It is high time to put open and closed doors in their place. “Well, that’s an open door, so I guess God wants me to walk through it.” Or, “That’s a closed door, so it must not be God’s will.” Such statements sound like trust in God, but in fact they indicate Christians taking the path of least resistance, not necessarily following God’s calling as we choose our vocations and make other important choices.
Sometimes God wants us to beat on a closed door until we break it open. William Wilberforce famously heard God’s call, not to ministry but to the work of government, to service as a Minister of Parliament, his mission to oppose the transatlantic slave trade in the British Empire. He famously stated, “It would merit no better name than desertion if I were thus to fly from the post to which Providence has placed me.” Yet William Wilberforce persisted in his calling for twenty-six years will little to no success, his mission a fool’s errand. Only in his twenty-seventh year of effort did God suddenly bless his work for justice. Similarly, if Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders had treated civil rights for Black Americans as a closed door, what would our nation have lost? Sometimes a closed door is actually God’s call, a call to push, push, push until it finally opens.
Scripturally, the prophet Isaiah received a famous call, one he recounts in the book of Isaiah chapter 6: “And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ Then I said, ‘Here I am! Send me.’” What is less famous is God’s promise that immediately follows, that he will have no success, that no one will listen to him:
He said, “Go and tell this people: ‘Be ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing, but never perceiving.’ Make the heart of this people calloused; make their ears dull and close their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.” Then I said, “For how long, Lord?” And he answered: “Until the cities lie ruined and without inhabitant, until the houses are left deserted and the fields ruined and ravaged, until the Lordhas sent everyone far away and the land is utterly forsaken. And though a tenth remains in the land, it will again be laid waste. But as the terebinth and oak leave stumps when they are cut down, so the holy seed will be the stump in the land.” (Isaiah 6:9–13, NIV)
Isaiah was called by God, but he was called to beat on a closed door. As were so many others: Elijah, Jeremiah, Micah, Shemaiah… As the book of Hebrews says, “The world was not worthy of them.” They followed God’s call, but it was hardly an open door. Yes, sometimes God wants us to beat on a closed door until we break it open – or even end our days without ever having managed to break it down.
Other times, God wants us to look at an open door and walk right past. In Acts 16, Paul and Barnabas are in prison for the usual reason, proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ. Arrested unjustly, at the instigation of a mob, after delivering a young woman from a demon, they are thrown into the inner prison, beaten, their feet fastened in stocks. In the middle of the night, God sends an earthquake, one that literally opens the prison doors: “At once all the prison doors flew open, and everyone’s chains came loose” (verse 26). Though this is an earthquake-prone region of the world, this is clearly a supernatural deliverance, as even an earthquake would not make a prisoner’s chains come loose from wrists and ankles. If I were in prison unjustly, only for doing right, and if I knew that I might well be killed the next morning, and if then God sent an earthquake that freed me from my chains and opened the prison doors – well, I don’t know about you, but I’d be gone. But when the jailer rushes in and, thinking the prisoners must have escaped, prepares to take his own life, Paul calls out, “We are all here.” Faced with a supernaturally open door, Paul and Barnabas somehow knew that they ought not walk through it.
In other words, Christian decision making is more complex than closed or open doors. In fact, closed and open doors may mean the reverse of what they seem. We must do better.
To make better sense of this, we must understand the biblical doctrine of providence. To define this doctrine theologically, we can go to many traditions in many places, but the Westminster Confession of Faith does it well:
God the great Creator of all things does uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures, actions, and things, from the greatest even to the least, by His most wise and holy providence, according to His infallible foreknowledge, and the free and immutable counsel of His own will, to the praise of the glory of His wisdom, power, justice, goodness, and mercy.
Westminster Confession of Faith V.1
In other words, not only are we, as the image of God, not an accident, but what has occurred in our lives is also not an accident, nor are the opportunities which we have and do not have an accident. God is in control, and the situation in which we find ourselves, even if it limits our vocational options, is a part of God’s providence.
That said, providence often looks quite ordinary. The Westminster Confession continues:
Although, in relation to the foreknowledge and decree of God, the first Cause, all things come to pass immutably, and infallibly; yet, by the same providence, He orders them to fall out, according to the nature of second causes, either necessarily, freely, or contingently.
