Suppose the thought enters your mind that you want to build a house. You sit down and make a list of all the materials you think you will need. Then you order them to be delivered to the lot where you will build. Everything is piled in the center of the lot, and the next day the bulldozer comes to excavate the basement and everything is in the way. It's all just where he has to dig.
A failure to plan.
Without some rudimentary planning you probably won't have anything to eat when you get up in the morning. And without some detailed planning no one can build a house, let alone a skyscraper or shopping mall or city. If producing shelter and food and clothing and transportation is valuable, then planning is valuable. Nothing but the simplest impulses gets accomplished without some forethought which we call a plan.
Planning for Spiritual Necessities
All of us know this and practice it in relation to the basic physical necessities of life. We take steps to see that we have enough to eat and clothes to keep us warm. But do we take our spiritual needs that seriously? Do we apply the same earnestness in planning to maximize our ministry as we do in planning to make a living?
What I would like to do here is to try to persuade you to set aside time each week in the coming year to plan—and specifically to plan your life of prayer and devotion and ministry. The bulldozer of God's Spirit often arrives at the scene of our heart ready to begin some great work of building, and he finds that due to poor planning there are piles of disordered things in his way. We're not ready for him.
The way I hope to motivate you to do this is to give four examples of planning in the Bible. First, some illustrations from the Proverbs; second, the planning of the apostle Paul; third, the planning of God; and fourth, the planning of Jesus.
Illustrations from Proverbs
Proverbs 6:6–7, "Go to the ant, O sluggard; consider her ways and be wise. Without having any chief, officer, or ruler, she prepares her food in summer, and gathers her sustenance in harvest."
The ant is an example not only because it works so hard, but also because it plans ahead. It takes thought in summer that there will be need in winter, and this forethought provides its needs in winter.
Proverbs 14:15, "The simple believes everything, but the prudent looks where he is going."
The difference between planning and not planning is whether you look where you are going in the future or whether you focus all your attention on the immediate right in front of you. If you are not a planner, then you will be at the mercy of others who try to give you counsel about how to act now so as to be happy in the future.
So "the simple believes everything, but the prudent looks where he is going." He considers the days to come and what they are bringing and thinks about how best to prepare for them and use them to accomplish his purposes.
Proverbs 15:22, "Without counsel plans go wrong, but with many advisers they succeed."
Here the wisdom of planning is taken for granted, and the writer simply gives us advice for how to make plans that succeed. He says, Don't be so independent that you think yourself above counsel. Read the wisdom of others who have gone before you. Talk to experienced and wise people. Watch the way others do things and learn from their mistakes and successes.
Proverbs 16:3, "Commit your work to the Lord and your plans will be established."
Again planning is taken for granted and the issue is: How can you plan in such a way that what you produce will have abiding value and not just pass away overnight? Answer: Commit it to the Lord. That is, always seek the Lord's guidance and strength in your planning. Trust his wisdom and not your own. Then your plans will bear fruit that stays.
Proverbs 24:27, "Prepare your work outside, get everything ready for you in the field; and after that build your house."
This probably means that it is important to be able to support yourself by the productivity of the field before you establish your own household. Perhaps we would say to a young person today: get a job before you get married. Or at least plan how you are going to support the new household you are establishing.
Proverbs 31:15–16, "She rises while it is yet night and provides food for her household and tasks for her maidens. She considers a field and buys it; with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard."
Here the model homemaker is a model planner in two ways. She gets up early and assigns tasks to her maids. You cannot assign tasks to your maids if you have no plan about what you would like to be accomplished that day. And she considers a field and buys it. What does she consider? She considers how it will fit into the plan of the household.
Conclusion from the Proverbs: Careful planning is part of what makes a person wise and productive. Not to plan is considered foolish and dangerous. This is true even though the Proverbs teach that we do not know what the future may bring. "A man's mind plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps" (Proverbs 16:9). The fact that the Lord is ultimately in control of the future does not mean we shouldn't plan. It means we should commit our work to the Lord and trust him to establish our plans according to his loving purposes.
