December 1, 2019
When Is a Door
Truly Closed?

Sometimes We're Too
Quick to Think God
Is Saying No
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This article is adapted from my book Goal Setting for the Christian: Harnessing the Stunning Benefits of Focus and Persistence to Realize Your Potential for Christ.

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Iíll never forget a story that once made the national news. CNN announced, as a headline item, that a man had passed his bar exam. Of course, passing the bar doesnít normally attract the attention of the national media. Yet this manís case was unusual, for he had failed the test forty-seven previous times. Now, at age sixty, this tenacious soul had finally passed on his forty-eighth try.

(He had also announced his intentions for the future: to embark on a twenty-year career as an attorney. As proof of his earnestness, he had purchased a briefcase!)

I must confess I have a soft spot in my heart for this gentleman, as eccentric as his case may be. I always find examples like his inspiring, for they bring to mind how some of us by nature are late-bloomers--and that itís okay to be so. We run on different clocks. God has different timetables for each of us. While one person realizes a significant accomplishment early in life, another does so much later.

His example is extreme, unquestionably. We might conclude that he demonstrates stubbornness more than healthy determination, and that he could have spent his energy in better ways. Still, itís hard not to admire his perseverance, which continued way beyond the point when most of us would have quit. Our human tendency is to go to the opposite extreme--to give up after a setback or two, even when a reasonable possibility of success still exists.

Yet for thoughtful Christians this raises a nagging question. Just when should you assume that a door is truly closed? At what point must you conclude that God wants you to let go of a longstanding desire and simply accept things as they are?

Easily Discouraged

To be honest, it takes little disappointment in any area for us to conclude that God is against our succeeding. I recall talking to a woman who deeply wanted to be married yet feared the opportunity had passed her by. Many of her friends had married, and the one relationship that held hope for her had ended. She wondered if God was indicating through it all that she should abandon her hope of marrying and set her heart on staying single. She was twenty-two.

Christians who move into their later twenties, thirties or beyond, wanting to be married but finding no suitable opportunity, are especially inclined to draw the conclusion that this young woman reached. Theyíre even more likely to do so if theyíve experienced a number of broken relationships or rejections along the way. If youíre in this position, it may seem in all sincerity that the most Christ-honoring, reverent assumption you can make is that God is telling you to forsake your hope for marriage. Surely obedience to him must require that you put this desire on the altar and learn to joyfully accept your singleness.

But then you witness an example that defies the norm. A friend, well into her adult years and survivor of many disappointments, suddenly and surprisingly finds an excellent opportunity for marriage. Once she is married and the dust clears, she declares she is glad she never let go of her hope. She even claims she sees value now in those past relationships that didnít work out, for through them she grew and developed the qualities that have allowed her finally to be happily married. God does indeed have different timetables for each of us, she insists; sheís grateful for that and thankful that she waited.

And so youíre thrown back to square one. Just how do you know when a door is still open and when itís clearly shut? Just when is God telling you to keep persevering and when to give up?

Perseverance Pays Off

One point is indisputable. Scripture abounds with examples of those who found open doors at points when many would have concluded they were bolted shut. As we read through the Bible, we find numerous instances where individuals reached important horizons late in life, or after repeated tries, or in spite of extreme obstacles. Sarah conceives a child when both she and Abraham are elderly, and a number of years later Abraham remarries after Sarah dies. Isaacís servants dig a well successfully after two major thwarted attempts. Joseph realizes his dream of leadership after years of servitude and imprisonment. Moses becomes a champion of his people forty years after his first passionate attempt utterly fails. David becomes king of Israel in spite of severe ridicule from his brothers, apathy from his father, and numerous battles with Saulís forces. Hannah gives birth to many children long after her husband has accepted her barrenness and encouraged her to do the same. Ruth finds joy in a new marriage after her first husband dies; and Naomi, bereft of her husband and both sons, finds unexpected solace in a grandchild born to Ruth. Zechariah and Elizabeth are blessed with a child in their old age, and the angel declares that this gift is in response to their longstanding prayer.

