When my wife and I were asked recently to co-write a liturgy entitled “Asking God for New Vision in the New Year,” my mind jumped straight to Proverbs 29:18, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” The take-away was obvious: If believers want to stave off catastrophe in the new year, we’d better be asking God for vision. Perfect. This thing would write itself.
But a quick word study proved otherwise. The word for vision here has been translated numerous ways, as “prophetic vision,” “prophecy,” “revelation,” and even “divine guidance.” The word “vision” has also become rather equivocal in our culture. For many, it’s a term synonymous with mission statements or quarterly forecasts. For others, it means a reimagining of the self. For others still, it’s the wisdom to see the far-reaching consequences of our decisions. Meditating on, writing down, or praying through these concepts can hardly be considered ill-advised. However, none of these are quite on par with asking God for revelation or diving guidance.
And the problem of translation doesn’t stop there. The translations of “perish” are as diverse as “cast off restraint,” “run wild,” “are discouraged,” and “stumble over themselves.” Each of these interpretations carries its own connotations and mental images, but not one of them is as severe or permanent a consequence as perishing.
While my frustrated attempts at translation may not have produced the one “correct” interpretation of Proverbs 29:18, they did result in some important observations. Despite being in the vast minority of translations, the classic KJV version appears much more likely to end up on a meme or motivational poster. It’s short, catchy, and rhythmic. “Vision” is a bit of a buzzword, while “perish” produces an urgency, yet remains open to more metaphorical interpretations than say, “the people will all die gruesome deaths.” The old adage we all know and love (to quote) is just serious enough to make us furrow our brows, just generalized enough to excuse us from personal application, and just vague enough to allow room for a wide range of interpretations.
This is precisely where the modern Christian should take heed. We have the dangerous tendency to allow the language and attitudes of the surrounding culture to contaminate our interpretation of God’s Word. Asking God for vision in the new year should be a solemn act. It should also be specific, personal, uncomfortable, and riddled with challenging questions. It should involve more than a half-hour of brainstorming hyper spiritualized resolutions. More than praying for God to help you kick that pesky habit or finally read the Bible from cover to cover. It should probably involve less asking for blessings and more asking to be transformed into his image. Attempts to map out our destinies and polish our illusions of control should be replaced with humble submission to God’s sovereign plan. Less “we will” and more “if the Lord wills” (James 4:13-17). Not only must we ask God for vision, we must ask him how to ask for it.
Of the numerous reasons to favor the above approach, perhaps the most compelling is that human foresight is at best seriously flawed and severely limited. Proverbs 14:12 warns that there are paths in this life which look like they lead to paradise and look safe to travel, but are in reality death traps. Compare that to Proverbs 16:9 which teaches that plan as we may, when our feet hit the pavement, it is God who directs each step. These verses and others confirm that our future hopes and dreams seldom align with God’s.
These observations led my wife and I to examine how God had waylaid some of the Bible’s major players with a “new vision” for their lives. We discovered that, more often than not, an openness to appointing God as the sole vision-caster of your life requires an equal openness to the fact that he might choose to totally wreck your life goals.
That in mind, here are 10 ways God might ruin your plans for 2021:
1. By calling you to a foreign land.
Abram was called to abandon everything he knew, move to a foreign land, and live among a foreign people. Jonah was called to preach a message of repentance to a city populated by 120,000 of his enemies. Whether you’re called to overseas missions or a job in a new city, this year could hold an unexpected and challenging move. If so, remember your God goes before you, beside you, and behind you.
2. By calling you back home.
Nehemiah was called to leave a foreign land and return to his people who were vulnerable and leaderless. Moses had built a new life for himself in Midian when he stumbled across the burning bush. For some of us (myself included), ministering to our families or home culture might be the most daunting task of all. Even Jesus had a hard time reaching his hometown. You may have shaken the dust from your feet, but if God calls you back home, go willingly and expectantly, knowing just because we’ve given up on someone doesn’t mean he has.
3. By letting someone stab you in the back.
Jesus was betrayed by a kiss. Joseph’s brothers tossed him down a well, then sold him into slavery. Although these wrongs turned out to be necessary steps in a plan to save many, the sting of betrayal must have been no less piercing. This year, it’s quite possible someone you know, maybe even someone you love dearly, will hurt you. It may be intentional or unconscious. Perhaps, you’ll reconcile, perhaps not. Asking God for vision doesn’t guarantee you’ll see this suckerpunch coming. But while others fail us, God will never leave nor forsake us.
4. By letting someone stab you in the face.
Remember that time King David got a surprise visit from Nathan the prophet? We may not have had a secret affair, then murdered someone to cover it up, but we’ve all lived with unrepented sin. Sometimes, it’s in ignorance (willful or otherwise). Other times, we blame and justify and bend our morals to the breaking point to avoid owning up. It’s never pleasant to be called out for our failures. If God sends you a Nathan this year, how will you respond? Will you be humbled and repentant, like David in his 51st Psalm? Will you remember that the wounds of a friend are faithful (Prov. 27:6 NASB)?
