Seven years ago I was hired to direct my church’s college ministry. It was my first full-time ministry position and I was beyond excited for this new calling. I gathered my wits about me, talked to a few other pastors, and then quickly began to brainstorm, formulate and write and rewrite plans for a successful and thriving ministry. It was going to be awesome.
In those years, I prayed a lot.
I prayed for God to bless my ministry ideas, make my preaching powerful, and help me to lead the program well. But something was amiss. The ministry was flat, uninspired, and though some good things were happening, it drained the life out of me.
A few years later I was hired for a different position at a different church, and I started down the same track. I brainstormed, formulated and wrote and rewrote plans for a thriving ministry. But early on, when I slowed enough to have a conversation with the Creator about it, he corrected my course with this powerful passage from the book of James.
“Look here, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we are going to a certain town and will stay there a year. We will do business there and make a profit.’ How do you know what your life will be like tomorrow? Your life is like the morning fog – it’s here for a little while, then it’s gone. What you ought to say is, ‘If the Lord wants us to, we will live and do this or that.’ Otherwise you are boasting about your own pretentious plans, and all such boasting is evil.” – James 4:13-15 NLT
At first I was put off by God’s not-so-subtle message. It felt like a cosmic hand slap, as if God was rubbing my nose in the fact that I can’t successfully run a ministry or my own life. Then, I realized he’s right: I can’t successfully run my life without his help – Lord knows I’ve tried. Almost instantly, the missing link from that first college ministry came into sharp focus. In those days I prayed often for God to bless the plans I made, but I never once prayed for him to tell me what plans to make.
In this experience, God reminded me that he loves us like crazy, and he wants what is best for us (even when it doesn’t feel like it sometimes). So, if we can’t run our own lives well and he loves us deeply—then we need him and he will never lead us astray. The way to do life today, then, is the same as it was in James’ day: pray first, plan second.
James learned this revolutionary idea from his half-brother Jesus. “Pray first, plan second” was our Savior’s credo for ministry. John, one of Jesus’ best friends, repeatedly recorded that the Messiah never made his own plans. Jesus said, “For I have come down from heaven to do the will of God who sent me, not to do my own will.” (John 6:38 NLT – check out John 5:19-20 and 8:28 for more)
Luke’s Gospel shows us that in prayer, just like in all of life, Jesus was more than just talk. In Luke 6:12-13 Jesus prayed all night for God’s direction before completing the all-important task of choosing His twelve disciples. Similarly, Mark 1:35-38 tells us that it was in prayer that Jesus learned when to move to a new town to preach the gospel, even though his disciples and the townspeople wanted him to stay put.
It was Jesus’ habit to pray first and plan second.
That approach led him to preach, to lead, and to love exactly as the Father directed. And it led him to the cross for you and for me. Our redemption at Calvary happened not because Jesus pursued his own path, but because he prayed to know God’s (Matthew 26:39).
In today’s crazy world, this practice of prayer for our work, ministry, relationships, and family can powerfully transform the way we participate in God’s plans.
Want to pray this way? Here are two ways to start.
Make a short list of the major plans you have for the next two to five years (career, marriage, house, etc.). Think about wiping the slate clean and asking God what He wants for your future.
Begin each day with the prayer, God, what do you want me to do today? Obviously, God probably still wants you to go to work, love you neighbor, and pray constantly but pay close attention to how he answers that prayer as you move throughout your day, and plan and participate accordingly.