God Determines Our Steps, Part One: Plans Turned Upside Down – Shades of Grace | Natalie Nichols- Shades of Grace | Natalie Nichols

God Determines Our Steps, Part One: Plans Turned Upside Down

Seven months have passed, and not a word from me here. I haven’t been intentionally absent or rude. It’s just that last year was not the year I planned. Everything I envisioned for the year was turned upside down. Perhaps your year ended up the same way.

“We can make our plans, but the Lord determines our steps.”
Proverbs 16:9, NLT

Did you have plans for last year that got uprooted? Not only that—did God lead your steps the opposite direction of what you had in mind? Did everything you envisioned for the year get turned on its head?

If so, how did you respond? Did it make you angry? Or frustrated? Or sad?

Or did it cause you to acquiesce and surrender to God’s will and his higher, wiser plan? Were you forced to live out the trust in God you profess? Did it deepen your faith and cause you to rely on God completely?

A Year Turned Upside Down

Last January, I planned a year of gearing up for the next Pursuit 21. I was finally going to make overdue website and equipment upgrades that would enable us to post video content, stream live prayer meetings, and host group discussions. … I was finally going to recruit staff so that everyone could receive a response to their communications and requests. … I was finally going to make changes and upgrades across the board that have been years overdue. Those were the overarching goals for the year, in addition to small monthly goals as well.

In addition, I was finally going to get some medical treatment I’ve gone without for several years… and begin rebuilding my health and strength.

But God’s plans, as always, went the opposite direction of mine. 

My Dad suffered additional illness, beginning in May. He practically spent from August to early December in the hospital. He was in the hospital in August, then solid from the first week of September to mid-October (for pneumonia from MRSA, antibiotic resistant staph). He was hospitalized again for most of November into December. (Although he got rid of the antibiotic resistant staph, it returned.)

During Dad’s hospitalizations of years past, and Mom’s hospitalizations and surgeries, spending just ten days in the hospital was exhausting. But four months? It’s a killer. When the patient is totally dependent, does not talk, does not feed themselves, cannot monitor medications or anything being administered, cannot make any requests on their own, cannot even turn themselves in bed and are at risk of wounds and pressure sores — constant, thorough, aggressive care by family is required.

Out of the six weeks in the hospital in September and October, three weeks of it was in a hospital an hour away. For those six weeks, I lived on 90 minutes of sleep a night, and felt I had struck gold if I ever had time to get four hours… in spite of having an illness that requires eight hours of sleep in order to function and not suffer enduring repercussions.

Dad’s Illness

Above: My dad, getting some fresh air after physical therapy.

I’ve mentioned my dad’s illness in passing here a time or two, but haven’t written in great detail. In 2012, he was diagnosed with vascular dementia. After breaking an ankle in late 2013, his disease progressed rapidly and it was presumed, based on symptoms and genetic testing, that he had Alzheimer’s, though the Amyvid diagnostic test was never performed.

But in the spring of this year, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. By this time, he was already quite rigid and had lost most of his facial expressions.

Dad still remembers us. Still understands everything said to him and around him. Yet he does not talk, except for a word or two a week or less.

Letting Go of Plans

Dad’s decline and extra illness meant that extensive caregiving has been necessary, requiring some all-nighters even after he was discharged from the hospital in December. Consequently, from May until now, I’ve had to let go of every plan for these months, for the year, for my life, and for Shades of Grace, including plans to prepare for Pursuit 21.

Mom and Dad at a long term acute care hospital in October.

The Sunday before Thanksgiving, Dad nearly died. He quit breathing and his eyes rolled back in his head. He is DNR, but was rushed to the hospital with instructions not to resuscitate. As you can see in the photo album that accompanies this post, he revived on his own miraculously.

Due to Parkinson’s-caused swallowing problems, he was severely dehydrated and had high sodium levels in his blood. It was also discovered that he had MRSA again.

