The following night the Lord stood near Paul and said, “Take courage! As you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify in Rome.” Acts 23:11 (NIV)
Now, that’s what I am talking about. For all the time we spend searching and struggling to understand what God wants us to do, wouldn’t it be nice if He just stood by our side and told us?
In this case, God’s short statement to Paul came after he had traveled to Jerusalem following his third trip around the Mediterranean preaching and starting churches. Upon reaching the city, he was accused of teaching things that were offensive to the Jews and a riot started. He was “rescued” by a Roman Centurion and held in the Roman barracks. The situation was looking bleak for Paul and then, this word from God. The destination of Paul’s next missionary journey was to be Rome, the capital of the Roman Empire.
We talked last week about my journey in understanding the idea that God has a “will” or purpose for our life. I have learned over time that God’s perfect will for me, and everyone, is for us to be transformed, changed from the inside by the renewing of our mind. Still, at times, I believe God will call us to do something specific. He may call us to take a job, marry someone, talk to someone, go someplace, or any number of other things. The call or leading may be a sense that it is the right thing to do or, as in Paul’s case, it may be more direct.
As I grew in my understanding of God’s will, I went through a period that may be familiar to you. It was the idea that God’s will is an enchanted path. If I could know God’s will for my life, the career I would choose for example, I should expect my life to be free of trouble in that area. More than that, I should expect to be blessed in everything I do in that area. I would make the right decisions, earn more money than I knew how to spend and progress up the ladder of success. We see a version of this thinking in what is called the “Prosperity Gospel.” The people who preach the Prosperity Gospel claim that if you have enough faith and you are following God’s will, you can expect to be healthy, wealthy, and wise. The backside is that, if you are not healthy, wealth, and wise, you must not have enough faith or be following God’s will for your life.
Here I was struggling with a career decision and life’s other daily problems and dilemmas and it seemed I had missed God’s will for me. I prayed and sought and nothing; no angels, no word from God. A friend had asked me to teach his small group. The topic? You guessed, “God’s will.” I was coming up with nothing and in reading through the Book of Acts, I came to this part of the Paul’s story. Paul got the kind of message I was looking for. There was a problem though. I knew the rest of the story.
If we applied the Prosperity Gospel or the enchanted path view of God’s will, we would expect Paul to be immediately lifted from the Roman Barracks to a luxury hotel. He would get a hot bath, gourmet meal, and a trip to Rome aboard the first century equivalent of a private jet. After all, Paul was certainly a man of faith and he knew God’s will for is life. This should have been simple.
In the remaining five chapters of the Book of Acts, Paul does travel to Rome to testify about God. Here are some of the highlights of the trip. The day after Paul’s vision, a group of about 40 men take a vow not to eat until they kill Paul. The centurion learns of the plot and takes Paul, escorted by over 200 Roman troops to Caesarea. (Wait, I thought Paul was going to Rome. Keep reading.) Paul spends over two years in prison in Caesarea because the current regional governor didn’t know what to do with him. Obviously, God had not given the governor the same message he gave Paul. The next governor decided that Paul should be sent to Rome, as a prisoner, to explain his situation to the Emperor. He made the decision after considering sending Paul back to Jerusalem for trial and certain death.
Paul’s trip to Rome was full of “adventure.” The captain’s attempt to save time led him to travel after the safe season for sailing on the Mediterranean. As a result, the ship was caught in a storm that blew them off course for two weeks. Just when they thought they would die at sea, they approached the island of Malta, where they ran aground, and the ship was destroyed. The other Roman soldiers wanted to kill Paul and the other prisoners, so they wouldn’t escape, but the Centurion stopped them. Then, when Paul made it to Malta, he was bitten by a snake and the people there expected him to die. After spending the winter on Malta, Paul finally arrived in Rome as a prisoner. The book ends with Paul preaching the gospel in Rome, under guard, from a Roman prison.
There was no enchanted path for Paul. I don’t know what the adherents of the Prosperity Gospel would have said, except that Paul clearly had too little faith and he had missed God’s will for his life. Yet, there was no question that God told Paul he would testify about Him in Rome, and, after three years and constant trouble, Paul was finally there.
The lesson for me and the lesson I shared with my friend’s small group? God does call or lead us in specific ways. It is fair and right to identify those leadings and callings as God’s will for our life. But, we need to always remember that God’s perfect will for our life is to be transformed into His likeness. Changed from the inside out to be completely different people. To accomplish that kind of change, God uses a “vigorous” training program that includes hardships, pain and suffering. People who have discovered this have expressed it in many ways. Some have said, “Who God will use mightily, He first crushes.” C. S. Lewis said, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain . . .” I put aside my notion of the enchanted path.
Are you experiencing trouble in your life that is causing you to wonder if you have missed God’s will for you? Remember that God’s perfect will is your transformation and you can pursue transformation regardless of your circumstances. Also, remember that God uses the difficult times like a refiner’s fire to purify you and drive off the stuff that gets in the way of your transformation. Continue to seek God and trust that He will be true to lead you to that for which He chose you in the beginning.