This Christian life we're called to live... it's not a step by step plan, it's not a paint by numbers project, dip in the red and paint it where it says #3, dip in the black, paint where it says #5 - it doesn't work like that.
But sometimes we try to treat it like it is.
Have you ever met a theoretical parent? Let me explain, because if you are a parent yourself you've probably met one, and if you are not a parent you run the risk of being one.
Nowadays I see this mentality expanding beyond the parenting arena, and though it's by no means limited to the Christian world, it's certainly becoming rampant there.
The self-help book phenomena has become the way people are trying to do their relationship with Christ. We're taking all kinds of books from "How to Share Your Faith" to "How to Raise Your Children" to "How to Have a _________ (happy? Christ-centered? fulfilling?) ___________________" (Marriage? Ministry? Conversation? Life?)
And people really latch on to these books like they are... TRUTH... and I have to say, you know what? They are NOT truth. That's not to say they are without any value at all, they aren't. They can be a tool, let's call them books of suggestions or even testimonies of success because for that particular author he or she may have founds something that worked for them, and that's fine, but when we pick up those books and treat them like they are going to be resurrection hope and life we do ourselves a HUGE disservice. Because just as in my parenting book example above - they don't always work, and sometimes they even do more harm than good.
Just like the parenting books don't allow for real kids, these kinds of books don't just dismiss the individuality of the people we are dealing with, but they remove the power of the Holy Spirit to insert Himself into a situation, to allow Him to read his greater and deeper understanding of all the people involved in a marriage, family, friendship, etc., but they also deny us the ability to learn to hear and be led by the Lord for a God moment - because we're too busy "sticking to the book."
This is what I believe - God has given each one of us this huge "canvas" of grace to paint the masterpiece that it meant to be our life as followers of Christ. The brushes and paints are made up of all sorts of different things - our personalities, our strengths, our weaknesses, our likes and dislikes, our gifts, our families, where we live, where we work - the list is long. So God gives us the blank canvas and He wants us to dip into all the aspects of our lives and paint a true one of a kind life.
God has given us a "manual" to live by, and yes the edges of it are clear in many ways (that canvas of grace) but if you really stop and read it, it is FAR from a point by number kind of life. Parenting? It says things like "Train up YOUR child in the way HE should go." Do you see the room allowed for individuality, both of the parent AND the child? As parents God is inviting us to partner with Him (who knows every in and out of both parent and child) and help our kids discover their passion, their strengths, their God-given gifts. He invites us to rely on His Spirit to help discover those things.
Even in life as a whole God invites "In all YOUR ways acknowledge Him, and HE will direct YOUR path." Maybe your path will lead you to the deepest jungles of Africa to share the gospel, or maybe it will lead you to a Mommy and Me group every Tuesday afternoon. What God wants from us is an open heart and an expectation that He will meet us along the way, and by the power of the Holy Spirit use us. And you know what if we get hung up on the information we've taken in from some good-intentioned self-help book and we are unwilling to deviate from the method or plan, we not only run the risk of missing a God given opportunity to be used in some way by Him, we run the risk of alienating the other person in the process with our own frustrated efforts to send them down our path.
Have you ever actually done a paint by number project? I personally always found it to end up frustrating. I'd accidentally put the black in a #3 or the red in a the #5 and then the picture would be "ruined." It wouldn't be what it was "supposed to be," and then every time I ever looked at it, I would see the mistakes rather than the picture I'd tried to make.
I think God wants us to make bigger and bolder brush strokes in faith across the canvas allowing Him to be our inspiration. We are His workmanship, and we were created in Christ Jesus to "do good works," but they are not all the same, the who, the how, the when, the where will all be individualized to each one of us.
God is a real God who speaks, leads, directs- through His word, in a still small voice, through experiences, and even through the voices of others (so I am NOT saying that these books have NO value.) But we need to be more expectant in our opportunities to hear from Him. The Holy Spirit is REAL, He's not just something that was poured into you on the day of your salvation and sealed. He is your Counselor, your Comforter and your Helper as well. He wants to move in you and through you, and there needs to be an openness to allow for that, and a faith and expectation that it will happen.
Everything about your life is critical and important to God. He cares about the details of your life - struggles, strengths, successes. He is mindful of your weaknesses, He has plans for using you to touch other lives based on the way He geared YOU up. But it isn't a method that you will find step by step direction for in a book that He did not author Himself.
We need to let the Holy Spirit lead. As days get darker and more difficult there will be fewer and fewer people and circumstances that will sign on for our methods. If we aren't real and genuine, willing to be honest and even get into one another's difficulties and messes, we will become more and more ineffective in our faith.
Another final warning, there is another side to this coin: We need to stop looking at each other and sitting in judgment about how they are living for Christ and serving God. We need to allow one another to have faith to follow where we feel the Holy Spirit leading. Just because you wouldn't do it that way doesn't mean that that isn't God leading someone else to step in and do it exactly the way they are doing it. If you're effective in touching ten or a hundred in your "logical" or "clean" method that God leads you with and someone else touches one in what looks like a "mess" to you? Guess what, both forms of "ministry" were just as important. It's about touching the world for Jesus.
So look at your canvas of grace - the boundaries of following Christ are clear, but the picture you paint has only one other requirement - that it be to glorify God. The masterpiece you create with your life is the act of worship you make to honor Him.
I will guide you with My eye.
The steps of a good man are ordered by the Lord,
And He delights in his way.
I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.
For I say, through the grace given to me, to everyone who is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think soberly, as God has dealt to each one a measure of faith. For as we have many members in one body, but all the members do not have the same function, so we, being many, are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another. Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, let us prophesy in proportion to our faith; or ministry, let us use it in our ministering; he who teaches, in teaching; he who exhorts, in exhortation; he who gives, with liberality; he who leads, with diligence; he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness.
Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil. Cling to what is good. Be kindly affectionate to one another with brotherly love, in honor giving preference to one another; not lagging in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation, continuing steadfastly in prayer; distributing to the needs of the saints, given to hospitality.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. Be of the same mind toward one another. Do not set your mind on high things, but associate with the humble. Do not be wise in your own opinion.
Repay no one evil for evil. Have regard for good things in the sight of all men. If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men.