It seemed Dad might not live until Christmas. And if he made it beyond, into the days of Pursuit 21, it looked as if I might be cherishing our last moments with him on this earth, or planning a funeral, not hosting the days of fasting and prayer.

These consuming health crises and caregiving demands are why I did not formally announce Pursuit 21 prior to early January or post anything about it on social media. Or for that matter, why I didn’t write or post anything at all here or on social media for months.

How This Affects Pursuit 21

After much prayer, and seeing Dad’s improvement by late December, I felt led to continue with Pursuit 21. But things will be a bit different this year.

When I am not able to get a running start and prepare in advance for Pursuit 21, it requires a work day of eighteen to twenty hours — in the days in which I post new content, which is usually at least six days a week.

My Dad still requires extensive care, so clearly this is not an option this year. Therefore, I will not be posting new content as often each week. I aim to post three times a week and will also be highlighting posts from the archives—as the 180+ posts there contain the equivalent of several books’ worth of teaching and encouragement about prayer and fasting.

Besides, on a personal level, I’m sure you want me to prioritize my parents. After all, if it were not for them, their care, and their millions of sacrifices over the decades, there would be no Shades of Grace, no ministry, no comfort shared … and no years of the annual Pursuit 21 that God has used to transform so many lives.

In addition to all they did during my illness, my mother is the co-founder of Shades of Grace. God gave me the vision, the name, and the calling for the ministry, but Mom did all the behind the scenes grunt work drafting and filing the federal paperwork for a nonprofit organization. She did all our accounting and books for years. … In addition to all she did for me personally, which enabled me to serve in ministry—driving me to events, helping me with preparation and errands—she invested countless hours editing communications, fielding ideas and offering suggestions, and oh my, the man hours and effort she invested setting up and decorating for Passionate Pursuit and other events we hosted. She worked tirelessly for over a decade doing thousands of things for which she received no recognition, no credit, no present rewards….  She requested that her name not be featured here as much anymore and that she not be listed as co-founder so that she could fade into the background and care for Dad. But that does not diminish her crucial role here for many years….

All that to say, I know you’re grateful to my parents for any role they’ve had in Shades of Grace’s ministry and you want to repay them any way possible, even if simply by your understanding of the changes to Pursuit 21 this year.

I began this post as an explanation of where I’ve been and why the Pursuit 21 content will be different this year. But I believe God wants to use this occasion to speak to you and me. I believe He has a word for us about the disruption of our plans.

So let’s listen…

What Plan Has God Written for You

This season for me has been altogether different than I envisioned. I had such different plans for the past six years of my life, the past year especially. God instead wrote caregiving on the schedule for this season of my life.

What plan has God written on this season of your life? What plan of yours did he scratch out? What did He write over it instead?

  • Perhaps you planned for a job promotion, and instead you lost your job and had to take a lesser paying one…
  • Or maybe you planned for retirement and traveling the world, but your spouse became ill and you’re confined to home. …
  • Or perhaps you decorated a nursery for a healthy baby with plans for a ‘normal,’ active childhood, but God designed a child with ailing health and enormous needs. …
  • Or perhaps you planned to be a stay-at-home mom, but instead you’re a single mom working two jobs struggling to make ends meet.

A Seemingly Senseless Crucifixion

In high school and college, I made plans for my 20’s and 30’s. I planned for further education and a promising career. Instead, God ordered my steps through years of illness and confinement, through death of dreams and of identity as well. In addition to the death and loss of time and years, I suffered a death of who I was—of my personality and abilities. I went into my early 20’s one person, and emerged a decade later as someone else entirely.

God finally gave me a resurrection of sorts, a few years of reprieve. And though battling chronic health repercussions, I was able to found Shades of Grace, work and serve in ministry… and make plans for my life and for the future of Shades of Grace. During that season of reprieve it was apparent, the resurrection God had in store—God’s plan A for my life—exceeded anything I could have ever imagined.

