He who trusts in his own heart is a fool, But he who walks wisely will be delivered - Proverbs 28:26
Most of my readers know that my family and I are in a time of transition. As I write this, my office at Lincoln Christian University is now available for the next tenant and I’m writing from my home that has a big “For Sale” sign in the front lawn. Transitions can be tough (I know… call me “Captain Obvious”) but they are also excellent seasons to experience God’s presence in a different way. An interesting facet of this upcoming move is how I am learning to frame the narrative behind it. This has not been a deliberate editorial process. Rather, it is out of necessity—people keep asking, “Why are you moving?” I need to have an answer for this because, if I don’t, people will try to guess anyway and it’s better to just tell the truth in a concise way. But, since the truth took weeks and weeks of time and many, many conversations to unfold, I am forced to try to edit it down into a semi-coherent story that explains the reasons we would pull up stakes and head southwest. It’s been a challenging venture.
Recently, I saw a video skit from a friend that discussed things Christians say that don’t mean anything. There were several humorous bits as well as this one: “I feel led to do this.” This is a problematic sentence indeed. Over the years when I have tried to explain our family’s moves to Joplin, Carterville, Amarillo, Wheaton, Mexico City and then Lincoln, we have consistently been asked questions about the “why” behind our decision. What I have discovered is that a great deal of confusion can come in to a question like this. “Feeling led” and “hearing God’s voice” can sound pretty subjective and mushy. But “better salary” or “growth opportunity” can perhaps mask selfish ambition or greed. What’s better; a spiritually-vindicated lie or honest greed? Both sound like bad options. What I want to do in this post is explain my understanding and experience with hearing God’s call on our family to move. Disclaimer: I am NOT suggesting this is a) the only way or b) the best way or c) a water-tight theological argument. But please don’t think that I’ve come to this process lightly—due diligence is behind this. I’m sharing this process because many people I work with and love face questions about relocating according to their sense of God’s call, and many have asked how I go about the process. So then, this is how I go about hearing from God. Last caveat: a great intro to the concept of being directed by God is “Hearing God” by Dallas Willard. That book has helped me understand some of the underlying ontology behind this experience…I highly recommend it. Now then, on to my own process.
The first thing on the docket is the concept of invitation. On a day-to-day basis, I want to serve as an “under-rower” (Acts 13) in whatever context God has placed me. It is always a temptation to think about new things, opportunities and look for a good angle. Yet, for me, it is a spiritual experience to just put my head down and focus on working diligently and wisely each day. This idea came from my farming background and reading Eugene Peterson as a young pastor. Yet, because there are so many stories of God moving his pilgrim people (Ex 19:4-5 et al) I believe that there are times to move. When I was at Wheaton, I did an in-depth study on the first missionary journey of Paul. After some robust text work, my study group noticed that Paul was invited to speak, travel or move during that first journey. This the point: I try to stay put and be faithful unless there is a clear invitation to go. Again, I’m not saying this is for everyone—but this is my format.
The second element to my process is evaluation. I think it’s normal for people to weigh pros and cons and evaluate future possibilities. When I was younger I spent time judging whether or not I was suitable for the work and the context. As I’ve grown older, I can judge that more rapidly but now I spend more time dissecting my motives for leaving. Like all people, I want to flee hardship and find a “nicer” life. At the same time, like all people I sometimes reject change because it is so consuming and difficult. I am a mix of daydreamer and coward; pilgrim and planted. The evaluation process helps me cut through both of those tendencies and listen carefully to who is really doing the talking. Proverbs 28:26 says that “He who trusts in his own heart is a fool.” I don’t want to allow a foolish desire to trump what God is doing in my life. The issue is that if my heart is centered on Jesus and his voice, then I will trust him leading my heart (see Willard again for more help with this).
After evaluation I seek counsel. I have a list of trusted friends who know me, who have worked with me and who are aware of my deepest brokenness and best intentions. I don’t ask each one of them every time a decision comes up (time and availability play into this, of course) but I do ask a majority. I tell them the situation, answer their questions and then, I listen and write down their advice. Sometimes I dislike what they have to say, most of the time, they are very encouraging but they are always extremely helpful. They bring insight and wisdom to me that always seems obvious after they say it—but I never would have gotten there on my own.
Next, I wait. Yep. I wait. I watch and listen. I pay very close attention during my prayers and Bible reading. I pay close attention to speakers, preachers, friends, neighbors and the ambient things in my life. One of my friends told me (a loooong time ago) that “If you are ready, and if you are listening, then God will show up for you in a time and place that you will know, without a doubt, was for you.” In all of our moves, it has been in the waiting phase that we have received the general direction for where to go or if we should stay. For some of our choices there were dramatic Holy-Spirit-showed-up-and-freaked-us-out moments. In others, a growing realization that God was quietly calling became clear. And, like many times, we began to realize that God was asking us to choose: both options were good ones. The reason I am saying this is that for some people, it’s tempting to try to use any of these as the norm for most Christians. But, the waiting season has allowed us to draw near to God while he speaks. While his methods are not always the same, His character and love are.
The next-to-last thing I do is review. For many years I have journaled. Sometimes I use my journal entries to go back over the all the earlier stages. This time (as well as when we moved to LCU) I bought a specific, pocket-sized journal that I carried throughout the duration of our decision time. I kept copious notes and, as the deadline for the decision drew near, I began to go over those notes and look for themes. For this particular move, Shannon and Kate’s health were on every page. Other themes were repeated in each of those who counseled me. After some time reviewing all of that, I get to the hard part—pulling the trigger.
My personality and history lend me to be introspective. If I am able, I try to find a quiet place, lay out my review before God and then ask for wisdom. Usually by this point I have had a strong idea what should be done. But in this moment, I try to square up to my fears and just ask God for help and direction. If I sense God’s pleasure or peace. I go forward. If I do not. I either wait some more (if that is an option) or decline the invitation. I know it sounds very subjective. I’m sure an INTJ would resonate with this but in any case, that is my process. It’s not always right or for everyone, but God has graciously led me. I have lots of friends that I love and respect who have a much simpler process. Sometimes, life changes are forced upon us by context or illness. In those moments we trust God and do the best we can. But this process is certainly not something I’ve come up with…this is an old way.
The downsides of this process are obvious: it takes so much time and energy! It can also be unclear and hard to describe to others! But for me, the major benefit is a deep conviction that I am willingly participating with a Sovereign God in the square foot where he wants me (for now). This understanding gives me confidence to face difficult seasons and conflict. It keeps me rooted when the cowardly part of me wants to run and it gives me a clear reason to explain to my kids why I do what I do. For me, it is joy.
I don’t use this process while I am in the middle of a ministry context or venture—I use it when I have a major change in life. Walking wisely for me is inclusive of the idea that we need to plan well and use our minds. Sometimes a well-trained instinct can be a good tool. But when the BIG decisions are there, this process has helped.
If you are in a season of transition, I pray that God would speak clearly to you regardless of any process you use (or don’t). His love and mercy are always with us and our full submission to God’s leading is always a privilege. I would covet your prayers as we live out the results of our willing obedience. Blessing and peace of Christ to you.