24 “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. 25 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. 26 But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. 27 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”
Matthew 7:24-27 NIV
As the 30-year-old son of a carpenter, Jesus would have had working familiarity of house building techniques in first century Palestine. My research on the surface geology of the region suggests that there were two primary rock types which were very familiar to Christ’s audience. The first was the unstable alluvial sand that was associated with areas juxtaposed against many of the bodies of water in the area (Christ was teaching the lesson within the vicinity of Lake Galilee). The second was the more stable basaltic rock, which underlay much of the Palestinian area, material of which was extracted to furnish building stones. First century house building usually required digging a foundation to the basalt and then creating a layer of (foundation) rocks (that were tied to the basalt with clay mortar.) A skilled workman (carpenters were also stone masons) would cut supplied rock material to fit the foundational layout, while inserting smaller stones in the created crevices between the bigger rocks. Once the foundation was established, the walls would be built of similar stone and tied to the foundation. The resulting structure, with an attached roof, was able to withstand any natural calamity (earthquakes were common). It should also be noted that the alluvial sand was not like beach sand, unconsolidated and loose. It had a hardness of its own (think concrete) and provided much of the stability that was needed to support other aspects of life. This alluvial sand underlay the streets and other thoroughfares. Many in the audience would have been familiar with stories of relatives or friends who had confused the load bearing properties of alluvial sand with the stability providing characteristics of basalt. How might have someone made such a mistake? Christ provides the answer in the descriptors that he uses for the two men in the passage above. The “wise” man ingests the knowledge that he is furnished with and applies it. The “foolish” man does not. For whatever reason (expedience, cost of effort, convenience), the latter chooses to think that he may be the exception to the rule. Wisdom, it turns out, is not just the awareness of knowledge but its subsequent application.
This parable paints such a straightforward picture in our Western minds. Of course, we want to build our physical houses on a solid foundation! We would accept nothing less! However, when it comes to outcomes that are less visible, we can become susceptible to the drivers of expedience, cost of effort and convenience. Christ’s moral and spiritual instructions in the preceding section (Matthew 5:1 to 7:23) are difficult to execute against our contemporary (and sometimes contrary) conventions of independence, autonomy, initiative, emotional distance, material security, personal comfort, self-protection, relational caution, measured forgiveness, demonstrated reciprocity and the “adaptive” anxiety that prioritizes control. Layered on to this is the attitude we take towards the possibility of misfortune. In many minds, misfortune happens to others. We have a plan and are executing it! Any allowance for variance, we reason, will be handled through planned contingencies. These contingencies reside primarily in our material provisions and network.
We, therefore, build on “sand” because we are pursuing priorities that are not aligned with Christ’s desire for us and we have a false assurance around the feasibility and fruition of “our plan”. We are taken by surprise, when within our universe, misfortune occurs. When this occurs, we observe, that contrary to our assessment, the misfortune was in the making, outside of our prioritized pursuit. Additional scrutiny rewards us with an understanding of misfortune’s patterns, as Christ lays out so well:
- “The rain came down” – as much as rain visits all people, we discover that we are not, in fact, immune to bad things happening to us.
- “The streams arose” – we begin to feel a multiplicity of emotions and many times are overwhelmed. Our negative internal messages point to external validations.
- “The winds blew and beat against that house” – invisible (spiritual) forces that are not within our physical awareness exacerbate the circumstances as part of the spiritual warfare in which we find ourselves (Ephesians 6:10-17)
I have experienced this type of awakening. A few years ago, at the height of some social events, I decided to express my frustration to a group of trusted friends. If there was a time when things seemed to be going smoothly in my life, this was it. It seemed like I could set it all on cruise control. I felt that I had built a network of support and friendship that I had always desired. Imagine how astonished, surprised and hurt I was when the response to my expression of frustration was cold and rejecting. I did not expect it and the flood of associated emotions was overwhelming. I questioned God and his desire to have me express my uniqueness. The unchecked negative internal dialog I had about myself seemed to be materializing. There were two things that pulled me out of myself. The first was the discovery of a community of people like me who had been hurt similarly and were overcoming. The second was the stability I had developed through a decade long application of spiritual disciplines in my life. These disciplines are well known and include consistent prayer and personal study time, tithing, fasting, solitude, celebration, chastity and community – all done at an unvaried cadence. When I investigated the lives of this group of individuals to which I connected, I discovered a similar approach to the building of faith. I withstood because I had built on Christ's words through disciplined application. Like the exceptional athlete on the field, who spends countless hours away from the limelight, getting her repetitions in the gym through an established routine, Jesus calls us to build a hidden foundation that will provide the stability we need – when the inevitable “not the plan” manifests.
I initially planned to name this series “dealing with the hard things”, but it was Shivana who came up with the title “living the “not the plan” plan”. If you scrutinize the aspects that make your life (career, school, family, business, church, community, health), there is a “not the plan” that you are either entering, in the middle of or just exiting. If you don’t have a solid foundation of spiritual discipline, overcoming will be challenging. The good news is that it is not too late to start.
Reach out to us if you want some ideas around how to start.