But instead of my excellent plans taking shape, six years ago God began directing my steps in an entirely different direction. Again He forced me to endure a crucifixion. As caregiving disrupted my life, not only did my professional life and ministry and career suffer loss, but my health also suffered, and my personality and abilities again changed. My plans and desires, and even my personality and cognitive abilities, underwent a death.

“We can make our plans, but the Lord determines our steps….”

I’m 49 years old… and out of my entire adult life, I’ve gone through two seasons of “personal death,” when I’ve changed from the inside out, when who I was before ceased to exist. I’ve learned that afterward you emerge someone different, but you emerge. And you get to know the new you, as I wrote about in Resurrection Ground:

When you emerge from your tomb, you may look or feel different. You may be unrecognizable to others, as Jesus was on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-32). You may emerge with scars like those in Jesus’ hands—with internal or external reminders of what God brought you through. Or like Jacob, you may walk with a limp after your encounter with God. But you’ll cherish the reminder of your frailty and how God transformed your character during the long night of wrestling. (Gen. 32:25,31)

You may emerge a little tweaked, but God will bring you through….

I’ve endured the death of my plans twice in life. Having had to let go both times of my entire future. Of ministry plans. Of career ambitions. Of income. Of pleasures. Of hobbies. Of pursuits. Of everything. Out of basically twenty-seven years of adult life, I was out of the wheelchair and able to live only seven years in a relative reprieve before I suffered a health decline of my own, and then Dad’s health tragically declined.

Although I battled illness throughout that seven-year reprieve, it was a season of possibilities, of hope, of positive changes. The future was bright and full of potential. …

Then life turned upside down again.

At times it feels like God let a lot of really good things go to waste. It seems like in the years since that reprieve, He squandered what was left of my life and health and possibilities and potential. So much ministry could have occurred to thousands… and yet I’ve been ministering to one — to my dad (and to my mom, too).

I had met with a best-selling, literary agent weeks prior to the onset of Dad’s illness. I was set to begin writing a book. I met with the agent because I had fielded unsolicited interest from national, well-known publishers, something aspiring authors would give almost anything to obtain. I purchased a laptop for the sole purpose of writing the book. In fact, the moment Dad fell and broke his ankle, I was working on the book. I put it aside that day and have been unable to return to it again.

On the surface, from the temporal perspective, none of what God has done with my life, my Dad’s life, or Mom’s life has made any sense. (Mom could have been speaking and writing and ministering and grandmothering during these years. And enjoying time with a healthy husband….)

Dad has suffered horribly and fought a long, hard battle against a ruthless disease.

Mom barely got me better when she became a caregiver again, this time to Dad.

And yes, then there’s me. God brought me through all that illness in my 20’s just to later take the life and health He had bestowed.

Glory Gained

It has seemed at times to my flesh like God’s plan threw away many occasions in which He could have received much glory. From the temporal perspective, at every angle, all you can see is waste.

A lot of glory has emerged alright. But no one has seen it. How does that lead anyone to Christ? How does that testify to the greatness and power of God?

This is one way…

A Miraculous Moment

I play music and sing to Dad all the time — when I shave him, feed him, do therapy with him, or when we’re just hanging out. But I forget to read scripture to him because there is often little down time.

One night during the last hospital stay, Dad woke up in the middle of the night. The Gaither’s were playing in the background. So I climbed up beside him in bed and read scripture. Although he couldn’t talk, he’d say, “Mmmm mmmm, mmmm” to the parts that spoke to him.

I read some from Colossians and was trying to decide what to read next.

“Should I read Ephesians?” I asked.

“Mmmmmm, mmmmmm, mmmmmm, mmmmmm, mmmmmm!” he replied. He was excited!

I had had the flu days prior and lost my voice. It was down to a squeak and a whisper. I read from Ephesians and Philippians about Jesus’ powerful name, and the power that raised Him and seated Him at God’s right hand…

“God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:9-11, NKJV).

“The working of His mighty power which He worked in Christ when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all principality and power and might and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come” (Eph. 1:19-21, NKJV).

