Things don’t always go the way we plan them. Maybe that house offer didn’t go through. The job you interviewed for never called you back. Your dream school didn’t accept your application. Maybe it’s something even more serious; tragic even. Some may say it’s fate. Simple bad luck perhaps? Someone you know will tell you all things happen for a reason. None of that makes us feel any better in the moment.
Even if we speak the words “God is still working,” it can be hard to truly believe it. And perhaps we don’t even want to speak those words. It’s easy to feel like God let you down. “Where is he? I thought he cared about me. How could he let this happen?” The vision we had for the foreseeable future is thrown for a loop. Now what?
Paul undoubtedly had his life planned out. He was a leading Pharisee; zealous for his faith, even happy to kill those that threatened it. God, however, had other plans for Paul. Not only would he follow the one he once believed to be an enemy, but he would take the saving message of the Messiah to a population that he once saw as lower than dogs…
Paul’s response on the road to Damascus wasn’t a rebellion from the God he thought he knew. To the contrary, from that moment, he became completely obsessed with his Lord. Everyone he encountered was going to hear about Jesus Christ and his kingdom!
Surely from that point on, since he was finally on the right path, everything would be smooth sailing. Both literally and figuratively, that could not have been further from the truth.
But Paul knew that. He had an intimate and deep understanding of Christ’s selflessness and humility, and he knew well the call to share in the suffering of Christ. He wasn’t the exception—the Scriptures are filled with examples of disciples who put it all on the line for their Lord.
I have a lot to learn from them all…
Toward the end of the book of Acts, Paul is dragged in front of the Roman authorities because of the baseless claims of the Jewish leaders. He is unjustly imprisoned for more than 2 years before his case is even properly heard. Finally, he presents his case to King Agrippa and tells him “To this day I have had the help that comes from God.” (Acts 26:22)
Not only is Paul unoffended by God’s plan for his life, but he also credits God for his constant help and providence!
Festus and Agrippa think he’s crazy, saying “Paul, you are out of your mind!” (Acts 26:24). If God was helping him as he thinks, he wouldn’t have been imprisoned for years and on trial for his life for no good reason. Right? Why didn’t God grant him his freedom?
Freedom from Rome wasn’t God’s goal for Paul, and it wasn’t Paul’s goal either. Paul’s goal was to proclaim Christ wherever God willed. In this case, the mission was to Rome, and to Rome he would go! (Acts 23:11) Paul’s life was now Christ’s life (Galatians 2:20). How God chose to use that life was completely up to God himself. Afterall, “to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21).
Paul wasn’t concerned with his physical comfort or happiness. Sometimes it seems this verse in Romans gets twisted in a bid for a “happy ending” in our struggles:
“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good…” Romans 8:28
God works all things for our comfort? our happiness? our dreams? No, he works things out for good. The good. His will, which is “good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2).
This is a struggle. We may wrestle with God with fervent prayer over a situation in our lives. We think we know the best outcome in many cases, and perhaps what we think or want does align with God’s plan. But sometimes the good that God has planned is different than what we want. Sometimes the good that God has planned is anything but comfortable.
Not that Paul didn’t ask for deliverance at times. The “thorn in his flesh” is something that he desperately wanted to be freed of. But ultimately, Paul surrenders to God’s will. We may not know exactly what that thorn was, but it’s safe to assume it was uncomfortable and a significant stressor on Paul’s life. But as the Lord told Paul—“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:7-10)
Will we keep the faith in those moments? Will we be able to say like Paul that despite our circumstances, God is faithful and he is good? That his grace is sufficient? That it’s when we are weak that we are truly strong?
Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief! (Mark 9:24)
Is my faith based on the circumstances I’m in, or is it based on the God that is sovereign in all circumstances?
It’s reminiscent of a powerful example in the Old Testament. Three young Jewish men, living in Babylonian captivity, refuse to bow down and worship King Nebuchadnezzar’s golden idol. Brought before the king, they are given the chance to relent. If they still refuse, a fiery furnace was ready to cremate the men alive.
That’s a rough circumstance. That’s a test of faith. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego stood firm.
“If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.” Daniel 3:17-18
“Even if this physical harm comes to us, our God is our God and he is faithful.”
Just like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were saved from the fire in the furnace, we too will be saved from the fire—regardless of our physical circumstances and regardless even of physical harm or death. We’ve already been delivered. The same one who walked in the furnace with those three men is the same one who walked with Paul through his trials and is the same one who walks with you and me. Rest in him, even if…
“But I trust in you, O Lord; I say, ‘You are my God.’ My times are in your hand…” Psalm 31:14-15