Transition, Difficulties, and God’s Will

After our transition plans were announced Lourene and I were overwhelmed with encouragement and loving care from our brothers and sisters. People asked us many questions we couldn’t answer: Where are you moving?  Do you have another church? Have you sold your house? Is Lourene leaving her job, too? You will both be looking for work?

Several well-meaning people reacted to our answers to the above question with a statement that went something like this: “Well, we know you are seeking God’s will so it’s all just going to fall into place. You’ll quickly find jobs and sell your house.”  As I said, these words were spoken with the good intention of encouraging us.  But I have to tell you that I think an underlying flawed understanding of discipleship may have been revealed in these otherwise sweet words of comfort.

Finally a dear friend made a statement similar to the one above. And because it was a good friend, I responded without trying to nuance my words: “You do remember Paul was shipwrecked, don’t you? Wasn’t he following the will of God?  And don’t forget, our Jesus was crucified on a cross. He was following the will of God, too.”

Where do we get that idea that if you are doing God’s will, everything will work out with minimal difficulty? Some even judge whether a person is living “in the will of God” by how few challenges or difficulties that person faces. If the person is facing difficulties, some wonder if they have “missed” the will of God.

Such reasoning, popular among some (including Job’s friends), was not accepted by either Job or the apostle Paul.

There’s a verse from Luke’s account of Paul’s mission journey that I have been chewing on for years. Paul is traveling to Rome. The section of the journey that has captured my attention involves Paul’s setting sail from Sidon. Here are two translations of Luke’s account of what happened as recorded in Acts 27:4.

“Putting out to sea from there, we encountered strong headwinds that made it difficult to keep the ship on course, so we sailed north of Cyprus between the island and the mainland” (NLT).

“From there we put out to sea again and passed to the lee of Cyprus because the winds were against us” (NIV).

Very strong headwinds.

The winds were against us.

I find great significance in these words. Paul was serving God with all of his heart, but the winds were against him.  Imagine how very different the story would have been if living in God’s will meant an absence of difficulties.

Very strong tailwinds.

The winds were behind us.

And as if these words about the winds were not enough to drive home the point, there is a perfect storm and shipwreck in the later verses of this chapter. And this event is just one of the many difficulties Paul faced as he lived out the will of God.  A long list of these trials is recorded in 2 Corinthians 11:16-33. And then there is the whole thing of Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” in 2 Corinthians 12.

There is nothing comfortable about those days when we face “very strong headwinds.” There is nothing comfortable about spending “a night and a day in the open sea” following a shipwreck. But the truth is, those experiences in my life have been the times of greatest growth.

What about your story?  Have you ever faced very strong headwinds? How have those experiences strengthened your faith and your character?

By the will of God

“Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, To the church of God in Corinth, together with all the saints throughout Achaia: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 1:1-2).

As I ponder these words this morning I am struck by how Paul includes the will of God in his self-understanding. Paul understands that he is who he is “by the will of God.”

I wonder what impact that same understanding would have on me. Would it make a difference in my life if I had a greater self-awareness that I am who I am by the will of God?

Dear God,
Thank you for reminding me who am, and whose I am.
In Jesus’ name,

Transcending Mere Reason

“Old habits are hard to break, and no one is easily weaned from his own opinions; but if you rely on your own reasoning and ability rather than on the virtue of submission to Jesus Christ, you will but seldom and slowly attain wisdom. For God wills that we become perfectly obedient to himself, and that we transcend mere reason on the wings of burning love for him.”
— Thomas a Kempis

Searching for God’s Will

“It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control his own body in a way that is holy and honorable, not in passionate lust like the heathen, who do not know God; and that in this matter no one should wrong his brother or take advantage of him. The Lord will punish men for all such sins, as we have already told you and warned you. For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life. Therefore, he who rejects this instruction does not reject man but God, who gives you his Holy Spirit.” 1 Thessalonians 4:3-8 NIV

“I just want to spend some time searching for God’s will for my life.” Have you ever heard someone make a statement like that? Have you ever expressed the same thought? You really have to make yourself vulnerable to God to honestly approach Him for direction. To say, “God has a plan for my life and I want to find it” is seeking to honor God through the way we live our lives. It is a good thing. All of us need to be open to God’s guidance.