Westminster Confession of Faith V.2
“Second causes” is a technical term in the Confession, often unclear to the modern reader unless we know the discussion from which the term arises. Those who wrote the confession, the Westminster Divines, were stepping into a Medieval debate about the nature of created things, whether created things have essentially the same nature or multiple natures, and they took the – hopefully relatively obvious – conclusion that created things have manifold natures. When a rock moves from the top of a hill to the bottom, it has no agency; it is merely acted upon. When you or I move from the top of a hill to the bottom we have agency (unless we are pushed!). We make a choice; we are volitional creatures.
The doctrine of providence asserts that God’s control is remarkably comprehensive, including all things, yet our actions matter. For example, we pray before a meal to thank God for His provision of the food. Yet that food came from a farmer’s work, harvested by human effort, packaged up and sold, then purchased with our money earned from our work, cooked in our kitchen by our own effort. Nonetheless, we do not offer Bart Simpson’s blessing: “Dear God, we paid for all of this ourselves, so thanks for nothing.” Yes, we did pay for the food; we did cook it; and we can even explain water cycles and sun and soil nutrients and all the rest. Yet we rightly thank God for the food because we recognize his providential control and care in this long chain of both human and natural actions. As secondary causes, they are how he usually provides for us.
Further, the Confession’s enunciation of the doctrine of providence makes it clear that God works through means:
God, in His ordinary providence, makes use of means, yet is free to work without, above, and against them, at His pleasure.
Westminster Confession of Faith V.3
In other words, God has set up this world and controls this world such that things usually occur as results. As God, He is always free to do more, to do anything He wants, no matter how miraculous, to work “without, above, and against” means. Normally, however, God works through means, and those means include second causes, even – and maybe even especially – our volitional choices.
So it is with our vocational choices. God is always free to simply and miraculously drop a great career in front of us, without any effort on our own part. Usually, however, He works through means, and our own actions are one of those means. If that is the case, then do not be surprised that working hard and studying gives better grades than not. Do not be surprised that going to law school makes it more likely to get a job as a lawyer. Do not be surprised that doing well in medical school makes it more likely to match in our preferred area of specialization. Second causes are normal in the world we live in, and the opportunities we make through our own efforts are exactly that. They are under God’s full providential control, but our work is certainly the way He brings them to us. In other words, hard work – including that on vocational choice – pays off…usually. One can always find counterexamples, both where hard work fails to pay off and where the slacker gets through, but that is not the norm.
Every Christian theological tradition assents to two biblical doctrines, God’s sovereignty and our responsibility. Each is evident in the Bible, so all Christian traditions except the most imbalanced will acknowledge them both. These two doctrines, however, seem to cut against each other. If God is in control of everything, then how possibly can I be responsible for what I do – because God controlled me doing it? How am I not just a robot? Or if I have volitional choice, then how can God really be in control? Because of that tension, most every Christian tradition says it assents to both doctrines, but in practice, if we examine how we teach, how we counsel, how we pray, how we evangelize, how we grieve, we have one of these as a really solid, fleshed out, lived out doctrine and the other present, but only as a paper-thin version.
One group of Christian traditions deeply incarnates and lives out its doctrine of human responsibility. We experience that in the evangelism guilt trip, for instance: “If you don’t share the gospel with her, it’s your fault that she went to hell.” We hear the emphasis, “Nobody else is going to go out there and do it.” These Christian theological traditions have a robust doctrine of human responsibility. They still acknowledge God’s sovereignty, but a paper-thin version of the doctrine. Theologically these traditions are called Arminian Theology and Open Theology.
On the other hand, another group of Christian traditions deeply embodies and lives out God’s sovereignty, but sadly at the expense of human responsibility. We experience this group with the evangelism rationalization: “Well, if he’s truly elect, God will bring someone else to share the gospel with him.” When asked why we pray, these traditions quickly answer, “We don’t pray to change God’s heart. We pray to change our own.” And yes, prayer does change us, but the Bible also says, “The prayer of a righteous man availeth much” (James 5:16, loosely KJV). This group of Christian traditions plays up God’s sovereignty, but at the expense of creating a paper-thin doctrine of human responsibility. These traditions are typically called “Calvinist,” though in point of fact they are more properly called “hyper-Calvinism.”
