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Walking Through Life's Open Doors (Part 1 of 2)

Air Date 03/08/2016

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Pastor John Ortberg talks about God opening and closing doors of opportunity as a way of revealing His will for your life, and offers biblically-based insights on how you can become the person He meant for you to be by following His guidance in making the tough choices you face. (Part 1 of 2)

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Episode Transcript


Mention: Gary Smalley's Death, March 6, 2016

John Fuller: This is John Fuller with Focus on the Family and we're saddened by the news that author and speaker, Gary Smalley passed away over the weekend. He was the founder and president of the Smalley Relationship Center and a popular guest here on these programs. His son, Greg is vice president of the marriage outreach here at Focus and we'd ask that you'd keep the entire Smalley family in your prayers and please know that very soon we'll air a program with Gary and in the meantime, Jim Daly has written some thoughts about Gary Smalley and his legacy and we'll link over to Jim's blog at

End of Mention

John: Everyone looks at life's opportunities just a little bit differently, some with confidence and eagerness and others with fear and skepticism. And on today's "Focus on the Family," our guest will give you some new perspectives on opportunities and open doors in your life. And we thank you for joining us. Your host is Focus president, Jim Daly and I'm John Fuller.

Jim Daly: You know, John, in our lives there are those times when we come up to a decision and we don't know what to do. You know, we're thinkin', so we go this way? Do we go that way? Is it this job or that job?

And we can really work ourselves into anxiety and fear. And I am so grateful for the topic today and what our guest has written about, because I can remember in my 20's, you know, do I go to this college or that college? Do I take this job? And the Lord was in it all, but sometimes I just couldn't hear Him. And we're gonna talk about how you go through those doors and have faith and confidence that the Lord is with you.

John: Yeah, I think I was paralyzed in college (Laughter). You mentioned that time frame and I want to get it right. I don't want to make a wrong decision. And John Ortberg is with us today. He's the senior pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in the San Francisco Bay area. He's written about this in his book, All the Places to Go … How Will You Know? And the subtitle is, God Has Placed Before You an Open Door. What Will You Do?


Jim: John, it is wonderful to welcome you back to "Focus on the Family."

John Ortberg: It's great bein' here. Thanks, you guys, so much.

Jim: What a topic. I mean, this one, I started, to be honest, I was thinkin', okay, does this have enough meat? And I was talkin' with my wife about it. And she goes, "Oh, this is gonna be a good broadcast." And there is somethin' there innate, especially in our humanness; we find it difficult to trust the path in front of us, that there is somebody, the Lord, who actually is ahead of us in this. And we know He knows where we're goin', even if we don't. How do we take all of that and actually calm our nerves that God is in control?

John O.: Well, you know, I think decision-making is one of the most anxiety producing experiences in life. And for anybody that's facing especially those kind of major crossroads of, what am I gonna do with my life? Where should I live? What job should I choose? Should I get married? Which person? It just produces so much fear.

And ironically and sadly, a lot of times faith, trust in Christ, instead of giving people more confidence and more ease, it actually adds pressure to us, 'cause I feel like, in addition to, I want to try to get my life right, now it's like, I think God has somethin' I'm supposed to do, and I'm not sure how to figure out what it is. And if I get it wrong, is He gonna be mad at me? And will I be on the wrong track? And people end up getting paralyzed instead of being made confident by their faith in God.

Jim: That's kind of funny. I never thought about it like that. It's almost like we feel God has given us an instruction manual—

John O.: Yeah.

Jim: --that's not in our language. (Laughing) Have you ever said that?

John O.: That's exactly right. It was like, I didn't get the decoder ring.

Jim: Yeah. (Laughing)

John O.: You know, where's the deal that I'm supposed to have that's gonna let me know which path to take?

Jim: Right, and how do we trust in that? As a pastor at Menlo Pres[byterian], which is a great church-- I am so excited about what you're doin' in the Bay area and just the vibrancy of the church there--when you are counseling people, I would think and correct me, but I would think 80 percent, 90 percent of those pastoral counseling connections deal with these kinds of questions.

