The Spiritual Power of Staying Put
Why Christians Are Slow to Leave
A friend recently asked whether I saw myself still living in Minneapolis five years from now. I had no compelling reason to say no: no alluring job prospects, no deep stirrings for change, no clear path from here to elsewhere. I had several significant reasons to say yes: we own a home here; our children were born here; I work and pastor here. Still, I hesitated.
Others in my generation probably resonate. Unlike our grandparents (or even our parents), we grew up breathing the air of transience. As young adults, we dwell in tents, not houses, always ready to pull up the stakes, often feeling we are on our way to somewhere that is not here. The idea of settling down for fifty years in the same neighborhood, job, or church can make our clothes feel scratchy. We move among our elders as tumbleweeds through redwoods.
No doubt, there are good and godly reasons to live lightly upon the earth, prepared for God to send us elsewhere. But I wonder how often we are blown less by the wind of the Spirit and more by the wind of our endlessly unsettled age. I wonder too how a renewed mind, rooted more deeply in God’s word, might discern the spiritual wisdom of staying put.
Tumbleweeds and Trees
As we consider what Scripture has to say to our more mobile age, we do well to remember that its books were not written to people who owned cars, who bought plane tickets, who crossed countries and continents with ease. Most ancient Jews and early Christians stayed put because they had to. That’s simply what (almost) everyone did.
We also do well to recognize that Scripture often holds in high regard those who do leave home. The word go marks two of the most momentous turning points in redemptive history: the calling of Abram and the sending of the church (Genesis 12:1; Matthew 28:19). We might also recall Moses, that cross-country prophet; Paul, the hither-and-thither missionary; or our Lord himself, who traveled from city to city to teach, heal, and usher in a new age.
Yet even still, we can’t escape God’s love for local places and the people who stay there. Moses uprooted Israel from Egypt, but only so he could plant them in Canaan (Psalm 80:8), where everyone might sit under his own vine and fig tree (Micah 4:4). Paul tumbled around the Mediterranean, but building and strengthening local churches was the labor of his life (Acts 14:23; 2 Timothy 2:2). And Jesus, as much as he moved through all Galilee and Judah, was still known as “Jesus of Nazareth” (Luke 4:34; 18:37; Acts 2:22; 3:6). The incarnate Son did not consider three decades in the same quiet town a waste of time.
“Lasting fruit usually comes from lasting presence.”
Moses could have kept Israel on a constant sojourn. Paul could have called every convert to come with him. Jesus could have left Nazareth long before thirty. But trees grow shade, bushes bear fruit, and vines become beautiful only after patient years of staying put. And so with us, lasting fruit usually comes from lasting presence.
Roots for Restless Souls
Perhaps the Bible’s most explicit teaching about staying and going appears in 1 Corinthians 7:17–24, where Paul three times counsels the Corinthian believers to remain where they are:
Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. (verse 17)
Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called. (verse 20)
So, brothers, in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God. (verse 24)
Now, Paul wrote these words into a context quite different from our own. Some Corinthian believers, it seems, wondered if becoming a Christian necessitated a change in life status. Does Christian faithfulness require the uncircumcised to receive circumcision, or bondservants to seek freedom? Paul, while endorsing helpful life changes (1 Corinthians 7:21), nevertheless reassures the church that they can serve Jesus fruitfully wherever they’re found. So, three times he says, “Stay.”
Our own impulses toward moving or changing may come from different motives, but the principles Paul uses still apply. Consider, then, three steps the apostle might counsel us to take before uprooting from job, home, church, or other life situations.
1. Pay attention to providence.
In an individualistic society, we are prone to lean almost entirely on the subjective when making decisions. Do I like this job? Are we still happy in this home? Is this church still a good fit for me? Alongside these important subjective questions, however, Paul adds the objective fact of God’s providence: “Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him” (1 Corinthians 7:17). We are who we are and where we are not by chance, but by the Lord’s assignment and calling. And therefore, factors beyond our feelings are at play.
John Calvin draws out the merciful purpose of God’s providence:
[God] knows with what great restlessness human nature flames, with what fickleness it is borne hither and thither, how its ambition longs to embrace various things at once. . . . Therefore each individual has his own kind of living assigned to him by the Lord as a sort of sentry post so that he may not heedlessly wander about throughout life. (Institutes, 3.10.6)
To be sure, the doctrine of providence, rightly grasped, does not produce passive, inert, immobile people who endure misery with a sigh of que sera sera. Calvin himself left his native France for Geneva. And Paul, after mentioning God’s assignment, still tells bondservants, “If you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity” (1 Corinthians 7:21). God in his providence not only plants us where we are, but sometimes opens pathways elsewhere.
