Hold Your Plans Loosely
Have you ever noticed that there are certain seasons of life when we seem to learn and grow more rapidly than usual? I’ve heard people say things like, “Man, when I spent that summer backpacking through Europe, I learned so much about myself.” Or, “When I did my tour in Afghanistan with the Army, it really changed me.” Or, “When I was in college, in that Christian student group, I grew like crazy.” Or sometimes it’s hard things, like, “When I spent a year and a half unemployed, it deeply changed the way I look at life.” So even though we can learn and grow at any time, it seems like God does his deepest work in our hearts during those concentrated seasons.
Guys, we are all in one of those seasons right now. We didn’t choose it; we don’t control it. But if we are open to what God is doing through this, I believe we will look back on the pandemic of 2020, and we’ll say, “That is one of the big reasons that I am the person that I am today.” I hope that’s an exciting thought to you—that you will emerge from this lockdown as a better version of yourself.
So we’ve been talking about the “Lockdown Lessons” that God wants to teach us during this pandemic. And today we’re going to talk about an issue that all of us are dealing with. I think this virus has caused every one of us to cancel or change plans that they had. Wouldn’t you agree? That’s true of just about everyone I know. Plans have changed. So when I was developing the series, I said to Norma Jean, “I think I’m going to make one of the lessons about holding our plans loosely. You know what my wife said? “Oh, don’t do that. That is so depressing. People don’t want to be reminded about that anymore.” Hmm. I think I touched a sore spot. Now, she’s right! It can be depressing…but it doesn’t have to be, at all. If we look at this the right way, it can actually energize us and expand us.
So, in honor of my wife, today’s Lockdown Lesson is “Hold Your Plans Loosely.” Let’s look at the Scripture together—James chapter 4, verses 13 to 16. James 4:13-16. Hear the Word of the Lord…
13 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.” 14 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. 15 Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” 16 As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil. This is the Word of God.
Today I want to talk about two thing: Holding Tightly and Holding Loosely. Okay? Two ways we can hold our future plans: tightly or loosely.
So, first: Holding Tightly. In this section of James’ letter, he’s talking to businesspeople. Merchants. And in the first century Roman Empire, it was common for businesspeople to travel to different cities, where they there was a market for their product—clothing or tents or cookware—whatever it was, and carry on their business in that location. So apparently, James had heard merchants talking about their business plans: “Tomorrow we leave for Philippi, and we’re going to spend a year there, and we expect a very strong year of sales.” Specific plans like that. Very careful planning. So these people weren’t going to just go with the flow, and see what happened. They had done their research; they knew the market; they had made contact with the key leaders of the city; they had gathered their supplies and mobilized their staff. These were people who knew that if you fail to plan, you’re planning to fail. And they had no intention of failing. Because they had a plan.
How about you? How much of a planner are you?
When I was a teenager I had a strong admiration for Arnold Schwarzenegger. Not just for his success as a bodybuilder, although I was enamored by that (I’m embarrassed to say). But I was so impressed with how he had planned out his life. When he was a kid, growing up in Austria, he decided he would move to America (which was hard enough in itself), that he would become the greatest bodybuilder in the world, and that he would parlay his bodybuilding success into a Hollywood acting career. Check. Check. Check. And I remember hearing that and thinking, “That is so cool! He laid out his plan, he worked his plan, and he accomplished his goals!” I loved that.
So as I went through my teenage years, I developed my plan. By that time I realized I was never going to be a professional bodybuilder (I know—shocking); but I was into sports, and I was fascinated with human nutrition. So here was my plan: I would become a nutritionist MD, specializing in sports medicine and sports nutrition. And I would live near the ocean and drive a convertible Mercedes. That was my plan, and I fully intended to accomplish it.
I realize you’re probably laughing at my plan right now! But how about you? What kind of plans do you have? I know some of you are really detailed planners—that’s just how you’re wired. Some of you are a little more laid back. But we all have plans. And not just for the big, life decisions. You have some kind of plans for this summer, don’t you? Maybe take that vacation that got canceled this spring? And you have some sort of plans for this week, don’t you? Things you have on your schedule? And let’s get really short-term: you have some kind of plan for the rest of this day, right? That’s just how humans work. Planning is part of life.
So, back to those first-century merchants. James says to them, “Listen, Mr. I’m-going-to-travel-to this city-and-make-all-this-money. It’s a nice plan, but here’s the reality: You don’t even know what’s going to happen tomorrow.” Now: when he said that, James was actually echoing the ancient wisdom of Proverbs. Listen to Proverbs 27:1…
Do not boast about tomorrow,
for you do not know what a day may bring.
