“When God Closes A Door”

Have you ever heard the phrase “sometimes God closes a door”? It was a common phrase in my evangelical upbringing. If you, say, were applying for a job and then didn’t get it, well, you would say that God “closed that door.” And this was good, of course, because by closing a door God was guiding you to something better for you.

See, growing up as an evangelical Christian meant growing up believing that God was intimately involved in our lives in very real ways. We believed God was present, very present, and that he actually intervened in our lives on a daily basis.

If you were closing on a house and then it suddenly fell through, well, God “closed that door.” If you wanted to go to the store and then your car broke down, well, God clearly wanted you to stay home. If you got lost on the way to a meeting, God must not have wanted you to be at that meeting. And on and on and on.

In many ways this was very comforting. After all, God was in control. God was taking care of us, watching out for us, and when something looked like it was going wrong we knew that it was actually for the best, because God was directing our lives. If you got fired, well, that’s God’s plan. If you signed up for something too late and didn’t get in, well, God closed that door.

I hadn’t even even thought of the problem with this until I was conversing with a young woman in a Quiverfull home and asked her about college. She told me that if her parents allowed her to go to college, then she wanted to go, but if they said no, well, then that would be God “closing the door.” In other words, she chose to interpret parental opposition as God’s message to her that she should not go to college.

“Maybe God wants you to open the door yourself,” I suggested.

“Libby! I’m a Christian!” was her response.

This idea that God opens and closes doors may be comforting, but it can also be debilitating. It can stop people from trying, stop them from fighting, stop them from stepping out and creating their own destinies.

When I concluded that there was no God, my entire perspective changed and I realized that I had to get myself where I wanted to be myself. If I wanted to go to grad school, nothing but good grades and a good cover letter and recommendations would get me there. And if I failed, well, that was life, not God trying to tell me something. And personally? I like that. I like that I no longer have to spend time guessing at God’s will, trying to read the events around me as “signs” regarding what God wants me to do. I like that my choices are mine, my successes are mine, and my failures are mine.

And best of all, I like that I can open my own doors.

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Liriel

    Did you still use the “When God closes a door, he opens window” phrase? I’ve never heard the door part without the window part before. Actually, I’ve never heard either expression in “real life” but I’ve heard the door/window bit in fiction and it’s so much a part of culture that I’d think almost every native-born adult was familiar with it (like the footprints bit). Just never reference to the phrase without the window bit.

  • trj

    “Hey God, close the damn door! Were you born in a barn? Oh, wait…”

  • Paula G V aka Yukimi

    I prefer “When one door is closed, another one is opened”.

  • Syl

    Boy oh boy is this familiar! It took me a bit longer than you to learn to open and close those doors (or windows) myself, rather than being a passive observer in my own life. The God-is-in-control canard of opening and closing “doors” which you are then obligated to walk through (if open) or give up on (if closed) created incredible confusion, angst, and ultimately anguish as I walked right into marriage with a man who was all wrong for me. Did I really want to marry him? No. I wanted to marry someone, some day – the right someone, but not him. And there was similar, convoluted “reasoning” on his part, too, I later discovered. Compounding the mess, not only did “God open the door”, but that this complete mis-match was “God’s will” was confirmed and touted by oh-so-many others. So of course there had to be something wrong with me, and if I just obeyed it would be wonderful – NOT! As George Bernard Shaw said, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” The happy ending is that although this particular hell endured for eight long years, it did end. And so did my unreasoning, passive, fearful faith – and I finally started living my own life.

  • Meggie

    Oh Libby, have you ever listened to Adrian Plass? You need to! Adrian Plass is a Christian comedian from the UK. His comedy is all based on the church and religious practice. You don’t need to be a Christian to enjoy his humour but you probably need experience in a church to understand it. He has a wonderful skit on God opening and closing doors. I can’t find it on Youtube but it goes something like “We thought God was opening a door but when we tried the handle it was locked, so we climbed through a nearby window. When we found that lead nowhere we turned and followed a corridor but all the doors along it were also locked….” The skit finishes with him explaining he wanted advice on whether or not to buy an open plan house.
    As Liriel said, we were always told “When God closes a door, he opens a window.” The message behind it was always that God never shuts you off without any options.

  • machintelligence

    I think there are several antidotes to the God is in charge meme. The first is the old saw “God helps those who help themselves.” (And please do not tell the man on his roof in a flood joke!)
    The other is the atheist response in a somewhat darker tone: “Invictus” by William Earnest Henley (1875)

    Out of the night that covers me,
    Black as the pit from pole to pole,
    I thank whatever gods may be
    For my unconquerable soul.

