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When Is A Door Truly Closed?

  • Blaine Smith Author and founder of Nehemiah Ministries
  • 2006 7 Jun
When Is A Door Truly Closed?
Sometimes We're Too Quick to Think God Is Saying No

I'll never forget a story that made the national news several years ago. CNN announced as a headline item that a man had passed his bar exam. Of course, passing the bar doesn't normally attract the attention of the national media. Yet this man's case was unique, for he had failed the test 47 previous times. Now at age 60, this tenacious soul had finally passed on his 48th try.

(The reporter added as a footnote that the man had announced his intentions for the future. He was going to embark on a twenty-year career as an attorney. As proof of his earnestness, he had purchased a briefcase!)

I must confess that I have a soft spot in my heart for this man, as eccentric as his case may be. In truth, I always find examples like his inspiring, for they bring to mind how some of us by nature are late-bloomers -- and that it's OK 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.

This man's example is extreme, unquestionably. We might conclude that he demonstrates stubbornness more than healthy determination and could have spent his energy in better ways. Still, it's 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 that the opportunity had passed her by. Many of her friends had already taken the step, and the one relationship which held the prospects of marriage 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 20s, 30s or beyond, wanting to be married but finding no suitable opportunity, are especially inclined to draw the conclusion which this young woman reached. They're even more likely to do so if they've experienced a number of broken relationships or rejections along the way. If you're 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 that she is glad she never let go of her hope. She even claims that she sees value now in those past relationships which didn't work out, for through them she grew and developed the qualities which have allowed her finally to be happily married. God does indeed have different clocks for us, she insists; she's grateful for that and thankful that she waited.

And so you're thrown back to square one. Just how do you know when a door is still open and when it's 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. Isaac's 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 40 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 Saul's 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.

It's examples like these which I suspect have led author Garry Friesen to claim that the Bible doesn't 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 closed, Scripture does not. The need for open doors certainly implies the existence of some that are closed. But that doesn't 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 closed door sign from God that his plan was faulty.*
Friesen's claim is provocative, for on one level Scripture does speak of closed doors, though it doesn't use the term per se. Consider Paul's odyssey in Asia and Bithynia, for instance: "Paul 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 to" (Acts 16:6-7). It's 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 didn't 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 and to look for the best opportunities available for doing so. 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 Paul's 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 which 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 20 such possibilities. This doesn't 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 21st 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 doesn't 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 isn't to underestimate the challenge involved in accepting that a specific door is closed. Indeed, we can become fixated on a particular option's 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 couldn't touch. The fact that this tree was off limits didn't 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 on to 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 God's no and move on.

We can become fixated on other unrealistic dreams as well. I'll never forget a young man I met named Clarence -- a singer-guitarist who led singing in his church. He was convinced God had told him he was going to receive a recording contract from a certain Christian record company, one of the largest and best known firms. Even after the company rejected Clarence's audition tape, he continued to believe that he knew God's mind on the matter better than they did. He was sure they would one day change their mind and decide to record him. It did not seem to me, however, that Clarence had the distinctive sort of talent needed to interest a major record 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 they are fleshed out, we can feel great freedom to pursue them earnestly until a door finally opens. And we're not obliged to think that individual setbacks mean that God has forever shut the door on a dream itself.

*Book reference is to:
Garry Friesen with J. Robin Maxson, Decision Making and the Will of God: a Biblical Alternative to the Traditional View (Portland, Ore.: Multnomah, 1980), p. 221.

This article is adapted from chapter six of Blaine Smith's The Optimism Factor: Outrageous Faith Against the Odds (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1994).

Blaine Smith is the director of Nehemiah Ministries and author of Knowing God's Will, which is available through CBD. (click on the book)