Strategically Ordered Steps
Strategically Ordered Steps
Back in 1981, Pippa and I felt that God was calling us to full-time ministry in the Church of England and for me to become an ordained minister. We also felt that we should do our training in Durham, starting in September 1982. I was at the top of the waiting list for the theological college at Durham University. I was told it was almost certain someone would drop out and I was virtually guaranteed a place. Based on this I announced our plans widely, including telling the set of chambers, where I was practising as a barrister, that I was leaving.
Just before I was due to start we received news that, exceptionally, no one had dropped out that year and it would not be possible for us to go. We tried everything to persuade them to change their minds. We desperately tried to find another theological college that would accept us. We prayed and pushed as hard as we could but to no avail. The door was firmly shut.
The following year was extremely difficult. I was given very little work by my chambers as they knew I was leaving, and so had no incentive to build my career. It was a huge disappointment and mystifying at the time.
In the end, Pippa and I went to Oxford to study the following year and eventually started a curacy at HTB in 1986. With hindsight, had we got the place at Durham, the timing would have meant that a curacy at HTB would have been out of the question and we would not be doing what we are doing today. I am so thankful to God that he blocked our plans and strategically ordered our steps.
If you are going through a set back or disappointment, remember that his purposes for you are ‘good, pleasing and perfect’ (Romans 12:2). Nothing happens without God’s permission. God is in control and in everything he is working for good (8:28).
1. God orders your steps through human plansProverbs 16:8-17
It is right to plan. However, we need to do it with the necessary humility, recognising that our plans will only succeed ‘if it is the Lord’s will’ (see James 4:13–15). The writer of Proverbs says, ‘In your heart you may plan your course, but the Lord determines your steps’ (Proverbs 16:9).
Sometimes we align our plans with God’s purposes. At other times – certainly in my experience – God overrules our plans. We should always bear in mind that we may have got it wrong and that, ultimately, thankfully, it is the Lord who determines our steps.
God often works out his purposes through good leadership. Good leaders motivate others (v.10). They do not base their decisions simply on what is popular: ‘Sound leadership has a moral foundation’ (v.12b, MSG). They cultivate an environment of transparency: ‘Good leaders cultivate honest speech; they love advisors who tell them the truth’ (v.13, MSG). They ‘invigorate lives; they’re like spring rain and sunshine’ (v.15, MSG).
Thank you, Lord, that although I make plans in my heart, ultimately you determine my steps. In making my plans may I always say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will’.
2. God’s orders your steps in spite of human oppositionActs 22:22-23:11
Are you worried about your future? Are you facing difficulties and opposition or in a time of crisis? Are there plans against you?
There are a number of competing plans in this story. How do these interact with God’s purposes?
- The crowd
The crowd plan to ‘rid the earth’ of Paul (22:22) and it is not without impact. It causes Paul hardship, but ultimately it fails because their plans do not align with God’s purpose.
- The commander
The ‘commander’, a man of military power, plans to have Paul flogged (v.24). Paul is taken to the torture chamber. He is stripped and stretched out to be flogged in such a way that might have left him insane, unable to preach or even led to his death (vv.24–25). The plan failed because it was illegal to flog a Roman citizen before being convicted, and the commander had not realised that Paul was a Roman citizen.
- The court
The religious authorities, the Sanhedrin, plan to kill Paul (23:12). Paul is taken to court and placed in the dock (22:30). He points out his innocence: ‘Ananias ordered those standing near Paul to strike him on the mouth’ (23:2). Paul’s response is, ‘God will strike you, you whitewashed wall!’ (v.3).
Then Paul manages to divide the tribunal (vv.7–8), which consisted of Pharisees (who believed in the resurrection of the dead) and Sadducees (who did not). Paul decides ‘to exploit their antagonism’ (v.6, MSG). Paul says, in effect, ‘Look, the reason I am on trial is that I am a Pharisee and believe in the resurrection of the dead’ (v.6).
- The crises
In the midst of all this, Paul seeks to align his plans with God’s plans. He was guided by God. He resolved in the Spirit to go to Jerusalem and then to Rome (19:21). However, in spite of this he hit crisis after crisis.
Paul must have wondered whether he had missed out on God’s purposes. But in the middle of this ‘crisis’, the Lord stood near Paul and said, ‘Take courage! As you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify in Rome’ (23:11).
God’s purpose for Paul was for him to testify both in Jerusalem (maybe the equivalent of testifying to the church) and Rome (maybe the equivalent of testifying to the state, government and political leaders).
As with Paul, God will strategically order your steps. The sovereignty of God means we don’t have to worry about the ultimate outcome. God is in complete control, even though it may not always be easy to see it at the time.
God’s purpose is that you, like Paul, should be a witness. Everywhere you go, be a witness. When appropriate, give your testimony. Even when you are not speaking, your life is a testimony. Don’t wait until all is going well. In fact, in times of difficulties sometimes your testimony is at its most powerful.
Lord, give me the same courage you gave to the apostle Paul to testify about you wherever I go.
3. God’s orders your steps through human agents2 Kings 6:24-8:15
God works out his purposes through human agency.
The suffering of the people of Samaria was almost unbearable: famine, food prices soaring astronomically and even cannibalism resulted (6:24–31). The king of Israel made a pathetic excuse for not helping the woman who cried to him, ‘Help me, my lord the king!’ (v.26). He replied, ‘If the Lord does not help you, where can I get help for you?’ (v.27). This is the wrong reaction.
The sovereignty of God and his plans is not meant to be an excuse for human inaction. God works through human agents. When you see needs, you are called to be God’s hands responding to those needs. This is what Elisha did. God used Elisha. He prophesied, ‘Listen! God’s word! The famine’s over. This time tomorrow food will be plentiful’ (7:1, MSG).
God used four men with leprosy who discovered where this plentiful food was. As they ate and drank they said to each other, ‘We’re not doing right. This is a day of good news and we are keeping it to ourselves’ (v.9). Food prices dropped over night. Every word Elisha had spoken proved true.
The world produces enough food for everyone, yet one in eight people on this planet are living with the pain of hunger. If we simply feed ourselves ‘we are not doing right’ (v.9). We must do everything we can to bring an end to extreme poverty in our generation.
This is also a wonderful illustration of our motive for telling others the good news about Jesus. These starving men came across a mountain of food. They realised that God had delivered them from their enemies. They could have kept the good news to themselves, but that would have been utterly selfish.
Yet they were tempted to do so. We have far better news than they had – the good news of Jesus and the gospel. Do not keep it to yourself. You are the human agent responsible for carrying out God’s plans.
Similarly the people in the city could have just stayed there in their lost condition refusing to believe the good news. Indeed, at first the king does not respond very positively. He suspects a trap (v.12). Likewise today some people do not respond to the offer of life Jesus makes to every human being because they suspect that there is some trap.
Not only does God work out his purposes through human agents, he sometimes reveals these plans to his prophets. Elisha prophesied at a time of famine that within twenty-four hours food would be in ample supply (v.1). It seemed totally unbelievable at the time (v.2), but God rescued his people (v.6). Elisha’s prophecy came true, ‘As the Lord had said’ (v.16). God also revealed to Elisha what was about to happen to the king (8:8,13,15).
Lord, thank you that you have good plans for my life and your purposes will ultimately prevail. Help us to be a blessing to the world, feeding the hungry and bringing the good news of Jesus to a world that desperately needs physical and spiritual food.
2 Kings 6:24–8:15
God chooses the most despised (four lepers) to discover the abandoned Aramean camp. What fun they must have had, stuffing their starving bodies with delicious food, as they tried on beautiful clothes. They got the best, first.