My struggle to see God’s plan for me

In October 2019, while I was on mission in El Salvador, a middle-aged woman came to me and shared a message. She said that she’d prayed about me. We hadn’t met but she had listened to a talk I gave in Panama. She told me that during her prayers she felt a divine message and knew the Holy Spirit wanted me to share it with her.

“What is the message?” I asked her.

She began: “The door that God closes-“

My mind jumped ahead and immediately assumed that she was going to finish off with the familiar phrase one hears: “he opens a window instead.”

But she surprised me. Instead of saying that, she completed her sentence with a far more depressing phrase. “The door that God closes, no human alive can open again.”

At this moment we stood inside the chapel of a Pentecostal school in San Salvador. It was a busy city block with a slatted window, on the other side of which a market bustled. Stunned by what she said, I took a few moments before I responded. During the pause we heard the din of tradespeople hawking many wares. Toys! Bottled water! Pupusas! Communion dresses! Fans for the heat! Prayer books!

The thought struck me that the world is full of many trades. Many paths, many ways to master. And many means of making a living. But the woman hadn’t made any mention of an alternative to the door she saw God closing. She only said, once God closed it, I would not be able to open it.

“What does that mean?” I asked her.

She smiled calmly. A breeze through the window slats tickled a few of the long stray hairs that had escaped her bun. “You have to make peace with whatever God is telling you to leave behind. If God closes the door, you cannot open it.”

“Does this mean another door will open?”

She said she didn’t know. Then she took my hands in hers and prayed for a few seconds. When I said “amen,” and opened my eyes, I only saw the back of her. Before I knew it, she was gone.

This week in El Salvador was certainly well timed for such a message. I had had seven meetings with administrators at the seminary where I worked, and the threats against my job did not come subtly. The dean of the undergraduate program had told me that if I were to continue sharing my testimony, I would have to leave the job. He said this was because the seminary did not want to attract negative attention.

With signals as clear as the ones I was getting, I needed someone to disabuse me of false hopes. Because I was in El Salvador on a mission with eight students, I was tempted to think that there was some way of salvaging my academic job. In such a circumstance, the stress wears on you. Keeping my smile intact before the students as I led them from school to school sharing the gospel, I felt unable to reconcile the joy of my work with the sober reality that the students had registered in an institution that didn’t want me around. I strove to serve them as a decent mentor but knew that their hearts lay with the institution, not with me. It was inevitable that the seminary would fire me. Equally inevitable was that the students would side with the seminary against me. The best course of action consisted of avoiding the topic with the pupils, running the mission like a professional, and keeping them out of the conflict.

Yet the woman’s words hung over me for the entire week. That evening, I went swimming. With each lap, I felt the vision grow brighter of a gigantic door, crafted of brown wood with cast iron flourishes, slamming shut. I saw the last rays of life peeking through the momentary gaps between the door and the doorway. Then I saw the gaps close, the door shut with a loud rattling click, and the light give way to a dusty, sad darkness.

As a Baptist I had been taught to avoid charismatics but in Latin America you can’t avoid them. The heart of the continent is very spiritual, like terrains leaping straight out of the Acts of the Apostle. The people of El Salvador live with the Holy Spirit close to them, separated by only the thinnest of veils. And they see the demonic world come close to them as well. When I came back to the hotel room, I dried myself off and meditated on what the woman had said. She had received a message from the Holy Spirit. I believed her.

So God was closing the door. So much was true. Ever since recovering from cancer at age 27, I had lived my professional life with the hopes and dreams of an academic career. I’d put my heart into teaching and scholarship. I’d loved my students with a deep authentic feeling, nothing creepy or sexual, just the warmth of a teacher toward the people God had placed before me to learn from me. And now the roadblocks to continuing down that path were so numerous and insurmountable, I could not blame the situation on mishaps by me or the ill will of a one or two bad administrators. God was moving to get me out of academia.

The position of most cessationists is that God stopped communicating with human beings after the first century. The only way that this stance avoids deism is if you speak in terms of “conviction,” and a sealing on one’s heart of God’s will. My Baptist teachers had always told me that you can discern godly conviction from demonic conviction by cross-checking it with scripture. In other words, if what convicts you aligns with the instructions of scripture then it comes from God. If what convicts you conflicts with something in scripture then it comes from the enemy.