5. By placing you in a fruitless profession.
Flip through the middle of your Bible and pick a prophet. Chances are, by all modern standards, they had an unsuccessful career. Throughout the Old Testament, God routinely called out individuals to deliver his message to his people only for them to be ignored, ridiculed, and persecuted. But it wasn’t for naught. Ezekiel in particular is marked by the frequent repetition of two promises: One, no one’s going to listen to you. And two, after all this is over, everyone will know that I am the Lord their God. 2021 might find you in a workplace that is exhausting, stressful, pointless, or even toxic. I’ve left a job before due to my inability to cope with the anxiety it caused. If you’re in a tough position at work, by all means, pray that God would redeem, restore, or rescue, but remain open to sticking it out. His vision might involve keeping you there for reasons hidden from your current vantage.
6. By blessing you with a child.
Have you ever stopped to think that Christmas is the celebration of an unexpected pregnancy? And Mary isn’t the only instance of a biblical character surprised by a bundle of joy. Sarah became pregnant at age ninety! Whether old or young, married or single, whether it’s your first or fifth, a pregnancy means profound and permanent change. Depending on one’s circumstances, it could mean health risks, judgement from others, and hindrances to your career or studies. News of an unexpected pregnancy can land like a massive blow, resulting in paralyzing fear or complicated guilt over one’s own ungratefulness. It’s okay to ask God for help believing Scripture’s teaching that every child is a blessing.
7. By refusing to bless you with a child.
In January 2015, my wife suffered a miscarriage. What we expected to be a year defined by the joys of first-time parenthood was transformed into a season of grief. God would bless my wife with a healthy pregnancy later that same year, but for many would be mothers, a successful pregnancy may take years or never happen at all. Hannah gave birth to the prophet Samuel, but only after years of pleading with the Lord in great distress, years characterized by visits to the temple to pray and weep and fast. Imagine her disappointment at each year that passed without God granting her the blessing she so desperately sought. Yet, looking back, we can be confident the Lord heard her every prayer and saw her every tear.
8. By allowing you or your loved ones to suffer.
The Bible is paradoxically full of promises that God will protect his people and examples of their suffering. Every miraculous healing in the Bible is also an instance of God allowing someone to suffer in the first place. Experience and Scripture alike teach us that no one is immune to misfortune. 2021 could be the year that you or someone you love is unexpectedly diagnosed with cancer or T-boned by a semi. Illness and injury always interrupt our lives–to varying degrees and for varying lengths of time, but they always interrupt. God may allow the interruption to be permanent. Or he may choose to heal, but in a less than ideal timeline or in an incomplete manner. What he will not do is abandon us.
Even if you and yours stay safe this year, not everyone will be so fortunate. 2020 has reminded us that a worldwide disaster could always be lurking around the corner. Not only pandemics, but foreign wars, civil unrest, famine, and natural disasters are all very real possibilities. In fact, they are daily realities for many believers around the world, the direct effects of which range from insecurity to destruction of property to death. If we believe the book of Job, even the righteous are not exempt from such woes. Remember and pray for those in suffering, knowing a loving God is on his throne and a new kingdom is on its way.
9. By allowing a loved one to die.
Death is never easy, even when we see it coming. Job mourned his family with seven days of silence. David tore his clothes when he heard of Saul and Jonathan’s demise. Even Jesus wept at Lazarus’ tomb. As uncomfortable as it may be to think about, this could be the year we lose someone dear to us. Or even several people. A coworker, a friend, a parent, a partner, a child. It could be overnight or after a long, hard-fought battle. The grief will be difficult to process and have long-lasting effects, both physical and mental. Grief can drain our will and our passion. It can make every day hard to face. But if we hope in Christ, we do not grieve as the world.
Few if any characters in the New Testament walked away from a personal encounter with Jesus without being utterly and radically changed. Some shepherds were shepherding. Some fishermen were fishing. Some tax collectors were tax collecting. Then, one day, Jesus. The Son of God steps into a story and its trajectory is forever altered. Saul, for instance, was on an all-expenses-paid business trip to round up heretics when the King of the Universe was suddenly and quite literally blocking his path. Notably, when this happened, Saul thought he was about the Lord’s work. Take a lesson from the apostle Paul’s origin story: Even when you think you’re walking in God’s will, Jesus can still show up at any minute and call an audible.
Ultimately, instead of writing a liturgy which asks, “How can we hack into God’s vision for our future?” my wife and I asked, “How should we respond when our personal ‘vision’ is shattered by God’s divine interruption?” The biblical figures I’ve referenced, as well as many others, were blessed with just such grace-filled opportunities for growth. When they responded with trust and obedience, they experienced God working in and through them in extraordinary ways. When they clung to their shortsighted expectations and entitlements, as in the case of Jonah, they brought unnecessary grief on themselves and those around them. And in the end, God’s will was achieved despite their obstinance.
So this new year, let us ask God to prepare us for the unknown and grant us the grace to accept the unexpected. Let us pray for our hearts’ desires to more closely reflect his own. Let us seek conformity to his likeness, that in circumstances we hoped we would never face and never dreamed we could handle, we would respond in humble obedience. Come what may, God is faithful. In 2021, may he give us faith in return.