The Planning of the Apostle Paul
We will take just one example of Paul's planning from the many that we could take from Acts and from his letters. Romans 15:20–28,
I make it my ambition (i.e., my plan) to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on another man's foundation . . . But now, since I no longer have any room for work in these regions, and since I have longed for many years to come to you, I hope to see you in passing as I go to Spain, and to be sped on my journey there by you, once I have enjoyed your company for a little. At present, however, I am going to Jerusalem with aid for the saints . . . When therefore I have completed this, and have delivered to them what has been raised, I shall go on by way of you to Spain.
Here is a typical example of how the apostle Paul carried out his mission. And I think we should learn from him that planning is essential to a productive ministry. And I mean your personal ministry as well as the more complex organism of church ministries. Paul was the greatest church planter who ever lived. He accomplished more in his life for the spread of the reign of Christ than any other person. So I think we would do well to take seriously his method. Part of his method was his planning.
He had a general guideline: he wanted to preach where no one had preached before. Then he developed a specific plan from this guideline: he would take the gift to Jerusalem; then he would go to Rome to establish a western base, from which he would then go to Spain.
What makes this especially significant is that as far as we know the plan fell through. He was arrested in Jerusalem. He went to Rome as a prisoner and probably never got to Spain. It's just like we saw in the Proverbs. God is the one who finally makes the future. But we plan nevertheless. God uses our planning even if he aborts it.
For example, if Paul had not planned to use Rome as a base of operations for a trip to Spain, he probably never would have written the greatest letter the world has ever known—the epistle to the Romans. Planning is crucial in Christian living and Christian ministry—even when God overrules our planning.
The Planning of God
The ultimate reason for planning is that God is a God who plans and we are created in his image to exercise dominion in the earth under his lordship.
I don't think it is even possible to conceive a God who does not act according to his own eternal planning—that is, a God who has knee jerk responses to stimuli rather than deliberate actions that fit into a wise purpose.
Isaiah 46:9–10, "I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, 'My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose.'"
Ephesians 1:9–10, "God has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and on earth."
Acts 2:23, "This Jesus [was] delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God."
Since God is a God who does all things according to plan it befits us to approach the most important things of life with forethought and plan, not haphazardly.
The Planning of Jesus
Jesus had a mission to accomplish, and he finished it with forethought and planning.
When his mother urged him to do a miracle at the wedding in Cana, he said, "My hour is not yet come" (John 2:4). There was a planned and appointed hour for the revelation of his power. He would stay with the plan. Luke 9:51 says, "When the days grew near for him to be received up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem." He knew that the plan meant death in Jerusalem and he didn't shrink back from the plan.
But he wasn't driven against his will. The Father's plan was his plan. He said in John 10:18, "No one takes my life from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again; this charge I have received from my Father."
Very specifically my plea to you this new year is that you take time to plan the most important things in your life.
Plan for the Most Important Things in Your Life
Plan how you are going to spend time with your spouse to deepen and strengthen the relationship. Plan how you are going to spend time playing with and teaching the children. Plan how you are going to get the amount of exercise you need to stay healthy. Plan how you are going to get enough sleep. Plan how much you should eat and how you are going to limit yourself. Plan your vacation so that it really gives rest and spiritual renewal.
And most important, plan how prayer and meditation on the Word are going to be significant parts of your life. Without a plan these most important things always get pushed aside by urgent pressures.
Make Planning a Regular Part of Your Life
But it won't work just to plan something tonight or tomorrow. Planning must be a regular part of your life. I expect that the pastoral staff at Bethlehem will take a full day each month away from the church office just to pray and plan their ministry. This is in addition to the time I expect we are all taking each week to plan our week's work.
So my plea to you is that you set aside time each week to plan, especially to plan your life of prayer and Bible study. For example, since Sunday is the first day of the week (not the last day of the weekend!) and belongs to the Lord, take ten or fifteen minutes each Sunday and think through when you will pray and what you will study that week. Give some thought how God might want to use you that week in a special way. Plan the letters you need to write, the Bible verses you want to teach your children, the visit you want to make, the book you want to read, the neighbor you want to talk to, etc.
The Proverbs teach us to plan. The greatest missionary who ever lived was a planner. God is a God who does all things according to plan. And Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem because of the most loving plan ever devised.
He planned for our joy; we ought to plan for his glory.