Planning in Pencil: A 3-Part Plan for Flexing with God’s Providence

Introduction. 

Personality tests tend to make a distinction between people who are spontaneous and those who are scheduled.

Where do you fall on the spectrum?

My wife’s middle name is spontaneity. She loves the freedom of an unplanned day.

I, on the other hand, break out in hives when there is a stretch of time before me that I have not very carefully marked out on the calendar.

I can tell you what I am doing three weeks from Tuesday at 2:00. Time off has to be planned in my calendar or I’ll fill it with work. Even a vacation day at the beach will be planned with specific activities that fill up the calendar in my brain.

I am a planner.

Here is the rub.

Sometimes, just sometimes, things do not go as I plan.

Life is filled with interruptions.

We can’t control the weather and can’t predict when a nail is going to puncture one of the tires on the car.

Sickness is not something we can schedule into the calendar. Neither is physical injury something we plan or how someone else’s delay in traffic impacts our calendar for the day.

Theologically, we are talking about living in view of God’s providence, where any and all plans we make must be made in pencil rather than in pen.

In former times, when making plans or scheduling arrangements, people would end their letters to one another using the Latin phrase, Deo Volente, which means, “God willing.” 

I’ll see you for lunch on Thursday at noon, “Deo volente.”

Using that phrase was a simple reminder that, while we make plans in pencil, God holds the master calendar.

Living in view of that master calendar will require me to flex what tends to be a very fixed calendar. It will demand that I trust my Father’s plan is wise and purposeful, even when the circumstances he permits could be interpreted as capricious or even malevolent.

In 1 Corinthians 16:5-9, Paul shows us how to make plans in pencil.

This is the final chapter of this long letter and he is expressing his desire to visit the Corinthian congregation in person.

The map shows the route he plans to take, passing through the region of Macedonia on his way from Ephesus to Corinth.

1 Corinthians 16:5-9

I will visit you after passing through Macedonia, for I intend [PLAN] to pass through Macedonia, and perhaps I will stay with you or even spend the winter, so that you may help me on my journey, wherever I go. For I do not want to see you now just in passing. I hope to spend some time with you, if the Lord permitsBut I will stay in Ephesus until Pentecost, for a wide door for effective work has opened to me, and there are many adversaries.

The 3-part plan for flexing with God’s providence starts with the admonition to… 

1. Hold Expectations Loosely

While Paul is very specific about his plans, he adds the qualifier, “If the Lord permits.”

He holds his expectations loosely.

Deo volente.

An Example from the World of Tennis

In tennis, coaches teach their students not to not grip the racket too tightly, which at first seems counter-intuitive. You’d think that you should grip it as tightly as possible. But those who play tennis know that each shot requires a different grip, whether it is a serve, a forehand, a backhand, or a volley at the net. In tennis, depending on the shot, you need to be prepared to change your grip. So you don’t hold the racquet too tightly.

The same thing is true with our expectations and plans.

We should hold them like we hold a tennis racquet.

But let’s be honest. For most of us, there are plans and expectations we hold with a tight grip. For example,

  • We have expectations for our retirement account.
  • We have expectations for how we plan for our business to perform.
  • We have expectations for children and for how well our favorite team will perform this year.

What happens when those things we hold so tightly do not meet our expectations. What happens if things do not go as we planned? 

If you are like me, you will find someone to blame, whether a financial advisor or a business partner. 

We may blame our children, or a spouse, the coach or star player. Or we may blame God… for not fulfilling our plans and meeting our expectations.  

How can I know?

How can we know if we are holding expectations too tightly? Well, how do I react when my expectations are threatened? If I go to emotional extremes of anger or despondency, I’m probably holding something too tightly.

But the deeper issue is why. 

The reason why I get so upset may be that I have turned a good thing into an ultimate thing, and that good thing has become an idolatrous thing.  They have become life for us -- a way to be seen as a success, which becomes our functional righteousness (whether it is business success, parenting success, academic success, whatever).

The only way to hold my plans and expectations loosely is to let go of my idolatrous righteousness and find my identity in Jesus’s gift-righteousness.

Only then can I…  

2. Trust God Completely

Having a mindset that defaults to the phrase “Lord willing,” comes from an embrace of Solomon’s words to his son in Proverbs 3:5-8, "5 Trust in the Lord with all your heart  and lean not on your own understanding; 6 in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight."

Tandem Sky-Diving

Most of you know that tandem sky-diving is a thing. Tandem means that you are fastened with security straps and buckles to a trained sky-diving professional. At least you hope he is professional and that you are not his first client, because jumping tandem is trusting someone who has the knowledge and skill to lead you to your desired destination, from plane to ground, intact.  But I still would have trouble trusting even the most experienced sky-diving, tandem flying instructor in the world.

Yet it is the same thing with trusting God by submitting my plans to his and allowing him to direct the story of my life and the lives of my children.

I want to be in control. 

But can you imagine how different life would be if we could let go of “our own understanding,” and trust God completely to direct our paths and the paths of our children?

Life as a Path. A Journey. A Story.

One way to begin this kind of trust is to see life as a path. A journey. A story. 

All we can see is the past and the present. The stress is that we cannot see around the bend in the trail.

We don’t know what is coming.

But the Father does.

Implications of Trusting

When we trust him completely, we are able to live with peace instead of fear. Hope instead of despair.  We are able to jump out of the plan, knowing that we are not alone, but flying in tandem with a strong Abba, Father whose knowledge, wisdom, goodness, and power are all we and our children need.

