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 2 of 2)
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John: On today's "Focus on the Family," Pastor John Ortberg addresses the uncertainty and the difficulty that we can sometimes have as we try to make good decisions.
Pastor John Ortberg: You know, we hate uncertainty. I never ... 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.
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John F.: So, what about you? Is God growing you through a big decision right now? And what is His will for you? We're going to unpack this fascinating topic on today's "Focus on the Family" with Focus president, Jim Daly. I'm John Fuller and Jim, I can imagine that there are lots of folks leaning in right now, because this area of uncertainty and decisions is so difficult.
Jim Daly: Oh, I hope so, that they're leaning in, John, because it's part of the fabric of our daily lives and decisions can have such a tremendous impact on us. What happens if I choose this job over that job or maybe even, you know, this person to marry versus another person to marry? And how do I do the thing that the Lord would want me to do?
And we've invited Pastor John Ortberg to help us make sense of these big questions in our lives. He's the senior pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in the San Francisco Bay area and he's written about this in his book, All the Places to Go. And John, let me say, it's great to have you back here at "Focus on the Family."
John O.: Thank you. It's great to be back.
John O.: It just seems like I've hardly been away.
Jim: You know, I love chattin' with you, because it just goes a little deeper and you make me think about where I'm at with the Lord and where I'm goin' with the Lord, which is an awesome tool of a teacher. So, thank you for being that.
Last time we left off talking about how God opens doors for us and how He is the God of the open door really, opportunity, you said. And then some of that disappointment that we might have where we feel God opened a door, but there's only been bitterness on the other side and how do we rest in that?
Let me just pick up there to kinda cap that off. For that person who is blaming God for their circumstances, which is common, and I want to encourage people to wrestle with God in that. Don't hold back. God's big enough for you to wrestle with Him in that. If you have those feelings, be honest with Him. But what advice would you give the person who maybe it's as difficult as, who lost a child or divorce or something life-changing that was so dramatic, so deep, so profound, so gut-wrenching that they're strugglin'?
John O.: Yeah, yeah, I was just talking with a dad who has lost his children in a horrible marital situation. And so, the pain level for him is just huge.
Jim: He's lost.
John O.: And yes, yep, and he's lost; and he's lost. And any kind of glib answer or "Here's the formula to figure stuff out" is only gonna add to the pain. I actually think that complaining, I mean, as odd as that sounds, but grappling honestly with God is the only place to start.
And I remember reading one time, you know, the book of the Psalms are so striking and they're so much messier when you actually start to read them. And the most common kind of Psalm actually is the Psalm of complaint, like saying, "God, where are You?" "God, why don't You do something? Why don't You act?"
And of all the ancient religious literature in the ancient world, only Israel had that kind of literature. There was no other ancient religion where people would complain to their gods. And it's because only Israel believed in a God who was interested in listening to people complain.
Jim: (Chuckling) That's a good way to look at that.
John O.: Only Israel believed in a God who had a heart for people, so that their suffering mattered to Him.
Jim: See, I love that. That sounds like a parent--
John O.: Oh, yeah.
Jim: --and what a father would be like.
John O.: Now this is really crucial for folks in this era. Two words, very interesting words in the Old Testament, are "groaning" and "grumbling." And grumbling is always condemned in the Bible, so there's all these stories about the Israelites grumbling and you know, they get in big trouble for it.
All those Psalms, people groan. Grumbling is something you do about God. Groaning is something you do to God.
John O.: And so, it's like in a relationship. If I'm grumblin' to somebody else about John or about Jim, that destroys our relationship. But if I go to you directly and say, "I've been hurt. I'm confused about this," then we can repair the relationship and make it better.
So, it's really interesting, that theme in the Psalms of grumbling versus groaning. So, for anybody who finds themselves disappointed in their circumstances, the only place I know to start and unfortunately, sometimes in our church we don't help people with this is, not only is it okay to be dead honest with God; you have to dead honest with God and say, "I don't get it. I'm mad." I mean, all the time in the Bible we read stuff where we never pray like this in the churches. Moses says to God, "If You're gonna treat me like this, just kill me now."
Jim: (Laughing) Right.
John O.: Well, when's the last time you were at a church where (Laughing) people were all just praying together. "Okay, God, take us out now." But God's apparently not threatened by this, and He can work with that. When we're honest with Him, He can work with it.
Jim: Isn't that something?
John O.: Yeah.
