By Elton HiggsLet’s consider the idea of God as Coach for a few minutes. A coach is a guide, a mentor, an encourager, a challenger, and an overall strategist for the team, all of which functions are characteristics of God in regard to the people on His “team.” For example, imagine an intense basketball game in which a player is thoroughly engaged and feels he has finally hit his stride, and suddenly the coach calls him back to the bench. “But coach,” he might say, “I was really hyped up and hitting on all cylinders!” And he might well be right, but the coach has a different perspective from that of any individual player. First, he has to plot his strategy by setting the success of the team as a whole as his first priority, not the showcasing of individual talent. Secondly, he needs to manage the efforts of each individual so that each player is able to contribute his maximum to the team’s success. I can imagine the coach who has pulled the player from the game to be thinking, “Joe is going great guns, and his efforts so far have really empowered the team; but if I leave him in, he’s going to burn out completely and maybe not be of much use to us for the rest of the game. He needs to take a break and recover his strength, so that he’ll be ready when he’s needed to spearhead another drive.”
God sometimes interrupts a ministry in which we are intensively engaged to make us “sit on the bench” and rest; or He may even ask us to play a different position (i.e., take on another ministry). When I was a young man, I took it for granted that my early development in leading congregational worship meant that I would be doing that for the rest of my active life. When I became a part of a new congregation in my fifties, I felt rejected and unappreciated when I found that my abilities as a worship leader were not needed and moreover were not even recognized. It was hard to accept that I had been “benched.” But then the Lord opened the way for me to teach adult Sunday School classes and to serve as an elder for nine years. At that point we moved yet again, and our new congregation gave no consideration to my qualifications as an elder (benched again!) and gave me only fill-in assignments as a Bible teacher. What they did ask me to do was to serve in the newly-created position of deacon of prayer, which left me struggling to define exactly what the responsibilities of the position were. I have finally, in my late 70s, accepted the pattern of God’s reserving the right to change my assignments. It’s obvious now that each move to another congregation (or even just to another stage of my life) carries with it a new definition of what it means to serve God—and that definition is usually different from what I expected.
There are plenty of examples in Scripture of God’s “benching” and redirection of His “players,” sometimes repeatedly. Abraham was ordered out of Ur to embark on a journey to a far-away Promised Land. When He got there and was settled in and prosperous, but had no heir of his own blood, it seemed that his migration was pointless, until God promised him a son from whom a great nation would develop. But as God delayed fulfilling the promise and Sarah grew past the age of child-bearing, the old couple decided to modify the “game plan” on their own by using Sarah’s handmaid to conceive a child with Abraham. (We all know the disastrous results of that attempt to give the “Coach” some unsolicited help.) Finally, the promised son came, but when Isaac was a teenager, God seemed to contradict his previous Grand Plan for Abraham’s progeny by demanding that Abraham offer his son as a sacrifice. But by that time, however, the patriarch of our faith had learned to trust the Coach and to obey Him beyond what he could understand.
Joseph experienced a similar series of radical redirections. He was on a roll as a dutiful and gifted youngest son, favored by his father over his older brothers. But he engendered their jealousy and hatred, and they sold him into slavery. Nevertheless, he prospered again as the faithful steward of his new master, ruling Potiphar’s house so well that he left it to Joseph and turned to other matters. But then a cruelly unjust accusation against Joseph landed him in prison, where he had only the cold comfort of being in charge of the other prisoners. However, when the time was ripe with God, He called Joseph to “get back in the game” to fulfill the grand design for Joseph’s life as second ruler of Egypt at a crucial time in the life of that kingdom and the history of the children of Israel.
There is another set of biblical stories, though, that show the problem of being in the game too long. Consider the accounts of the reigns of the few good kings of Israel after David. Solomon started magnificently, but his youthful successes were greatly marred by his foolish and perverse departure from God’s principles in his polygamous old age. That resulted in the kingdom being divided after his death, and the only good kings afterward were a few in Judah, where the lineage of David was preserved, but even these would have been better remembered if they had been “benched” before they committed the errors at the end of their reigns. Consider the cases of Asa, Hezekiah, Amaziah, Jehoshaphat, and Josiah in the historical books of I and II Kings and I and II Chronicles. Surely it is a mercy of God when He “takes us out of the game” and redirects us before we begin to decline and mar what He has done to make us fruitful so far.
I will presume to conclude with another personal reference. My wife and I have been intensely involved during the last five years in being caregivers for our daughter, who suffers from a slowly progressing but incurable genetic affliction called Huntington’s Disease. Its symptoms are loss of both physical coordination and mental stability, which require an increasing amount of caregiving attention and energy. My wife and I have realized and said for years that it is a marvel of God’s power that we have been able to look after her for as long as we have. He has now made it clear that we have reached the limits of our ability to care for her on a day-to-day basis, and over the last month or so He has been in the process of providing an adult foster care home for her to move into. Yesterday was spent in getting all the papers filled out and signed and actually getting her moved in. The completion of this long and intensive stage in our lives leaves us with some ambivalent feelings. We are relieved that the daily pressure is no longer there, but we have deep regret that the disease has reached the stage that a radical change in her care is necessary and we can no longer have her with us. Our heads tell us that this is God’s way of continuing to provide abundantly and appropriately for her care, but our hearts mourn that things have reached this point. Previously, we said no to some ways of serving God that would have been good for us to do (e. g., visiting the sick, mentoring people who are struggling in their lives) because we just couldn’t take on any more. Now that we have been freed from our home caregiving, we have to consider (while we “sit on the bench” for a while) how God wants us to use the life and energies still available to us. Hey, Coach, what’s the new game plan?
Image: “Benched” By Jay Phagan. CC License.