Even though I’ve known how to hear God’s voice for over a decade, I didn’t listen regularly until about five years ago. Dad and I had begun work on our book, Stark Raving Obedience, and I wanted to immerse myself in listening prayer. It was practice, research. I’m not sure if I knew how screwy a life of obedience could appear both to me and others. Every once in a while, God would ask me to go somewhere. Sometimes He’d send me to a park or a café, usually a public place. When I would arrive, I’d sit for a while, looking around to see why God wanted me there. Pastors and teachers had often talked about “divine appointments”, where God put people in place to do His work. I would ask, “What’s going on? Am I meeting someone here? Is there a baby about to fall out of its high chair? A fire I have to put out?” And all I would ever hear in reply was, “Wait.” After a while, He’d say, “Okay, you can go.”
You can imagine how this frustrated me. I mean, I guess I wasn’t very busy. I’d been kicked out of college, left my job, been dumped, and so on. I wanted answers from God. He should have guided me back into a stable life, given me peace and comfort, or something. So those times where I felt like God told me to take up space made me a little angry. Then, for a while, we moved on to the peace and comfort part. He brought people into my life who helped me through those hard years. He stopped asking me to “go here and there” to sit. I assumed my lesson was to obey even when it didn’t seem to have a purpose.
About a year ago, He told me to walk to a library. I sat in the main room and waited. Nothing. “Stop playing games, God. I thought we were past this already.” Then He said, “It’s time to go.” After this little episode, I had a conversation with my friend Bob. He told me about God sending him to divine appointments. Sometimes, he would sit in one place until God pointed out the person who needed to talk to him. Other times, God would show him other people He had sent to take care of the situation. If that person didn’t follow through in obedience, Bob would have to step in and do the job instead. I said, “So you’re saying that sometimes God needs a backup guy?”
At that moment, God reminded me of all those times He put me in a place and said, “Wait.” In those days when I needed answers and comfort, God wanted people to speak to me. Sometimes they didn’t obey. Others did obey, and they were the ones who prayed with me and encouraged my trust in God during difficult times. And then later, at the Library, after my trust in Him had strengthened, He needed me to help a person in case someone else didn’t obey. I was God’s backup guy.
It took some time adjusting to the idea that God has a bullpen, people in place and ready in case the starting pitcher leaves early in the game. But then again, it also gave me comfort. There are times when God asks me to call someone or pray for a person or give money to a guy, and for some reason I don’t obey. When I realized that I failed to obey God, I’d feel searing condemnation. It never occurred to me that God’s will for mankind would rest on more than my obedience. He’s got backup. Even if I totally miss my opportunity to further the work of His kingdom, I haven’t ruined His plans. And what about those times when I did obey and nothing seemed to happen? Maybe it was a matter of corporate obedience, like a secret team effort where a few people had to obey at precise times. Does God refuse to bless me because some other people didn’t listen to Him? No, it just means He has to call in other people who will take orders.
One of my favorite stories from the Old Testament takes place outside of a city called Kadesh-barnea. God wanted to give the land to His people after their time of wandering. In preparation for battle, Moses sent twelve spies into the city as reconnaissance. When the spies returned in Numbers 13 and 14, Caleb and Joshua said, “let’s go! The land is amazing, and God has promised it to us.” The other ten spies kept talking about giants and fortresses and convinced the Israelites to back off. God told the people that they wouldn’t enter the land and forced them to wander forty more years. Of that entire generation, only two were allowed to live in the Promised Land: Joshua and Caleb. And they lived out their years receiving God’s full blessing. The disobedience of others didn’t ruin God’s plan for their lives. He brought in another generation to take the Promised Land with them.
In Judges 4, several decades after the time of Joshua and Caleb, Canaanites had taken control of the Promised Land. A prophet named Deborah tells a man named Barak to gather an army and fight their oppressors. Barak says, “If you will go with me, then I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go.” Because he wouldn’t step into the authority God had given him and deferred to her, Deborah tells Barak, “I will surely go with you; nevertheless, the honor shall not be yours on the journey that you are about to take, for the LORD will sell Sisera (the Canaanite general) into the hands of a woman.” The Israelites are victorious in battle, but Sisera flees into a politically friendly area. A woman there takes him into her tent and gives him something to drink. When Sisera falls asleep, she drives a tent peg through his skull. Sometimes backup comes from unexpected places.
All of this makes me wonder if Jesus wanted God to find a backup guy for the cross. Maybe that’s why He prayed in Matthew 26:39, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; yet not as I will, but as You will.” It was a part of Jesus’s humanity that He should desire to live. When He understood that no other person on earth could bring salvation to mankind, His willingness to obey under duress was the first part of His sacrifice.
I want to be the guy who obeys. I want to see the blessing God has promised to those who obey Him. But if I miss my opportunity, I know that God is bigger than my failures. This also means that I have to find patience in those times when His commands don’t make any sense. Who knows? I just might be God’s backup guy.