Psalm 138 contains a verse that absolutely thrilled me the first time I heard it. And today, all these years later, I'm still enthusiastic about this verse, verse 8, even more now than then. Here's what it says: "The Lord will work out his plans for my life."
When I was a teenager and first became serious about following Christ, I would sometimes worry about missing out on God's plan for my life. I would ask myself, "How am I supposed to know which college to go to, which subjects to take, which career path to follow?" I was considering going into the ministry, but I often wondered which kind of ministry I should pursue. Should I be a pastor, a seminary professor, a worship leader, or a teacher? As an adult, there have been times when I have second-guessed myself, asking: "Am I really on the right track? What if I was supposed to be a lawyer, or a school teacher, or a professional baseball player?" (I think we can easily rule that last one out.)
In times of doubt, this verse of scripture, in fact, this entire Psalm, has offered me comfort and assurance. It reminds me that I don't have to bear the burden of making every good thing happen in my life. God will work out his plans for me.
Today we'll talk about how this truth works itself out in our lives. First, here's the disclaimer. This doesn't mean we are to live without ambition or without any sense of direction in life. It doesn't mean that we're to wander aimlessly day to day waiting for God to blaze a trail for us. What it does mean is this: as we strive to live according to God's will, we have the assurance that he is working on our behalf, behind the scenes, so to speak, pulling strings and making things happen according to his plan.
In the John Grisham novel, The Brethren, the main character is a politician named Aaron Lake. He is chosen by some powerful people in Washington to run for president. While he's campaigning, these powerful people are working behind the scenes, orchestrating events to get him elected because he serves their purpose.
There's a comparison here. You are not alone in charting the course for your life. Someone much more powerful than you—God himself—has a plan for your life. His plans for you can only be described as good, as he says in Jeremiah 29:11, "For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord. They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope." (NLT)
God has a great plan for you, and he is committed to making that plan become a reality. In order for him to do that, you must do your part. You must keep yourself yielded to him, so that he can continue to direct your life.
Yielded. What exactly does that mean? In Psalm 138, David shows us three qualities we need to strive for; three qualities that comprise a yielded heart. As we develop these qualities in our lives, we can, with more and more certainty, claim the promise of Psalm 138:8, "The Lord will work out his plans for my life."
We should strive for three qualities which comprise a yielded heart so that God can direct his plans for each of us.
Living a life of gratitude and thankfulness to God is living a life of praise.
David begins by saying in verse 12, "I give you thanks, O Lord, with all my heart … I will give thanks to your name for your unfailing love and faithfulness."
We already have so much to be thankful for. If God never did another good thing for any of us, we could spend the rest of our lives giving him thanks for what he has already done. We still wouldn't have time enough to thank him completely.
Some people don't have this attitude. They look at their lives and don't see anything to be thankful for. There are certain regions of Mexico where hot and cold springs are found side by side. Women bring their laundry to the springs, boil them in the hot spring and rinse them in the cold spring. There's a story about a tourist who saw this taking place, and commented to his Mexican guide, "They must think Mother Nature is generous to supply them with more than enough hot and cold water." The guide said, "No. There is actually much grumbling because she supplies no soap."
Sometimes we just don't see the opportunities to give thanks. But the opportunities are there. What does David give thanks for? In verse 2: God's unfailing love, God's faithfulness, the fact that God's promises are backed by his honor. In verse 3: for answered prayer, for encouragement, and for strength.
We can thank God that he sent Jesus Christ into the world to die on the cross for our sins. We can thank God that he has given the Holy Spirit to give us power and strength for daily living. We can thank God that he has given us the Bible which contains, quite literally, wonderful words of life. We can thank God that he has given us the church and millions of people around the world who are family to us. We can thank God for our job, for our home, for husband, wife, children, friends, and so on. We can thank God for every detail of life because he is involved in every detail of life.
Here's an exercise for you. I mentioned this once before in the Thanksgiving sermon, but it's a good idea to get in the habit of doing this more than once a year. In fact, we should get in the habit of doing this all time. Here's the exercise. Thank God for everything you come in contact with throughout the day. When you wake up, thank God for the bed, for the blanket that kept you warm, for the alarm clock that prevented you from oversleeping, and for the electricity that provides light and heat in your home. Thank him for the food in your cabinet and the stove to cook it on (or for the spouse that takes care of that for you.) Thank him for indoor plumbing, hot and cold running water, and soap. Thank him for the toothpaste that keeps your teeth from falling out (or the DentuGrip that holds them in.)
Thank God for everything that crosses your path. Doing this helps you remember that he is the source for every good thing in your life. When our lives are defined by thankfulness, we are able to keep ourselves in a place where God can work out his plans for us.
By the way, the word that is translated "thanks" in the verses I read earlier is translated "praise" in some translations. This is because "praise" and "thanksgiving" are very nearly the same thing, and are most certainly inseparable. Living a life of gratitude is living a life of praise. So, be thankful to God for everything. Thankfulness is one element of a yielded heart.
Living a life of humility before God and others helps us remain yielded to God's plans for us.
A second quality we need to develop is humility. Verse 6 says, "Though the Lord is great, he cares for the humble, but he keeps his distance from the proud."