Nevertheless, those who pay attention to providence will not be quick to abandon their present place, even under the sway of strong feeling. They will pray to the God of providence, and seek counsel from his people — so often the agents of his providence — wary all the while of their tendency to leave the Lord’s sentry posts for a life of heedless wandering.
2. See the potential in your present place.
Not only has God, in his providence, brought us to our present place, but he likely sees far more potential in it than we do. We may look at our life situation and see little more than a barren field, a fruitless tree, a dry and dusty Nazareth. But God sees more.
Surely, some of the bondservants in Corinth struggled to see potential in their present station. Theirs was not an enviable position. Yet Paul writes, “He who was called in the Lord as a bondservant is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a bondservant of Christ” (1 Corinthians 7:22). Paul is quite happy for bondservants to find freedom if they can (1 Corinthians 7:21). At the same time, he wants them to see that even bondservice can say something beautiful about Christ: Men may call me a servant, but in Christ, God calls me a son.
Our own situations are likely far better than a bondservant’s. Yet what potential in your present place might you have a hard time noticing? Living in an inner-city neighborhood brings some level of danger, but it also brings opportunity to give the gospel to the poor. A church in conflict may not feed your soul as another would, but it can also become ground zero for a new work of the Spirit, more beautiful than what came before. The mission field may seem like a waste of gifts once used, but it can also become soil for the seed of your fallen life, precious in God’s sight and poised for much fruit (John 12:24).
Who, if not Christians, will look upon the mustard seed of our present circumstances and see the coming tree (Matthew 13:31–32)? Who will recognize in the small stone a future mountain (Daniel 2:31–35), or the age of great things in the day of small (Zechariah 4:10)? Who will behold twelve common men as the beginning of a global movement (Matthew 16:18)? Who will stand upon an apparently godforsaken place and know that here, even here, Jesus holds all authority (Matthew 28:18)?
The humblest faith can transfigure the world, turning tumbleweeds into rooted trees, content to grow in the same ground for far longer than we thought possible.
3. Live where you are with God.
That kind of contentment, however, comes not only (and not mainly) from seeing the potential in our present place, but from seeing God in our present place. “So, brothers, in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God” (1 Corinthians 7:24). Don’t simply stay put; don’t merely remain. Wherever you are, live there with God.
“Don’t simply stay put; don’t merely remain. Wherever you are, live there with God.”
If you are in Christ, then you have already found your true and eternal Home, your best and final resting place. Another job may make better use of your skills, another city may better serve your family, another church may better profit from your presence — but no new job, city, or church can give you something better than the God who is already yours (1 Corinthians 3:22–23). Those who feel as much may still decide to leave their present place, yet they will do so as Abram left Ur, or Peter left Capernaum, or Paul left Antioch: not searching for contentment, but satisfied with God.
John Piper, preaching on Jesus’s encounter with the woman at the well, notes that “one of the evidences of not drinking deeply from Jesus is the instability of constantly moving from one thing to the next, seeking to fill the void.” Those who don’t have a well of living water within will seek some water without (John 4:13–14) — and when that spring dries up, on they go to the next relationship, the next job, the next hobby, the next car, the next home. But those who have drunk deeply from Jesus, those who live where they are with God, are free to stay and be satisfied.
If we take the time and spiritual energy to pay attention to providence, see the potential in our present place, and live where we are with God, we may still decide against staying put. We may discern that wisdom would have us lift these roots and plant them elsewhere. One of the defining marks of our process, however, will be that we decide slowly.
Sometimes, opportunities will come that call for quick decisions. But most of the time, we can take some weeks, months, or even years to linger where we are, living there with God, while we consider the benefits of staying or going. And if we feel we cannot take such time, we probably should slow down all the more. Quick decisions often show we want to move without thinking, praying, or hearing counsel that might contradict what we have already decided to do.
Just as men in midlife crisis should beware of buying boats, and those in spiritual darkness should hesitate to pronounce their own doom, so those who feel an urge to move, change, leave would do well to let time do its wise and patient work. If the move really is in line with heavenly wisdom, we have nothing to fear from slowness. And we have good reason to hope we will become more like trees firmly rooted, our branches rising and shade growing for the good of our present place, and any place God may plant us next.