“God can’t steer a ship that isn’t moving.”
“God can’t steer a parked car”
You are likely familiar with one or both of these phrases—they’re two of those Christian truisms that we hear repeated over and over—while no one thinks to ask whether or not they are actually true. The idea is that we should ask God what to do in any given situation, then start doing something while we wait for His answer. After all, God can’t….
First of all, if you know God is telling you to do something, then you should get started. Don’t sit around loafing when you should be obeying. But what happens when we’ve done all we know to do? We’re maintaining basic Christian disciplines such as spending time in prayer and reading our Bible. We’re loving others, reaching out, trying to be “Jesus with skin on”—but our life seems to have stalled. We feel pressured to make a decision, and our friends are nagging us to get moving. What do we do when we truly don’t know what to do next?
Should we just pick a direction and go? After all, even if we get it wrong, God will direct us once we start moving—right? It is definitely true that if we head off in the wrong direction, God is faithful to redirect us—if we’re listening. But why take even one step off the path God has for us?
Our mission pastor recently returned from a trip to Israel. There, he saw shepherds tending mixed flocks of sheep and goats, much as they did in Jesus’ day. He observed that while the sheep are content to follow the shepherd, the goats have a tendency to take the initiative and run off down the mountainside on their own. Concerned that the sheep will follow an unsafe trail, the shepherd throws rocks at the goat, not to hit it, but to land close by and cause the animal to veer back in the right direction.
God does the same thing, using conviction and circumstances to point us in the direction He desires us to take. I can personally attest that being redirected by God is not always an enjoyable experience! Wouldn’t it be better to avoid the rocks, and just get it right in the first place?
It’s perfectly fine to wait on God. In fact, there are plenty of examples in the Bible of people doing just that.
- Noah wasn’t doing anything special before God warned him to build an ark. He was simply living his life as “a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time”, and walking faithfully with God (Genesis 6:9). God had no problem getting his attention and setting him to work.
- Abraham was quietly living in Harran, where his father Terah had settled, when God uprooted him and sent him on his way to the Promised Land. (See Genesis 11:31-12:6)
- Moses had been hanging out in the desert with some nomadic shepherds when God called to him from the burning bush. In fact, he had tried to take matters into his own hands when he murdered an Egyptian, which is why he was in the desert in the first place. (See Exodus 2:11-15.)
- Joseph wasn’t going anywhere—he was in prison!—when Pharaoh called him to interpret a dream, and ended up putting him in charge of Egypt. (See Genesis 41)
- David had to be brought in from tending the flocks to be anointed king. Mary was waiting for her wedding when Gabriel showed up with his startling news, while Joseph, her betrothed, was making furniture.
- Even Jesus spent the majority of his adult life as a carpenter in a small town before beginning his active ministry.
On the other hand, hastily moving ahead can do a lot of damage before God corrects us.
- Abraham grew impatient while waiting on God, and decided to “just do something!” He listened to Sarah rather than God, and ended up fathering Ishmael (see Genesis 16). That created a mess that persists to this day, as the descendants of Ishmael and the descendants of Isaac are still fighting over the land of Israel.
- Saul (Paul) “went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem.” He had almost reached his destination when Jesus appeared to him, resulting in his conversion. (See Acts 9:1-9) Wouldn’t it have been better if he had first asked God what to do, then waited for an answer before setting out to persecute Jesus and his followers?
We westerners have a “bias for action”—a term that frequently crops up in books and articles on succeeding in business. It takes patience, trust, and self-control to wait for God before moving ahead. Friends and family may criticize us for our complacency. We may criticize ourselves. But it’s always best to seek God for direction, listen to what He says, and then do it. It can be hard, but it’s not complicated.