We were at our daughter Katie’s house in Mansfield, deciding when to eat Thanksgiving Dinner, when I said, “I didn’t expect following God to be trial-and-error.” I’d been reading from Acts, chapter 16, in my Daily Bible, about Paul and his companion deciding where to go next on their mission trip.
The writer of Acts said they traveled in Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching in Asia. They tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to.
This is a mystery to me. How did they know the Holy Spirit didn’t want them to go? How did that happen? Was there an angel with a sword blocking the road? An earthquake that destroyed the only bridge? I wish the Bible had links we could follow for details about the story. What if the Holy Spirit wants to stop me – will I recognize what’s happening? I want to know how to respond if I see the same thing Paul and his guys saw.
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I noticed in the first part of the story that Luke, the author, used plurals: “they” tried, but the Spirit wouldn’t let “them”. The guys were making decisions, listening to God, as a group.
God often speaks to us through consensus rather than a single individual. Maybe that’s how these decisions in Acts 16 came about, through discussions and debates as a community.
Sometimes God speaks to me through a group, too – especially a committee or board. Other times he speaks through another person, and usually that person is my wife, Cyndi. I remember how persistent she was when talking me into going to a Wild at Heart Boot Camp. I didn’t want to go, and I wouldn’t have gone without her insistence. It seemed indulgent to spend money on a Colorado mountain retreat when we had two students in college. But Cyndi was determined. She stood watch over me while I enrolled for the retreat to make sure I carried through. And because of that retreat, our church birthed a men’s ministry that has lasted sixteen years. I can’t imagine that happening without God speaking through Cyndi.
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Sometimes God gives direction to individuals, one-on-one. The story in Acts 16 says Paul had a dream of a man from Macedonia calling for help. Knowing it was God speaking, the group changed their plans yet again and ended up planting the first church in Europe, in Philippi. That same church became a great blessing to Paul, and we still benefit today from their correspondence.
I keep a written list of times when God spoke directly to me directly, one-on-one, and I dig it out whenever I’m feeling stranded and alone. The list includes the time when I was in an elevator in the Western National Bank building (“sell some stuff”), and when I was a college student talking to Cyndi on the phone (“marry this girl”), and on Sam’s front porch in Michigan (“don’t end up standing alone”). In every case, like Paul’s Macedonian vision, I knew it was God speaking to me. Even though the direction was a bit vague and open-ended, I knew it was up to me to respond.
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What I also noticed from this story in Acts is the trail-and-error nature of navigating God’s will. Sometimes we must try stuff. We just must keep trying and listening until we land on the right path.
I’m in the middle of this right now. With my engineering job coming to an end in a matter of weeks, what should I do? Send out resumes for another position? Look for something completely different? Consider a deeper dive into ministry? Wait for God to show me an obvious and clear vision of the future? Retire completely? I don’t know, so I keep poking around hoping I’ll get a glimpse.
The job situation is a small part of a larger discussion Cyndi and I’ve been having lately as we ponder the next season of our life together. Where do we want to live, how do we want to live, and like that? We keep trying ideas out on each other, back and forth, hoping to converge on a solution.
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The story in Acts 16 says after Paul had seen the vision, the group left at once for Macedonia, concluding that God had called them there. This was a clear message to Paul, and he knew exactly what to do. Go to Macedonia right away.
My example? I remember sitting in the back row of our Sunday school class when I heard a voice say, “You should be teaching.” No one else heard the voice. Only me. But I knew I had to act on it immediately. I told our department director, Marylyn Leonard, what I’d heard, and she found a place for me. I taught adult Bible study classes in our church for the next thirty years.
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Through the years I’ve gradually moved away from trying to solve God (nailing down all the correct answers), and toward knowing God (being comfortable with his contradictions and paradoxes). Nowadays I long for the complex mysteries of God. I want God to be deeper than my own understanding. I’ve also grown comfortable following God’s non-linear unpredictable path through life.
How about you? What are your favorite stories?
“I run in the path of Your commands, for You have set my heart free.” Psalm 119:32