    In the fell clutch of circumstance
    I have not winced nor cried aloud.
    Under the bludgeonings of chance
    My head is bloody, but unbowed.

    Beyond this place of wrath and tears
    Looms but the Horror of the shade,
    And yet the menace of the years
    Finds and shall find me unafraid.

    It matters not how strait the gate,
    How charged with punishments the scroll.
    I am the master of my fate:
    I am the captain of my soul.

    A bit of background from Wikipedia:

    At the age of 12, Henley contracted tuberculosis of the bone. A few years later, the disease progressed to his foot, and physicians announced that the only way to save his life was to amputate directly below the knee. It was amputated when he was 17.[1] Stoicism inspired him to write this poem.[2] Despite his disability, he survived with one foot intact and led an active life until his death at the age of 53.

    • http://www.brooksandsparrow.com Angelia Sparrow

      “The Gods help them as help themselves” is from Aesop, the fable of Heracles and the Carter. Ben Franklin tidied it up for monotheistic consumption.

      I like the phrase “pray with one hand and work with the other.” Prayer to focus the mind, and work to accomplish the goal.

      • Liriel

        To be honest, I’m fonder of “Two hands at work can do more than a thousand clasped in prayer.” My nature.

        But for purely secular with no religion reference you have “I am a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it.”

        Both of those have the “you have to do something” part, discouraging passiveness. Lemons and lemonade is sort of like the window – making good out of bad. But secular saying lack the “guidance” aspect, so I can understand how they’d be unfulfilling to people who want that.

      • machintelligence

        @ Liriel:

        “Two hands at work can do more than a thousand clasped in prayer.”

        You beat me to it.

        “I am a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it.”

        That’s not quite all of it. “Luck” is in large measure planning and attention to detail. I like Branch Rickey’s quote:

        “Things worthwhile generally don’t just happen. Luck is a fact, but should not be a factor. Good luck is what is left over after intelligence and effort have combined at their best. Negligence or indifference are usually reviewed from an unlucky seat. The law of cause and effect and causality both work the same with inexorable exactitudes. Luck is the residue of design.”

      • Anat

        Jewish version:

        Hillel used to say: If I am not for myself who will be for me? Yet, if I am for myself only, what am I? And if not now, when?

        And the old Jewish joke: ‘It’s not enough to wait for a miracle, one must also read Psalms!’

  • Shanna

    We also heard it as “When God closes one door, he opens another” and “When God closes a door, he opens a window.” The meaning being, that though one option was no longer available, one should look for other options. My family, even my mega-religious grandmother, never used it to say that you couldn’t and shouldn’t try to do things. It was more in the vein of “that job interview didn’t pan out, well, go try someplace else.” The idea that that girl would just take what her parents said as gospel for life sickens me and makes me hope that she’ll one day be able to rescue herself.

  • http://bunnystuff.wordpress.com/ Jaimie

    I’ve heard that phrase so many times, used in both good and bad ways. The bad ways are obvious: to justify apathy or to be unaccountable for your choices, like your college aged friend. Basic decision making and responsibility issues are highlighted there. But I have heard the phrase used in very good ways too. Like when someone wants something badly and works really hard but the opportunity or whatever falls apart. Then the phrase is used as a nice but firm “mind your own business” phrase. Cause ya know how nosy Christians can get.
    When you were talking about God being intimately involved in our lives I had to smile. My mom is one of those. If she found a good parking spot she would say, “Thank you, Lord” in a chirpy tone as she was pulling in.

  • Noelle

    That moment when you realize no supernatural being is pulling your strings and there’s no safety net and there never was and it was all you all along? Sweet beautiful freedom.

