By Rev. Kyle Norman, Crosswalk.com
Maybe it is a loss of a job or a tragic turn of events, perhaps a long-awaited opportunity passes you by. Whatever the reason, our lives often bump up against unexpected hurdles that leave us feeling saddened or frustrated. We are not immune from these occurrences. In these times, you may have heard, even voiced yourself, the well-known adage: “When God closes one door, he opens a window!” The phrase appears to be faithful enough, giving voice to God’s sovereignty over all things. While suggesting that God had a hand in the hardship we are experiencing, God does so only to provide something better – although better is left mysterious and undefined.
As with all clichés of the Christian life, there are two important questions we must ask ourselves: Is the phrase biblical? and Is the phrase helpful? In the case of this cliché, the answer to both these questions is a resounding “NO!”
The History of the Closed Door / Open Window Cliché
Tracing the history of clichés can be fun but difficult. Versions of the phrase exist in different places and times. This cliché is most popularly attributed to the musical, The Sound of Music. The phrase is spoken by Maria when she hears of the Captain’s broken engagement. “Reverend Mother says when the Lord closes one door, somewhere he opens a window,” she says. Again, it sounds to be a highly spiritual and faithful realization.
Of course, this phrase did not originate with the musical. Yet here is where tracing the history is hard. Both Alexander Bell and Hellen Keller have been cited as saying something akin to this phrase. This difficulty in tracing the history of this cliché, however, does highlight one fundamental truth. The phrase does not occur in Scripture. In fact, when we think about this phrase, there is hardly anything biblical about it.
There are three faults we must recognize in this cliché:
Fault 1: A Faulty Depiction of Life
The primary problem with this cliché is that it leads us into a faulty vision of the Christian life. Because the phrase is employed at the point of difficulty, it naturally assumes that the way of God is the way devoid of struggling or hardships. The window of God’s will is always that which leads us away from that which is uncomfortable. The good and pleasant things of life are never described to us as ”God closing a door.” Why? Because we like these things, and we assume that God does so as well. The cliché presumes that God’s will for our lives is always that which is easy and trouble-free.
Yet we do not see this in Scripture. In fact, have you ever noticed that the path of righteousness, for God’s namesake, runs right through the valley of the darkest shadows? (Psalm 23:3-4). While we might start in green pathways and still waters, as we progress in our Christian life, we come up against dark valleys and the presence of enemies. More importantly, when we look at the life of Jesus, we see that the way of Christ is the way of the Cross. Christ’s call to follow him is a call to follow him on the path of crucifixion. And yes, while this does end in resurrection, we can never assume that the path of least resistance is the way that God calls us to go.
The cliché assumes that any open window is beneficial for one’s life. It demands no further discernment. It is simply assumed that the earliest opportunity out of life’s struggles is the one issued by the Lord. Yet Jesus speaks definitively against this very notion. Jesus says: “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it” (Matthew 7:13-14) The widest path ahead is not always the one we must take. Jesus himself lived this out when he rejected this very temptation in the desert (Matthew 4:8-9).
Of course, we should not assume that God delights in the hardship of God’s people. Of course not! Still, God’s will for our lives is always beyond the mere satisfaction of earthly enjoyments. The true satisfaction of life, the true life we are called to, is found upon the narrow way of Christian discipleship. The truth that Scripture proclaims, the reality that we all know intuitively, is that the decision to follow Christ does not always make our lives “easier.”
Fault 2: A Faulty View of Self
Not only does this cliché pose a problem for our vision of Christian life, it also leads us into a problematic view of ourselves. While appealing to God’s actions, the cliché assumes that we can never know the will of God in our lives. The cliché presupposes that we do not live in an interactive relationship with God. The problem does not lie in the fact that God “closes the door.” The discipline of prayerful discernment is based on the truth that God does, in fact, lead His people. This leading may involve a limiting of a path ahead. We see this in Acts 16. Unfortunately, the notion that “God opens a window” is left completely vague and undefined. One is left to question the what and the where of the open window, with no indication that God will aid in the persons in discernment. While attempting to offer comfort it only offers confusion.