  • We can trust him with all the unknowns that paralyze us with fear.
  • We can trust him with the diagnosis.
  • We can trust him with job changes, job losses, and job interviews.
  • We can trust him with our failures and even our sin.
  • We can trust him with the conclusion of the story, knowing that he is just as sovereign over the twists and turns, and apparent setbacks of the journey as he is with the end.

What Our Children Need

As our children grow up, they don’t need our grip and control on their lives. They need his grip upon their lives, trusting the Lord for their path, knowing his knowledge, wisdom, goodness and power is what they need -- not mine but his.  

Then, as we hold expectations loosely and trust God completely, we have the freedom to…

3. Engage Opportunities Wholeheartedly

In verses 8-9, Paul speaks of staying in the city of Ephesus longer because God had given him an open door for effective ministry. He wants to make the most of the opportunity, engaging it wholeheartedly.

Although he expected opposition, it would not dampen his enthusiasm for the opportunity.

God's Timing

In Acts 20:1-3, Luke describes what happened at the end of Paul's stay in Ephesus that Paul mentions in our passage. Essentially, a metalworker named Demetrius started a riot against Paul and his associates, claiming that Paul’s preaching of Jesus was hurting their idol making business and undermining the worship of the Roman goddess, Artemis. 

Here is what we read,  “When the uproar had ended, Paul sent for the disciples and, after encouraging them, said goodbye and set out for Macedonia. 2 He traveled through that area, speaking many words of encouragement to the people, and finally arrived in Greece, 3 where he stayed three months. Because some Jews had plotted against him just as he was about to sail for Syria, he decided to go back through Macedonia.”

Paul knew that doors would open. Doors would close. All according to God’s timing

Closing Time is in 15 Minutes!

Ever been to a store that announces closing time fifteen minutes before the doors are locked? “Hello customers, we will be closing in fifteen minutes, please bring your final purchases to the counter for check out.” At that point, we focus. Time is limited. The doors are open but not all night. They will close. So you have fifteen minutes to make the most of the opportunity. 

Present Moments, Opens Doors

Our present may not be what we planned or imagined. It may not be what we planned for our children. But God is sovereign over our present as he is over our past and future. And for every present moment, there is an open door, an opportunity for us to engage wholeheartedly as disciples of Jesus.

  • If you have young children, you have an open door.
  • If you have teenagers, you have an open door.
  • If you work in healthcare, you have an open door.
  • If you are a teacher, you have an open door.
  • If you are single, you have an open door.
  • If you are retired, you have an open door.

What if you were jailed for your faith, like Paul? Would that be a closed door? It would closed to some things, like travel. But no. He viewed every circumstance as some kind of open door, as an opportunity to live as a disciple of Jesus. Right there. Even in prison.

The enemy thinks he can close God’s open doors, but he can’t. He can only close what God intends to be closed so that we can be re-routed to another open door. 

What if... 

Rather than force doors open or lament the doors that are closed, what if you made the most of the present opportunity you have been given to engage wholeheartedly as a disciple of Jesus, right where you have been planted? 

Conclusion.

Daniel Baker was a preacher in Georgia during the 1830s. Eventually, he decided to leave his comfortable pastorate at a prestigious church in Savannah for life as a missionary to the growing population in Ohio. 

Taking a 75% pay cut, he and his large family packed up their wagon and headed north. However, his plans were interrupted when the wheel shaft on his wagon broke while passing through Virginia. While there, he was invited to preach. The response was so great that he stayed in Virginia for a year, seeing nearly 1,000 people profess faith in Jesus. Later he would state in his journal with confidence that “the breaking of the shaft… was the providential hand of God.” (Preachers with Power, Kelly, 25)

Yet, I wonder how Daniel Baker felt in the moment, when the axle broke down on a narrow dirt road in the middle of nowhere Virginia. Was he able to see it then as the plan and purpose of God - in the moment?

Maybe. But probably not. He was as human as you and I are and likely expressed the same frustration that any of us would feel having our plans so rudely sidetracked by a random, inconvenient breakdown.

Inconvenient, but not Random

The breakdown was inconvenient. But it wasn’t random. Nothing is. Everything has a purpose, even if we don’t understand the purpose - in the moment.

Of course, with hindsight, we can see how God was able to use a broken axle for good.

In the moment, it is much harder to see.

I assume that Jesus’s disciples' hopes and dreams were shattered on Good Friday when Jesus was crucified and buried. Why did God let that happen? Something so cruel and unthinkable?

The cross was not part of their plan.

In the moment, they couldn’t see how God could be doing something good through something so evil and counterproductive to the kingdom of God as the execution of Jesus.

Seeing and Trusting God's Purpose and Plan

They couldn’t see that God was providing Jesus as a sin substitute and that the cross was him serving the sentence that our sins deserved so that we can be reconciled to God as forgiven and accepted sons and daughters.

Now we know why Jesus was nailed and how that shows us that God is able to weave even sinful, tragic events into the tapestry of grace that is history.

There are so many broken axle’s in our lives.

I suppose it is having a nail-scarred Savior that enables us to trust him when our plans do not go as planned.

Do you know Jesus as that Savior? The one whom you can trust completely to forgive your sins and lead you with goodness, wisdom, and strength?

If not, let me invite you to receive him now as you pray with me.


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