Jim: John, let's get back to your story in terms of your book, All the Places to God … How Will You Know? As a boy, you began to learn these things. You saw it in your mom and dad. They had decisions to make. I'm reminded of that with my own children, how as Jean and I think about directions we take, things that we do, decision making that we go through, that our boys are watching us.
Sometimes as parents, we forget that, but they're all in. They see the emotion of the decision. They see how it may frazzle us or encourage us. Talk about what you saw as a boy with your own parents.
John O.: Yeah, I grew up in Rockford, Illinois. My dad had lived there his whole life long. He was Swedish. He was a CPA. So, by temperament, nature, training, not a big, you know, take risk, crazy impulsive kind of guy. (Laughter)
And at one point, my mom asked him--they were both around 50—"John, is this all there is?" And my dad had kinda been thinking, "Well, yeah." (Laughing) I think so, but when she asked him that, It set him on a journey of, maybe God's got something more for us, than just routine, comfortable, placid life. And so, they ended up being offered a position at a church, you know, 2,000 miles away, different subculture. He had no church training, any of that kind of stuff. And initially, he said no to it and then, again one of the things I do believe deeply about God's will for our lives is, God is able to send us messages if He wants us to change course.
And sometimes He'll say, "This is just your call." But sometimes He'll nudge. And with my dad, He did and my dad is not a dreamer. Again, he's a Swede. Swede's don't have dreams. (Laughter) But he had a dream about a guy who didn't know Christ and said, "John, why didn't you tell me?" And then he was listening to a sermon from a TV preacher. Swedes don't listen to TV preachers.
But this preacher talked about where proof is possible, faith is impossible. And it became quite clear to my dad through a couple of these events, that God was talkin' to him and saying, you know, "You're just choosing based on comfort and predictability. It's not what I have for you. I have set before you an open door."
And so, my mom and dad pulled up roots. They moved away from where they had been their whole life long. They left occupation, friends, everything and it became the great adventure of their life. And they both ended up working on staff at this church in Whittier for over 25 years and it was the most joy-filled, most meaningful, most fulfilling chapter of their lives.
And for me to get to watch my mom and particularly, my dad take a risk like that and leave everything and then have that kind of expression of joy and fulfillment from God, was really a very thrilling thing.
Jim: That is so good. How do we as parents, be intentional about that observant child or children, do you engage them in some of this? Is that a wise thing to do? How do you mentor then in the decisions of life and how we include God? How do you demonstrate that?
John O.: Oh, I think with parents, I don't think we tell our kids nearly enough about our private lives. I think we protect them in the wrong ways and we don't protect them in ways that we should. And so, for parents to let kids know, "I'm uncertain about this. I'm scared about this. I'm anxious about this."
For me as a parent, we have three kids and our oldest daughter, Laurel, when she was going into second grade, we were at a church gathering and we were talking in a circle and she said, "You know, school starts next week and I feel so anxious, I'm havin' a hard time eating." And I have a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. I completely missed what she was saying. My response in that moment was, "Isn't it cute? She's been around adults and she's learning how to talk like adults talk?"
The truth is, she was wrestling with anxiety in ways that I had no idea and I missed it. And Laurel will now talk and write about this quite openly. That's just a huge part of her life. Her whole life long, she will just wrestle with anxiety.
If I would've said to her back then, "I get really anxious about decisions. When I moved and went to Menlo Park and I had to go through, I'm the new kid on the block and this isn't my office and I don't know these people and I don't know if they like me, I feel really anxious about that. And I'm not sure that God's called us here. Did He not? Did I get that decision wrong?"
For parents to model that for their kids and just name it. I'm not sure. I'm prayin'. I'm askin'. Here's what I'm thinkin'. Here, you know, we don't need to protect our kids from that, because if we do, they'll feel like there's somethin' wrong with them.
Jim: John, what you're saying is so true and I want to emphasize something, because a lot of us who choose to work in the Christian vocational space and that's not just pastors, but para-church organizations, all of it, we can have an expectation on our children that's extremely unhealthy. How did you manage that? How did you not go through the door of your vocation as a pastor and then put expectations on your family that, hey, we gotta be a little more perfect than we are, guys. Come on.
John O.: Well, the first thing I'd say is, I messed up a ton as a parent and still do. So, I reject the question. I didn't avoid it. I messed up a lot. The best thing I ever did was the person that I ended up getting' married to. (Laughter) And one of the things I love about Nancy is, she has a fierce spirit of independence. And if you're in the faith-based world vocationally, especially a pastor, that's great, sometimes people would ask her, "How do you feel about being a pastor's wife?"