John O.: Oh, you know, for anybody who's doing church work, offering a class or a seminar on how to know God's will for your life is the quickest way (Laughter) to fill up a room. And like, there's nobody who's not interested in that one, so that's huge.

Jim: Okay, why is that?

John O.: Well, I think it's because we know our life hinges on our decisions, you know. When you think about it, we make choices and then our choices really determine our life. And if you make the wrong choice, you're hosed. (Laughter) And so, like we don't want to make wrong choices.

But part of why that's getting' worse and there's folks that do a lot of research around this is, we face a lot more decisions than people ever had before in human history. I mean, my gosh, you go to a Cheesecake Factory and look at the menu. Just tryin' to figure out, what am I gonna choose for lunch can be kinda overwhelming.

Jim: That is so true.

John O.: Yeah and so, we're all on choice overload. We face choice fatigue and you know, so I say the problem's gettin' worse.

Jim: When you look at it, you mentioned that catastrophic decision.

John O.: Yeah.

Jim: It's what we feel, but the truth of it is, God uses all of that, too, doesn't He? Even if you have made a decision that has turned our poorly, it doesn't mean God didn't open that door for you.

John O.: Well, here's the, you know, the biggest thing I didn't understand for so long, is the nature of God's will for my life and what's most important. So, when I was finishing up at school, I was tryin' to figure out what direction should I do? Should I be a therapist, 'cause I studied clinical psychology, or should I work in the church, or somethin' else?

And I prayed and prayed and prayed and prayed and said, "God, just tell [me]. I don't care what it is; just send me a postcard. I'll do it. I just want to know." And I didn't get any answer from heaven and so, I felt like either I'm prayin' wrong or God's messin' up, because I'm supposed to get direction.

And what it took me so long to understand is, God's primary will for my life is the person I become, not the circumstance that I inhabit.

Jim: You gotta say that again, because people, that caught us.

John O.: For anybody who's listenin' to me right now, God's primary will for your life is the person you become; it's not the situation that you inhabit.

And the reason that's so important is, anybody who's a parent will know about this, and you guys have faced this all the time at Focus. I have three kids, and I'll sometimes ask folks, "Would you want your kids to always just do whatever you tell them? Wear these clothes; date this person; go to this school; move to this house; take this job?" And often parents will say, "Yeah, that sounds like (Laughter) a pretty good idea." But the correct answer is, "No," because it's only through the process of having to make decisions that children grow into persons of excellent judgment and character.

Jim: Yes.

John O.: And very often and what was goin' on in my life was, I really wasn't as interested in knowing God's will for my life, as being spared the anxiety of having to make a difficult decision.

Jim: Right.

John O.: And God actually is in the character-formation business, and there's no way to do character formation without having to make decisions. That's the way that we grow, and it's painful and it's uncomfortable, but we just live a lot of times in this weird kinda Christian bubble. And people will latch onto the idea that if I'm following God, if I trust God, I oughta have a life where there's no anxiety, and there's no pressure, and I don't have to have the discomfort of not knowin'.

And actually, uncertainty is one of the great tools for people-making in all of human existence. When our oldest daughter was applying to college, I remember having a conversation with her, and she had this school she really wanted to go to. I wasn't quite as excited, 'cause it cost so much money. But she was so anxious about, will I get in or not?

And what I realized was, even if I could let her know whether or not she was gettin' in, I wouldn't do it, because if she could live with poise and confidence and love for other people in this era of uncertainty, she would grow more as a person, than if she already knew the outcome.

And it's the first time I really realized, you know, we hate uncertainty. I just want to know. But if there's somebody that I want to have grow, strategic uncertainty can be a great tool for growth.

Jim: You are saying something here that we've gotta catch. This is really important, that uncertainty and being comfortable, because I'm thinking and I didn't intend or have questions in this direction, but when you look at that parenting role, today—

John O.: Yeah.

Jim: --we are so bent on removing uncertainty, removing pain. We're tryin' to create an environment of comfort, ultimate comfort for ourselves and for our children. But what you're saying is I think right from the Lord's heart, John.

John O.: Well--

Jim: That is not the measure of life.

