The Wisdom of When
In James we read the comforting words
‘if anyone lacks wisdom, they should ask God who gives generously without finding fault and it will be given to him (Ja 1:5).
This is comforting because no matter whatever the issue, our world is so full of complexity and uncertainty that real, deep wisdom is necessary to know the best way forward. This is perhaps even more the case as we minister alongside one another – striving to grow each other into Christ-like maturity. How should we act? Thinking about how we minister is what I would like us to consider.
Two Inter-connected Issues
When it comes to wisdom there are two inter-connected issues that should be considered together. One, we naturally consider and the other doesn’t receive the attention it deserves. The natural one is ‘what we should do’, and the less considered one is ‘when we should do it’.
An image I liken wisdom to is sailing the Sydney to Hobart Race (not that I know anything nautical, so forgive my ignorance). In the race, we know where we are starting and we know the destination. Both must be clear and firmly fixed in our minds. But you do not get from Sydney to Hobart by setting sail and never altering direction and manoeuvring. You ‘tack’ the vessel back and forth, responding to the weather conditions, your own, and the other vessels. This ‘tacking’ requires knowing both which direction to point toward and how long to keep going in that direction. It is both what to do and when to do it. When done properly the navigator will have a swift journey to Hobart.
This is ministry – both the what and the when.
In many ways the ‘what’ is easy, as it is shaped by the destination we are heading toward. Our goal is to move people from contact to maturity by the Word of God in fellowship, so that Christ will be honoured everywhere. In order to achieve this goal God has told us the resources to use and given us these resources. The chief resources – and these determine what we do – are His Word, prayer, each other and the Spirit who renews our minds. Almost all our ministry actions are to enhance these God supplied resources.
The other factor is the when. In many ways it is more complicated because the same action can at one time be just right, and at another completely wrong.
We don’t have to go beyond Ecclesiastes 3 to see this beautifully described:
There is an occasion for everything,
and a time for every activity under heaven:
a time to give birth and a time to die;
a time to plant and a time to uproot;
a time to kill and a time to heal;
a time to tear down and a time to build;
a time to weep and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn and a time to dance;
a time to throw stones and a time to gather stones;
a time to embrace and a time to avoid embracing;
a time to search and a time to count as lost;
a time to keep and a time to throw away;
a time to tear and a time to sew;
a time to be silent and a time to speak;
a time to love and a time to hate;
a time for war and a time for peace.
Another example of this wisdom about timing can be found in Proverbs 26:4-5 where seemingly contradictory advice is put side by side: ‘don’t answer a fool according to their folly’ and ‘answer a fool according to his folly’. This is not just about doing the right thing. It is doing the right thing at the right time.
Part of the timing complexity can be understood when we realise people have multiple things going on in their lives, and so their response to a particular episode is influenced by all the other issues they are facing.
Another consideration is the seasons of life. Seasons affect the way people engage with what is occurring around them. They function in seasons or cycles. There are daily cycles, weekly cycles, seasons and annual cycles. It is important to recognise these cycles to life and it does not usually work to push against them.
At the end of the nineteenth century, for over a decade, France instituted a 10-day week, and from 1931-1940 Russia attempted to operate a six-day week. Both failed despite 10 years of trying, because our bodies naturally resonate with seven-day weeks (built into creation!).
We regularly see the cycles of life operate. Daily personal Bible study creates habits in a way that occasional Bible study does not. Fortnightly Home Groups do not usually work well, as people have weekly cycles. Some people have seasonal affective disorder where they are sad through every winter. Most look forward to the Christmas break, and starting new ministries at that time is difficult.
Bruce Miller wrote a book entitled Your Church in Rhythm in which he pushes further than the cycles of life and argues there are not just the seasons of day, week, season and year, but our personal and church hopes also go through seasons. There are times where it is right to free up expectations, times where it is right to seize opportunities and times where we sit back and anticipate what is next.
There is great wisdom in recognising such seasons. So often, and for so many, we do not give the opportunity to release expectations so that we may feel increasingly guilty, or burdened by the inability to juggle all the issues we are responsible for. It is so valuable to say ‘it is OK to let go of that expectation’ or ‘there is not a problem in realising you will never achieve that dream’.
After the release of expectations it is more likely that we will be able to seize opportunities when they arise, and recognising that sometimes we can let go of hopes and at other times we embrace opportunities, we have greater clarity and ability to anticipate what is next.
A further consideration on ‘when’ is ‘how long do we keep going?’, ‘when is it right to change course?’ This is an important consideration which merits a whole article in itself.
It is essential that we remember that every believer and every ministry is a work in progress, and we will never arrive until we see the Lord face-to-face. Meanwhile, we tack backwards and forward in the joyous expectation that under God, irrespective of our circumstances, we will one day become what we were meant to be.