And for Nance, that would be like water off a duck's back and her classic response would be, "Why in the world would I define my identity based on the occupation of my spouse? You know, I love that my husband does what it is that he does, but that's not my identity. And so, I'm not gonna live my life as if I'm in a fish bowl and everybody gets to have an opinion on me based on the occupation that my husband chose."
So, I'd say that dynamic in our family where we said, we're just gonna resolutely decide together in our marriage and then with our kids, that we're gonna give freedom, so that people don't have to live with the burden of feeling like it's their job to defend the reputation of my occupation.
Jim: I like that.
John F.: Some good wisdom from John Ortberg on today's "Focus on the Family." Your host is Jim Daly and we can tell you more about John's book and a CD of this program, other resources, as well, if you're grappling with life decisions, when you call 800, the letter A and the word FAMILY or find those resources and a download of today's conversation or our mobile app so you can listen on the go at www.focusonthefamily.com/radio.
Jim: John, so many of the Scriptures are opening up when you talk about doors now. I mean, I'm just catchin' so many and you've mentioned several in your book. One that really caught me was Paul in 1 Corinthians, I think it's 16, where he says, "For a wide door for effective work is open to me and there are many adversaries." I mean, that goes right to your whole theme, doesn't it? You go through the door that God's opened to you and then there's wolves waiting to attack you. It doesn't seem like a very kind thing that the Lord has done for us there.
John O.: You know, I think when it comes to this idea of open doors, it's always super exciting, just to think about, God sets open doors before us and we get to go through those doors. But there's also a lot of misconceptions about it and one of them is, that if I choose the right door to go through, life should be easy on the other side.
Jim: And boy, I'm tellin' ya, we as Christians use that a lot. It sets us up for disappointment.
John O.: It does. You know, very often, in fact, people will actually use as a criteria for refusing to go through a door, we just use such goofy language around this stuff, "I just don't feel 'peace' about it," air quotes around the "peace."
And like when in the Bible does God ever call anybody and have them say, "Yeah, I have a sense of peace about confronting Pharaoh or going into the lion's den."
Jim: Yeah (Laughing)
John O.: Or going up against a genocidal maniac? Or like, peace lies on the other side of obedience, not on this side of obedience.
Jim: That's so important. Say it again.
John O.: Peace lies on the other side of obedience, not on this side of obedience. And God, in the Bible, God never gives somebody a call to an easy task. Like, we just love easy, so we feel like, well, if there's an open door, then if I choose that job or that spouse, well, it just oughta be easy. I oughta just go there and when I go to work in that job, if that's God's calling on my life, it oughta be easy every day. The church oughta grow a ton. Everybody should love what I'm doin'. It never works that [way]. God never comes to anybody in the Bible and says, okay, Moses or David or Peter or whoever, do what I'm asking you to do and it'll be pretty easy. It won't be much of an interruption.
Jim: (Laughing) Right.
John O.: It won't make much of a demand on your life.
Jim: Well, this is what I love about the Old Testament particularly, because those stories are there for us to understand the human dimension, how God worked in these people's lives and then we add the blessing of the New Testament, the new covenant of what Jesus has done for us. But I'm thinkin' of Noah. Think of that poor guy.
John O.: Yeah.
Jim: And oh, a door's opening up (Laughing), you know. And in fact, it's gonna up so wide, Noah, that I'm gonna flood the earth through that door, but let's use Noah as that Old Testament example of God opening a door for you that you may not want to walk through.
John O.: Well, you know, first it's just facing ridicule, humiliation, like really, you're gonna build a boat in the desert? You know, that's a little bit goofy. And then, all the work, the logistics around that are kinda crazy.
And then just that family and then on the other side of all of this judgment is, now you gotta repopulate the whole earth and start everything again from scratch. I mean, it's just a story of immense pain and labor and a calling from God. And what the calling is, isn't, "It's gonna be easy." It's, "I'll be with you."
John F.: But John, God spoke very clearly in that circumstance and I will admit, I've never audibly heard God speak to me.
John O.: Yep.
John F.: So, how do I make decisions in this world if I don't use peace as a factor—
John O.: Yeah.
John F.: --if I don't use comfort as a factor and if I don't have God speaking audibly to me?