  • http://www.texannewyorker.com jwall915

    Oh, this line of thinking is so familiar to me!! The post kind of make me giggle remembering how annoying it used to be. However, there is a really dark side to it. It does promote a lot of passivity and lack of personal responsibility. Like your example of someone signing up too late for something and not getting in, and they say “God closed the door.” This leaves absolutely no room to learn anything from the experience. Maybe you didn’t sign up in time because you were lazy and you need to work on that. Maybe you didn’t bother to read instructions, and next time you should be more careful. Maybe you have poor time management skills. And on and on. It always really irked me that so many people in a sense let God take the responsibility for their screw-ups and didn’t learn a damn thing.
    I also think “God opened a door” can be a dangerous way to think as well, though. So many people think that if a door opens (meaning an opportunity crops up), then they have to walk through it, because of course God was at work behind it. I saw so many people never stick to anything because God kept opening doors for them and leading the down so many different paths. And then, when they never advanced in their career because they kept changing jobs, or they couldn’t graduate college because they kept changing their major, they couldn’t figure out what went wrong.
    I also have to agree with you that it is so unbelievably freeing not to be bound by this line of thinking anymore. It’s so wonderful to know that I do have some control over my life, and that I steer the ship. It doesn’t make my life perfect, and there is plenty I lack control over, but it’s so freeing to realize that I can learn from my own mistakes, I can forge my own path, and I can make my own decisions. It’s also so nice to feel that I can stick with something even when it feels like it’s going wrong, because I know that perseverance can get you out the other side. I don’t have to wonder if God is closing the door. If an opportunity arises, I can actually consider it on its merits, not just assume that I have to take it because God opened a door. I felt so stifled and trapped thinking some supreme being was controlling everything and I could never get ahead or figure out up from down.

    On an unrelated note, this is reminding me I still haven’t finished my “Raised Evangelical” submission yet. Right after you sent the questions, I went on vacation, then came back and started a new blog, got consumed with that, and time really got away from me. I will get that to you soon. :)

  • Karen

    Tis post is precisely the reason I CANNOT ever be an atheist. If all of your achievements are solely and completely yours, then anyone who has not or cannot have the same achievements is a worthless failure. This is Ayn Randian ideas in their purest form. I agree that what you were taught usually leads to foolish quietism, but quietism is not noticeably better for the world than selfishness. “He who dies with the most toys wins” is as pernicious.

    • http://cfiottawa.com Eamon Knight

      Tis post is precisely the reason I CANNOT ever be an atheist. If all of your achievements are solely and completely yours, then anyone who has not or cannot have the same achievements is a worthless failure.

      Conclusion in second sentence does not follow from premise (also, premise is false). Conclusion in first sentence follows even less. Do you need me to explain the details?

    • http://ripeningreason.com/ Bix

      And I’m profoundly disturbed by the belief that God grants success to a favored few. That implies that people who don’t succeed are immoral/sinful/disfavored by God, which I believe is responsible for the disdain for impoverished people evinced by some conservatives in the United States. I think believing that one succeeds because God is personally on one’s side is the height of arrogance. And can lead to some very poor decision-making.

      I saw a video of a woman claiming that her prayers had led God to move Hurricane Isaac away from the Republican National Convention. So God favors Republicans. What about the people killed by the storm in Haiti? Did they deserve to die because they were sinful and God wanted to kill them? People can claim God favored them with success, but the flip side is that God had it in for other people. And that would seem to eliminate the need for compassion for those people who were less fortunate. After all, God delivered judgment and found them wanting.

      One’s success is never wholly due to one’s actions–parents, mentors, schools, and the structure of society play a large role as well. Some people come into the world with a greater set of advantages than others. Some people come into the world very disadvantaged. But I find it much more hopeful to think that I can direct my own life, and I’m not sure how that’s selfish. It certainly doesn’t prevent me from helping other people, as I was helped. By people, not by God.

    • http://bunnystuff.wordpress.com/ Jaimie

      I don’t understand. Believing that God made you poor, a failure, or burns down your house somehow makes it better?
      Before Paul Ryan, who incidentally is not an atheist, I knew of no one in my whole life who believed in Ayn Randian ideals. It’s extremist philosophy.
      Achievements are brought about by many factors. Hard work, determination, timing, random luck are the usual but a myriad of unforeseen things can happen to change circumstances for the better or worse.
      I can only speak for myself but I am not much of a “toy” person. Envy and materialism are not automatic by-products of a non theistic approach to life.

    • Uly

      1. Of course my achievements aren’t entirely my own efforts. My achievements are a direct result of my upbringing, my culture, and the various opportunities available right now. Just because I don’t believe that your deity is personally micromanaging my life, that doesn’t mean I believe I do everything entirely on my own!

      2. Your conclusion, as stated, does not follow the premise. Lots of people have achieved things I never will. Does this make me a “worthless failure”? Of course not. They have different priorities in their lives, different skills and aptitudes. If they value having a career as a doctor, and they achieve that, it doesn’t make ME a failure because I’ve spent my time learning social skills (something which didn’t come easily to me). If I am happy with being a damn good cook, that doesn’t mean that my neighbor is a failure because she prefers to cook a strict rotation of pasta, rice and beans, and take-out. We just have different ideas of how to spend our lives.

