Tag Archives: Choices

Plans and Purposes

Commit to the Lord whatever you do,
    and he will establish your plans.

Proverbs 16:3 (NIV)

I just finished up an “over the coffee” conversation with Wendy this morning. We talked about race and culture. One of the observations we mulled over was that it’s very easy for things to be perceived as simple, binary, either-or issues when it’s just not. There are so many layers.

I find that the same can be true when reading through Proverbs. It’s really been hitting me as I journey through them this time around. The attraction of ancient sage wisdom is that they are simple. They are binary couplets. It’s wisdom or foolishness, hard work or sloth, honesty or lies, pride or humility. They are easily absorbed and understood. It’s easy to take them at face value and that typically works.

Sometimes, however, it’s not that simple. There are more layers. Context is needed. Take the verse from today’s chapter. At face value, it’s an easy concept. Commit your plans to God and He will establish them. Done. Easy peasy lemon squeezy. Rub the lamp and the Genie will appear. This is the kind of verse that can easily get misunderstood:

“I prayed and committed my plans for going to Harvard to the Lord, and I got a rejection letter. God didn’t establish my plans. I guess the whole thing is a lie.”

It’s a bit of synchronicity that this came up in the chapter today because I talked a lot about this in my podcast that was published yesterday. The mysterious, divine dance between my plans and God’s purposes is complex choreography that I never perfect. Just when I think I’ve got it down the steps, Holy Spirit (who is leading the dance) suddenly goes where I didn’t expect or the music changes.

I bring my plans to the dance, but Jesus also talked about asking, seeking, and knocking. My “plans” could be coming from a place of pride, or selfishness, or vain ambition, and what God is ultimately trying to establish for me and where God is leading me is something I can’t see from my current waypoint on Life’s road. In my podcast, I shared the story of my “plans” to have a career in pastoral ministry. Actually, before that, I planned to be an astronaut, a naval aviator, a lawyer, POTUS, a private detective, a professional actor, and one day while drawing on the back of my mom’s old recipe cards, I remember planning to be a cartoonist. What was eventually established was that I would spend my career in the one place I never planned to be: the corporate world. Even though I had been given a foreshadowing of this, I couldn’t see it. I refused to see it.

So, does the fact that my “plans” didn’t come to fruition mean that today’s proverb is a lie?

Not from my perspective. It’s not that simple.

When I chose to become a follower of Christ it was the first step in a never-ending process of surrender. The “plan” that I committed to at that moment was to follow where God led, do what God called me to do, and strive to become more like Jesus each step of the way. The becoming like Jesus part starts with not living for myself, but to love God with all my heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love others as I love myself. If I do that, it changes my plans, which ultimately results in this journey being all about the things that God is establishing as He leads me. God’s purposes will always take precedent over my plans. When you follow Jesus, it’s part of the gig.

I look back now and am overjoyed that my career did not end up in pastoral ministry (sorry, mom), or in law, or in politics, or in space. What God established out my plans to follow where I was led turned into a job that I love and a job that has blessed me in so many amazing ways.

[The cartoonist thing might have been pretty cool, though. I’m just sayin’.]

In the quiet this morning I am thankful for being led down this path on my journey, despite the struggles, heartache, confusion, anxieties, stress, and pains I’ve encountered along the way. The reality is that those are all part of the journey no matter where we’re led or choose to go. And, who knows but that God might lead me into a completely different career at some point. After all, I’m letting Him lead the dance.

<— Click on Solomon for an indexed list of previous chapter-a-day posts from this series from Proverbs!

About This Post

These chapter-a-day posts began in 2006. It’s a very simple concept. I endeavor each weekday to read one chapter from the Bible. I then blog about my thoughts, insights, and feelings about the content of that chapter. Everyone is welcome to share this post, like this post, or add your own thoughts in a comment. Thank you to those who have become faithful, regular or occasional readers along the journey along with your encouragement.

In 2019 I began creating posts for each book, with an indexed list of all the chapters for that book. You can find the indexed list by clicking on this link.

Prior to that, I kept a cataloged index of all posts on one page. You can access that page by clicking on this link.

tomvanderwell@gmail.com @tomvanderwell

An Observation

At the highest point along the way,
    where the paths meet, she takes her stand;
beside the gate leading into the city,
    at the entrance, she cries aloud…

Proverbs 8:2-3 (NIV)

I saw an individual the other day in a coffee shop.

