On the Edge of Your Seat–For Better or Worse

Last Tuesday evening, I saw a Bible-study speaker stand up and say, “I’m praying that all of you will be on the edge of your seats waiting to see what the Holy Spirit will do next.”

Somehow, I reacted less than joyfully to the prospect. I live most of my days “on the edge of my seat” all right–but the driving motivator is usually fear of not finishing, fear of being interrupted, fear of disappointment or spoiled plans or failure or all of the above. I’ve had far more than my share of rained-out events and last-minute requests over the past several months, and the last thing I feel like doing is making myself not only open to but eager for more of the same.

So here I sit, fuming because the Creator and Master of the Universe won’t let me instruct Him on how to orchestrate things. I don’t care about becoming a spiritual giant, a prayer warrior, or a joyful-in-all-circumstances person. I don’t care about loving my neighbor who may be flooded out of house and home, terminally ill, or surviving by street prostitution. I care about being spared the frustration of unexpected technical glitches and traffic delays.

And I feel that if I take the trouble to make a comprehensive to-do list and say a quick prayer every morning, having everything go according to plan is no more than my due.

At least the Holy Spirit has gotten through to me far enough that I no longer can maintain that attitude without feeling guilty. Stepping onward to the “James 1:2” attitude (“When troubles of any kind come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy”) is something else again. Fear grips me at the thought–the fear that “joyful” means “I’m okay with this, and I accept that You probably don’t intend to ever change it for the better.” The fear that joy really means resignation and that God considers anything good enough for the likes of me.

On the edge of my seat? More like slumped in the chair with major depression imminent.

When it comes down to it, guilt is a lousy motivator, rooted in fear and knowing little of gratitude. How often do I bother to look on from James 1:2 to the promise in verses 3 and 4? “For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and complete, lacking nothing.”

Does that sound like I can’t trust God to change the important things for the better?

Letting go of the desire to control is more than a hard thing to do. It’s one of those things I can’t possibly do without accepting God’s help. My “I know best” pride is really fear of the unknown. There are times I can almost taste the joyful life of standing strong and complete, unfazed by anything and brimming with gratitude over all God has done for me. Still, the path between here and there is a wide bayou where I can see only the fast-flowing surface, every step forward whispering the terror of being swept off my feet or plunging into bottomless depths.

With the help of the Spirit, can I trust the One on the other side to show me where the firm footings are?

And the only answer is: I must. For a life lived in caution and anger and obsessive planning is a living death, the epitome of what Jesus warned of in Matthew 16:25: “If you try to hang onto your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it”–not just “life” as measured from time of conception to time of last breath on earth, but life in the sense of functioning to the maximum, of getting and giving everything I can during my years here.

A couple of millennia ago, a very busy apostle planned a visit to Jerusalem thinking he knew how long he would be there and where he would travel afterward. Instead, he wound up spending several years in jail, first in Palestine and then in Rome–and even his trip from the former to the latter was interrupted by a shipwreck and the need to winter in Malta. All that time, Paul lived with little idea of what would happen next or when it would happen, with no word on whether he would ever be able to pick up his original plans where they left off. He could easily have justified himself in fuming, “God, after all I’ve done for You, this is the thanks I get!” Instead, he wrote to his friends in Philippi:

“Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus. … Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise” (Philippians 4:6-8).

Nothing fits that description better than God. Why not lean forward in your seat, eager to see what He’ll do next?

Life Is Not a Template

Some are blessed to see clearly, from the beginning, the life path they were made to take. Some are blessed to fit naturally into the conventional expectation that “everyone” should earn a college degree, get a well-paying 40-hours-per-week job, get married and settle down.

Then there are those of us who receive the “blessing” of feeling strongly that we were created for a path different from the “sensible” one everyone urges us to pursue–but of seeing that path “through a glass darkly,” being able only to say “I want to write books” or “I want to travel,” and left bewildered when others reply, “How do you expect to make a living at that?” when we aren’t even sure which of a hundred possible steps is the first one in that direction.

