The Set of Our Sails

A few weeks ago I was reading a biography about the Wright Brothers.  One of the chapters contained these closing lines of a poem by Ella Wheeler Wilcox…

One ship sails East,
And another West,
By the self-same winds that blow,
‘Tis the set of the sails
And not the gales,
That tells the way we go.

Like the winds of the sea
Are the waves of time,
As we journey along through life,
‘Tis the set of the soul,
That determines the goal,
And not the calm or the strife. 

On first blush, Ella’s poem sounds like good advice. That our goals in life determine our destination and not fate, circumstances, or happenstance. Whether, according to Ella, we sail in calm seas or through a storm the course is determined by our heart, the set of our souls. And like sailors, we should catch the winds of life and control them to navigate the waves as we desire. Sounds good, even sounds right, but there is a big fat problem.

The problem with Ella’s poem is the independent reliance on self. That through our own determination we establish and achieve the goals we set in our hearts. Let’s compare her sentiment to a couple of Bible verses. One of Jesus’ insights from His late night discussion with Nicodemus is the way of those following the Holy Spirit, “The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8, NASB95)  Contrary to using the set of our sails to go where we desire the Christian life is one of surrender to the wind of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes it feels like God doesn’t know what He is doing with us. Why are we sailing through this storm?  Why are we moving in an uncomfortable direction?  Why does the fog of uncertainty surround us? There is a common desire to know that we are on the right path and heading in the right direction. But God doesn’t ask us to trust in a goal but to trust in Him, to set our sights on Jesus.

The author of Hebrews wrote, “let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith.” (Hebrews 12:1b-2a) Jesus is the author, the beginning, the creator and the completion of faith. In a way, Jesus is both the starting line and the finished line of our marathon of faith. The set of our souls should be on Jesus and not our own independent desires, wishes, or goals.

Now, I’m not saying that we don’t set goals. We should plan or think ahead.  Or that we don’t at times stand against adverse winds. I am instead encouraging that we surrender our plans and goals to the larger desire of following Jesus.

The Apostle Paul had a goal of testifying before Caesar. Transported as a prisoner under guard he faced many “opportunities” for depression, self-pity, doubt, and despair. He was shipwrecked, threatened with execution, bit by a poisonous snake, and worshiped as a god when he didn’t die. Through all of these, he testified about Jesus to his captors, to the sailors, to the other prisoners, and to the island natives of Malta. While Paul had his heart set on getting to Rome He never lost sight of the larger goal of following Jesus no matter where he was or which way the winds of life were blowing. (Acts 27 & 28)   

The remaining question is whether we are going to trust ourselves to navigate, perhaps even try to control, the winds that blow in our lives or whether we are going to surrender to the wind of the Holy Spirit. It’s not easy, it’s uncomfortable at times, even painful as we are stretched in new directions, sometimes we can’t even see our hand in front of our face. We may experience shipwreck and failure. But, we can trust that the storms of life will never really blow us off course if our sights are set on Jesus and our sails surrendered to the wind of the Holy Spirit.

Dale Heinold
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