Trust in God's Future

We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him.  (Rom. 8:28)

Let me tell you another parable; the kingdom of heaven is like this:

Over the past several years since my parents retired to southern California, I have gotten in the habit of borrowing their car whenever I visit them, because, of course, to be in southern California is to drive.  And it is a source of relief to me that their car is equipped with a Global Positioning System that provides directions to anywhere I could want to go.  I would find it very easy to get lost on the streets of greater Los Angeles.  But as long as my destination is programmed into the car’s GPS, a clear, benign woman’s voice guides me, turn by turn, to wherever I am going.  “In one mile, turn left,” she’ll say.  Then, “turn left here.”  When you get where you are going she announces, “You have arrived at your destination.”

I have never been tempted to give her a name, but it is easy to personify the disembodied voice that gives me such reliable directions.

More and more of us these days rely on GPS systems to get from here to there.  And while these systems display maps on their screens while you drive, using a guidance system like this is fundamentally different from using a map.  First, you don’t have to figure out how to fold it.  But you also don’t need to take it out before you leave in order to plot your course; you don’t need to know how you will reach your destination.  You can just tell it where you want to go, and let the kindly voice guide you, turn by turn.

And one of the great things about the system is this: should you ignore the voice and take a different route, she will adjust to what you’ve done and either guide you back to the route she’s plotted for you, or she will reconsider (if you’ve strayed far from your original course) and find a new way back to where you are going.

I have found my own way changed by traffic, construction, and distraction of all kinds.  I feel free to take diversions that under other circumstances would leave me pulled over by the side of the road trying to find my location on a map and plot a route back.  But with this system I never have to pull over, never have to fumble with the map.  The woman’s voice knows where I am going and she will let me stray, but she will see to it that I arrive at my destination.

I believe Jesus wants us to have that kind of confidence as we make our way to the kingdom of heaven.

Few phrases in the Bible sound as hard to believe as Saint Paul’s statement that “in everything God works for good with those who love him.”  Or to put it another way, “All things work together for good for those who love God.”  I should think that any one of us could amass a dossier of ample evidence to challenge this claim.  Such a file would include countless examples of sickness, unintended consequences, disappointments, unreliable people, daily indignities, financial strain, racial bias, and plenty of stupidity, among other things.   The point being that for most of us, Saint Paul’s assurance doesn’t seem plausible.  We have seen too much go wrong, we have suffered too much failure, we have lost too much hope to believe that all things work together for good for those who love God.

But Saint Paul - who, having suffered shipwreck and imprisonment, knew what it was like when things went badly – was very clear about something that you and I are probably less certain about.  He believed beyond the shadow of a doubt that the future was in God’s hands.  He was certain that God had a future in mind for him, and for the church, and for all creation.  And he was certain that God’s future would be realized.  And although it was not at all like Paul to simply sit back and assume that God would steer his life by auto-pilot, he felt free to steer himself anywhere he seemed to be called, confident that God would always guide him to the future that he had planned.

It is a measure of our time that we would put ourselves in the hands of a small electronic device on the freeways of Southern California in order to arrive at our destination, but we are not at all sure that we trust God to get us anywhere at all.  But I wonder if learning to trust the GPS system could actually teach us something about learning to trust God.  

Lots of people in the world want to remain map-readers.  These are folks who tend to treat the Bible as though it unerringly maps a course through the confusions of 21st century America if only we will pay attention to it.  Money management, romance, job advice, family tensions, scientific research, war or peace, and of course sex are all to be guided by instructions in the Bible.  And the mastery or memorization of certain texts is a proud accomplishment – just like being able to fold the map properly every time.

Such a perspective of holy scripture conveniently ignores how much interpretation we bring to everything we read.  Even if we are very good at finding our location on a map, for instance, if we are reading the map the wrong way, holding it upside down, we may still never get where we are going.

Another way of reading scripture is to hear in it the long testimony of confidence in God’s care for those who love and trust him; the complicated record of hope that the future lies in God’s hands.

The church, like so many of us, is sometimes prone to forget that God knows where we are going, that the future lies in God’s hands and he has already worked it out for us.

Saint Paul’s way of talking about this was to say that God had predestined the outcome of our lives.  And since we are not Presbyterians, we chafe at this assertion, uncomfortable with the idea that as if by some mystical lottery, God has already decided who will live in paradise and who will burn in hell?

But the entire thrust of Paul’s ministry was to expand the understanding of who might be included among those who love God.  He traveled abroad to carry the Gospel where it hadn’t been heard.  And he argued with other church leaders (and won) for a more expansive understanding of who could be saved.  He had a comprehensive and potentially universal view of the reach of God’s love.

Of course, there are lots of people in the world who don’t worry about the scriptures at all, who don’t worry about God, and who believe that the only future we have is the one we create for ourselves.   To me, this point of view seems a lot like driving aimlessly on the LA freeways until you run out of gas – a pointless journey that offers very little opportunity for happiness.

In my parents’ car the GPS allows you to press a button marked “Home” that calculates a route back to their house from where ever you happen to be, and then guides you there until you reach your destination.  And I think there may be nothing more complex than this to Saint Paul’s idea that in everything God works for good with those who love him.  Paul holds on to the certainty that God has a future for him: a future in this life and in the life to come.  He is free to travel far and wide, to take bold risks, to put his life on the line.  God knows where he is going; the future lies in God’s hands; and God will see to it that he arrives at his destination.

There is, of course, no real way to prove that God’s future for us is real.  And since the ride is often a bumpy one, it can be easy to suspect that the divine GPS is on the blink.  Which is why we call this kind of trust hope – because we cannot see from here the place that God is bringing us to.  And yet we dare to believe that God has a future for us that he has already planned; that that future is a blessing; and that we are in his hands.

So I know how unlikely it seems that all things really do work together for good for those that love God.  And yet I know how willing I am to get in a car without a clue as to where I am going, and just let the car guide me, confident that it knows, has a route plotted out, and will even adjust, if I should deviate from the plan, to get me where I am going.

And if I will put so much trust in the GPS system installed in my parents Prius, how much more trust should I place in the God whose hands made my body, whose Son is my Savior, and whose Spirit gives me life?

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
27 July 2008
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on July 27, 2008 .