Then I prayed. Having read several chapters, my voice was down to a faint whisper. So I leaned my head over next to Dad’s and prayed softly, my mouth close to his ear, declaring the name and authority of Jesus over his mind, body, and lungs, over the hospital staff and over our witness to them. Dad “amen’d” the best that he could with lots of “mmmmmm, mmmmmm, mmmmmm’s.”

What moved me the most was that every time he heard the name of Jesus, he responded with an emphatic, “Mmmmm, mmmmmm, mmmmm!” Although I could barely even get enough sound to whisper it audibly, he erupted in praise. Just faintly hearing the authoritative, victorious, powerful, chain-breaking, peace-filled, everything’s-gonna’be-alright name of Jesus nearly raised him out of that bed! It certainly raised him up on the inside!

Although I was drained to the core, I wanted to shout and dance!

You see, after over a year of silence, Dad had just begun to talk a little this summer when pneumonia set in. He didn’t maintain that ability for long because major infections cause Parkinson’s to advance. His speech and swallowing were greatly affected by the stubborn pneumonia.

When Dad quit talking in September subsequent to pneumonia, doctors told us it would be permanent. … And here he was talking again! Making sounds and in his own way, preaching again! Testifying again! My pastor-dad, whom I had played the piano for as church pianist (before the days of praise bands) … and traveled in evangelism with as I homeschooled high school … my dad whom I had heard preach thousands of sermons—was again preaching!!!!

But who heard his sermon? Who saw it? Who benefitted from that miraculous, anointed moment besides Dad and me?

Well we were not actually alone. Angels, and powers and principalities in the heavenly realms were watching. Just like they’re watching you right now. People may not see us at our most vulnerable, most critical moments, but that does not mean we’re not being observed, that we’re not testifying to the greatness of God.

Testifying to the Heavens

In When God Weeps, Joni E. Tada writes:

Angels, along with powers and principalities in the heavenly realms, are watching, listening, and learning. People may not be noticing… but the spiritual world is. Angels—even demons—are intensely interested in the thoughts and affections of every human being.

“His purpose was that through the church [that is, through Christians] all the rulers and powers in the heavenly world will now know God’s wisdom, which has so many forms” (Ephesians 3:10).

I can hear you thinking, Angels eyeballing and eavesdropping on me? Angels sitting in the passenger seat of my car and getting an earful of my outburst when that red Chevrolet cut me off? Demons wringing their hands in glee, hoping I’ll curse at my kids when they cross me? Principalities and powers watching on tiptoe to see whether I turn to God or turn away?

This isn’t science fiction. Luke 15:10 is nonfiction: “I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

God’s angels actually get emotionally charged up when people choose to trust in God. Read Ephesians 3:10 again. God’s purpose is to teach millions of unseen beings about himself; and we are … a blackboard upon which God is drawing lessons about himself for the benefit of angels and demons.1

So friend, be encouraged. Not a moment of your life or suffering has been wasted. God’s plans for your life may have left you baffled… but He knows what He’s doing. It’s all part of his higher, wiser, far better plan.

Your losses seemed like a waste to you in part because you weren’t considering the sermon God called you to preach to the heavenly hosts. It all appeared pointless because you forgot how far-reaching your testimony is—that it literally reaches into the heavens!

You’ve been mourning the loss of your plans to be a missionary to a small community overseas… when God has you preaching the Gospel to millions of unseen beings daily! God has lost no opportunity on you! He has only multiplied it!

God gets glory every time you choose to trust Him, though you can’t see ten steps ahead. He gets glory every time you let go of your own plans and trust His. God gets glory every time you receive His peace and let go of your worry. He gets glory every time you have a faithful response in your suffering!

Now had everything gone your way, according to your plannow that would have been opportunity lost!

The Multiplication of Your Seed

“I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be….” (John 12:24-26).

Jesus spoke these words only a matter of days, even hours, before His crucifixion! “Whoever serves me must follow me …”

If we’re truly followers of Christ, we will find we’re always suffering a death, mourning a loss, saying goodbye to something dear—even if it’s just to plans, visions for the future, things that we mistakenly thought were ours to possess.

