“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world. The unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends upon the unreasonable.” -- George Bernard Shaw
“Expect great things from God. Attempt great things for God.” -- William Carey, missionary
“I used to think God guided us by opening and closing doors, but now I know that sometimes God wants us to kick some doors down.” -- Bob Goff, author of Love Does
a distant place
“Sit down boys,” my Mom said. “You need to watch this.” It was the night of 9/11, and we crowded around our TV, watching the rescue workers dig through the rubble. That footage was the first time I’d ever seen New York City, and changed it from a name to an actual place. Things soon went back to normal in rural Kansas, and New York City disappeared from my life.
Nine years later, I was in seminary and randomly picked up a book in the library. “Have you ever read this pastor in New York named Tim Keller?” I asked a seminary classmate. “He’s saying all the things I’m thinking about.” We started talking about the need for more people to bring the gospel to our generation, and at the end of our conversation my friend asked me, “Luke, would ever go to New York City?” “Nope,” I replied, “I don’t think I could. I’m just a normal guy. That’s not a place for people like me.”
Two years later, I had my ticket booked to go to South Sudan. Then a month before I left, I stopped in New York City for a few days on my way to visit my brother and sister-in-law in Boston. “So how was New York?” they asked. “It was good, but something weird happened,” I said. “I almost feel like God may be calling me to New York.” I hedged my words since they couldn’t be right...me...in New York?
Over the coming months, I came up with every excuse why I could never live in New York City. I’m a simple guy from a small town...that makes me a better fit for South Sudan. I don’t know anyone in NYC, and have no clue how I’d ever make money there. It’s so big and I’m so little! Why would God want me to go New York City?
how does God work?
As we each look out at the world, we often wonder what’s going on? How can there be so much brokenness? So much hardship? So much suffering? In the face of all of this, Christian start to ask: where’s God at? Why isn’t He doing anything? And how can He be so distant when there are so many problems? These questions persist, causing many Christians to settle into a pessimism that nothing will ever change.
There’s an underlying question here: who’s responsible for change? Us or God? Throughout history, the pendulum swings back and forth between humanity and God.
We’re in control (human agency): this side overemphasizes humans ability to effect change in the world. In this view, God is either non-existent or disinterested, and we are responsible for solving our problems through our own hard work. When Christians start to think this way, it creates the functional atheism discussed in Lesson 6.
God’s in Control (God's sovereignty): this side overemphasizes God’s control over all things, painting humans as passive bystanders. In this view the problems of the world are so daunting that only God is powerful enough to solve them. This over-reliance on God’s sovereignty helps people to shed their own responsibility.
The Bible rejects this either/or dichotomy by teaching that both of these ideas are needed for something to change. God’s in control, but He uses humans to accomplish His plan. While technically God doesn't need people to work alongside Him since can do anything He wants, He chooses to with and through human beings for His glory.
God works through ordinary people
Many Christians fall into this over-reliance on God, and assume that since nothing changes, God must be cold and distant, uninterested in the daily lives of His creation. “Why doesn’t God do anything about this?” they wonder as they go about the routines of their lives. They never stop to think how God accomplishes His will by partnering with ordinary people.
I didn’t understand this growing up. I knew my place. I wasn’t meant to go a top school or get a fancy job in a coastal city, that was for other people. I thought God used “special” people to do big things, and ordinary people like me to live normal lives. Many of us adopt this mindset, so we wait around for God and the special people to do something. So many people go through the routines of their life, waiting for a modern-day messiah, some ultra-talented leader able to tackle the problems of the day.
But as I got older and learned more about how the world works, I never saw any of these ultra-talented messiah types waiting around. I found that the men and women who impacted the world, in both large and small ways, were only ordinary people who had answered God’s call on their life. And I realized the Bible taught the same thing as well. Listen to Paul talk to the Corinthians:
For consider your calling, brothers; not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are. -- First Corinthians 1:26-28
So you’re an ordinary person with not a lot to offer? Perfect! Paul says that’s the kind of person God’s looking to use in meaningful ways. Unfortunately, the church has it all backwards. We think God calls strong and talented people into things that are guaranteed successes. As discussed in Lesson 3, God calls weak and humble people into uncertain times and walks with them every step of the way.
God calls you into the chaos
As I wrestled with whether God was actually calling me to New York City, I couldn’t help but feel overwhelmed. How could I ever make it there? And what did I ever think I could offer? But God opened my eyes to how that attitude exhibited a sinful desire to be in control of my life. I wasn’t willing to trust God that things could work out even if it was beyond my control.
But then I began to notice how God called people in the Bible. He always found the weak, the broken, and the scared, and didn’t call them into comfort and stability, but rather deeper into the chaos of life. Moses, Rahab, Gideon, David, Esther, Jonah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, Nehemiah, the Disciples, and Paul are just a few of the ordinary people God used to accomplish His plan. God called some of them to be celebrities and some of them to be outcasts, but all of them were called out of a smooth live into the turbulence of following God.
God called these ordinary people to things bigger than themselves not to crush them, but to force them to rely on Him. Our expectations for God have atrophied, as evidenced by our refusal to step out beyond our own strength. Since we all gravitate towards safe and comfortable lives that we can handle on our own, being afraid of God’s calling can be a useful sign that we’ve finally stopped telling God what we’re comfortable doing and listening to His will for our lives.
God calls you to get started
Some people get defensive about this subject, since they feel many Christians put too much emphasis on doing something “big” with your life. They’re right to feel uncomfortable, since too much of what the church praises is shaped by a culture that desires fame and achievement above all else. God doesn’t require you to accomplish something noteworthy with your life, move to a third world country, or rise up the ranks of an influential job. Instead, God calls people to get started and to let Him work.
God doesn’t usually tell people what He is planning on doing with their life, He just asks them to start obeying Him, even in the little things. And so Abraham starts walking. David delivers some food to his brothers in the army. Peter leaves his job and starts following a new teacher. Unfortunately, many of us have built-in excuses for why we can't start. But these excuses just keep you from working, since He'll clear so many of the problems and issues on the horizon by the time you get there.
where to start?
Sadly, many people never get started. They coast through their twenties, assuming they have plenty of time, but soon the concerns of work and family set in. Eventually they get older and busier, and give up trying, assuming that God didn’t want them to do anything. This attitude permeates American Christianity, where we complain about the problems, but we never see our lives as part of the solution.
We're often stuck in a bystander mentality, refusing to see God’s desire to work in and through us. We shrug our shoulders and say, “If God really wanted something to happen, He’d call somebody.” But God calls you to start, to get off of the sidelines of life and into the fray. The best place to start is look for places that you see brokenness. God calls by attuning our hearts to make us aware of specific hurts and breakdowns in our communities. Look at what you frustrates you, and set out to work with God to help the situation.
If that doesn’t lead to an opportunity, begin to look for small ways to obey God. Or find someone who is already doing something and help and encourage their work. Lastly, pick up your Bible, turn to a gospel, and as you read ask yourself: What would it look like in my community if I obeyed this. My predication is that after a few chapters you will have a lifetime of ways to serve your community.
what the world really needs
The world doesn’t need another church full of polite people ignoring its hurts and hardships. It also doesn’t need insecure Christians trying to build their own little kingdoms. And it doesn’t need more critics telling them everything's wrong. Instead, the world needs ordinary people like you obeying God and bringing the gospel deep into the brokenness of our lives. It’s hard and slow, but I believe God wants to work through you to do some quietly incredible things.