When You Can’t Have It Your Way

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R. T. Kendall


of the most stunning comments I ever heard, almost a throwaway remark,
came from one of the most famous ministers in the world. He said to me,
“R.T., the more God uses me, the less I am able to enjoy it.”

may be incomprehensible to some, but I know exactly what he meant. God
has many ways of ensuring that while we enjoy His blessing, we do not
become conceited.

The apostle Paul is a hero for many of us, but he too was open to
pride and to taking himself too seriously. In His wisdom God had a
plan; Paul was too precious to Him to be allowed to fall into that kind
of folly.

This is how Paul describes what God decided to do: “To
keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great
revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of
Satan, to torment me” (2 Cor. 12:7, NIV).

To be honest, though, I
must add that there is a singular kindness attached to such an
affliction. So it is with yours. It is God’s hint to you that He is not
finished with you yet. And there is no sweeter thought than the sheer
consciousness of God’s refining you and me to give us a greater
anointing for His glory.

If you are a Christian worth your salt, you probably have a thorn in the flesh. For some it is a handicap or disability.

could be loneliness or an unhappy marriage. But for others a thorn in
the flesh may be an unwanted calling—when what God wants is not what
you want. It is what you have to do, though it is the opposite of what
you want to do.

The word “calling” in the New Testament is used
in several ways. Generally speaking, there is effectual calling and what
I would call career calling.

Effectual calling is the work of
the Holy Spirit in conversion. By His Spirit, God calls everyone to
repentance, but not everyone receives the calling.

He does this because we would never be saved if He didn’t call us. That is the effectual calling.

But that is not mainly what I am writing about here. I am referring to career calling—God’s plan for your life.

said he was called to be an apostle. As soon as he was converted, he
was told he was to go to the Gentiles (see Acts 9:15). But some of us
discover much later what God is going to do with our lives, and we are
not happy with it because it isn’t what we wanted Him to do.

calling that is unwanted is what you get when God’s plans overrule
yours. It is having to spend your life doing what you wouldn’t have
preferred at all.

You may feel overqualified and frustrated or
underqualified and frustrated. Perhaps your work is not even in your
area of expertise. God has led you to where you are, but it seems that
nothing has gone according to your plan.

Could this have been
Paul’s thorn in the flesh? It could have been. After he became a
Christian he had to work with his hands and with people he had been
brought up to believe were second-class—Gentiles (see Gal. 2:7).

Paul had managed to do what he wanted to do, he would have been able to
work with his own people. As long as he lived, he never got over that
(see Rom. 9:1-5). That was where his heart was, but he yielded to what
God wanted him to do, and it was God’s plan from the beginning.

his life Paul was looking over his shoulder, trying to reach Jews at
every opportunity. I am quite convinced this is what eventually got him
into real trouble. There is little doubt in my mind that when those
people came to him and said, “Don’t go to Jerusalem,” they were led of
the Spirit (see Acts 21:4-11).

Paul said, “I’m going!” He kept
thinking that one day, somehow, he was going to convert the Jews. But
his trip to Jerusalem was a big disaster, and his desires were not

Maybe you are still hoping somehow to do something
else. You try to do what God won’t let you do, and it just doesn’t
happen. Paul’s lasting success was with the very people he had grown up
to think very little of. It was an unwanted calling.

is a consistent pattern behind many an unwanted calling. For example,
take an unwanted calling to singleness rather than marriage. Perhaps all
your life you took for granted that one day you would be married.

Now if you are single, I am not saying you are not going to get married. I am just saying that there are those who won’t.

apostle Paul was probably widowed. It is believed that when he said, “I
wish that all men were as I am” (1 Cor. 7:7), it meant that he was
going to be celibate for the rest of his life.

Paul was making a
case here for remaining unmarried. It could be that, after many years of
wanting to be married, you are having to come to terms with singleness
as God’s choice for you.

The biblical character Joseph was bred
by his father to be the firstborn. That meant special treatment in
ancient times, including a double portion in the inheritance.

Joseph’s brother Reuben was the firstborn. But Jacob was unhappy with
Reuben and turned to Joseph. So Joseph’s brothers were jealous of him
and plotted against him.