As night fell I strolled out to the lounge area to pray alone. My season of doubt had arrived. I could not trust entirely in the doctrines of the denomination I belonged to. The whole concept of denominations began to feel distorted, even perverse. It was a massive denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, which had employed me and then sought to shut down my Christian witness in order to avoid, according to the dean and provost, negative attention. The woman who had come to me with her prophetic message embodied Christianity far better than any church or parachurch organization.

I decided that I no longer rejected the notion of God speaking directly to us. I had had multiple spiritual encounters in the past, when I had felt Jesus Christ speaking to me. For some years I had come to view those moments doubtfully, even suspiciously. Now I concluded that it would be absurd for denominational authorities to dictate to believers that they never hear messages from God anymore. If I only went by my convictions, I would feel confused. I felt convicted that I should nurture the students whom I loved and taught at that moment. I also felt convicted that I should be willing to be cut off from them, if the school decided to make me choose between my job and obeying God’s call to me. I could find scriptures to justify both “convictions.”

I needed the prophetic voice of that woman to give me clarity. So I saw the turning point before me and took the road her prophecy had suggested. When I would return to Fort Worth, I knew that the ultimatum would be waiting for me: silence my witness or look for another job and lose my students as well as the profession I’d worked so hard to cultivate. By myself I could not find convincing scriptural grounds to choose one path over the other. But with that woman’s help, I found precision. Certainty. Destiny.

Which of the two paths was God showing me He intended to close down? My institutional position at the seminary revealed sign after sign of futility. Ever since the departure of Paige Patterson, the changes in the curriculum had hinted toward a terrible direction that I knew would fail the students and betray the very mission of classical Christian education. They were eliminating literature, languages, and history, replacing these disciplines with fluffy lifestyle classes under dubious titles like “Flourishing,” “Worldview,” “Critical Thinking,” and “Academic Writing.” Such generalized courses signify a move away from content toward theory, models, and value-neutral “discourse.” The creativity, artistry, and rigor was withering to make way for a market-driven, seeker-friendly system of humanities education that I feared wouldn’t even pass muster with accreditors, never mind my own students. The loss of the classics and rigorous traditional disciplines not only boded ill for the students, but also for me personally. I had not gone to the seminary to teach those things.

Secret back-channel conversations and alliances had checkmated me within the college. It’s a long story full of boring office intrigue. But suffice it to say, after months of reviewing the curriculum the dean had set up a humanities review committee, on which a prevailing voting bloc sided against my vision of education in favor of the fluff and lather. The more I tried to offer an alternative plan, the more hostile they grew.

And then the new administration kept hounding me about my public work and ministry. They had set up Byzantine approval procedures that would force me to have every part of my public witness come under the scrutiny and control of public-relations associates who had no connection scholarly or otherwise to the work I was doing. Then came the threats. And inevitably, with the threats would come social warfare: turning students against me, blocking me from projects, alienating me from potential allies on the faculty. A little of that had started but much more would come down the pike if I tried to cling to my job by playing along with their ploys to silence my testimony.

Add all these factors up: what do I get? It was clear God was closing a door. Without the woman’s prophetic voice, I might have been confused about whether it was God’s will for me to play along and jump through hoops or for me to brush the dust from my feet and move on to the next phase of my life.

God hadn’t shown me what the next phase of my life would be. That scared me. It scared me that the woman didn’t add the comforting cliché that God will open a window. She just said when God closes a door, no man can open it. So I had to concede, this news came from God. I had to let the door close and be obedient to Him. On the last day of the mission in El Salvador, I felt a strong conviction to read from Mark 5 and the description of the demon-possessed madman living in the catacombs. For each of the days that I had been in El Salvador, I had made a point not to share my testimony in front of the American mission students. The warning from my dean that my testimony was unwelcome with the seminary hung on my heart. But by that final mission day I had the force of clarity propelling me.

In Mark 5, we hear the description of a man who could not be restrained by chains. He was cutting himself and acting in such dangerous ways that the city feared going near him. He lived in the catacombs, forgotten by the decent city-dwellers living their lives without having to deal with him. Jesus comes and tells the demons to leave him; the demons enter a herd of pigs that run over a cliff into a lake and drown. Afterward, when people see the former madman dressed and behaving like a decent citizen, the people are stunned. Jesus tells the cured man that he cannot accompany Jesus, but must go and tell his story to the world on his own.