I live in a small town, so this person is not strange to me. I know the story. I’ve heard it first hand from this person. I’ve heard other versions of it from this person’s loved ones and friends.

The story reads like a tragedy. Ill-fortune has been this person’s plight. Tragedy seems have followed them on the path, and they have been a victim of circumstance at every turn. Broken relationships lie in their wake along with failed opportunities and countless fruitless attempts at sustained, gainful employment. Addiction, according to the story, has been this persons constant companion though I honestly can’t tell if this is actually true, or if it’s simply a convenient excuse for the chaotic mess of the individual’s life.

In today’s chapter, Lady Wisdom makes clear that she is never hidden. She doesn’t lurk where others can’t find her. She is on the heights where she can bee seen from miles around. She is at the crossroads where traffic is heavy. She is there in public at the gates of the city where everyone passes by. She cries out like a street preacher on his soap box.

Along this life journey, I’ve come to realize that Wisdom is omnipresent. It’s always there for the taking. In every temptation, Wisdom is there to provide good counsel. In every mistake, Wisdom is there with meaningful instruction. In the dark valley of every tragedy, Wisdom is present with guidance and directions towards Light that is waiting just a little further up the road. I’ve not always listened to her, but I’d like to believe that I’ve gotten better at it the further I’ve progressed.

I have observed that Wisdom is never hidden, except for those who are spiritually blind and those who choose to ignore her. Temptations, tragedies, foolish mistakes, and the painful bedlam of our own poor choices are common waypoints on every human being’s life journey. It appears to me that those who listen to Wisdom learn from circumstance and allow these things to inform future thoughts, choices, and behavior. Those who choose to remain blind to her presence and deaf to her words tend to remain in the dark valley with tragedy, excuse and blame as a trio of companions.

Lord, have mercy.

<— Click on Solomon for an indexed list of previous chapter-a-day posts from this series from Proverbs!

About This Post

These chapter-a-day posts began in 2006. It’s a very simple concept. I endeavor each weekday to read one chapter from the Bible. I then blog about my thoughts, insights, and feelings about the content of that chapter. Everyone is welcome to share this post, like this post, or add your own thoughts in a comment. Thank you to those who have become faithful, regular or occasional readers along the journey along with your encouragement.

In 2019 I began creating posts for each book, with an indexed list of all the chapters for that book. You can find the indexed list by clicking on this link.

Prior to that, I kept a cataloged index of all posts on one page. You can access that page by clicking on this link.

tomvanderwell@gmail.com @tomvanderwell

Living in Gray

When the king’s order and edict had been proclaimed, many young women were brought to the citadel of Susa and put under the care of Hegai. Esther also was taken to the king’s palace and entrusted to Hegai, who had charge of the harem.
Esther 2:8 (NIV)

Yesterday at the breakfast table Wendy and I were having breakfast and reading the news, as is our daily habit. Wendy happened upon a news piece that quite clearly divided the United States into two generalized racial groups. Implied in the article was the notion that in America you are either black or white. I find the distinction of choice ironic.

The simplistic divide does not account for the vast number of people of Hispanic, Asian, or Native American descent, nor does it account for the population of interracial couples and their children which, according to U.S. Census figures, has steadily grown since 1967 and continues to do so.

Our culture loves binary, either-or choices. I have observed this to be true of both institutional religion and mainstream news media who are critical one another. When dealing with a large population of people, simple binary choices are much easier to deal with. Here are some examples from both of them:

  • Black or White
  • Conservative or Liberal
  • Fox News or MSNBC
  • Capitalism or Socialism
  • Red State or Blue State
  • Progressive or Deplorable
  • Blue Collar or White Collar
  • Educated or Uneducated
  • Urban or Rural
  • Republican or Democrat
  • Protestant or Catholic
  • Sacred or Secular
  • Christian or Secular
  • Holy or Worldly
  • Evangelical or Mainline
  • Religious or Atheist

And yet, as I have traversed this earthly journey and spiritually followed in the footsteps of Jesus, I find most binary distinctions simplistic and inadequate for addressing complex circumstances and issues. The world and its people with whom I interact every day are an elaborate mosaic of DNA, thought, spirit, background, and experience. To put one complex person into one of two binary boxes for the sake of simple definition is foolishness.