Many such people successfully pursue their creative calling as ministry while also holding down a “day job” for essential expenses. Others of us aren’t made too well for the “day job” path either, and may spend years fuming in frustration because, however our daily needs are actually met, we expend so much emotional energy resenting the tedium that we have nothing left with which to pursue our primary path.

But whether you are a natural full-time worker, a proud maverick, a minister/tentmaker, a frustrated creative, or a confused beginner, it’s inevitable that sometime in life you will confront a situation where everyone you trust is saying “Go this way, anyone can see it’s the best choice”–and you keep feeling that God is telling you to do something completely different. Faith has its hardest test at the point where it contradicts all obvious logic and you can’t really explain why you feel so sure that God wants you to take the “illogical” path; the temptation is to think “They can’t all be wrong; there’s a dozen of them and only one of me, so the odds are heard wrong; and they’re good Christians, so surely God wouldn’t let them give me bad advice.”

While there are certainly enough cases of Christians rationalizing “God must want me to do this” simply because they want to do it–in the face of a mountain of advice to the contrary–and living to regret it, there are also many cases of Christians who followed–in the face of a mountain of advice to the contrary–what they were confident was God’s leading–and turned out to be right. Even godly and loving advisors (to draw on J. B. Phillips’s memorable phrasing of Romans 12:2a) can become part of the “world” that is trying to squeeze a fellow believer into its own mold instead of freeing him to pursue God’s best for him; the idea that “surely God will reward His loyal followers with easy and profitable assignments” can blind the most sincere among us.

As a longtime member of the “frustrated creatives” mentioned earlier, I empathize with the wish that God would just hand everyone an assignment list (or at least a detailed template) and do away with all the agonizing, arguments, and uncertainties. Nor can I explain, beyond pointing out the annoyingly vague fact that we grow stronger through walking by faith rather than sight, why He so often prefers the inefficient, tension-generating approach of giving us an indefinable “feeling” for the right direction.

However, if you presently happen to be in one of those “I’m sure this is God’s will for me but all advice and circumstances are saying different” situations, I can offer you a couple of suggestions for nurturing the confidence to go forward in faith:

First, have you prayed about it–really prayed, in full sincerity and surrender and humility and willingness to hear what God has to say? If you have, then it’s extremely likely that the path you are seeing is His will for you.

Second, does your feeling that this is the right path go deep: are you looking at it in sincere desire to do what is right, regardless of how “easy” or immediately rewarding it is? Is there a restlessness in you that gets stronger whenever you seriously consider giving up the idea (cf. Jeremiah 20:9), as opposed to simple “what if” anxiety that can attack any decision? If the answer is “yes,” then you have every cause to believe that the calling is genuinely Spirit-generated.

(Quick note to those who belong to the “loved ones/advisors of the person struggling with such a decision” group: serious prayer and looking deep won’t hurt you either, especially if the decision-maker is your own offspring or the decision will otherwise affect any of your long-held hopes and dreams. When God calls someone off the “obvious” path, loved ones often have more difficulty accepting the fact of God’s hand in the call–and are more likely to let their emotions rather than God be their guide–than is the called one himself.)

Ultimately, though, there is rarely any benefit in waiting for “absolute certainty” one way or the other. All we can do is accept that as the One in ultimate control, God knows best and will work it all out for good.

  • A blog for naturally melancholy Christians tired of being told to "snap out of it"; for Christians who struggle with mental-health issues and long for assurance God delights in them nonetheless; and for naturally optimistic Christians who want to understand their "gloomy" loved ones.

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    I am the go-to writer for people with tough stress issues and special emotional needs—and for those who love them, organizations that serve them, and anyone who just wants to better understand the world of mental/emotional struggles. Or who just wants to pick up some good stress-management tips! Visit my main website at www.PositiveContentFactory.com.

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    Bible quotes used in this blog are from the New Living Translation or the New International Version (1984). See http://www.biblegateway.com/ for copyright details.
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