Due to illness, or aging, or traumatic circumstances, the person you were a short season ago may seem forever gone. You may be meeting the new you… and angered by the introduction.

But be encouraged. No matter what the circumstance of your loss is today, it is one thing—it’s multiplication. It’s the only real growth you’re experiencing, the only real gain you’ll know. Because unless your kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just that—a single seed. But in your death, you are producing many seeds!

In summary: God is doing many good things in our disrupted plans. Two of them are that:

  1. He multiplies us in loss.
  2. He uses our lives as blackboards on which to display his wisdom to all the rulers and powers in the heavenly world….

None of your loss has been a waste. Not a second of it. God has had a loving, higher, wiser plan that He’s been working all along!


  • Did you have plans for last year that got uprooted? Not only that—did God lead your steps the opposite direction of what you had in mind?
  • If so, how did that cause you to respond? Did it make you angry? Or frustrated? Or sad? Or did it cause you to acquiesce and surrender to God’s will and his higher, wiser plan? Did it force you to live out the trust in God you profess? Did it deepen your faith and cause you to rely on God completely?
  • Before this post, were you aware that angels, along with powers and principalities in the heavenly realms, are watching, listening, and learning from you?
  • How does it affect your perspective of your season of loss and isolation to know that God is teaching millions of unseen beings about Himself through you?
  • How does it encourage you to know that you are a blackboard upon which God is drawing lessons about himself for the benefit of angels and demons?
  • How does it make you feel to know that your loss is actually a multiplication? It’s the only real growth you’re experiencing, the only real gain you’ll know. Your kernel of wheat is falling to the ground, dying, and producing many seeds!






  1. Tada, Joni Eareckson. When God Weeps (pp. 107-108). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.



Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, Shades of Grace will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

8 Responses to “God Determines Our Steps, Part One: Plans Turned Upside Down”

  1. Amelia says:

    Hi Natalie I thank God because even through everything that you are experiencing, He is using you to change lives, to inspire and impact lives. I am the testimony of your ministry. Since I started my journey with Pursuit 21 my prayer life has changed. I fast with understanding and know the importance of drawing closer to God and spending time in his presence

    • Amelia, thank you for sharing these praises and kind words of encouragement. I'm humbly rejoicing and praising God as I read how He has used Pursuit 21 in your life! o/ He is so faithful!

      I appreciate you taking the time to post your comment. It has encouraged me deeply. You have also reminded me to be thankful to God for making it possible for us to even have Pursuit 21 this year. I have focused more on the negative—not being 100%, and not being able to post as much as I have in years past. But God used you to help me see things correctly and exercise gratitude! Thank you, sister!

      After the fast ends, may God continue to draw you close the rest of this year, help you spend sweet time in His presence, and speak to you powerfully through His Word.

  2. Aneah Epshteyn says:

    The timing of this was for me, as it is with Him in these things, when really needed. I've been asking myself if my suffering has been a waste, as no one but my husband or myself sees it, and while I've known of these passages, this was a different light to see them in, and to see them in your experience as well. Thank you for sharing your story.

    • Thank you, Aneah! I appreciate your feedback and gracious comments. I'm so sorry to hear that you are enduring suffering and isolation. But you're so right that these passages of scripture apply to you and your situation — your suffering is definitely NOT a waste! God is using your faithful response in your suffering to teach millions of unseen beings about Himself. And in the process, He is multiplying you and storing up a wealth of rewards in heaven for you!

      I'm praying for you. May God encourage you, strengthen you, and continue to speak to you intimately through His word!

  3. […] also found this timely article written just before the pandemic hit. It spoke to me about disrupted plans and encouraged me that I […]

  4. dan.pimental says:

    Another great article. Agree with you on article.

  5. […] chronic medical conditions. Compacting the matter, millions of Americans’ lives have been turned upside down by all the steps taken to blunt a sudden, massive spread of the disease that would exceed our […]

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