One of the things that I love about the story of Esther is how God works through this young Jewish woman who appears to navigate the tremendously gray territory between binary choices of Jew or Gentile, Hebrew or Persian, and Moral or Immoral. She keeps her heritage and faith secret. Whereas Daniel refused to eat meat provided by his foreign captors, Esther has no such qualms. There is no indication that Esther balks at being part of the Persian harem system that would have instructed her how to pleasure the king sexually on demand.

The book of Esther has confounded binary thinkers for ages. One commentator wrote that Esther’s behavior would not pass any test of modern ethical theory. Her cultural compromises coupled with the pesky fact that God is never mentioned by name in the story led some editors in history to introduce prayers into the book that were never part of the original text along with commentary stating that Esther hated being married to a Gentile. I’ve observed that when the truth is too gray for our comfort zone, we like to shade it to fit our personal binary leanings.

In the quiet this morning I find myself thinking about the value and importance of a story like Esther. She successfully navigates a very uncomfortable world of gray politically, culturally, religiously, and morally. From a position of powerlessness and critical compromise, she is used for God’s purposes in profound and powerful ways. In a time when our political, religious, cultural, and social systems seem perpetually intent on placing me in one of two simplistic boxes, I pray I can, like Esther, find a way to successfully navigate the territory of gray that lies in tension between simplistic, black-and-white definitions.

Freedom, Indulgence, Hard Knocks, and Wisdom

You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Galatians 5:13-14 (NIV)

Among most of Wendy’s and my circle of close friends we happen to be the furthest down the path of life experience. As we enjoy being grandparents for the first time and watch our adult children embarking on their own adult journeys, most of our friends are somewhere between the stages of young children taxi service and sending children off to college for the first time. Just yesterday I was speaking with my friend who is experiencing the latter.

For young people who have lived in a secure home with engaged parents, going off to college is the first opportunity to experience real freedom. No one is looking over your shoulder. No one is reminding you of what you need to do. Plus, opportunities to experience the appetites of life in all their excesses tend to present themselves in abundance.

For many of us, the years of college and young adulthood are when we learn some crucial lessons on life’s road. Chief among them is answering the simple question: “What am I going to do with my freedom?” 

I don’t know a single individual who didn’t, at some point, use freedom to engage and indulge unhealthy appetites in one way or another during these years. Perhaps there are a few true saints out there. Most parents I know, however, like to conveniently white-wash their own young adult excesses as they place all sorts of appetite controls and lofty expectations on their children.

Along the journey I’ve come to the conclusion that each one of us must learn the hard lessons of how we’re going to use our freedom. It’s part of the journey. We all need to have our own wake-up moments like the Prodigal Son finding himself up to his knees in pig slop. We all need our personally induced wake-up calls when we find ourselves saying: “My own choices led me to this awful place. I think I need to make some changes.”

In today’s chapter of his letter to the believers of Galatia, Paul is addressing this same principle. Legalism is great for creating compulsory obedience to a defined set of rules, but it does nothing for helping us learn the crucial, spiritual maturity lessons of appetite control. It’s no coincidence that Paul’s list of behaviors that mark spiritual maturity include “self-control.”

This morning I find myself praying for our own adult children and our grandchild. The truth I’ve discovered is that the lessons of managing our appetites and developing mature self-control are ongoing throughout our life journeys. So, I’m praying for them in their own respective waypoints on this life journey.

I’m also saying prayers for our friends who are in the stages of raising willful children, teenagers testing their boundaries, and young adults experiencing freedom for the first time. I’m praying wisdom for all those parental decisions about rules, consequences, clamping down, and letting go. I’m also praying for the grace and wisdom of the Prodigal’s father, who knew that his Prodigal had to learn his own crucial lessons and experience the awful places we find ourselves when we use our freedom to indulge our appetites. The father didn’t track his son down. He didn’t send a rescue party. He didn’t deny his son life’s required coursework from the school of hard-knocks. The father sat patiently on the front-porch, said his prayers, kept his eye on the road out front, and waited for a much wiser son to come home.

