The Gift of Unknowingness
by Kevin Penry, on January 2021
Certainty seems like a gift, but it is really an illusion. While it’s counterintuitive, the real gift is unknowingness. Unknowingness takes us out of our comfort zones so that we can grow and experience God. When we don’t feel like we have all of the answers is when God often does His best work.
A beautiful illustration of this is the story of Joseph. Born a Jewish shepherd to Israel, Joseph had a dream that one day his father, mother, and brothers would bow down to him. He believed in that dream as a promise. As we all know, this vision angered those around him. Joseph was sold into slavery and purchased by Potiphar, where he was promoted to the head of the household because, “the master saw that the Lord was with him”. From there he was falsely accused and imprisoned. Joseph was allowed out of jail to interpret Pharaoh's dream and Pharaoh asked the question, “Can we find anyone like this, a man who has God’s spirit in him?”. Pharaoh then promoted Joseph to the governor over all of Egypt. Joseph was 30 years old.
From there Joseph was reintroduced to his family, although they did not recognize him. After his brothers returned to Egypt with the required “proof” that they were not spies, Joseph asked them to dinner. In Genesis 43:32 we learn something incredibly interesting and often overlooked: Joseph and the Egyptians ate dinner separately from Joseph’s brothers because it was against Egyptian law for an Egyptian to eat with Jews. Eating dinner together was considered “detestable to them”.
No matter how much of a dreamer Joseph was, he never could have dreamt as a boy that God would make him a ruler in Egypt. It was illegal. He was detestable. Joseph’s very identity barred him from any leadership position in Egypt, yet God in His providence allowed for Joseph to rise to governor over all Egypt. Man-made laws and systems did not thwart God's plan for the Israelites to live in Egypt. God chose to shed Joseph's identity and replace it with a new one where he rose from prison to second-in-command under Pharoah. God delivered on His promise, Joseph was reunited with his family and they bowed down at his feet. Even when Joseph's Jewish identity was revealed through his family, God allowed Pharaoh to have favor on him still. This gave the Israelites prosperous land in Egypt and paved the way for the Israelites to grow in number. We learn a lot from the story of Joseph, but one thing is certain:
Certainty belongs to the promise, not to the process.
What made Joseph effective, according to the accounts of Potiphar and Pharaoh, was the Spirit of God was evident in Joseph’s life. All the way from the pasture, to the pit, to Potiphar, to prison, to the palace, to the promise, Joseph remained faithful to God. He was dependent and trusted God in every circumstance. I cannot imagine that Joseph was always feeling certain in the process, but he remained certain in the promise and the Keeper of Promises.
Right now, we’re all in unfamiliar territory. We may not be in prison, but leadership right now is hard. We are all clamoring for a level of certainty that only exists in a difficult place: vulnerability. Why are we so scared of being vulnerable? Tim Keller says that our greatest fear is to be seen and unloved, which is the inherent risk in vulnerability. Our buildings and our systems have been stripped from us, but our responsibilities have not. While this situation may breed a feeling of exposure and inadequacy, it’s exactly where God wants us. We were never actually in control. As Martin Luther said on his deathbed, “we are mere beggars”.
Pride is the original sin. Pride started as the desire to know what God knows and see what God sees. In other words, independent certainty. But with vulnerability comes some of the most impactful change that can take place in our lives for the better.
As leaders, how can we embrace radical change without feeling burdened?
In Jim Collins bestselling book, Good to Great, he talks about the duality of the Stockdale Paradox. Stockdale was a vice presidential candidate and Navy officer who was captured and held as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. He was asked what kept him alive and he said, “You must never lose the faith that you will prevail in the end- which is something you cannot afford to lose- with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”
What can we take away from this as church leaders?
Keep the Faith
God never promised a perfect world. In fact He promises, “you will face trials of many kinds” (James 1:2). But He also promises to be “an ever present help in times of trouble” (Ps 46:1). In Hebrews, the author talks about the trials and persecution of the early church before writing, “don’t throw away your confidence, which has a great reward”. Thankfully, none of us were called to build God’s church. He is building His church, and we’ve been invited to be a part of it. Don’t lose sight of who you are and Whose you are. Don’t lose the confidence that God is with you in this and it will have a great reward.
Confront the Brutal Facts
According to Stockdale, the people who didn’t make it out of the POW camp were the optimists. He said that “they died of a broken heart”. Having confidence in the Lord isn’t about pretending everything is ok and easy. That mindset builds the road to unmet expectations and disappointment in ourselves and in God. Confidence in the Lord is about acknowledging the difficult parts of life and placing your trust outside of yourself. Knowing God is in control can give us the confidence to take inventory. Things aren’t the same, and while that is scary, we’re being invited into something new and uncomfortable. The organizations and leaders who will come out of this thriving are those who have the confident humility to take inventory of what is really happening and adapt to new realities.
Embrace Humility and Dependency
Pride says, “If it is to be, it is up to me”
Insecurity and shame say, “God can’t (or won’t) because of me”
Dependency says, “Lord, whatever you have is what’s best for me”
Remember, insecurity is just another form of pride- putting yourself at the center of your own universe. This isn’t about what you can or can’t do- it’s about being a part of what only He can do. Humility is giving up who you think you are so that God can show you who He thinks you are. During this season you may feel like the detestable Jewish shepherd in Egypt, but when your Father looks at you He sees His child, His inheritance, and the conduit by which His plan of redemption flows. Our hope is this: the Creator of the Universe is your Father and He loves you. He invites you to be a part of His story, and His story is full of the joy of His certainty.
Because we’re in ministry, it’s easy to ask God to bless what we’re doing. It’s for the Kingdom after all. Dependency forces us to ask another question though, “God, what will you have me do?”. When the Father changes your identity as He did with Joseph, you begin to realize that your Father is capable of doing immeasurably more than anything that you could ask or imagine, but it’s through His work in you. Pride says “I can”. Dependency says, “I can’t, but you can, and I believe you will”.
Bring in expert help
Success often keeps us from learning from one another. We become our own internal gauge for decision making. But when we approach times of uncertainty with humility and dependency, we recognize we are not the sole best source for answers to our own questions. God often speaks to us through people. Coachability allows other qualified people to look at our plans and strategies and decipher what may be better than what we know or currently do.
Be adaptable in order to be effective
When we open ourselves up to change, we learn to pivot. Markets and people are constantly changing around us, but there is nothing new under the sun and He still says, "do not fear". Amidst a COVID world it's easy to cry out “what should we do?”, but let us encourage one another to ask, “where is God leading us?”.
Jesus went to where the people are. His methods changed depending on his audience, but His message did not. With what we have available to us today, we have to figure out how to do the same thing. We are in the midst of uncharted territory as we learn what people are open to in 2021 and how we can best communicate and engage with them. No matter the mode, we have the gift of telling them the same message Jesus told to those listening to Him. Let's adapt to ways people will hear an invitation to be a part of the greatest story of all time.
We love working with churches who don’t have it all figured out. The Ministry Solutions team is excited to partner with churches to navigate 2021 with clarity and purpose in finances and facilities. The XP Solutions team is excited to provide seasoned leadership who want to walk through this season with you and help achieve the God-inspired vision for your church.
Either way, we’re grateful to be a part of your journey. We would love to hear from you! If you have any questions about how to navigate this year while embracing unknowingness, please contact us through the link below.