Is that not a perfect description of life in the time of Coronavirus? We don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow! We don’t know what a day may bring! I’ve been working with several couples in preparation for summer weddings; one of them called last week informing me they’ve canceled their July wedding—they’re just going to do something small with their immediate family. The next day I spoke with another engaged couple and they said they might go ahead with their August date, or…they might not. So I’m keeping the date open on my calendar, but I just don’t know. My high school son and my college daughter finished up the spring going to school online. Are they going to go back in person in September? Everybody together: I don’t know. We all have a million “I-don’t-knows,” right? So the pandemic has made life’s uncertainty really obvious. But James is reminding us that life always has a lot of “I don’t knows.”
And then he gets more personal. He says You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. In other words, you’re so confident in your annual business plan, but don’t even know if you’ll be alive this time next year. Ouch. Right now, someone is watching this sermon at home and saying, “I agree with his wife! This is depressing! Turn on that Joel Osteen fella! He’s always happy!” Wait a minute—just stick with me.
Why would James come down so hard on people with a business plan? I mean, isn’t it responsible to make plans for the future? Absolutely. James is not faulting us for making plans. He’s talking about the way we plan. And that becomes really clear in verse 16: As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil. See, this is not about planning; it’s about planning with boasting and arrogance. Overly confident planning. Making plans with an attitude of invincibility. It’s about holding your plan so tightly that you don’t even consider the possibility that it might not happen.
Okay, but why would he call that “evil”? Isn’t that a little harsh? No. Because when we hold our plans that tightly, we’re putting ourselves in the place of God. And that’s a dangerous place to be. There is only one being in the universe who can speak with that kind of confidence, and it’s not you. And it’s not me.
So…how do you know if you’re doing this? How do I know if I’m holding my plans too tightly? Here’s the best way to discern it: how do you respond when your plans don’t work out? Mike Tyson said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” So when you get punched in the mouth—by sickness or the stock market or a pandemic or anything else that makes your plan fall apart, how do you respond? What does that do to you inside?
My family recently made a big decision: we finally cut the cord of cable TV. We’d been thinking about it for about a year, and we finally did it. So I had three cable boxes and a rented modem and a bunch of remotes to return to Cablevision. So one day about two weeks ago, I had a simple plan: over lunch, I would drive up to Oakland, which is the closest Cablevision place to me, and return all the stuff—it would take about 40 minutes round trip, and it would feel good to check this little task off my list. So I boxed up all the stuff and drove up to Oakland and walked to the door, and there was a sign on the door: “Due to Covid-19, this location is closed. Please try our location in Randolph or Paterson.” You’ve got to be kidding me. This was not in the plan. And I felt this little surge of agitation and anger rise up in me, which is a clear sign I was holding my little plan too tightly.
I started looking for someone to blame—that’s another sign of holding too tightly. And here came a Cablevision worker to the door. I said to him, “Can I just drop these cable boxes off?” He said, “No—this location is closed. You have to take them to Randolph or Paterson.” I didn’t want to go to Randolph or Paterson. I said to him, “I just drove 25 minutes to get here (I exaggerated a little). Does the web site even say it’s closed?” He said, “I don’t know—I’m sorry about that.” So I stood there in Oakland, with my box of stupid cable boxes under my arm, just annoyed. I got back in my car and figured I would try to mail them in. But as I was driving home through Wayne, I realized, “Paterson is pretty close to Wayne. I should just go to the Paterson location!” So I entered the Paterson address in Waze; it was only about 10 minutes away. And I was feeling pretty good about my new, improved plan—in fact, my wife would be impressed that I was willing to go to all the way to Paterson just to get this done.
So I found the place, parked, put money in the meter, and I came around the corner, and there was this line of people—about 20 people, all standing six feet apart, wearing masks. All holding stupid cable boxes. So I went to the end of the line, and stood there. And stood there. The line didn’t budge. After about 10 minutes, a guy came out and said it would be at least an hour before the last person in the line was helped. There was no way I was going to stand there for another hour. So I took my box, and I walked back to my car. And I got back to my house about an hour and a half after I had left, with absolutely nothing accomplished. And I was a little sour for the rest of the day. Not as bad as I used to be, because God is working on me. But I was a little sour. Because instead of being Efficient Dave; instead of being Hero Dave who drove to Paterson and dropped off the boxes; I was the idiot who should have just mailed them all back in the first place. And all of those emotions that I experienced were signs that I had been holding my plan a little too tightly.
How do you know if you’re holding tightly? When your plans don’t work out, you get angry and resentful. You look for someone to blame. And I used a very minor example, right? But in bigger life issues, that anger and blaming can settle into your soul and become bitterness.
