One year ago today, on July 31, 2016, a precious family in Minneapolis, preparing to become missionaries in Japan, met with tragedy.
They were driving from Minneapolis to Colorado for the final stage of their training when a distracted truck driver crashed into the back of the family vehicle, killing the entire family — Jamison and Kathryne Pals (both 29), along with their three young children: Ezra (3), Violet (23 months), and Calvin (2 months). All taken.
No one could have predicted this deep loss.
Japan is one of the most gospel-barren countries on the planet. So why God would take this family home, before sending them into the mission field, is beyond anything we can grasp. It made little sense in the moment, and it still makes little sense to me on this side of eternity.
One of the many questions that such tragedies raise for us is, What role, if any, prediction plays in the Christian life? Jamison Pals’s own words help raise the question.
Predictions All Around Us
Our culture loves the prediction-makers. Sports talk radio is 10% news, 20% gossip, and 70% forecasting. Who will win, lose, get cut, or traded — on and on go the predictions. In this world, the Las Vegas odds makers have job security.
Politics, too, is run by polls and predictions: possible candidates, bills, elections, and voter forecasts. Few things can stoke fear-mongering like forecasts of looming economic disaster unless the right bill gets passed (or repealed).
Political forecasts cause stock markets around the world to drop and rise. Prediction-making is the key to making a fortune in commodities trading and real estate. Collective prediction-making is so fast in places like Wall Street and Silicon Valley, the predictions themselves make financial realities and swell valuation bubbles.
Speculating on our future is the petri dish of anxiety and fear, and it’s probably one reason why God has not called us to walk by prediction. He has called us to walk by faith.
Spheres of Time
Four spheres of time can drive our daily lives:
- A redemptive past
- The now of the present opportunity
- Speculation of the future (near and far) to justify present action
- Hope in Christ’s return and the re-creation of all things
The Christian embraces 1, 2, and 4. The world swims in 3.
But when fortune-telling worms its way into the Christian life, weird theological distortions follow. We begin to obey God’s revealed will only as far as we have surveyed all the predictable outcomes and taken a guess at the most probable.
This distortion can arise in our marriages. The wife is not called to submit to her husband when she thinks his trajectory is aimed at the most plausible outcome. Nor is it on the shoulders of the husband to predict the most possible result. God’s will is not like three doors: the husband predicts one door that will open, the wife predicts another one, and then they wait to discover God’s will by which door eventually opens. No. God’s will is found in daily obedience and walking by faith and trusting in him, not by forecasting the most favorable outcomes.
Ethicist Oliver O’Donovan explains why God intentionally hides from us his plans for our future. “If we knew the story of the future hidden in God’s foreknowledge, we should be beyond deliberation, beyond action, even beyond caring. ‘The kingdom of God is not coming with observation’ (see Luke 17:20). Even of the Son, through whom God acts in history, it is said that the day and the hour are not revealed to him. The price of agency is to know the future only indirectly, that we may venture on it as an open possibility. The future of prediction, dreary with anxiety or buoyant with hope, has to be held at bay, so that we may use this moment of time to do something, however modest, that is worthwhile and responsible, something to endure before the throne of judgment” (Self, World, and Time, 17).
Planners and Prophets
Two objections are raised at this point.
First, doesn’t God call us to plan for the future?
Yes, certainly we should strategize for the future. But we can wisely plan for the future without feeling compelled to predict the future. Every confident expectation about tomorrow is vain before the eyes of our sovereign God (Proverbs 27:1; James 4:13–15).
Second, doesn’t God use prophets and apostles to make predictions?
Yes, sometimes prophets and apostles make predictions in Scripture (Jeremiah 28:9; John 18:32; Acts 11:27–30; 2 Peter 3:1–7; Jude 17–23).
So then predictive prophecy must be a part of the Christian life, right? Yes, and no. “Predictive prophecy does exist, and sometimes God will use it for the benefit of his people,” writes Sam Storms. For example, Agabus foresaw a famine in Acts 11:27–30. “So how should we respond when someone prophesies some public, political, or natural disaster? Simply wait and see if it happens!” (Practicing the Power, 140–141).
Even predictive prophecy does not imprison us to life under unconfirmed forecasts (see Jeremiah 28:9).
Planning, Not Presuming
No one could have predicted the tragic news about the Pals family we received a year ago on July 31. Three months earlier, Jamison had debriefed his plans for missions in a personal blog entry, an open letter to his bride.
I do not know how things will turn out for us. As a husband, I feel obligated to lead our family toward obedience, whatever the end may be — whether it is life or death or discomfort or disappointment. It is clear that the Lord Jesus calls us not to an easy life, however he calls us. He bids us to take up our cross — just as he did — to suffer and die. Perhaps we will toil for years to raise support and never make it overseas. Perhaps we will go and utterly ‘fail’ as missionaries from all worldly perspectives. Perhaps we will labor for decades without any visible fruit. Or perhaps through willing obedience, many will pass from death to eternal life. . . . The Lord may see fit to keep us here, but if he does not, let’s go. It may cost us much, but would you have it any other way? Whatever we lose will be worth it if we gain more of Christ.
Whatever the future held, and he could not see it, the priority for Jamison was profoundly settled: “I feel obligated to lead our family toward obedience, whatever the end may be” — discomfort, disappointment, life, or death.
All the possible predicted outcomes did not deter the daily obedience to becoming missionaries in Japan. Jamison and Kathryne did not walk by predictions of the future, but by daily obedience. The future was left in God’s hands. And that obedience is only more precious now, because we see that they would never begin their labors overseas. All the training was not done in vanity, but in precious obedience.
One year ago now, the Pals family finished their race. They gained more of Christ in a way no one would have imagined, and no one could have known by prediction. Jamison was not responsible to predict his family’s future. No father is. He was called to lead his family in daily obedience to God’s leading. He leaves for us all a lesson to study very carefully, for I suspect this walk of obedience has endured before the throne of judgment and will be celebrated and retold for all eternity.