What does it mean to be humble? A friend of mine who is attending law school at Tulane was walking to class one day and found a beautiful, and rather valuable, 14 karat diamond on the sidewalk. When she told her mother about it, her mother said, "You must be a humble person." Her daughter said, "Why do you say that?" The mother said, "Because you were obviously walking with your head down."
She was joking, of course, but that's what a lot of people think humility is. They think a humble person is someone with bad posture who is too timid to speak up. That's not what humility is.
Do you remember the Underdog cartoon? Underdog was a superhero who frequently saved the world from certain doom at the hands of his arch-villain, Simon Bar-Sinister. When he wasn't saving the world, he was a lowly shoe-shine boy. At the beginning of every episode you would see him shining shoes. The customer would give him a nickel and say something like, "Thank you shoe-shine boy. You're humble and lovable."
Then Underdog would bite the nickel. See, he was humble, but he wasn't about to accept any wooden nickels. Why was he humble? Because, even though he was a superhero, he didn't care if people thought he was only a shoe-shine boy. In other words, he didn't care who got the credit. He wasn't after his own glory. The job itself was more important to him than the accolades that came with it.
Part of being humble means accepting the fact that you won't get all the credit you deserve, and that's OK.
Why do you the things you do? Why do you teach? So you can be "Teacher of the Year"? Probably not. You probably became a teacher so you could change people's lives. Why did you start your own business? So you could become rich? Probably not. You probably started your own business because you have a product or service that people need, one that makes their life better in some way.
Teachers, business people, police officers, firefighters, car mechanics, sales representatives, and medical personnel rarely get the credit they deserve for the good they do. This has to be OK with you if you want to live a life yielded to God. If you're constantly fighting for your own glory, God can't work out his plan for your life. He can't glorify himself through you if your sole ambition is to glorify yourself.
Humble people don't kid themselves about who deserves the credit for the good things that happen in their life. Alex Haley, the author of Roots, had a picture in his office of a turtle sitting on top of a fence post. When you see a turtle sitting on a fence post, you know that he didn't get there by himself; he had to have some help. That's exactly why Alex Haley kept the picture in his office. He said, "Anytime I start thinking 'Wow. Isn't it marvelous what I have done?' I look at that picture and remember how this turtle—me—got up on that post."
A humble person says, "I don't deserve all the credit. I don't deserve all the glory. I didn't get here on my own; God helped me become what I am." If you want God to work out his plan for your life, you must be yielded to him. Being yielded to God means being humble.
Living a life of trust in God in the midst of trouble is exercising our yieldedness.
A third quality we need to develop is trust. When my youngest son, Jonathan, was about 4 years old, he and I took a day trip to Kentucky. We were on our way home late at night, and I took a wrong turn. I wound up on one of those state roads that are about a lane and a half wide, with no street lights, no signs, no clue as to where we really were, and, of course, no gas stations. I suddenly realized we were in desperate need. I made a comment along the lines of, "Looks like we took a wrong turn. But don't worry; I'll find our way back to the main road."
Jonathan said, "Oh, I'm not worried, Dad." He might not have been, but I was. I was about to run out of gas, I didn't have a cell phone, it was late at night, and I was out in the middle of nowhere. I had been to summer camp enough times to have heard all the stories—there are maniacs who wander desolate places, just waiting for people to have car trouble. I was worried, but Jonathan wasn't in the least. To him, it was an adventure. He kept saying, "Wow, it's really dark out here … Wow, this is the twistiest road I've ever seen … Wow, we're really lost, aren't we, Dad?" You would have thought he was on a ride at an amusement park. Finally, when I saw the lights of civilization in the distance, I breathed a sigh of relief, and he breathed a sigh of resignation, as if to say, "Oh well, it was fun while it lasted."
My point is this: he wasn't afraid at all because he was with me. He trusted me to take care of him. Even in the face of danger, he trusted me. That's what God wants from us. David said in verse 7, "Though I am surrounded by troubles, you will preserve me against the anger of my enemies. You will clench your fist against my angry enemies! Your power will save me."
Having a yielded heart means that you trust God, even in the midst of trouble, even when we feel weak, even when we feel vulnerable, and even when we're under attack. You live with the assurance that says, "God will take care of me."
When I talk about trusting God, I'm talking about putting your faith completely in him, giving him control of your life, trusting him with the results, trusting him to deal with whatever comes your way.
Oliver Wendell Holmes said, "The great act of faith is when a man decides he is not God." That's what I'm talking about. Quit trying to be the God of your life. Let go of the reins, surrender them to God. Give him control. Trust him. He will take care of you.
John Dewey said, "To me, faith is not worrying." When you trust God, you don't have to worry about every little detail because you know he is in control, and he will work out his plan for your life.
In order to claim this promise, you must live a life yielded to the Lordship of Christ. God can do anything, but by his own choice, he will not force his plan for your life upon you. It's something you have to receive. You receive it by being yielded to him and by living with an attitude of thankfulness, humility, and trust. The more your heart is yielded to him, the more you can say, with assurance, "The Lord will work out his plans for my life" (Psalm 138:8).
For Your Reflection
Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul? ___________________________________________
Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? ____________________________________________________________________________
Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart?
Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? _____________________________________________________________________
Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it?
Steve May has been a pastor to pastors for more than 20 years, helping preachers and teachers to become more effective communicators of the gospel.