A friend of mine was a great high school wrestler. And when he got to his senior year, he was poised to be one of the best wrestlers in the state—maybe even nationally ranked. And then, early in his senior season, he got injured. The plan he had for the season was gone, just like that. And for the rest of the season, he had to sit on the sidelines and watch as his team wrestled. So, did he focus on his healing, and cheer for his team? He couldn’t. He was so angry that his plan was ruined. In his words, “I was a spoiled brat. I was arrogant and selfish.” And so, to deal with the disappointment, he started to drink heavily. And he said, “To this day, I regret the influence I had on the people around me.”
How do you know when you’re holding a plan too tightly? When it doesn’t work out, you get angry and resentful; you lash out at other people; sometimes the disappointment is so painful that you try to numb it.
Corrie Ten Boom once said, “I’ve learned that we must hold everything loosely, because when I grip it too tightly, it hurts when God pries my fingers loose and takes it from me.” See, we all have plans. But when we hold onto our plans stubbornly, and then those plans change, it hurts. And many times we respond to our hurt by hurting the people around us.
So how can we go about this whole planning thing in a wiser way? Point number 2: Holding Loosely. Holding loosely. So the right way to do this is found in verse 15: Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” That seems so simple, but I’m telling you, it is a life-changing concept.
It affects, first of all, the way you talk. It says, “You ought to say, ‘If it’s the Lord’s will…” When you look at the example of Paul in the New Testament, you hear him talking like this frequently. Here’s one example—Acts 18:21…But as he left, he promised, “I will come back if it is God’s will.” So he had a plan, but he was holding it loosely. “I’ll be back…if it’s God’s will.” Which is why Paul was more godly than my hero, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who simply said, “I’ll be back.” But that’s a whole other story.
Centuries ago, it was common for Christians to close their letters with two Latin words: Deo volente, which means, “God willing.” In other words, “God has veto power over everything I just said.” So when we really take this to heart, it changes the way we talk about our plans—how we present them to others.
But here’s the thing: it’s not just the way we talk. It’s a mindset. It’s an attitude that realizes that God is God, and I’m not, and I’m submitting myself to him. So even if you don’t actually say the words, “God willing,” you can approach life with a recognition that all of your plans are ultimately at the discretion of God’s bigger plan.
Now: this brings up a hard question. It’s easy to talk about God’s plan overriding our plans in the little things, right? My plan was to return the cable boxes, but it was God’s plan for the Oakland location to be closed, and for there to be a huge line at the Paterson location. So it was not God’s will for me to return the boxes that day—okay, I can accept that. Annoying, but I can submit to that. But what about when our plans get ruined in much more painful ways? When my friend’s wedding, that she’s been looking forward to all her life, got canceled by the Coronavirus, was that God’s will? And how about when our plans get ruined in more tragic ways? Is it always God’s will? And the biblical answer is “Yes”…BUT—that doesn’t mean God is the author of any evil thing. God didn’t create the black plague or the Spanish flu or the Coronavirus. God doesn’t make anyone commit evil acts. But here’s the amazing thing: He’s powerful enough encompass those things in his overall plan. Does that make sense? So even the worst effects of sin in this world—like viruses and cancer—God can take and masterfully turn them to serve his good purposes. And when we truly believe that, it doesn’t mean we’ll stop planning; it just means we start holding our plans more loosely. In our words, and in our hearts, we say, “Here’s what I plan to do…if it’s God’s will.”
So…how do you know if you’re getting this right? How do I know if I’m holding my plans loosely? Here’s the best way to discern it: how do you respond when your plans don’t work out? When life punches you in the mouth? Let me suggest three responses of people who are holding their plans loosely, when those plans get messed up.
First, Grieve. The very first thing we talked about in this series was allowing ourselves to grieve. Because we are human, and when we’ve been planning on something and looking forward to something, and it doesn’t happen, it hurts. So to not express that hurt at all—to not even acknowledge it—we’d be more like a robot than a human. And it’s so good to know that the Bible is filled with godly grieving—it’s called “lament.” So when your plans don’t work out, give yourself a little space, and give yourself a little time to grieve. The bigger the disappointment, the more space and time you should probably give yourself. Cry out to God. Talk it out with him.
And when someone you know has their plans ruined, allow them to grieve. Don’t rush too quickly to the Christian clichés. Last week I got that call from the bride who had re-scheduled her April wedding to July, and now she was totally canceling it. Imagine if I had said to her, “Well, you know—God works all things for good, so I’m sure there’s a better plan!” she would have rightfully wanted to smack me. But I’ve learned some things about grieving. So when she told me the news, I said, “Oh, I am so sorry. You must be so disappointed.” I think that was the right thing to say at the time.
So when I say, “Hold your plans loosely,” I don’t mean that when your plans change you go, “Yay—my plans are ruined!” Let yourself be human and grieve a little. God is okay with that.
