The Ship and the Wind.
There’s an image that keeps coming back to me. A ship with beautiful sails out on the ocean. Each time the image plays in my mind it brings with it the same questions: where did it come from? Where is it going? What is its purpose, and who is in control of its fate? For me these questions are intimately bound up with a well-known verse of Scripture, and this ship-picture embodies an age-old dilemma about human existence.
The verse is Proverbs 16 verse 9:
“In their hearts humans plan their course, but the Lord establishes their steps.”
The dilemma is this: what are the limits of our responsibility for our own lives. This dilemma finds expression in many different ways and is debated using various questions about life and purpose, but its all part of the mystery of human free will. For me the image of the ship is a metaphor at the intersection between God’s Sovereignty and our free will. Are we on our own, sailing the ship of our own volition in a big wide world and battling against impersonal elements of wind and tide, or are we helpless stowaways in the grip of providence that we can’t resist or alter?
I think it’s a bit of both. The trick is determining where the balance lies. This piece is just my attempt to find an answer, knowing full well that others will come up with different ones, or reject the metaphor and even the question altogether.
Allow me to explore the metaphor and embellish the image. A ship never sails for no reason, and unless those on board are automatons then they actively participated in every stage of the journey. Consider the beginning of the process, when the sailors are still ashore. Did they desire to go to sea for reasons of their own, did they follow a calling from elsewhere or were they compelled? If compelled then there is no free will, and everything that happens thereafter is a foregone conclusion, their own part it in entirely irrelevant. But if they decided themselves or followed a calling, then they had a meaningful role to play. They could have chosen otherwise, ignored the calling and stayed on land.
We are the Ship. God is the Wind, and the tides and the current.
God guides us as we move – when we’re already in motion. The ship cannot be guided if it is still moored at the dock in harbour. God calls us to go on a voyage. He doesn’t want us to stay where we are, or remain who we are. Where we are is a broken world full of darkness where fear and apathy reign. Who we are is fallen, sinful people trapped in slavery that we cannot see. That’s not God’s will for us. He has something better for us, but it doesn’t happen automatically. He doesn’t just magically transform us or drop the finished solution in our lazy laps. He calls us, reaches out a hand to us, and says, “Come, follow me” (Mark 1:17).
God loves us as we are, but He doesn’t leave us as we are. He calls us “out of darkness into His wonderful light.” (1 Peter 2:9). In this metaphor the darkness is a situation where we don’t know Jesus. We’re on a continent of unbelief in a port of sin and without any hope for the future. But when the call of Christ comes there is a glimmer of hope out there on the horizon. Away beyond the ocean’s edge is a paradise of salvation and eternal life. The rest of your life will be spent voyaging towards it, if you’ll answer the call.
The question for us is: will we set sail? Cast off the lines, weigh anchor and leave the harbour. It’s a risk. It’s safe in harbour, it’s familiar and reliable. But we’ll never get where we want to go. And if we choose to sail, there’s still a need for due diligence on our part. The ship must be provisioned, we should prepare ourselves as best we can for the rigours of the journey. Food, water, adequate clothing, charts, navigational instruments, everything we’ll need. Those who go to sea unprepared may very well starve, go off course or round in circles or even lose heart and come back to the decaying harbour whence they came.
As soon as you cut those ropes, hoist those sails and leave the apparent safety of the breakwater your journey begins. You’re trusting yourself to the winds and tide, knowing that you can’t come to the journey’s end purely by your own skill. It takes faith to believe that God will guide you even though you can’t see His hand at work.
We don’t absolve ourselves of all responsibility. We plan our course. That’s ok, good even. It’s right to know where you want to go, where you want to get to. But we never know how we will get there. There are many routes across the oceans, many ways we could go and it’s different for all of us.
Moreover, our charts for life are unreliable, full of gaps and unable to account for all the chances of circumstance. So God establishes our steps. He guides us. He directs our ship to the safe harbour on the far side of the sea. Heaven? That’s the ultimate destination. But there will be islands along the way, places we stop and pause at for a few days, months or even years. Times for us rest and replenish, times to serve, to help others and do good things along the way.
There might be delays you didn’t foresee or detours you didn’t want. Contrary winds might blow you away from a course you thought you wanted but in fact led somewhere dangerous. There might even be attacks, for the ocean is full of great beasts and pirates who want “only to steal and kill and destroy” (John 10:10), but this is life to the full and God will never leave your side. The way might not always be comfortable or predictable, but your final destination is certain.
God guides each stage. He guides us through the storms and sunshine, past whirlpools and reefs. He is the Wind, the Holy Spirit that blows in our sails. It may not be the wind that we want, but it’s the wind that we need. We can fight against it, row against the wind or try and move the sails to change course, but ultimately God’s will prevails.
In the corner of all your charts is a note you should remember:
“Many are the plans in a person’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails.” (Proverbs 19:21)
So by all means plan your course, but accept that you won’t always have it all your own way. Do the hard work along the way – sailing isn’t easy – but never forget that it’s grace that gets you there. Don’t be afraid of what’s out there; trust that He is greater than all of it and works through all of it for your good (1 John 4:4 / Romans 8:28). Remember that the voyage is long and nothing you can do will hurry it. All you can do is set out and keep your eyes fixed on the prize ahead.
And if you haven’t set sail yet, or don’t even realise that your ship is tied to its berth, start thinking. Is this where I want to be? Should I heed that call?