Thursday, November 14, 2013

How To Live Faithfully In Uncertainty

By Aubrey Hoeppner
I spent my first year out of college teaching abroad with a prestigious grant, in the culmination of my academic career. 
But after the school year ended, I boarded a plane back to American soil to join the ranks of the unemployed 20-somethings living with their parents, frittering away the afternoons with Gilmore Girls reruns, and forcing a smile every time an elderly person talked about what an exciting time of life this is. It certainly didn’t feel exciting. Every morning I woke up and confronted the black void of future in front of me, having no idea what I was supposed to do or when this time would end. It was the first time I had lived without a plan.

In these times of uncertainty, we flounder trying to grasp onto anything solid. I was overwhelmed trying to nail down my future. After interviewing for jobs, I walked away with my head spinning: 

Maybe I’ll get this job, with the quarterly travel, client lunches, and occasional weekend hours. I’ll start working my way up the company ladder, and then one morning at Starbucks the guy in front of me will grab my coffee instead of his, I’ll charmingly laugh it off, and we’ll get married. Then we’ll have a baby. Or three! I’ll have to take some time off of work to take care of the kids. There’s no way I’ll get promoted to VP then. Those years of education and hard work will waste away like my pre-baby abs. And when will I have time to go to grad school? Or go overseas again? Maybe I shouldn’t even have interviewed for this job. I should just withdraw my name. 

It wasn’t long before I was convicted that none of the things I was worried about were centered in Christ. I was grasping at the long list of expectations heaped on our generation of women. Furthermore, if I continued to worry and tried to plan for every possible scenario, I would be shocked into doing nothing at all.

Trying to plan for every possibility leaves us paralyzed.

The radical truth is that God does not command us to chart out the course of our lives, nor does He promise that we will have the vision to do this. Even though many passages call us to careful stewardship of our time and resources, the Bible makes clear that only God’s plans can be counted on to come through:

Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand. (Proverbs 19:21)

So how do we live in these times of uncertainty, when we can’t seem to work ourselves out? How do we live faithfully and avoid drifting away from God as we search for a way out of the void?

Living faithfully means clinging to the Lord rather than the world and following in His commands regardless of circumstances. Often in periods of discomfort, however, fear gets ahold of us and drives us to consider other, more immediately gratifying options. My own fears fell generally into two categories: fear that God had forgotten me and fear that I would make a mistake and throw a wrench in God’s plan. 

Throughout the Bible, God commands His people time and time again not to be afraid but to be confident in His power and His plan. It is not God’s will for His followers to be paralyzed by fear. In times of uncertainty we must actively combat both these fears so that they do not hinder us from devoting our lives faithfully to His service.

Fear that God has forgotten us
In times of uncertainty, we eventually reach the point of questioning whether God is even aware of our listlessness, and whether He even cares. Does He see me? Does He remember me? Even David asks the Lord in the Psalms why He has forgotten and forsaken him. When a time of discomfort stretches into weeks and months, we think that surely God must be sleeping on the job, because He ought to have rescued us long ago.

But faithfulness means trusting God’s vision even when we don’t have one. This is a hard order, and committing to trust God in this way means committing to a mystery. In fact, God is clear that He didn’t even create us with the capacity to fully understand His plans or His ways. In Job 38-40, God uses some divine sarcasm to point out that fearing the Lord has forgotten us vastly underestimates His sovereignty. As Job’s life was in a moment of complete chaos, he questioned his circumstances and God’s purposes in them. Poignantly, God rebuked Job for presuming that he understood what God was doing at all. He made clear that it was impossible for Job to understand! (“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding.” Job 38:4) God assured Job that He is in control—Job just didn’t have the eyes to see what He was doing.

The gospel story itself confirms God’s sovereignty when the future seems bleak. In the darkest of moments, when Christ absorbed God's wrath and was utterly rejected by Him, God had a plan and a vision for the resurrection—to seek and save the lost. After Christ’s death, the disciples were left alone and confused, having not understood His promise to return. But then Christ appeared to them, with his nail-scarred hands, and gave them vision and hope.

How small-minded we are in assuming that God’s plans must only exist if they are perceptible to us. Praise God that He does not limit Himself by our fears or faulty understanding but that His plan is good and strong enough for us to depend on.

Fear of our own mistakes
It seems laughable that we could do anything to derail God’s carefully laid intentions, but I find in myself the fear that a certain decision might set me on an irreversible path away from the best God has for me. What if this isn’t the right job? The right school? The right church? We might avoid things that seem good out of fear that they’re not “the best.” While we of course need to be careful to flee from decisions made in sin, God’s sovereignty means we can feel freedom in making choices through which we can honor Him, even though He doesn’t spell it out in a sign for us. Allowing fear of mistakes to dictate your life will stop you from doing anything and will kill your usefulness. Living faithfully means participating freely in God’s work through times of uncertainty.

One of the blessings of my unemployment was the time to read. Eric Metaxas’s biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer spoke directly in my uncertainty. Bonhoeffer lived as a pastor through WWII in Germany, a time when the fate of his country and its church was thrown into confusion. He wrestled with the correct response, as a Christian, to Hitler’s destruction of religious freedom and enforcement of blasphemy as church doctrine. After persistently seeking the Lord, he eventually concluded that to not act against the state was to allow evil to advance. An active resister to the Third Reich’s religious policies and a participant in a plot to assassinate Hitler, he wound up in the depths of Nazi prison before the war ended.

Bonhoeffer was also engaged at the time of his imprisonment. His fiancĂ©e wrote that perhaps it would be best to call off their engagement, as no one knew whether he would make it out alive. Today this would probably be advised by many under the banner of “guarding your heart.” Bonhoeffer insisted that they continue with their wedding plans and not allow even fear of death to derail what they both believed to be a marriage commitment that was honoring to the Lord. 

Opinions about his political and romantic decisions would certainly have been split within the church then, as they are today. However, Bonhoeffer was willing to take bold steps in uncertainty, fully aware that he might be wrong, but trusting in God’s power to work with any “mistakes” he made. Some may say that his eventual execution speaks to his error, but his martyrdom and brave legacy are powerful encouragements to today’s church in times of turmoil. God never sent him an angel in a dream, but Bonhoeffer sought God constantly through prayer and Scripture and acted as he then saw fit. Scripture tells us that God can use man’s evil for good; He certainly has the power to lead us through our mistakes as well, when we are faithful to His leading.

For me, breaking through this fear meant committing to a church and to service even though I was unsure of how far away I would get a job. It might mean moving forward on an unplanned opportunity or giving when you are financially uncertain. God’s plan is not so fragile that one of us could ruin or diminish it. Feel free to act in service to Him though your future is uncertain.

Let us make no room for fear in our hearts in times when the future is obscured. Instead may we faithfully trust God’s plan and continue confidently, believing the promise and praise of Ephesians 3:20:

Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. 

Amen.

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