John O.: Well, I think, John, it just means you're so sinful that you (Laughter) probably might as well give up right now. (Laughter) So …
John F.: Well, I'd say the truth has come out right there. (Laughter)
John O.: Yep. Let's talk a minute about God speaking to us, 'cause that a huge topic that there's lots of disagreement and lots of confusion around. I think as a general rule, because God's primary will for your life is for you to grow into an excellent person, that means, mostly when it comes to decisions, God's will for you is gonna be, "John, I want you to decide." And you will grow if you have to do the work of evaluating options, getting to know yourself, apply judgment, accept responsibility for the consequences, you'll grow, if you do that in ways that you never would grow, if you just got a postcard of directions and carried them out. God doesn't want robots. He actually wants people.
So, we embrace the reality that God calls us to make decisions. And that's not like, well, if God had something great for me to do, He would've told me, and since He's not and I have to make a decision, I'm not as close to God. It's not that way at all. That's God's primary will for your life.
I would say, I think God often speaks to people, and people don't know that God's speaking to 'em. So, can we get into that for a minute?
John O.: Let's talk about communication. Communication is just guiding somebody's thoughts. So, right now, we're talking. You're having thoughts that you wouldn't if I wasn't saying these words, hopefully—
John O.:--that's what's happening. Because I'm finite, I have to use finite means to guide your thoughts, so I have to make sounds, or I can write stuff down and then those sights will guide your thoughts. God is infinite [omniscient] and that means, God can guide your thoughts, without using any finite means at all. God can actually cause a thought to be in your mind, without having to use sounds or sights.
God is able to do that. But what that means then is, it's possible for there to be a thought in my mind that has been led by God, but I don't know it. And we see this in the Bible. You remember the story of little Samuel, when he hears his voice called, and he says to Eli, "What do you want?" And Eli eventually says to him, "If you hear your name called again, just say, 'Speak, Lord; Your servant listens.'" And that's sometimes called the ministry of Eli. The ministry of Eli is when one person helps another person learn to discern the voice of God in their mind. And I think the ability to listen to God actually is a learned skill that we can acquire.
Jim: John, let me ask about that redemption. There's like three thoughts flowing through my mind right now. One is, the way we label a door—a right door, a wrong door. And what I'm hearing from you is, maybe God doesn't use that label at all. We do in our finite minds. We need to think of bad things connected to the wrong door—
John O.: Yeah.
Jim: --and good things connected to the right door. But what I'm hearing you say is, God just says, the open door is there.
John O.: That's exactly right. There's an old game show—I don't know if you guys remember it—called "Let's Make a Deal." And at the end of the show, there was always the big deal of the day behind Door No. 1, Door No. 2, Door No. 3.
A lot of times, honestly, I just want the big deal of the day and so, I'm not real concerned with God's will for my life from one moment to the next. But when there's a big decision, whether that could be a big payoff or a big downside, then it's like, "God, You've gotta tell me what's the big deal of day behind?"
Jim: Even non-believers will do that, won't they?
John O.: Totally.
Jim: They'll pray in that moment.
John O.: Well, and no, and that's where superstition comes in and we want to try to force, you know, finding out what's gonna make me successful. And that's superstition, not faith. So, to not put the pressure on yourself of saying, there's one right door and one wrong door. Very often, very often how I go through the door matters more than which door I go through.
Jim:How you go through it--
John O.: Yep.
Jim: --matters more than which one.
John O.: So, for instance—
Jim: That's good.
John O.: --when I came out to the church where I am in Menlo, I didn't know for sure, is God saying you have to go there? You can't go there? As best I could discern it, God was saying, "John, I want you to decide, and again, you'll grow more if you make that decision than if I just told you, and I can use you in either place."
But what can happen is, I go through that door. I go to that church and then I can start to waste time and energy by saying, what if I had gone through Door No. 2 instead of Door No. 1? And then just spin out all these imaginary, oh, it would've been so much better. It would've been so much easier. And then instead of throwing myself fully into this life and these relationships and these tasks, I become half-hearted and I'm holding myself back, 'cause half of me is living in those relationships and that place and I actually make it the wrong place by how I execute it. So, that's why I say, this is so critical for folks listening to us, very often how you go through the door matters more than which door you go through.
Jim: I really like that. Let me ask you, though, because again, we'll connect these actions. Say that door of a bad decision, there is now the need for redemption.
John O.: Yeah.
Jim: Again, I would question why you're connecting it to that door, but let's say you do. It can be a light-hearted redemption, if I could say it that way. It's not too grievous. But it could be a decision a woman made to have an abortion. It could be a decision to leave my spouse three years ago and that life is done now. Talk about how a person finds redemption—
John O.: Oh, man.
Jim: --through the door.