If we go back and read the Reformers – Luther, Calvin, the like – we find they held both of these biblical doctrines together, at the same time, both fully. A full Reformed theology has a full doctrine of God’s sovereignty and a full doctrine of human responsibility – both held together, even if such a belief is impossible for our neat, tidy, Aristotelian minds to grasp.
The Scriptures regularly hold both doctrines together, even if to us they feel incompatible. My favorite biblical book, Ruth, prominently highlights providence. In chapter 1, Naomi and Ruth have returned to Bethlehem as two widows, women with little or no social support. In chapter 2, Ruth says to Naomi, “Let me go and glean.” Gleaning was the social welfare system of the day, established by the law of Moses (Lev. 19:9, 23:22; Deut. 24:19). When a landowner harvested, the edges and corners of the field were to be left so the poor, the alien, the widow, and the fatherless could collect enough grain to live. Likewise, if some grain were dropped by the harvesters, it was to be left for the poor to collect. Gleaning was hardly “the good life,” but one could survive if he or she worked. Instead of waiting passively for God to provide, Ruth says to Naomi her mother-in-law, “Let me go and glean.”
Chapter 2, however, hints that far more is going on. “So she went out, entered a field and began to glean behind the harvesters. As it turned out, she was working in a field belonging to Boaz, who was from the clan of Elimelek” (Ruth 2:3, NIV). Ruth, a stranger to Bethlehem, picks a place to glean, a random choice, as far as she can tell, of which field to enter. Yet, her choice – which really was her choice – has something much greater guiding it. As Daniel Block states:
In this context, the narrator draws attention to Ruth’s chance arrival at a field of Boaz even more pointedly with the redundant phrase, “her chance chanced upon,” which in modern idiom would be rendered “by a stroke of luck” … [T]his must be recognized as one of the key statements of the book. Now it is true that to the orthodox Israelite there was no such thing as chance…. This is better interpreted…as a deliberate rhetorical device on the part of the narrator. By excessively attributing Ruth’s good fortune to chance, he forces the reader to sit up and take notice, to ask questions concerning the significance of everything that is transpiring. The statement is ironical; its purpose is to undermine purely rational explanations for human experiences and to refine the reader’s understanding of providence. In reality he is screaming, “See the hand of God at work here!” The same hand that had sent the famine (1:1) and later provided food (1:6) is the hand that had brought Naomi and Ruth to Bethlehem precisely at the beginning of the harvest (1:22) and has now guided Ruth to that portion of the field belonging specifically to Boaz.
Ruth 2 shows us both human effort and God’s control. Ruth truly does make a choice, one that seems to her random, but one which God has controlled, part of his sovereign plan not only to provide for these two widows but to establish a line for his true king (not just David but someday Christ himself) through the kindness and responsible actions of his people represented by Ruth and Boaz.
In other places the Bible is more succinct in making the same point. Joseph says to his brothers in Genesis 50, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Genesis 50:20, NIV). Joseph’s brothers had made their own sinful choices to sell him into slavery, yet God was at work, even through their evil volitional actions. Hebrews 12:1-2 famously states, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:1–2, NIV). Do we run with perseverance? Yes, we do! But is God in control? Yes, “…the race marked out for us.”