John O.: --you know, we'll talk in our day about helicopter parents that just swoop in and remove all discomfort from their kids. What's interesting is, God is not a helicopter God.

Jim: Right, that's why you're goin', Lord, are You there?

John O.: Yeah, God's (Laughter) actually very comfortable with having people go through the wilderness and then havin' all kinds of uncertainty. And what I didn't realize was, God knew, probably 'cause of my own junk, 'cause I'll want to know from important people in my life, what do they want from me, and then try to use my gifts to get them to applaud for me.

And I think God knew I would grow more if I had to face a difficult decision and make it on my own, than I would grow if I was just given the decision and told to go do it.

Now, I do think it's absolutely possible, God can and does say to people, "Jim, I do have this job for you." Or "John, I do have this place where I want you to go," or this task to accomplish. I think God is perfectly capable of doing that. God can send the right thought. He can do it through a conversation or a book.

But very often, because God's primary will for you is the person that you become, that means often God's will for you will be, I want you to decide.

Jim: And I love your emphasis on the idea of the heart. It's your heart that God is after.

John O.: Yes.

Jim: Oftentimes, especially 20-, 30-somethings who have talked to me about where they're at in life, some of the decision making that they have in front of them, what vocation, I'll try to give them some peace to say, "Listen, God's will in my opinion, is not just a point on a continuum. We live in more what I would consider the will of God being more like a sphere, where as long as you in that sphere, doing His work every day—

John O.: Yeah.

Jim: --waking up saying, 'Lord, today I'm gonna go bake bread as a baker, but I want to honor You in how I do that, how I engage people around me,' I think the Lord's goin', 'Go for it. Right on!'" He's not that concerned about our vocational choices, as long as they bring us pleasure. They don't dishonor Him and in the course of the day, we're doing everything to lead people to Him. I think that's it.

John O.: I love that. There's a[n] expression from the Early Church by a guy named Irenaeus, where he said, "The glory of God is a human being fully alive." And I know there's some people that hate church history. (Laughter) I think that's so sad. I love it.

But one of the ways that we know that God leads us is when you're watchin' somebody and you know, the Bible talks a lot about spiritual gifts and you see somebody that's got the gift of mercy or the gift of leadership or the gift of teaching and when they're operating in that sphere, it's like every cell in their body comes alive.

And what's happening in that process is, they're actually learning to discern God's will in them by becoming intensely aware of themselves and the work of the Spirit.

Jim: Yeah.

John O.: I remember when I was a kid growing up and I would always wonder, like when you're in love, how do you know? And I remember somebody telling me with a nod of the head, there's a classic Christian expression, "You'll just know; you'll just know." Well, that wasn't helpful for me at all.

Jim: I was gonna say, not very comforting.

John O.: What would've been really helpful was, if somebody were to say, "John, you have to become the world's leading expert on yourself. You have to work really hard to find out what do you value? What do you like? What do you dislike? What kind of person do you have chemistry with? What kind of person's gonna call forth your best self? You have to do the hard work of getting to know yourself really, really well so that you can get to know what kind of person could you connect with and how could you build a relationship?"

That's so much more work than, "You'll just know." And it's a weird thing to say, because obviously, if I believe in God, and I believe in the supernatural, but believing in the supernatural is different than magic. And a lot of times, we turn discerning the will of God into really superstition and magic and that bypasses the hard work of spiritual growth.

John F.: Well, we're talking to John Ortberg on today's "Focus on the Family" with Jim Daly, and what a great conversation about decision making, about God's will. John's written about this in his book, All the Places to Go … How Will You Know? Kind of a Dr. Seuss rhyme to it, feel. You can find out more about the book and a CD or a download of this conversation and our mobile app at

John F.: I hear what you're saying, John, and this is all really good. This feels though like you're not giving me the answer I want, which is, I'm 31. I've got two kids. I'm considering a cross-country move. How do I know?

John O.: Yeah.

John F.: 'Cause it's gonna take a long time for me to be an expert on myself and for me to read all the signs that God might be [sending]. How do I know today?

Jim: Sounds like you got a decision right in front of you, John.