Itís examples like these that I suspect have led author Garry Friesen to claim that the Bible doesnít recognize the concept of closed doors. In his Decision Making and the Will of God, Friesen notes,

Interestingly, though Christians today speak of doors that are ďclosed,Ē Scripture does not. The need for open doors certainly implies the existence of some that are closed. But that doesnít seem to be the mentality of Paul. If he were sovereignly prevented from pursuing a plan, and yet the plan itself was sound, he simply waited and tried again later. He did not view a blocked endeavor as a ďclosed doorĒ sign from God that his plan was faulty.*

Friesenís claim is provocative, for on one level Scripture does speak of closed doors, though it doesnít use the term per se. Consider Paulís odyssey in Asia and Bithynia, for instance: ďPaul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia. When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them toĒ (Acts 16:6-7). Itís hard to read this passage and not conclude that some doors were firmly shut against Paul and his party, regardless of the language used. They made two valiant attempts to enter regions for ministry that didnít open to them. And they accepted without question that these doors were closed (Acts 16:8).

Yet on a broader level the passage validates the very point Friesen is making, for Paul and his friends never let go of their overriding determination to evangelize fresh territory and to look for the best opportunities available. Soon, Paul received a vision at night, through which he and his team were led into an important period of ministry in Macedonia (Acts 16:8-40).

Drawing on Paulís experience in Acts 16, and similar experiences of people of faith throughout Scripture, we can suggest a resolution to the question of when a door is truly closed: Specific individual opportunities may close to us, and the time may come when we must accept that such doors are unquestionably shut. But we should be very slow ever to conclude that the door is permanently closed against our broader, long-term aspirations that are based on a sound understanding of our God-given gifts and areas of interest.

To cite the marriage decision as an example: I may desire to marry a particular person, yet God in some clear way says no. I will need to accept this as an unequivocal no and stop pounding on that door. God may say no to twenty such possibilities. This doesnít mean that my basic, underlying desire to be married is inappropriate or that God is forever closing the door against marriage. Indeed, it may be that my twenty-first endeavor will succeed. To be sure, if there are clear lessons to be gleaned from past disappointments, I should learn them. Yet I still have a sound basis for staying hopeful and active in moving toward the dream of marriage.

The same point applies to pursuing career opportunities. Certain positions may not open to me. Certain geographical regions may be closed. This doesnít imply that my overriding vocational aspirations are out of line. If they are based on a clear understanding of how God has gifted and motivated me, then I have good reason to hold onto them and to continue to look for situations in which they can be fulfilled.

Hope vs. Fixation

This isnít to underestimate the challenge involved in accepting that a specific door is closed. Indeed, we can become fixated on a particular optionís working out to the point of our own downfall. One of the earliest stories of Scripture underscores this point. Adam and Eve became obsessed with eating fruit from the one tree that God said they must not touch. The fact that this tree was off limits didnít mean that God forbade them to enjoy apples or other delicacies of nature. It was merely that this specific tree was out of bounds for them.

In the same way we may become fixated on a particular relationship. We may continue to hang onto the hope of its working out long after we have clear evidence that this person is unavailable or unsuitable for us. In this case, our need is to accept Godís no and move on.

We can become fixated on other unrealistic dreams as well. Take Clarence, a young singer/guitarist I met who led singing in his church. He told me he was convinced that God had revealed to him that he would receive a recording contract from a certain company, one of the largest and best known Christian labels. Even after that firm rejected Clarenceís audition tape, he continued to believe that he knew Godís mind on this matter better than they did. He was certain they would one day change their mind and decide to record him. It did not seem to me, however, that Clarence had the sort of highly distinctive talent needed to interest this particular company. The tragedy about his obsession with the recording contract was that it misdirected his energy. He was not focusing on steps he realistically could take to develop and employ his gifts.

These cautions aside, the point remains that we have a strong basis for faith and hope when it comes to our long-term dreams and aspirations. When these are based on a good self-understanding, and are general enough to allow for flexibility as we live them out, we can feel great freedom to pursue them earnestly until a door finally opens. And weíre not obliged to think that individual setbacks mean that God has forever shut the door on a dream itself.

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Nehemiah Notes is available twice-monthly by e-mail.

This article is adapted from Blaine Smith's book Goal Setting for the Christian: Harnessing the Stunning Benefits of Focus and Persistence to Realize Your Potential for Christ -- and Your God-Given Dreams.

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