Today is October 14th. The date marks the fortieth anniversary of Pastor John’s late-night wrestling over a huge decision: Should he leave seminary as a professor in order to take up a full-time pastorate? Pastor John, take us back to that season of life. We have a question from a listener named Vanessa, and I think it’s related: “Hello, Pastor John. I hope you are well. My question for you is this: Does God have a specific plan for my life, or do I have freedom to choose what I want to do and God will work in that? Two good career options are in front of me. Neither would be bad or sinful. When faced with two good options, how have you made decisions on God’s leading?”
Tony, this was really moving for me for you to force me to think about this. I didn’t know till you pointed it out that we were coming up on the fortieth anniversary of that night in October 1979 when God did such an amazing work in my life. This is amazing. What a night it was.
So I have in front of me here on my desk — I’m going to rattle it so you can hear it, so you can hear the paper — the actual handwritten blue book pages in volume 25 of my thought notebook, which I began to keep in 1966. And this one is dated June to November 1979. So it contains this epoch-making night (for me personally) of October 14. I’m going to read part of it in just a minute, but first a word about Vanessa’s question.
“Does God have a specific plan for my life, or do I have freedom to choose what I want to do and God will work in that? Two good career options are in front of me.” That’s what she says. God’s sovereign will for your life, Vanessa, is going to happen no matter what. “The mind of a woman plans her way, but the Lord directs her steps.” That’s a paraphrase of Proverbs 16:9 and Proverbs 19:21. Apply it to yourself. You plan; he directs. It’s good to plan, but he’s decisive. His revealed will — his will of command, the will that he reveals for us — is what he tells us to do in Scripture. You should always pursue that — always.
But those commands do not specify explicitly which career to choose. So, what do we do? We do six things:
We make it our aim to be radically holy in every part of our lives.
We seek to be Bible-saturated, shaped through and through by Scripture.
We seek to know ourselves, the way God has made us, our spiritual gifts.
We seek to be aware of the needs of the world that we could touch.
We soak all of this in prayer every day for God’s wisdom and leading. Psalm 25 is especially valuable for this.
In it all, we live in a worshiping community of love, so that at every step along the way, fellow believers are speaking into our lives.
And then, with those six steps in place, there come these critical moments in our lives when two paths are in front of us, and neither is sin.
One of those critical moments for me — one of the most pivotal moments of my life — was midnight, almost, on October 14, 1979. So I want to read just a few excerpts from the seven or nine pages that I wrote there so that you can get inside how God used my wrestling, and it might shed light on your own wrestling.
I was employed as a professor of Bible at Bethel College. I had worked there for six years, and the question was this: Would I leave this very happy and fruitful job, and seek a pastorate, which I never had before? Those are two good options, right? So here’s what I wrote:
I am closer tonight to actually deciding to resign at Bethel and take a pastorate than I have ever been. I’m not kidding; the urge is almost overwhelming. It takes this form: I am enthralled by the reality of God and the power of his word to create authentic people. And I believe, I really believe, that God has made me a vessel of his word, which when poured onto people, changes them in this direction. But I’m not wholly deluded. I know, I really know, I would despair as a pastor. I would despair that my people are not where I want them to be. I would despair at the ruptured study and the writing goals. I would despair at barren administrative details.
I’m skipping something. You can hear the pages rattle.
What then would I lose? I would lose the simplicity of task and routine in the college. My life and time would be much less my own.
I would lose the serenity of undisturbed hours of study and self-imposed hours of leisure because the needs of the flock are unpredictable.
I would lose the quiet of the study and trade it for hours in the car on the way to the hospital and to homes.
I would lose the uniformity of responsibility and be swamped by dozens of different tasks, many of which, no doubt, would be distasteful, unless and until my palate changed.
I would lose the collegial stimulation of fellow theologians in return for a draining ministry to the hungry.
I would lose an almost total occupation with theological subject matter and inherit a press for programs and functions.
I would lose the ease of having to reckon with no visible failure. If I fail with students, they pass on quickly. But in a church, I must reckon with the possibility nothing happens, people become discontented, no one is being won to Christ, old animosities remain unhealed.
If I only think of all the satanic might be’s, I despair already. But is this any way to make a choice? Great God, what is faith if not trusting you for the life-transforming work of your Spirit through the ministry of the word?
I think what has happened is a gradual clarification of what my highest values are and the most fruitful way to achieve them. Those values are to see the word of God produce people of great faith and great love. That is why Paul stayed and did not set sail for Christ in Philippians 1: “For your advancement and the joy of your faith,” he said (see Philippians 1:25). This was how he magnified Christ in his body by life, and that is my greatest goal of all: to magnify and exalt and display Christ in the world and in heaven by seeing people transformed into new creatures of love and faith through his word and Spirit.
This moment of indecision is real and makes me feel on the brink of doing something that could be so revolutionary for me and for some group of people that I do not want it to be set aside now and say, “Oh, it will pass. You have felt this way before. You get over it. You realize it was just a moment of dissatisfied fantasy.” No, the recurrence is now too frequent, and tonight (it is almost midnight now) too strong. I will seek counsel and pray. My last word is this. I cannot decide now. But I know which side I want to win — the pastorate.
That’s the end of my journal entry. And before I went to bed, maybe an hour later, the die was cast. All that remained was to see if my wife, Noël, felt the same in the morning, and she did.
And in June of the next year, we began a 33-year pastorate at Bethlehem. That’s how it happened for me. God is faithful. So, Vanessa, may he guide you. He will.