John F.: Well, I'm not 31 with two kids. (Laughter)

John O.: I was gonna say, you looked a little older and I didn't know you were sayin' about leavin', but other than that, it's a great question. (Laughter) It's very interesting in the Bible what you don't read.

You don't read in the Bible to seek direction. What you read is seek wisdom. And you'll see statements like in the book of James, where it says, "If anyone lacks wisdom, let them ask of God, who gives to everyone generously." Or the whole book of Proverbs, which is about wisdom and you know, they loved wisdom so much, they would talk about wisdom as if it was a person.

And so, I think the best guidance to give that 31-year-old guy that's listenin' to us right now is, don't expect there to be a supernatural postcard from heaven. It's possible there could be. God does that sometimes. If that happens, that's great.

But seek wisdom, and the way to do that is, get a few really wise people in your life that love God, that know you well and are willing to speak truth to you. And get together with them, and have them ask you a lot of questions. In some traditions, there's a Quaker tradition, and they actually talk about what they call a Clearness Committee, where you get together with some people who know you and love you and you spend several hours together and you pray and then it's a conversation where they'll ask questions. What makes you feel alive? What are you good at doing? Why would you think about doing this? Why would you not? And they discern the will of God together.

It's very interesting, in Richard Foster's book, called The Celebration of Discipline, he talks about guidance. He lists guidance as a corporate practice, not an individual practice. And when God leads, you know, when He led Israel across that wilderness with the pillar of cloud by day and fire by night, He leads people corporately.

And I think one of the problems we have a lot of times is, we turn it into a very individualistic, sometimes even kind of narcissistic thing. So, I'd say for that guy, ask God for wisdom. Seek to know yourself really well, but then bring some good wise people into your life and talk about the decision with them.

Jim: You know, John, so often spouses, we tend to overlook our spousal input.

And there is great wisdom in the two of you comin' together and talking things through. And I think a lot of husbands, at times, not to be too stereotypical here, but a lot of husbands can disregard their wife's input to their detriment, when they're facing a family decision like that. How would you encourage either a wife or a husband to be more open to the input of that spouse?

John O.: I love that comment, and I was talking to somebody not too long ago about a difficult situation and that person spoke great wisdom into it and I said, "Man, you're a wise person." And what he said was, "You know, it's easy to be wise when you're lookin' into somebody else's life." And it's so true. There's something about being in the middle of something that's difficult that can blind us to realities.

And I think that God gave us marriage and God gives us spouses, because that's the person closest to us that's able to look into our life. And how often inside me is there somethin' that's defensive or stubborn or proud.

Jim: Ouch. (Laughter) You're hittin' me in every way.

John O.: Well, I talked to your wife just before coming here. (Laughter) She said, "John, if you'll put it in personal terms, like use these words, Jim will know immediately."

Jim: (Laughing) That's right.

John O.: So, that actually was directed particularly to you. But, what'll happen is, I'm always, all of us in marriages are sending signals to our spouses all the time. I'm open; I want to hear what you have to say, or I'm closed. And the more we know each other, the more we read that stuff and it's in our bodies. And it can be with an eyebrow. It can be with, you know, shrugged shoulders.

And so, I'd say to anybody listening now, to go to your spouse and say, "I want you to know that I really value your deepest inputs into my life, and especially, I want there to be an open door for you to tell me things that you're afraid I might not want to hear." If I'm the one opening that door, then she can tell me and I'm okay with it.

Jim: Right.

John O.: But as long as I'm pushing away, then I'm robbing myself of the opportunity to hear what I most need to hear. And I hate it when people in marriages do that.

Jim: Yeah, I mean, it's so true. You know, even the Lord does not push His way through the door. The Scripture, it says, "I stand at the door and knock." He's polite enough to knock at the heart … the door of your heart.

John O.: God has given to everybody the key to the door in their own heart and He Himself will not violate that.

Jim: Isn't that something? In fact, John, as you talk about the door analogy, first of all, a couple of the Scriptures that you reference in your book, what grabbed you about "the door?"

