never forget a story that made the national news a few years
ago. 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
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?
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
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
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
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
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.