Yet, what I find for many people in missions, you can find yourself in a season where those questions, while they seem fairly simple, are quite difficult to answer. They are the loaded questions, the ones that when you try to answer can leave you feeling like an idiot. Loaded not because of what is implied by the one asking, but loaded in the sense that it can stir up a lot of emotion. Loaded with the cultural sense of obligation to have a plan, (We did, of course, have a plan when we set off as missionaries) loaded with the assumption that your plans should make sense, loaded with the personal desire to feel in control, that your decisions will clearly check off steps to reaching the next goal, or objective. That your time will fit into a nicely organized and defined category: time for rest, time for fundraising, connecting with supporters, or staff building, or "active ministry," like teaching, counseling, building houses etc. And believe me, I love those nice little sense-making categories. I put a lot of effort into shaping those clear-cut boxes and check-lists and schedules. I want to say "I/we have decided," "I/we will be doing," "Next, we will be going to," etc. But instead, I find myself digging for words to describe how we will "pray for direction," "discern God's timing," "follow open doors," "flow with the prompting of the spirit." All those nice categories kind of blur together, overlap, rearranging themselves, constantly being revised, in a way that makes those simple questions difficult to answer.
A life in missions can be complex for several reasons. I feel that we come from a culture that is so goal-oriented, it is hard to communicate a goal that is primarily relational in the first place. The programs and work we do are ultimately just avenues to lead to a place of building trust, so we can speak into people's lives. So, we have to be flexible with our goals. Secondly, a career working in ministry is like having several bosses: you are aiming to serve the Lord and his calling according to the scriptures and personal revelation, you have an organization and various people you may need to report to or seek authority from, you have the individuals and community whose needs you want to serve and relate to, and the supporters and/or home-church you receive spiritual and financial covering from. That being said, the focus of time has to be spread among spiritual growth and connecting with God, personal reflection, family transition, relating to people muliculturally and internationally, dealing with the need for finances, all in addition to the "work" or "programs" you want to do. Then, there is the element of spiritual warfare. Plain and simple, there is an enemy who wants to dismantle all of our efforts. Add in human error, and learning as you go, there is plenty to contribute to a "bump in the road" here and there... change in plans.
But the true wrestle is seeking God's will within ever-changing circumstances and overlapping purposes. Assuming we are responding to God's call according to what the scripture says, and zeroing in more specifically to how he has gifted us to serve, we can certainly set a mission statement, vision and goals. And those things can serve as a sort of compass, or help establish a rough timetable. But what when things go wrong? You don't have enough finances, or someone in authority gives you a 'NO', or health, or emotional issues/heartache slow you down or circumstances seem to indicate danger?
It is comforting to me to follow the apostle Paul's missionary journeys. He had a broad missionary strategy to plant churches, and allowed divine revelation and circumstances to help him prayerfully determine when and where to go. Paul would normally have several options before him, not just one open door. I believe the Lord does give us room to pick and choose from several things that would be within God's will, and he will give us nudges more-so in what to avoid, or how to fine-tune the plan to meet the right people, or help us get support we need. Gary Shogren has noted (about Paul) that:
Aloud or in writing, Paul was comfortable with using language such as “I plan, wish, desire, hope, I have decided, it is my ambition, my prayer.” His changes of plans led some Corinthians to suspect him of waffling (2 Cor. 1:15-2:4, our comments on 1 Corinthians 16:5-7), but Paul responded with careful reasons for the altered timetable. He strikes us as a man who was constantly thinking ahead, moving in optimum fashion and always with prayer.
( Read Shogren's full comments here.)
It is also reassuring to remember the passage in Romans 8:28:
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.
We can wrestle with God over the roadblocks, the mistakes, the worries, the unreached goals. But ultimately he is a sovereign God who loves us. That brings me peace. Even though I want him to show me more of the plan, I want more divine revelation, I want more knowledge of what may lie ahead, I mostly want to be more secure in his love. In his perfect love, there is no room for fear or regret, no need for striving ambition.
When I feel lost, and ask like Thomas did in John 14, "how can we know the way?” Jesus answers, “I am the way and the truth and the life..." I don't think this is just an eternity question. Everything comes through trusting him. He is the shepherd. He not only leads; he cares. And that is what makes it okay to simply be a sheep.