“This is my story,” I told the rows of students in an urban chapel. I explained that I had had a life much like the man from Mark 5. One of the Salvadoran hosts had asked me to share this testimony before the students, and I had hesitated because there was nowhere to send my American mission students. But I’d decided by the last day that I believed in what the prophetic woman had said to me. God had closed the door to the seminary classroom. These students were not going to be my students in just a few weeks. I gained nothing by trying to shield them from my Christian witness, since whether I hid from them who I was or not, the seminary was going to fire me and these students would likely shun me anyway.

I preached the story that afternoon, boldly and fearlessly, while the eight American students listened. I had lived a life of sexual depravity, madness, drugs, and rage. I had been abandoned by the cities in which I lived, just like the man in Mark 5. And I had lived, like him, to tell the tale of being delivered from the demons that had brought me to the brink of death. If the students should run back to Fort Worth and report me for speaking on things they had forbidden me to witness about, so be it. The door had closed.

As fate would have it, I returned to Fort Worth on October 6. Four weeks later, the seminary posted the spring 2020 schedule with my name obviously removed. It was done, just as the prophetic woman had prophesied. God had closed the door. I had done the right thing to share my witness without regard to consequences. Had I stifled it in San Salvador that day, I would not have saved my job. I would have merely failed God.

So the weeks unfolded and I found myself confronted with doors closing all around. I still couldn’t see open windows or any paths forward. The seminary canceled my mission to England. It was clear I would lose the students who’d been working with me on the drama club. Liberals still wanted nothing to do with me. Now conservatives were giving me the cold shoulder right and left. My talks were canceled, I was de-platformed, and friends told me they could not associate with me because they couldn’t risk the wrath of Adam Greenway, Russell Moore, and Albert Mohler.

I prayed as often as I could, hoping God would give me a sign of what he wanted me to do next. Did He want me to die? I fell ill with a terrible flu and my chronic cough came back by October 18. Hacking and spitting up phlegm, suffering from vertigo, I had relapsed into the life of the man from Mark 5. The illness kept me bed-ridden and miserable. I was falling into untouchable territory again.

And yet during these painful weeks I found many people asking me to share my witness. They offered interviews and podcasts. Some raised money to help me launch this site, on which I would–I thought, at the time–be able to record informative conversations to help Christians navigate the stormy times as I had come to understand them.

My cough dissipated by early December and I did many interviews. I also started recording a lot of my video and audio content. But then by January, the cough came back. Thing after thing kept going wrong that made it impossible for me to record anything with my voice. When I talked for more than a few minutes, my cough crippled me. It terrified me to be on the job market with this debilitating cough.

I managed to hold myself together for the long interview with Eric Metaxas on January 22. Then I had projects that had come up, which started shortly after. They kept me busy so I could not find time to record podcasts. And I had to be careful of the cough coming back. My cough did not come across like a mild and inoffensive tic. It was loud and startled people. Especially with the coronavirus scare emerging, I had to treat it as a serious barrier to my doing a lot of audio recordings. The doctors told me I had no infection, so the cough was likely allergies, perhaps aggravated by the stress I had been under.

I returned to El Salvador again in February. I managed to give my talks without the cough crippling me, but after each sermon or lecture, I found I had to rush back to my hotel and rest my vocal chords. I couldn’t engage in casual chit-chat. I couldn’t strain myself by recording tons of podcasts. I had to conserve my voice.

And finally then I realized the follow-up to what the prophetic woman had told me. I had to conserve my voice. God was closing the doors to a life of a chatty raconteur. The cough was his hedge to keep me from expending my witness recklessly.

My true gift was not talking–though I am a good speaker–but rather, writing. God wants me to write books and essays.

All of this is a long way of saying, this website is where God has led me. But I won’t be doing podcasts and vlogs as I thought I was going to. God has shown me where my efforts must flow. I will be writing much more than talking. For God has lifted my hesitation about writing, cleared away the distractions, and forced me to silence my lips for most of the day. I will be writing away.

And I do so, I hope for the benefit of the reader, and I pray, out of obedience to what God has called me to.