Closed Doors, Opened Windows

During debriefing after leaving the field as a cross-cultural worker, I had questions: How can we deal with the guilt of turning away from a God-given opportunity? How can we walk away from an open door?

I found comfort in learning that open doors aren’t the same thing as commands from God. In fact, Paul, himself, at least once didn’t take advantage of an opportunity that God had laid out before him.

Now when I went to Troas to preach the gospel of Christ and found that the Lord had opened a door for me, I still had no peace of mind, because I did not find my brother Titus there. So I said goodbye to them and went on to Macedonia. (2 Corinthians 2:12,13, NIV)

And nothing in the verses that follow shows that God was displeased.

While at debriefing I was also reminded, “When God closes a door, he opens a window.”

I can’t say for sure if the door for ministry in Taiwan was still standing open for us, or if it had been closed, but what I could say for sure is that, either way, I and my family had already moved back to the States.

A while back, my wife and I were watching Many Beautiful Things: The Life and Vision of Lilias Trotter, about the missionary to Algeria in the late 1800s to early 1900s. In it she is quoted as saying, “In all the withholdings of this year, God has been opening a door where he closes a window.”

Hmmmmm. With the help of Trotter’s biographer, Miriam Rockness, I had earlier traced “Don’t forget in the darkness what you have learned in the light” to Trotter’s “Believe in the darkness what you have seen in the light.” So I contacted Rockness again for more information on the door/window phrase, and she wrote that Trotter penned her version on May 6, 1904.

So was Trotter the first to come up with the idea (though not exactly the same wording)? Simply put, no. In fact, she’s is far downstream from the source on this one.

One of the first clues that I found for its earlier existence comes from Edward Tyas Cook, writing in 1907 about the artist and author Francesca Alexander. Because of failing eyesight, Alexander had turned from drawing illustrations to collecting and converting old Tuscan stories into rhyme. Of her change in focus, she writes that

it must be that when the Lord took from me one faculty He gave me another; which is in no way impossible. And I think of the beautiful Italian proverb: “When God shuts a door He opens a window.”

There are other references to this phrase being from Italy, but what I find most interesting about this one is its appearance in the introduction to The Works of John Ruskin. Ruskin was Alexander’s editor, and, as is shown in Many Beautiful Things, was also Trotter’s artistic mentor.

Expanding my search to phrases that replace a window with another (as in “When God shuts a door, he opens another”), yielded several examples predating 1900. One comes from The National Sunday School Teacher, where, in 1877, M. C. Hazard applies the saying to Paul’s missionary endeavors recorded in Acts 16:

Paul’s earnest words found a lodgment in the heart of one Lydia, of Thyatira. Thyatira was a city of Asia, where Paul was forbidden to preach. The fact is suggestive. When God closes a door it is not always that one may not enter, but that another and better way may be opened. The best way to preach the gospel in Asia may be to begin in Macedonia.

From over 150 years earlier, I found evidence of the phrase’s Italian roots in Prattica per Confortare i Condannati a Morte (or Practice to Comfort Those Sentenced to Death), written by the Reverend D. Ignazio Sorrentino in 1712. Below is the relevant passage in Italian and English. (Please forgive any errors in my Google-aided attempt at translation):

Conf. Sentite, N. si fuol dire , che quando Dio chiude una porta, n’apre un’altra ; mà alle vostre figlie ne aprirà cento ; poiche se la vostra morte le priva dell’industria delle vostre poche fatiche, colle quali s’aveano d’alimentarsi, ed accomularfi te misere doticelle , Iddio Benedetto toccherà il cuore di più persone caritative à fomminiftrarli , e pe’l vitto , e per le doti .

Comf[orter]. Listen, N., it is said, that when God closes one door, he opens another; but to your daughters he will open a hundred; since if your death deprives them of the industry of your few labors, with which they had to feed themselves, and accumulate miserable gifts, Blessed God will touch the hearts of more charitable persons to provide for them, with food, and with gifts.

Looking back even further, my search came up with the following in the writings of the British Nonconformist minister Oliver Heywood, dated 1673:

on munday October 13 73 we had a private fast at John Stancliffs house, but it was not such a good day to me as ordinary I haue had : I begun the day, and my heart begun to be affected, but afterwards in the same duty I struggled and tugged, but found much deadnes, distractions, and could not get the work forward, wch wn I perceived I cut short : the Lord humble me for it, and shew me the cause, he is infinitly wise and righteous :

friday octob 24 at a private fast in my house god graciously helpt—and several other times in secret—the day after,—being alone, and munday being alone, oh wt melting seasons had I in my study : and on wednesday octob 28, in Warley god wonderfully helped both in praying and preaching—Blessed by my god :

I cannot but take notice and exceedingly admire gods providence that wn one door is shut up, god opens another for service and employment : by an observable call I was brought to one Mrs Brookes at New-house, to keep a fast upon a special occasion, Nov 18 73 and indeed I haue very seldome found such inlargemts and meetings of spirit, it may be god hath some design of good in that very ignorant place, the old woman was carnal, I fear, her daughters civil, Mr Gill the young gentleman that marryed the one keeps a Kennel of hounds, yet much affected, al of them very thankfull, gratifyed me—oh wt a mercy if god would work!—

And lastly, I came across one more instance of note: In 1868, Adalut Khan translated, from Persian into English, portions of Sa’di Shirazi’s book of poetry The Bostan (or, as Khan renders it in English, The Pleasure-Garden). One of the poems tells of a rich man who refuses to help a beggar, berating him and telling his slave to chase him away. Over time, the rich man becomes poor, and the poor man becomes rich, even taking the cruel man’s slave into his household. When their paths cross again, the newly rich man tells his slave to help the one who earlier showed him no kindness, saying,

I am he whom he drove that day from (his door), but the revolution of the world placed him in my days (place).
Heaven again looked towards me, and washed off the dust of grief from my face.
Though God with His wisdom shut a door, yet with His mercy and kindness He opens another.
Many poor and needy became contented, and oftentimes the business of the rich became topsy-turvy.

If this is a literal translation, it would date the proverb, at least in Persian, to the 1200s, when Sa’di was living. Or maybe Khan used poetic license in translating Sa’di’s poetry, paraphrasing the idea of the line into something more familiar to his readers. Whatever the case, it is clear that the thought behind the adage has been around for a long, long time.

With all that longevity behind it, is “When God closes a door, he opens a window” true? I guess that depends on how one sees the world. In my opinion, it’s perhaps proverbially true but not absolutely true. I prefer Trotter’s usage, making a statement about what she has experienced in the past, not predicting what is sure to occur in the future.

Sometimes God closes windows and doors. Sometimes he opens them. Sometimes the two are even matched together . . . but, I think, not always.

To all that I say, “Blessed be the name of the Lord.” (And I know where that comes from.)

(Miriam Rockness, in a comment (March 6, 2022) for “The Documented Life,” Lilias Trotter, February 28, 2022; E. T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn, “The Works of John Ruskin, George Allen, 1907; M. C. Hazard, ed., “Notes and Comments,” The National Sunday School Teacher, Adams, Blackmer, and Lyon, 1877; D. Ignazio Sorrentino, Prattica per Confortare i Condannati a Morte, 1712; Oliver Heywood, “Experiences,” The Rev. Oliver Heywood, B.A., 1630-1702; His Autobiography, Diaries, Anecdote and Event Books, vol. 3, J. Horsfall Turner, ed., Bingley, 1883; Sa’di Shirazi, The Bostan, or The Pleasure-Garden, Adalut Khan, trans., Baptist Mission Press, 1868)

[photo: “A Window and a Door” by mhobl, used under a Creative Commons license]