The Freedom That Leads to Slavery

They promise them freedom, while they themselves are slaves of depravity—for “people are slaves to whatever has mastered them.”
2 Peter 2:19 (NIV)

I grew up in a very different time. Parents weren’t as protective and overbearing with children as they are today. They couldn’t. The technology didn’t exist as it does now. As a kid I had quite a bit of freedom. I roamed our neighborhood with other kids. My Schwinn Sting-Ray five speed bicycle expanded the reach of adventure. I rode my bike to the bowling alley, to the pool, or to the wooded areas at the end of Madison and by the Des Moines River. All of this without cell phones or my parents having any idea where I was or what I was doing most of the time.

Of course, this freedom afforded plenty of opportunity to get in trouble. I can think of kids in my neighborhood who used their own freedom to push the limits of acceptable behavior. Often, I was invited and encouraged to join them. Occasionally, I did follow friends into doing what I knew was wrong, but I had a healthy conscience that usually (not always) kept me from repeating those behaviors. As I look back and remember some of those moments when I was encouraged by friends to misbehave, one of the regular arguments provided was that I would be breaking the shackles of parental or societal rules and experiencing freedom of doing whatever I wanted.

I’ve observed along my journey that “freedom” is regularly mentioned by those who propose marginal behavior. I grew up on the tail end of the “free love” generation which was supposed to free people from relational repressions but I never saw it creating healthier, happier individuals. I remember a friend from college who was fighting his own battle with drug addiction. He’d been encouraged to take LSD to “free his mind” but the story he told me was not one of freedom.

In today’s chapter, Peter was writing his letter to early Jesus followers to address a very similar issue. Men had joined with followers of Jesus and then told them all sorts of stories about how people were free to engage in all the marginal behaviors practiced by the pagan religions around them. Con artists were stealing money from the local gatherings of believers and leading people astray in their promises that people were free to do whatever they wanted as Jesus’ forgiveness gave them carte blanche grace and forgiveness. Peter warns the fledgling followers that the “freedom” these heretics were promising would only end in a different kind of enslavement.

This morning I’m thinking about freedom. Jesus said, If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” It’s one of those quotes of Jesus that I’ve observed gets only partially quoted. People love to quote the last part, but leave off the first part. I learned long ago that when I use my freedom to do whatever I want, it doesn’t lead to pleasant places. In fact, the so called “freedom” that many people espouse only leads to a different kind of enslavement.

Christ set me free, not to do what I want, but to do what I ought.

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

“But today I am freeing you from the chains on your wrists. Come with me to Babylon, if you like, and I will look after you; but if you do not want to, then don’t come. Look, the whole country lies before you; go wherever you please.”
Jeremiah 40:4 (NIV)

Some time ago a potential opportunity presented itself to me. It was unexpected, and ultimately not meant to be. However, for a few weeks Wendy and I grappled with the notion of picking up the tent pegs of the life we’ve established and moving on. It does seem, at times, as if the grass is always greener, the possibilities broader, and the road easier “in a new place.” Present reality and circumstance always feels like such a slog. It’s easy for my imagination to conjure how easy it must be in a different place with different circumstances.

Today’s chapter of Jeremiah’s story continues to unfold the events after the City of Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians. The Babylonian King, Nebuchadnezzar, had left Jeremiah in the custody of the Captain of the guard. When the time came for the Captain to return to Babylon he releases Jeremiah from his chains and gives Jeremiah a choice. Go back to Babylon with the Captain and all the exiles, or stay in Judah with the remnant of people left to work the land (the poorest, oldest, and sickest of the population). Jeremiah, who is now advanced in years himself, chooses to stay.

Should I stay or should I go?

This morning I’m thinking about that question which I have grappled with on different occasions in my life journey. I’ve also walked beside friends and family members who have been presented with that question in their own respective journeys. The answer, I have found, is rarely clear or easy.

What I have found, however, is that sometimes there is no clear choice, and really no wrong choice. I choose to stay, or to go, and God weaves my choice into the tapestry of my story and journey. Other times I have found clarity for the right choice through prayer, contemplation, and conversation with my closest of confidants. The more I pray and ponder the more peace I feel with one choice or the other, and pursuing the Spirit’s flow to the path of peace is always a wise choice. Still other times I have found that God makes it very clear through a direct spiritual word, a sign, or the word of a prophet. I have stories I could tell, but I’ll save those for other posts.

