My daughter says the most helpful thing I ever taught her was the phrase “do the next thing.” She says she carries it with her all the time: “When in a jam, stay calm and do not panic: Do the next thing.”
“Do the next thing” is the most existential of concepts. “The next thing” keeps changing as life throws a new set of challenges at you. I am reminded of the old penny arcade race car driving game in which the ever-shifting terrain calls for constant and quick-fire driving choices.
“Do the next thing” is not a program in the sense of a fixed set of chores to accomplish that you work through and check off your list one by one. It turns out that life is not like that, and so “do the next thing” is not like that either. “Do the next thing” is fluid, not fixed. It assumes you had a plan and now it’s been blown to smithereens—by unexpected things around the corner—and so you have to figure out the best thing to do when faced with a unique set of demands.
I first heard the phrase “do the next thing” from a woman who was stuffing rice bags with me at a food co-op. She was the mother of several biological and adopted children and had foster kids and homeschooled them all. I asked her how she got everything done and she replied, “I just do the next thing.” That made a lot of sense to me: You planned to teach geography that morning, but then the baby got sick, so you pulled one of the kids off laundry duty, and you assigned him to the tutoring job as you took the wheezing infant to the doctor, and …
Life is never tidy, but that’s because God wants you to learn to trust Him in untidiness. If life were tidy, where would the faith be? If you were in control, how would you learn to cede God the control? If you had no impossible situations to exercise faith in, how would faith grow, and how could God reward you for faith? The apostle Paul talked about the benefit of being totally out of control of your life. Speaking of his time in Asia, he reported:
“… we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead” (2 Corinthians 1:8-9).
My daughter likes “do the next thing,” and I find it valuable, too. But someday I hope for her to know a more accurate and precise description than “doing the next thing.” It is “walking by the Spirit.”