    • Uly

      Of course, even if I did think I did everything on my own, and that makes others failures compared to me, that’s only about as obnoxious as the ever-popular “prosperity gospel” promulgated by people who apparently missed the whole story about the camel and the eye of the needle. Many many Christians (and presumably members of other religions) sincerely believe that earthly success is a sign God likes you. If you’re poor, then, you’re not just a miserable failure in the eyes of people on earth, you’re a miserable failure in God’s eyes as well.

      That really IS awful.

    • Sarah

      “Tis post is precisely the reason I CANNOT ever be an atheist. If all of your achievements are solely and completely yours, then anyone who has not or cannot have the same achievements is a worthless failure.”

      I don’t see how 1st sentence and 2nd sentence are connected, so I’ll pick the 2nd sentence.

      There are so so SO many accomplishments out there! I was in a circus for a short time. I performed and traveled with an incredible group of people. It’s one of the highlights of my life. How does that one accomplishment of mine invalidate anyone else’s accomplishments? I run a marathon – that doesn’t cancel out your diploma. I bake a cake – that doesn’t cancel out you shoveling the neighbor’s sidewalk.

    • http://dream-wind.livejournal.com Christine

      ” If all of your achievements are solely and completely yours, then anyone who has not or cannot have the same achievements is a worthless failure.”

      No, they would have other achievements. Take one of my best friends – she is an award winning artist, and has worked her butt off to develop her talent to the point where she’s garnering national recognition for her work. I don’t have the talent, or possibly the inclination, to follow her path. What I have is a highly technical brain, highly suited to IT, and I’ve been highly involved over the last few years developing reporting tools that make my local health district the most efficient in our Australian state. My artisitic friend could not have done this because her brain isn’t suited to pattern recognition like mine.

      By your definition, which of us is the “failure” – her with her acclaimed artistic talents, or me with my acclaimed technical talents?

      Oh, and neither of us would be considered Christian either.

  • Karen

    Yes, Eamon. Explain to me how a mindset that attributes all achievements to a person’s own efforts leads to any other conclusion?

    • ScottInOH

      I can’t speak for Eamon, but not believing that God is pulling the strings is not the same as not believing there are forces beyond one’s control–to name a few: parents’ wealth, hiring laws, or personal talent. Also, not believing in God is not the same as believing “s/he who dies with the most toys wins.”

      An atheist could believe those things, but s/he doesn’t have to. Same for a theist. The difference is only that the atheist doesn’t think *God* is involved in the process of determining life’s outcomes or of setting moral standards.

    • Uly

      Now that you’ve had more replies, do you intend to respond again?

    • http://cfiottawa.com Eamon Knight

      Explain to me how a mindset that attributes all achievements to a person’s own efforts leads to any other conclusion?

      OK, taken painfully literally, I suppose it does. But then, nobody (except the current crop of Republicans) thinks it does — if nothing else, it completely ignores that we all start off from different places. If I’d been born a First Nations lesbian on some impoverished reserve in northern Ontario, instead of a straight white middle-class male in suburban Toronto, but with otherwise identical innate abilities, I probably wouldn’t be anywhere near where I am today. And others have pointed out that we all have different goals, and get good and bad luck along the way.

      So I’ll just address your first point, “This is why I could never be an atheist”. In my view, the only legitimate reason for being an atheist (or Christian, or whatever) is that evidence and reason convince you that atheism (or whatever) is the true description of the way the universe really is. Whether that conclusion makes you happy or sad, generous or selfish, is another matter.

      • Noelle

        I actually knew a First Nations lesbian woman in med school. Not joking. She wasn’t from Ontario though.

  • Mieke

    My godmother visited a few weeks ago and we spoke of something very similar. She said all the choices we have nowadays doesn´t give us more freedom (when she was a kid there she had no possibillity of learning a job simply because there was no money to go to school after the age of 14) because you never know how things are going to turn out. I got really frustrated because I couldn´t find the right words to explain that even if you can´t plan every detail you can have a LOT of influence. But I don´t think she would have listened anyway. She seemed to feel threatened, possibly by the thought that if you CAN have some measure of control over your existence and the direction in which you want to develop that might devaluate her own life as it has been up until now. So maybe it´s better that I didn´t know how to put it.

  • http://heresyintheheartland.blogspot.com Jeri

    Yes, oh, yes! This fatalism kept me “striving for contentment” when I should have been using my restlessness to fuel progress toward my dreams!