In Acts 27 Paul is under guard on his way to Rome, having appealed his case to Caesar. He tells his guard not to set out until after the winter, as dangerous storms can blow up quickly on the Mediterranean in the winter. Ignoring his advice, they set out:
When a gentle south wind began to blow, they saw their opportunity; so they weighed anchor and sailed along the shore of Crete. Before very long, a wind of hurricane force, called the Northeaster, swept down from the island. The ship was caught by the storm and could not head into the wind; so we gave way to it and were driven along. As we passed to the lee of a small island called Cauda, we were hardly able to make the lifeboat secure, so the men hoisted it aboard. Then they passed ropes under the ship itself to hold it together. Because they were afraid they would run aground on the sandbars of Syrtis, they lowered the sea anchor and let the ship be driven along. We took such a violent battering from the storm that the next day they began to throw the cargo overboard. On the third day, they threw the ship’s tackle overboard with their own hands. When neither sun nor stars appeared for many days and the storm continued raging, we finally gave up all hope of being saved. (Acts 27:13–20, NIV)
Having abandoned hope, Paul finds out by angelic revelation that all on the boat will live:
After they had gone a long time without food, Paul stood up before them and said: “Men, you should have taken my advice not to sail from Crete; then you would have spared yourselves this damage and loss. But now I urge you to keep up your courage, because not one of you will be lost; only the ship will be destroyed. Last night an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I serve stood beside me and said, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul. You must stand trial before Caesar; and God has graciously given you the lives of all who sail with you.’ So keep up your courage, men, for I have faith in God that it will happen just as he told me.” (Acts 27:21–25, NIV)
When they come close to the place where the ship may run aground, however, the sailors attempt to make a run for the beach in a small lifeboat, leaving the ship to be pounded apart in the surf and the passengers to drown, and leading Paul to warn the Roman centurion guarding him against allowing this course of action:
In an attempt to escape from the ship, the sailors let the lifeboat down into the sea, pretending they were going to lower some anchors from the bow. Then Paul said to the centurion and the soldiers, “Unless these men stay with the ship, you cannot be saved.” (Acts 27:30–31, NIV)
Paul warns the centurion that they will die if the sailors leave the ship, even though he has been promised by God through an angel that they will all live! The Bible regularly holds a doctrine of providence that embraces God’s absolute control and humans’ full responsibility, even if we cannot fathom how both doctrines are simultaneously true.
And so it is with the opportunities we have, do not have, or make in our vocations.
All of this means we must rethink “Let go and let God.” The intended sentiment is not bad, of course. We absolutely must trust God. But the concept as stated too often takes us to a place Bible does not. The way we trust God is not by being passive and just waiting. We have much to do! This is true in personal holiness. God changes us – what happens in us is the work of the Holy Spirit, yet we must work hard at holiness. We must long for it, thirst for God and His ways. “As the deer pants for the water, so my soul longs after you, Lord” (Psalm 42:1). Likewise, this is true in vocation. God is in charge, fully, of our opportunities, but we must work as diligently as possible to develop the opportunities we can. “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters.” (Colossians 3:23, NIV). Instead of “Let go and let God,” we must embrace both doctrines, just as the Bible does. It may not be as pithy, but give it everything you’ve got and then trust God for the results.
When it comes to a career path, it is easy to wait for someone else to prescribe the path for us. Our parents make all the decisions when we are young, even what we wear and what we eat. As we age we begin to gain some independence and control, but relatively little. Even through high school, in most localities, we must go by law. But when it comes to a career, whether after finishing secondary school or undergraduate, suddenly we have all the choice in the world, and that can be paralyzing. But no one other than you – in most cases – will map out your career path. And even if someone else does, that person will not know you like you know yourself, or like you should. He or she will miss some things.
A lack of goals usually sounds pious, but its fruit is often decidedly less so. More often, without goals, people drift and accomplish little; they are passive and simply accept what happens to them; they accept mediocrity when they could have focused and become great at something.
Of course, the path will change. Things will happen that we do not see coming, so we hold our goals and career path loosely. Even James 4, though, the most seemingly anti-planning piece of the Bible, actually encourages having a plan:
Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” (James 4:13–15, NIV)
James cautions against the arrogance of thinking we can control our future, that we have either the foresight or the power to make things come out as we wish. Yet James’s antidote to this arrogance is not to give up on planning. Quite the opposite, he encourages that we do plan. We simply hold that plan loosely, with open hands, ready for God to change it if He wishes. We do let go in that sense; we do not clench our fists around our plans. But we do not give up on even having a plan, nor does the Lord wish us to do so.
So, in this sense we can redeem the phrase. We do “let go” by opening our hands, holding our plans with a willingness for God to redirect our paths, a trust that should He do so it will be right, and a faith that his providential control means he will work all things for good for those who love him. But we realize that “let go and let God” is actually an active endeavor, not a passive waiting. So instead, “Get at it and let God.”
 Daniel Block. Judges, Ruth New American Commentary 6 (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1999) 653-4.