnership, we packed up our few ridiculous belongings and moved across the country to start another church. Naturally, everything imploded again. The millionaire drifted from the faith altogether and, once again, no miracle was forthcoming.

It looked like we would have to do this ministry too, just like the last one, the hard way. We would still show absolute commitment, unflinching love and loyalty, standing with the heroes of Christian history. (Whatever sacrifice it might take, I would not be denied a place with them.) And just like before, if God wouldn’t bless me with miracles, I was determined to just fund everything myself and carry the whole thing on my own back. I was now thirty years old, and nothing had changed in my perspective. But change was about to come, especially after another year or so, and another failed church start-up. 

For me, despite all my sincere “patriotism” for the Kingdom, biblical understanding came very, very slowly. Too slowly. In some ways, it came too late. Throughout the decade of my thirties, I began increasingly to see, to my utter surprise, that "Jephthae vows"—excruciating and unnecessary sacrifices—do more harm than help in Christian service. This was a ground-breaking revelation to my mind.

While maintaining my old willingness to drain my bank account in the blink of an eye, or to lose my health for the service of God, I began to question making any such herculean sacrifices that were not pretty obviously prompted by the Lord Himself. Imagine my surprise when I began to see that less personal sacrifice had no negative effect on the warmth of my relationship with the Lord or on my spiritual credibility in the eyes of the people I was attempting to bring to Christ. In fact, it had just the opposite effect.

At the same time, hoping to help as many people as possible, I began to allow myself to be much more compassionate toward those who were less informed about spiritual living and less committed to the service of the Savior. Even though I have always been unusually, I think, romantically inclined, and I seem to have had an unusually strong inclination from childhood to cheer for the underdog, I had somehow come to believe that displaying a strong face of “prophetic hostility” was God’s will for my life.  To relinquish this notion, in submission to the many “gentleness” passages of the New Testament, was earthshaking for me. (It strikes me now as such a horrible irony, and a great lesson about life, to know that I had literally memorized all of these “gentleness” passages before my mid-twenties, and yet I still somehow “missed” them for most of two decades. Surely “memorized” and “missed” should never be fused together in the same personality, and yet they were. Maybe having them memorized even gave me an excuse to miss them: “Do you think I don’t know everything you know about biblical gentleness?  I have it all memorized word for word! Don’t tell me; I’ll tell you!” None of this would ever be voiced, of course, and even any fleeting thoughts I might have along these lines would be in carefully couched terms.)

I regret a lot of things that I sacrificed unnecessarily in those early years, and I regret many harsh things I thought about and said to other people in those days. In short, I regret trying to build what God was not particularly interested in building, and I regret my failure to experience the spiritual fruit of love, joy, and peace in my relationships with those whom I considered to be soft, spoiled, or compromising.

So now that I'm in my fifties, how am I supposed to estimate the overall value and effectiveness of my life, especially as it relates to "finding God's will" for my life? After all, I am frankly admitting at this point in my journey that most of my adult life thus far has been rather catastrophically tainted by unhelpful sacrifices and opinions.

How can I honestly avoid coming to any other conclusion except that I really did miss a lot of God’s plan for my life in those days and that I really did simply set off on a fool’s errand? With all my faults and failures, what's left to make me glad that I've lived and worked so hard for Jesus since my teen years?

"Pray like crazy and take your best guess." This is my usual answer these days to people who ask me about how to find God’s will for their lives. I hope to convey two things by this little mantra.

First, I hope to convey that the Lord really has no interest at all in tricking us about what His will is for our lives in any given situation. True, His best rewards in life are reserved for earnest “seekers,” but the God who promises to give wisdom generously to those who seek it has no motivation now to withhold it from them after all. 

Second, I hope to convey that the surrendered Christian, having honestly searched for God's preferences in a matter, should simply make the best choice he can with the best data he has available to him at the time when his choice must be made. Christian living must always hinge on faith, including faith that God is giving sufficient wisdom for the sincere seeker when he desires it.

And this is what gives me comfort today. I truly did not know, when I was in my twenties and thirties, any better way to serve Jesus than the way I was choosing. In my youthful zeal for the Lord, I prayed like crazy and I took my best guesses. The Lord certainly had ways of making me smarter. He could have given me the “Aha!” insights of my later years when I was just 18, instead of two decades later, and I would’ve been so glad to have them back then, and I would’ve been a purer servant to Him in those days if He had.