John O.: Oh, I had a teacher in college, Jerry Hawthorne, who would talk about that passage in Revelation, this fabulous passage, where Jesus says to the church, "I have set before you an open door." And he would talk about how, you know, sometimes [a] door is such a great image. We could talk about slammin' the door in somebody's face. It could be rejection. It could be privacy.

But here's it's a picture of opportunity, of unlimited chances to make your life count for eternity. And that thought that God wants me to go through life, not just as somebody living in fear or living under pressure, but that not just when I'm deciding what job to take or who to get married to, but every moment. This moment now being with you, Jesus is here and there's an open door and I can look at you and love you and I can pray and ask God, "God, what would be wisdom that might help folks that are listening to us right now?" And that's an open door.

And I don't carry the pressure of that. That's up to God to help me with that and then my job is just to show up and be available for it. And then in the next moment, there's another door and the next moment, there's another door.

And life is a series of open doors, and my job is not to live with the burden or pressure of how good did I do? It's just to grow in my ability to recognize the door and say, "Jesus, let's go through it together." And for everybody listening to us right now to say, "I want to become an open-door person." I love that.

Jim: Yeah, it just speaks the Gospel—

John O.: Yeah.

Jim: --to be an open-door person. Yet, John, I want to be realistic. In this life, we end up slamming a lot of doors, even within the Christian community—

John O.: Yeah.

Jim: --to our spouses, to ourselves. Why does our flesh and perhaps even the enemy of our hearts, get a grip on us in that way?

John O.: Well, I love talking about the guy who I think is the patron saint of closing doors to God, who's Jonah.

Jim: Yeah.

John O.: And John, you were talkin' about Dr. Seuss. I have a whole little run on Jonah, where God comes to him and says, "You know, I want you to go and preach to Nineveh." I would not go there in a boat; I would not there on a goat. (Laughter) I would not go there in a gale," you know. (Laughter) So—

Jim: That's good.

John O.: --there actually is a guy named Abraham Maslow that wrote a whole book on what he calls "The Jonah Complex," this strange tendency we have to evade our destiny and to deny our calling. And when you look at Jonah, it's a very interesting story. He goes and buys a ticket to go somewhere else. In other words, he's got means. He's got resources. He's got money, so he's got the luxury of bein' able to say no to God and then he's got his own reputation to think about, and you know, he doesn't want to go to Nineveh, 'cause these are people that don't like Israel. So, like go in to my enemies and doin' somethin' there?

So, again, that one I think really comes back to self-awareness and wisdom. I have to learn myself well enough to know, where is God callin' me to do somethin' where, because of pride or because of fear or because of stubbornness or because of ego, I want to say no.

And what's great about the Jonah story, it's so interesting. At the end of it, for folks who know that, Jonah is talking with God and God gives him the shade to protect him from the sun and then takes it away, and Jonah's mad and God poses the question, you know, "If it's okay for you to be mad about that shade, isn't it right for me to want to save the people of Nineveh?" And we don't know what Jonah's answer is.

And it's a lot like Jesus' story about the Prodigal Son and the older brother. And at the end of that story, the father is saying to the older brother, "Shouldn't we rejoice about the saving of your younger brother?" And the reason that story is left unresolved is, it's not really about Jonah. It's not really about the older brother. It's really about you. It's really about me.

And so, even if I have resisted God, even if I've closed doors to Him like Jonah did, like the older [brother], God always comes back to us to say, "But you know what? I'm the God that can redeem closed doors. Won't you open it? Won't you open your heart?" Whatever anybody's listenin' to, whatever doors you've closed, I believe the lie of the evil one is, that your rejection permanently puts you into Plan B of God's will for your life. And God will always redeem that if you open your heart up to Him now.

Jim: John, that is really good sentiment. It's an excellent place to root yourself in, because it helps to deflect bitterness and the other things that can spring up when you feel like you've been forced into a bad decision or you made a bad decision. Let's in the last couple minutes, talk about that, that quick scenario.

So, I know someone who made sacrifices. They live in a smaller town. They wanted, as a couple, they wanted to keep the kids near the grandparents. The grandparents were retired in this small town. But there vocationally wasn't much opportunity for the husband. So, he chose to stay there as a commitment to his wife, that would keep the kids close to the grandparents. But over 15 years, 20 years, he was still the facilities guy at the local high school. He wasn't able to rise above that. There just wasn't that much opportunity.