See, the implication implicit in the cliché is that it is up to the individual to find the open window. One does not receive further direction from the Lord. We live our lives blindly moving through random occurrences, just hoping that somewhere we may stumble upon the will of God. Yet what happens if we do not find the open window? If it is true that God opens a window, but we do not go through it, then it makes the reality of our suffering completely dependent upon us. The prolonging of our times of hardships is placed squarely upon our own shoulders. Our sufferings are our own fault. Thus, not only do we experience a time of hardship, we bear the weight of rejecting God’s will. Instead of comfort, the phrase offers us the most horrific of condemnations.
Fault 3: A Faulty View of God
Ultimately, the main fault behind the cliché is a fundamental denial of God’s sovereignty. While the phrase sounds as if it gives full authority to the Lord, it rips these things from God’s hands and places them firmly within our own judgment. The cliché makes both the closed door and the open window dependent upon our own assessment. If we do not like the road ahead or find our path too laborsome, we conclude that God must clearly be closing the door on the path ahead. Conversely, when an opportunity falls in our lap, we need not present the matter to the Lord in humble prayer. Instead, we simply refer to the opportunity as “God’s open window” and charge ahead. Thus, our faith life is not lived in following the will of the Lord; we carve out our path. There is little to no faithfulness here. The language of “God” or “God’s will” simply becomes the rhetoric we use to justify our own self-mastery.
Scripture is filled with examples of people living this way. Each case is seen as a distortion of true faithfulness and obedience. King David, for example, sought to build the temple of the Lord, feeling it was a fitting accomplishment for his reign (2 Samuel 7). Neither he nor the prophet Nathanial inquires of the Lord’s will, believing the existence of the opportunity itself was a testament to the Lord’s approval of the matter. Unfortunately, the act of building the temple was not part of God’s will for David. David is rebuked for pridefully assuming himself to be the one to decides the parameters of God’s will. So too are we rebuked if we do the same.
What Does the Bible Actually Say?
Given these three faults, it is easy to see how the phrase “when God closes a door, He opens a window” does not coincide with biblical truth. As pleasant sounding as the phrase may seem, it offers little hope and no biblical truth to those who find themselves facing difficultly. This, then, begs the question: What does the bible actually say? The truth that Christians grasp, particularly in times of difficulty or hardships, is the intimate presence of God. We are never abandoned in our lives. Jesus' parting words in the Gospel of Matthew testify to this promise. Jesus proclaims to disciples everywhere “I am with you to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). It is a recapitulation of God’s heartfelt promise in Deuteronomy to never leave or forsake his people (Deuteronomy 31:6).
This is the truth proclaimed in all of Scripture. It is revealed as the Creator walks toward the wayward couple in the cool of the garden, it is the Shekinah of God traveling with Israel through the struggles of the Exodus; it is the truth that God was never away from the sufferings of Job, even though that is how it felt. But more than anything, it is a truth fully revealed in Jesus. We uncover this truth when Jesus comes to us wrapped in vulnerability and when he hangs on the cross, taking all pain and frustrations upon himself. Repeatedly the Bible holds forth the truth that in the places of this world’s darkness, where we may be tempted to believe that God has shut the door on our blessing or happiness. God is closer and more active than we realize. God does not sit on a distant cloud, away from the messiness of our life, hoping that we will grasp whatever lifeline he happens to throw our way. No. God, who is rich in love and mercy, dwells with us. He walks with us. He cries with us. Christians look not to open windows. We look to our incarnate Lord.
So, the next time someone you know finds themselves facing the brunt of unpredictable life, do not attempt to comfort them by some lame appeal to a mystical way out of their circumstance. Rather, point them to the biblical truth of the loving God that surrounds them no matter what life throws at them. Remind them that they need not fear the terrors of night or the arrows that fly by day because God alone is our rest and our fortress (Psalm 91). This is, and will always be, our ultimate comfort and hope in life.
Photo credit: ©GettyImages/asiandelight
Reverend Kyle Norman is the Rector of the Anglican Parish of Holy Cross in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He has a doctorate in Spiritual Formation and is often asked to write or speak on the nature of Christian community, and the role of Spiritual disciplines in Christian life. His personal blog can be found here.