Joseph, who had never worked a day in
his life, became a slave in the house of Potiphar, an Egyptian officer.
He must have thought, What on Earth is this all about? But the Bible
says, “The Lord was with Joseph” (Gen. 39:2). That is what matters.

may have an unwanted calling, but is the Lord with you? That matters!
The day came when Joseph could say, “God meant it for good!” (Gen.
50:20). Oh, did God ever have plans for Joseph.

And God has plans for you. Perhaps He has given you a mission you didn’t ask for.

must take into consideration the providence of an unwanted calling.
Hebrews 11:8 says, “By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he
would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he
did not know where he was going.”

Abraham became one of the
greatest men in all history. He is known as the father of the faithful,
yet He had no idea what his mission would lead to.

Do you feel that life is passing you by? It is not over yet!

Abraham followed God, there was a lot for him to discover and
accomplish. The same can be said of you if God directs your path.

It hurts when things don’t go according to our plans. But there is great potential in an unwanted calling.

you could always do what you wanted to do, you would never know your
full potential in other areas. God can see a potential in you that you
can’t see, so He leads you in a way, which, at first, doesn’t seem to
make sense.

Moses is an example of someone who was trained to do
something completely different from his unwanted calling. He was
educated in the wisdom of the Egyptians, but his career was going to be
with his people, the Hebrews (see Acts 7:22).

Years later Moses
would face Pharaoh. Having been trained in the wisdom of the Egyptians
and raised in the palace, he knew how Pharaoh’s mind worked. All the
training he had received years before was brought back at the exact
moment God wanted to use him.

At the moment, we cannot always
understand the way we are being led, but time shows the purpose and
meaning in it all. So it will be with you.

your experience may seem wasted at first, one day you will see a reason
for all you have learned and the explanation for all your training. An
unwanted calling has the potential of showing what you are capable of
becoming and doing.

The reason for an unwanted calling is the
reason Paul gave for the thorn in his flesh. He said it was to keep him
from becoming conceited (see 2 Cor. 12:7). God directed you differently
from what you wanted in order to give you the usefulness and intimacy
with Him you would not have otherwise experienced.

If you are
like me, you would have been too proud if you had gotten what you
wanted. I hate to think what my life would be like today if I hadn’t
remained at Westminster Chapel in London, where I pastored for 25 years.

It was not what I wanted. But that is not the whole story.

I had returned to America, I doubt I would ever have needed to know how
to dignify a trial or forgive those who have hurt me. I might not have
learned how we can grieve the Holy Spirit by bitterness. These insights
changed my life.

The book of Philippians was written after Paul’s
disastrous trip to Jerusalem (see Acts 21-26). Nothing happened as he
had hoped. He alludes to this in Philippians 1:12, saying, “Now I want
you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to
advance the gospel.”

It is as though he says, “I may not be in
good shape in some ways, but my trials advanced the gospel.” That is
what it is all for.

In Philippians 3:10, Paul wrote: “I want to
know Christ and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of
sharing in His sufferings, becoming like Him in His death.” God doesn’t
care whether I am seen as a great success. He cares that I get to know
His Son.

Everything that has happened to us happened because God
wants us to know His Son. The potential you have for intimacy with God
would never be discovered if you got to do only what you wanted to do.

other words, the thorn of an unwanted calling is the best thing that
could happen to any of us. Painful and puzzling though it is, the thorn
in the flesh is in a sense our salvation—from ourselves.

Paul stopped praying about the removal of his problem after only three
times because the Lord stepped in and said, “‘My grace is sufficient for
you, for My power is made perfect in weakness'” (2 Cor. 12:9). Paul
realized that that thorn in the flesh was God’s instrument for a greater

There is potential in all of us that would never be
discovered if we always had things our way. We all need a thorn to save
us from ourselves. At the end of the day, Paul could say, “It was worth
it all!” Or as Joseph put it, “God meant it for good.”

Read a companion devotional.

R.T. Kendall
was the pastor of Westminster Chapel in London, England for 25 years.
He is a graduate of Oxford University and well-known internationally as a
speaker and teacher. Kendall has authored more than 40 books, including
The Thorn in the Flesh, from which this article is adapted. Published by Charisma House.

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