  • http://terelatimer.blogspot.com.au/ Tere

    As a christian, I am thankful for the many ‘doors’ God provides to me in my life’s journey. However, I firmly believed that it is my choice whether or not I open or close a door. And whenever and whatever door I choose to open I believe God is alright with that, after all it is he who gave me free-will! If there was no free-will, then what’s the point? This life would all be a game.
    Over the years as a parent I have tried to provide many opportunities for my kids to experience new things. I’m thinking of things like music, art, drama, books, friends, foods, etc. But I cannot force them to either like those things or be good at those things. It’s up to them whether or not they pursue a certain course. I’ve also found that the interests that they do pursue, they become good at. I don’t get the credit – that belongs to them. But out of my love for my kids I try to provide as many new opportunities as I can for them so they can discover what they like and what they are good at. We open and close our own doors, but I am thankful for the numerous doors that I have been shown.

  • smrnda

    The problem with the saying is that it implies that all the setbacks are for some greater purpose. Sometimes you are just getting a shit deal, and the whole “God opens a door” could easily become a way to silence people who have legitimate complaints that should be listened to.

    I have a friend who never had the opportunity to go to college. Her life has been far more difficult than mine. College wasn’t a door God ‘closed’ for her – it was just part of the unfair deal of living in the US, where if your parents went to college, your chances of going increase drastically and if they didn’t, you won’t be so lucky. I mean, her day to day life is harder than mine simply because of the accident of who our parents were long after we both started working. I can take time off work whenever I feel like it, and I’m not supervised heavily and am left to do my own thing. I don’t have to punch a time clock to make sure that the company knows I was here on time.

    I think success is mostly luck and circumstance, with a bit of individual effort contributing to extreme outliers on either end, but that the only way to avoid this is to raise the bar for what an ‘average person’ can expect from society. But thinking that God’s in charge just leads to the belief that we’re living in a just universe where everybody has a fair chance of getting ahead and where the only problem is a person failing to think positively enough. I notice that, when I’m exposed to them, most ‘sermons’ or anything of the sort boils down to this message. I think the reason is that it gets the church out of having to DO anything for anyone except the most extreme cases.

    I guess I look at the saying as less about who deserves credit for what I’ve done (me or God) but more that it’s a perspective where if bad things happen to you, you’re supposed to think they are really good things but that you just might not at present ‘get’ God’s plan. I think that’s a sadistic belief, so I can’t buy into it.

  • Judy L.

    When god closes a door, he opens up a window.
    “You realize that’s a smaller opening, right? You used to be able to walk out the front door and now you have to climb out some slightly ajar window somewhere, possibly falling, like, five storeys to your death. That is not an upgrade.” — Garfunkel and Oates. NFSW (loud, marvelous cursing): http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=H-gfxjAaZg0#!

  • http://dream-wind.livejournal.com Christine

    This reminds me of a story I heard out of a theological college – I don’t know if it’s true, but maybe it’s something Evangelicals need to consider.

    There was a student in a theological exam who hadn’t studied and had no idea of most of the answers. He came up with a response he thought was brilliant – he wrote on his paper “God knows all the answers” and handed that in. His paper came back with a 0, and the comment “God does indeed know all the answers. He expects us to know some of them as well.”

  • Tisha

    I’ve never understood how christians figure out whether it was god that closed the door or satan. During my brief evangelical period, I was unable to make it to bible study once because my car broke down. One of the old ladies told me very earnestly that it was obviously satan who broke my alternator. But if god can also break cars, maybe it was god who saved me from a wreck by making my car die late at night in a fairly deserted part of town the night before. Unless it was satan who was trying to get me raped, so then god had to break the would be rapist’s car to save me…

  • lucrezaborgia

    I always saw that “god closed the door” phrase paired with “and then he opened a window…so you can jump out if it and put yourself out of your god-damn misery”

  • lucrezaborgia

    Hit enter too soon! This is also somewhat similar to how the phrase “Insha’Allah” is used in the Arab world. Insha’Allah, on the surface, means “god willing”. That’s not how it’s typically used tho. Mostly it’s used to say yes when you really mean no and in really impolite conversation is interchangeable with “when the sun rises from my ass”. However, it is also used in the way you describe “god closed a door”. If my Arab friends failed an exam? “Insha’Allah”. Didn’t get a job? “Insha’Allah”. Can’t get that girl to marry you? “Insha’Allah”!