A podcast listener named Elisa, with a historical connection to you, Pastor John, writes in to ask: “Hello Pastor John! Thanks for your ministry over all these years. Incidentally, we [she and her husband] we met you when we were post-Stanford students attending InterVarsity’s Western Leadership Conference, sometime around 1985. I was one of the worship leaders at that conference and vividly remember you speaking on Christian Hedonism — a life-changing paradigm for us. Now that we’re empty-nesters, my husband and I are asking the question: How do we spend the next portion of our lives? However, for better or worse, my dear husband is something of a perfectionist and doesn’t want to make a mistake in answering this important question. So the question becomes: When the stakes are so high, how do you not become paralyzed with fear of making a mistake?”
Hahaha! I have to start by asking: How can you be a perfectionist as an empty-nester? No: How can you live that long and still be a perfectionist? Well, anyway. . . . So, we have got to deal with this. It is wonderful to be reminded of those days at Stanford. I remember them, and I remember them pretty clearly for reasons that are not altogether positive, because I remember that the leader of the Intervarsity group and I were moving in different directions, it seemed. I am going to close with that in just a few minutes and apply that to your situation.
So, here are the things that come to mind. And I am exactly in your situation. You are younger than I am, but I am thinking about that kind of question. So, here are my thoughts.
One of the best ways to overcome the perfectionist fear of making a mistake in what you decide to do is to realize that deciding nothing is the biggest mistake. There is your deal breaker. That will get you going. In other words, you are not in a neutral zone. There are no neutral zones. Not to move toward a God-sized goal in this next season of your life is to disobey. So, standing still is not an option, because it means you are drifting. You are never standing still. You are drifting or you are coasting with the culture in the way of the world. That is the first thing.
God loves to steer a moving ship. If you are tied up in the harbor of comfort and leisure, God ordinarily will not give you clear direction. He gives direction to captains who point their ship out of the harbor, into the storm. Think about Jonah — kind of a counterintuitive illustration. Even Jonah was moving in exactly the wrong direction. And God stopped him. He didn’t send him home and say: Start over. He didn’t send him home. He made that journey part of the journey. And he sent him exactly where he wanted him to be: not exactly in the way he wanted, but he got him where he wanted to go because he was moving.
One of the ways to be moving without knowing exactly where you are going is what I might call investigative moving. You are moving when you are pursuing possibilities with serious investigation. That, too, is moving.
Take heart from the many promises of God that in his great mercy he will give you the guidance you need when you trust him. For example, Psalm 25:8–9 say, “Good and upright is the Lord; therefore he instructs sinners in the way.” So, we qualify, right? “He instructs sinners in the way. He leads the humble” — people who know they are sinners and admit it and cry out. “He leads the humble in what is right; and teaches the humble his way.” That is a precious promise of guidance.
Pursue with all your might what is crystal clear as God’s will in Scripture. For example, 1 Thessalonians 4:3 says, “This is the will of God” — for Elisa and her husband — “your sanctification” — your holiness. If you have a full, deep, wide, rich understanding of holiness, it is not bad advice to say: Pursue holiness with all your might, and do as you please. Just do, because if you are passionate about being holy and maximizing your love for God, then it will happen. God loves to give direction, fruitful direction, to lovers of holiness who pursue it with all their hearts.
In this process of prayer and investigation, dream bigger than aging fatalism would allow you. I find in my own heart at age 70 the temptation to think I don’t have long to live. So, I should probably be restricted in my dreams of what I can accomplish. Now, I think that is a mistake. I think it is a serious mistake, and I am trying to strive against that thought. I have no idea how long I have left. You don’t either. I never have had any idea how long I have left. But when I was younger, I assumed that I could accomplish more simply because of the amount of time that was in front of me, probably. But, in fact, the accomplishments came because of God’s blessing on a particular season. It wasn’t the length of life. It was the power of seasons. And who knows? Who knows what you might accomplish in the next season? So, don’t let the fatalism of aging limit your dreams of fruitfulness.
And the last point relates to Stanford, 1985. One of the reasons I look back with some sadness on those Christian Hedonism talks is because, little by little as the series of messages went on, I saw myself — through interacting with students and the leader — I saw myself going in a different direction than the Intervarsity leader at the time. His stress was on the wonder and the glory of the fact that God works for us. We are not God’s employees trying to earn wages. We are the patients of the great physician who is using all of his wisdom and his skill to serve us and our eternal health. And that is true. And I love it, love it.
But the note I was striking then — and have been ever since — was: When God works for us, the goal of his work is to fit us for enjoying God himself. That is what the physician does — not like any earthly physician. This heavenly physician is trying to get our disease healed that makes us find substitutes for God so that in our wellness we will see him, know him, be satisfied in him. God himself is the all-satisfying treasure. And, as I recall, the students back then began to discern a different trajectory between me and the leader.
So, here is the way it relates to you. In your case, now, the question perhaps finally is this: What new vision for our next chapter of life would cause us to taste most fully the power of God, the wisdom of God, the grace of God in our lives? How can we get more of God? And I think if that is the passion, God will show you the answer.