And now he's 50-years-old and he really hasn't done what he had hoped he could do with his life. Talk to that person who's come into your office, as the pastor, saying, "I think I've made horrible decisions and I don't have a 401(k) and I don't have retirement. I don't have all these things that some of my friends from high school have now and they've done well in life." Yet, he has good kids.

Was that a good decision, a bad decision? How do you counsel that person who's living with years of regret for thinking they may have made bad choices?

John O: Okay, I'm so glad you raised that one. If there was way that I could tattoo this next statement on everybody's brains listenin' to us, I would. This is from a man named Dallas Willard, who's been a huge help to me around just life-God-faith. This is what I'd say to any of those people. The main thing God gets out of your life is the person you become. And that's actually the main thing you get out of your life. The main thing that you take into your eternity will not be your resumé. It won't be your title. It won't be your office.

The main thing God gets out of your life is the person you become. And there is no circumstance, no company, no boss that can prevent you from becoming a glorious radiant being, who glows with the goodness of God. And it doesn't matter what size town you live in.

Oh, Jim, this just gets us deep into the reality of the kingdom of God. And that there's no way to enter into these issues without entering into the teachings of Jesus about the fact that the kingdom is the most real thing.

So, there's the guy who ended up working in the kitchen his whole life long and nobody ever knew him. He was utterly obscure. He died. And after his death, some of his spiritual advice to people in the forms of letters and so, got put together in a book.

That book ended up being called The Practice of the Presence of God. It has become, outside of the Bible, maybe the most widely read book in the world.

Now in his day, the guy that was the head of his community would have been way more famous. Everybody would [know him]. All he did was work in the kitchen, just do chores rather clumsily, but God was pouring grace into the world through him in ways that all of the "important" people, you know, have been utterly eclipsed by now for centuries. We don't know. Nobody knows. It is utter presumption to think that we know from God's scheme from eternity who matters and who doesn't, who has made the best choices and who hasn't, who's had impact and who hasn't. We don't know.

Jesus looks and He says, "Here's this widow, and she puts two more mites in. She has given more than everybody else." That's not poetry. That's not a metaphor. That's not pretty language. Intention, love, desire, those are real. Those are more real than just money.

And so, for anybody listening to us now, I would just say, do not be discouraged by where you are or the scale of your life. The main thing God gets from your life is the person you become.

Jim: That is so well-said. John Ortberg, author of the book, All the Places to Go … How Will You Know? And John, there are more questions I want to ask you. if you're willing, let's come back next time and keep diving into this great topic. Can we do that?

John O.: I would love it.


John F.: Well, I'm sure that this conversation has sparked some thinking for you about decisions you've got to make or how you've gone about seeking God's will in the past . Ad we'll look at some of those gut-wrenching choices that we all have to deal with sometimes and get more insights from John Ortberg in our next program.

Now meanwhile, ask for a copy of his book, either for yourself or a family member or a friend. It's called All the Places to Go. And we've got that and a CD or a download of this program at or call 800, the letter A and the word FAMILY.

And we'd like to send you that book when you join our support team and make a generous donation of any amount to Focus on the Family.

Our program today was provided by Focus on the Family and on behalf of Jim Daly and the entire team, thanks for listening. I'm John Fuller, inviting you back tomorrow as we'll hear more insights from John Ortberg.


John Ortberg: God ends up using the wrong doors and the pain points and the moon of our life sometimes more powerfully than He does what we think of as the strength and the right choices of our life. That's what it means to say, our God specializes in redemption.

End of Excerpt

John F.: Encouraging insights about decision making and God's love for you next time, as we once again, help you and your family thrive.

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John Ortberg

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John Ortberg is the senior pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in the San Francisco Bay Area. He has authored numerous books on Christian living including The Life You've Always Wanted, Who is This Man? and Know Doubt. John holds a Master of Divinity and a doctorate in clinical psychology from Fuller Seminary. He and his wife, Nancy, have three grown children. Learn more about John by visiting his website,