But then, here’s the second thing: Trust. Trust that whatever happened, it’s not random. God is in it. One of the guys in my small group last week said, “I take comfort knowing that God is in control, because it takes the pressure off of me to have to be in control.” Yes. Exactly.
Years ago, we had a pastor on staff named Matt DeLorenzo. And he told a story once about his childhood. His dad was a New Jersey Transit bus driver, and Matt would sometimes ride on his dad’s bus. And he was amazed at his dad’s driving skill—the way he would weave in and out of the pillars at the Port Authority…he was a master driver. And he said one time it was snowing hard, and the roads were getting bad. And the bus was coming down Ratzer Road in Wayne—the steep part. And there were cars skidding off the road, and getting stuck. And he said his dad actually hopped the right side wheels of the bus up onto the curb to get traction. So the bus jolted up onto the curb. And the other passengers were freaked out, gripping the seats—they thought they were losing control. And Matt said he sat there—right in the front seat—and he didn’t have a care in the world. And he said, “You know why I wasn’t scared? Because I knew who was driving the bus.”
Listen: when something happens to ruin your plans, remember who’s driving the bus. He’s in control, and he’s good. And you can trust him. And when you believe that, you can loosen your grip and roll with the changes a little better.
And then, third, Be Present. Be present. Centuries ago, John Wesley wrote this: “Realizing the future is uncertain not only teaches us to trust in God, it helps us to properly value the present. To be obsessed with future plans may cause our failure to appreciate present blessings or our evasion of present duties.” In other words, when you’re done grieving the loss of your graduation or wedding or vacation, or whatever other future plan gets changed—because remember, this is not just a pandemic thing; this is life. So when that plan changes and it hurts and you take some time to grieve the loss, then, let go of the old and be fully present to the new. Be present to what God is doing now.
Jesus modeled this approach to life. In Luke chapter 8, Jesus is on his way to heal a sick little girl. That’s his plan, and it seems like a really important plan. But on the way to the girl’s house, there’s a woman in the crowd who’s desperate for her own healing—she’s lived with a socially shameful illness for twelve years. And she comes up and touches the edge of Jesus’ cloak. And in the press of that crowd, Jesus stops, and he says, “Who touched me?” And his disciples basically say, “Don’t worry about that; let’s get on with the plan!” But Jesus didn’t work that way. So the woman in the crowd identifies herself, and Jesus gives her his full attention, and heals her, and sends her away with a blessing. None of that was in his plan! But it was in his Father’s plan. Did you ever think that maybe the most important opportunity that God has for you this week is not something that’s in your Outlook calendar? But if you’re holding your plan too tightly, you’ll never see it. So when your plans don’t work out, be present to what God is doing now—through the interruptions. Through the disappointments.
Make your plans! But hold them loosely. Don’t be surprised if God has something else in mind.
I often have the privilege of coming into a hospital room and spending time with someone who’s on the verge of death. And sometimes, the person is so unwilling to let go, and they’re just clinging on to life. So a few year ago, I believe God gave me something to share in those moments. I read from John 10, where Jesus says, “Nothing can snatch you out of my hand.” And then I take their hand and I say to them, “You need to know that Jesus is holding you so tightly—he will never let you go. And because of that, you can let go. He’s got you.” And there are times when I can physically see the person relax when they hear the promise of Jesus. You know what? Those words aren’t just for people on their death beds. Because all through our lives, we have this tendency to hold on too tightly—to our plans and our dreams and our hopes for the future. And sooner or later, that approach to life will fail us. And so you hear James inviting us to loosen our grip, and maybe you think, “I don’t think I can do that!” Here’s why you can do it—here’s why you can let go: because Jesus is never letting go of you. He’s got you. He died for you on the cross; he rose again, which means he’s alive for you now. And he said, “I will never leave you or forsake you.” I’m holding you tightly…so you can hold loosely.
So make your plans…but hold them loosely.
A few weeks from now, or a few months from now, this lockdown is going to end. And some people will emerge from it exactly like they were before—clinging stubbornly to their plans; angry when their plans don’t work out. But not you. You’re going to be a little wiser about how life works, and how God works. So you’re still going to have plans, but you’re going to hold them a little more loosely. And that won’t be a cynical thing, like, “Well, here’s my plan, but it will probably get ruined.” It’ll be an exciting thing. It’ll be a wondrous thing. Like, “Man, I don’t know what’s around the next corner, but God does. And I know he loves me. So if he changes my plans, I am all in.”
The death and suffering caused by COVID-19 are tragic, but failing to learn from it would be tragic as well. Rather than just tolerating the lockdown, what if we walked through it expectantly? What if we could hear things from God that we wouldn’t hear at any other time? And what if we emerged from this crisis not just thankful that it’s over, but permanently changed for the better?