Thursday, March 27, 2008

God's Surprises

J.I. Packer, a well-known evangelical theologian and the author of the classic, Knowing God, remembers learning a children’s song in church growing up. “God is a surprise, right before your eyes, God is a surprise.” He had occasion to reflect recently on God’s surprises in his life: the way Jesus Christ “broke into my life, claimed me as his own, and made me a different person” when he was an adolescent; the way God called him into ministry even though he was “poor” at human relationships; the way he met his wife at a retreat neither had planned to attend; the way he was asked to write a devotional pamphlet, which became a 60,000 word book, the first of many he authored; the way he was “headhunted” away from England to teach in Canada, which led to, “beyond question, the best 28 years of my life so far.” Packer can look back and see many ways in which God surprisingly redirected him in a way that blessed him (see “Count Your Surprises,” Christianity Today, March 2008).

This Sunday I am beginning a series on “Living Your Bucket List.” It will include much exhortation to be intentional about focusing on the main things and living life to the full. However, one dimension of this must be to keep ourselves open to God’s surprises. As the old proverb states, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.” We should live purposefully, so as to “make the most of the time” (Ephesians 5:16), while also being open to God’s providential re-direction. I think of a golf analogy (of course): you want to grip your club firmly, but not too tightly, lest it be hindered from doing its work. Likewise, grip your life firmly, but not too tightly. God may be trying to give you another club. Isn’t it significant that 99% of golfers hold the club too tightly?

When I graduated from college with a business degree I thought I would go into banking in New Orleans. During a chance conversation with an old girlfriend in Houston, whose father was a corporate recruiter, I found myself interviewing for a job with an oil & gas company. Four weeks later I was living in Houston. Three years after that I was at a Bible college! This would not have been even on my top ten list of possible turns in my life five years earlier.

When Angela and I were beginning to consider moving back to Texas from Connecticut, but before taking any action, we found ourselves talking with some folks at the 1994 Pepperdine Lectureships about a ministry in Los Angeles. Six months later we moved there. Neither of us had ever considered living in southern California, but we ended up spending nine wonderful years there.

Not every surprising thing that happens is God-ordained, but many are. Sometimes it’s a mystery which are and which aren’t. One promise we hold to is that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him” (Romans 8:28). That is, he can help us make the most of the incidental surprises, and he wants us to make the most of his surprises!

Henri Nouwen, the late priest and author, articulated a wonderful prayer that has served as a kind of guiding principle in my life: “Lord, I abandon myself into your hands. Do with me whatever you will. Whatever you may do, I thank you.”

Our God is a God of surprises. Keep a firm grip on your life, loosely.


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