So then, why didn’t God give me these epiphanies in my young years? I don’t know. I don’t think anyone can know the answers to questions like that. On the other hand, I also don’t know why God didn’t give me King David’s musicianship, Einstein’s IQ, George Muller’s prayer power, R.G. LeTourneau’s wealth, or any number of other assets that might have made me a more effective worker in His service.

Here, I think, is a somewhat accurate appraisal of my own situation. While my first and second church-plant ministries were not smashing successes (neither of these churches exist today), the dear friends who were made in those years, and the few individuals who were saved in those years truly bring me a lot of joy. A lot of joy! I have very warm and sentimental feelings for these friends, and I am not exaggerating in the slightest when I say I would gladly do it all again for their sakes if I thought the Lord wanted me to. 

Similarly, my speech is the product of praying like crazy and taking my best guesses. This doesn't change how much I hate the harsh and foolish things I have said while attempting to serve Christ over the years, especially in those early adult years, but the verdict on my life thus far, from people who are probably in a position to judge me, seems to be that my speech has always been characterized by better words than those ugly ones, even in those early days. Maybe people are glad to have at least some kind of a nurse when they’re injured, even if that nurse sometimes scrubs their wounds too roughly or bandages their wounds too tightly. Knowing my oh-so-meager understanding and consecration to Christ even now, I guess I'm satisfied with this assessment of my life so far (praying to do better, by God's grace, in the future, and casting myself on His mercy for the past). 

Have I been successful, then, in finding God's grand plan for my life? I think so. I think the early years of my service for Christ, right along with my service today, are all just about what God had in mind for a guy like me with the limited background and gifting He handed down to me.

As you know very well by now, having just read about this part of my journey, when I was a young man I really hoped (partly, I’m sure, for wrong motives) to make a much bigger splash in life for Christ. (I still do wish for that but, I hope, for more righteous motives now). Today, however, all things considered, I'm mostly just surprised at how Christ has used me at all."


  1. Mark is fond of saying "You've got to know yourself." Part of that is, as the Apostle Paul puts it, having a right estimation of yourself. May God give me the insights on my life that He has given you, Pastor Dave. I know this: I have grown by leaps and bounds since coming to Avalon and sitting under your teaching. One of my favorite quotes (and Mark's too) is one you made in a message many years back: "I'm no big deal!" (This in the context of responding to offenses.) It's true I am no big deal; the good news is I serve an amazing God (and you do too!) who uses the foolish things of this world to accomplish His purposes and pleasure. As you are often heard to say: "Now what could be better than that!"

  2. Amen! While this is obviously personal to Pastor Dave, I could easily echo much of the sentiment and experience as quite similar to my own also. I am not as far along in my journey of life however, but am quite dedicated to learning all I can, from whoever is willing to share from their experience. I pray the Lord uses that to some sort of fruitful advantage some day. Blessings for sharing in the depth of your (his) experiences, that we all may learn and grow together, seeking always Jesus first. Looking forward to your side of the story too, Teresa.

  3. Thanks for sharing Teresa! I was surprised to read that Dave felt this way as I have always thought of him as one of the most famous pastors in America. Each time I have reached out to him for advice I have been surprised at how fast he gets back to me with his wisdom, as I picture him with thousands of others waiting in line before me to get his insight and guidance on their issues. This is another example that even in the age of abundance, it's not about quantity, but quality of people Dave has touched. For each of us that he has made a difference in our lives he is far more important than Chuck Swindoll (whoever that is lol).
    Dave's story is a man that doesn't know the meaning of give up or quit. I will keep this on had to read the next time I feel like throwing in the towel due to another failure.
    To me Pastor Dave will always be the most famous pastor in my world!

    1. From Dave: I was poking around on Teresa's blog and was reminded of your super-kind words, Brandon. (Teresa read me your remarks the first day you posted them.) You are an encourager, you always have been, and I deeply appreciate the thoughtfulness of what you said here. A million thanks.

  4. I love that you root for the underdog.
    I have always said and say often to my kids still, even naming people they know to drive home that point, that I am drawn to and feel responsible to encourage and support the "underdogs", to my own detriment sometimes.
    I have been fortunate to witness the unimaginable beauty He has created from my hopes up in smoke and heaps of ashes.
    What we ourselves see as holes, God, in His loving mercy, works into the whole.