John O.: Yeah, you know, we always want to lean away from the wrong doors that we've gone through. And what I'd say to folks is, lean in; lean in; lean in. God's specialty is redemption. It's like, He specializes in this.
Who can help somebody that's an alcoholic? Well, it's another alcoholic. And so, all of those moments when I went through wrong doors, once I surrender my life to God, it's not that he makes my life as if I had never gone through those wrong doors. It's way better than that. He actually uses precisely that pain and that experience to enable me to give myself in ways that can bless people who have known precisely that pain. God ends up using the wrong doors and the pain points and the wounds of our life, sometimes more powerfully than He does what we think of the strengths and the right choices of our life. That's what it means to say, our God specializes in redemption.
Jim: John, when I look at our world, the first world, you know, we have that little joke now that we say, that's a first world problem, you know, my cell phone's broken or (Laughing) whatever it might be or I didn't get that parking place. That's a first-world problem.
When we look at the attitude of the church, boys and girls that are raised in the church, they hear the right door to go through constantly in their lives. It'll be better for you to do this. I even say to my boys, "Boys, here's the three things that we do. We finish school. We get married and we have children." I have them repeat that mantra to me, 'cause I want to blazon into their minds not to make that mistake.
Yet, at the same time, what I'm hearing you say is that people and I like to say it this way, people that walk with a limp, people that have experienced that pain, typically God can use in more profound ways than a perfect person. And in our zeal to project to a hurting world perfection, rather than brokenness, we may be utterly missing the mark.
John O.: I love that emphasis; God's will is bigger than the American dream. And very often, when we obsess over God's will for my life, it is precisely around first-world choices. How do I have a successful career? How do I live in the kind of wonderful home that I want to? How do I make sure that I and then my kids get into the right school? Throughout human history, most of the human race has not had that luxury.
Jim: Right, it's unique.
John O.: And people have had to eke out a living, you know, by living as subsistence farmers and try to find housing for themselves wherever they can, as best they can and lived in an arranged marriage that was taken care of by their parents. Throughout the human race, that's been the condition of people in the majority of times and places.
And that does not nullify the will of God and that's because the main thing God gets out of your life is the person you become. And the person who is having to live as a subsistence farmer on a minimal income, in an arranged marriage, in a hut someplace, might have become the most glorious, Spirit-filled, joyous, love-giving human being on the planet. And then God's will has been fulfilled in that person far more than in me, if I chose this job that made me very successful, even in the "Christian realm" and I couldn't agree more, Jim, with your point and we have to have an understanding of the will of God that's bigger than the success narrative that goes with Western Culture.
Jim: Yeah. Well, you have opened a door to our thinking these last couple of days and I so appreciate the fact that you have written this book, All the Places to Go … How Will You Know? And this'll help you if your 15 or 75 in your decision making, in how you rest with peace and joy in Christ as you journey through life. And once again, John, can I simply ask you to end with that great statement about what God wants to see at the end of your life?
John O.: The main thing God gets out of your life is the person you become, and that's also the main thing you get out of your life.
Jim: I love that. I'm gonna write that down and put it on my fridge and you know you hit the mark when I do that. Thanks for bein' with us.
John O.: Thanks very much for havin' me.
John: Well, what great advice we've had for a second day from Pastor John Ortberg and hopefully, your frig will have a saying or two from the discussion about God's will for you and ways to make decisions that please Him. And I hope that you'll ask for a copy of John's book, All the Places to Go. We've got that and a CD or a download of this conversation at www.focusonthefamilycom/radio or call us and we can tell you more about these and other helpful resources. Our number toll-free, 800-A-FAMILY; 800, 232-6459.
And we rely on your generosity to continue producing radio programs like this one and reaching around the world to strengthen the faith of people and help families with their needs. And we'd invite you to join our support team. We can't do this good work without you and when you're able to make a generous donation today to the work of Focus, we'll send a copy of John's book, All the Places to Go as our way of saying thank you.
Our program was provided by Focus on the Family and on behalf of Jim Daly and the entire team, thanks for joining us. I'm John Fuller, inviting you back next time. We'll hear from Dr. Gary Chapman to learn about controlling your anger.
Dr. Gary Chapman: But I would say, count to 100 or 1,000. (Laughter) Ten's not long enough, you know. And it's just a way of stopping your immediate response long enough for you to think about, you know, what's happening here.
End of Excerpt
John: Well, that's Dr. Gary Chapman. He's with us tomorrow, as we once again, help you and your family thrive.
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John OrtbergView Bio
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, www.johnortberg.com.