This morning I’m thinking about Jeremiah and the choice given him. Was it hard for him? Did God give him clear direction what to do? Or did staying in the rubble of Jerusalem just seem easier for an old man than the long journey to a foreign land? Today’s chapter doesn’t say, but I can imagine his thoughts and questions.

As for me, I’m grateful for where my journey has led me. I’m thankful to be in this place, in this reality, with this people, even when the present circumstances feel like a slog (and they often do). I’m have peace. Last night Wendy and I sat on our back patio and stared out at the back yard which spread out like a huge, thick carpet on a beautiful spring evening in Iowa.

The green grass I’m standing on right here, right now, is just fine.

Grab Your Bug-Out Bag!

“Gather up your bundle from the ground,
    O you who live under siege!
For thus says the Lord:
I am going to sling out the inhabitants of the land
    at this time….”
Jeremiah 10:17-18 (NRSVCE)

Among the sub-culture of the “wild-at-heart” man’s man is a thing known as a bug-out bag. There was a lot of buzz about it among some of the guys in my circles a few years back. The bug-out bag is a single duffle or backpack (you have to be able to carry it) that contains what you need to survive should nuclear war, EMP grid blackout, Zombie apocalypse, or other kind of Mad Max or Hunger Games type dystopia become a sudden reality. The bug-out bag contains things you need to survive like water, food, and the means to create shelter. Oh, and a weapon to kill Zombies or hunt down your next meal is always a wise choice. For the record, I don’t have a bug-out bag so I guess Wendy and I are screwed should any of the aforementioned events transpire.

Life in Jeremiah’s day was infinitely more precarious that the one we live in today. As a human being you’d be fortunate to survive infancy, and if you did survive into your teens you could expect the average life-span to be around 30 years. Disease, famine, and local wars were a constant threat. At that time in history local city-states and tribal kingdoms were being swallowed up by rapidly growing regional empires who had begun to perfect their tactics of military aggression, siege warfare, and political assimilation. The Assyrian and Babylonian empires were chief among them.

Jeremiah’s broken-record prophesies were not really that crazy to the people of his day. The Assyrians and Babylonians had a reputation for ruthlessness that was well-known and well deserved. Assyria had already destroyed their cousins in the northern kingdom of Israel (Jerusalem was part of the southern kingdom of Judah). The prevailing tactic of regional Empires was to take over the city, plunder anything valuable, kill the leaders and take the best and brightest hostage (FYI: Daniel was one of these). So, when Jeremiah wrote in today’s chapter that the people of Jerusalem should grab their bug-out bags, they knew what he was talking about (and it wasn’t a Zombie apocalypse).

For those reading along with this chapter-a-day journey, it should also be noted that Jerusalem had been attacked just a generation before by the Assyrians. In that day the Jerusalem was miraculously spared as the enemy army was mysteriously wiped out overnight (2 Kings 19). This, of course, made Jeremiah’s prophetic task more difficult. The people of Jeremiah’s day believed that God would miraculously save them just as He had done before.

This morning I’m thinking about all the doomsday predictions I’ve heard across my lifetime. From Christian teachers and their mesmerizing interpretations of Revelation to economists warning of global monetary collapse to environmentalists warning of a coming ice age (that was the prediction I heard in elementary school) or global warming meltdown. With the proliferation of voices via the internet there is no lack of fear-inducing doomsday predictions to go around. It’s easy to fall down the rabbit-hole of fear.

When confronted with doomsday predictions I find myself trying to be discerning. I can’t do anything about the timing of events in Revelation so I might as well focus each day on loving others as Jesus calls me to do and not worry about that which I can’t control. I believe God calls us to care for the Earth, so Wendy and I try to be good stewards of natural resources, recycle, and make wise choices for the sake of the environment whenever we can. Yet, once again, there is only so much I can do on a personal level and what will be is out of my control. It seems a waste of mental and emotional energy to live in perpetual fear of that which I don’t know and can’t control.

I confess, however, that the notion of having a bug-out bag (with a compass and one of those giant Rambo-like survival knives) does stir my manly spirit. “Arrrggghh!”