Have you ever noticed how when we express our desire to “seek God’s will” it often has to do with choices we make that are in and of themselves morally neutral? For example, “I am seeking God’s will. I don’t know whether God wants me to live in Dallas or Miami.” Now there may be moral implications involved in that decision, but does God specifically will you to live in a certain place? Maybe? Maybe not? Maybe in some cases?

I would never discourage anyone from being sensitive to God’s leading and seeking His will. All of us need to guard against a neglect of God’s guidance that can lead to a false sense of self-reliance. But I wonder sometimes if we don’t spend so much time searching for God’s will in areas where He may or may not have a specific will for our lives that we neglect the areas in which He has specifically communicated His will?

Paul expressed to the Thessalonians God’s specific will for them. When I spend even a few moments reflecting on this passage I have a desire to get away from this teaching and seek God’s will in some less-challenging areas of my life. Paul makes it clear, God’s will is to take control of the hearts and minds of His people.

Avoiding immorality is tough enough, but God’s will goes beyond the legalistic technicalities we employ to get around His will and satisfy our cravings. God wills that I control my body and thereby honor Him, so that I do not allow myself to be overcome with fleshly desires and live like the people who do not know God. God has called us to be holy and pure and in doing so He wills that we honor marriage (see “in this matter” in verse 6). Would you agree with me that it is far easier to seek God’s will for some morally neutral decision we have to make than it is to seek and honor the clearly expressed will of God?

So what will it be, Miami or Dallas? Well, you seek God’s will and I will support any decision you make that purposes to honor God. But if you say to me, “I am just seeking God’s will for my marriage,” don’t be surprised if I point you to this passage of scripture. Don’t wonder what the will of God is when He has spoken. God wants you to be holy. He wills for you to honor marriage. And you may want to read the text again, the apostle delivers a sharp warning to those who reject God by rejecting this teaching. Or you may not want to read it again. Because sometimes it is easier to spend all your time searching for the will of God, so you never find it.

Pride and Joy

“Dear brothers and sisters, after we were separated from you for a little while (though our hearts never left you), we tried very hard to come back because of our intense longing to see you again. We wanted very much to come, and I, Paul, tried again and again, but Satan prevented us. After all, what gives us hope and joy, and what is our proud reward and crown? It is you! Yes, you will bring us much joy as we stand together before our Lord Jesus when he comes back again. For you are our pride and joy.”
1 Thessalonians 2:17-20 NLT

The pain of separation from loved ones can be intense, especially when the parting was pushed upon you by the circumstances and against your wishes. Paul describes the pain of leaving the Thessalonians as being as intense as that of a parent losing his child. Paul assures the readers while he is physically removed from them; they are still in his heart. It seems some of Paul’s opponents are trying to convince the folks in Thessalonica that Paul really doesn’t care about them. Paul’s heart-pain argues a different position, as do his repeated attempts to return.

But the return visit never happened because Satan cut in and prevented the reunion. Satan “prevented” (NLT), “stymied” (The Message), or “stopped” (NIV) the homecoming. Ever wonder why Satan gets the blame for these plans being interrupted when on other occasions God is credited for changes to the travel itinerary (see for example Acts 16:6-10 where Paul is prevented from entering Bithynia by the Holy Spirit and concluded God had called them to go to Macedonia)? Was this just a human evaluation made in retrospect or did Paul have some supernatural gift of discernment? And just how did Satan blocked Paul’s plans? Jewish opposition? Thorn in the flesh? Political opposition? While we will never know for sure, the Thessalonians may have known exactly how Satan interfered.

Paul opens up his heart and pours out his affection for his brothers and sisters at Thessalonica. Not only was his departure from them against his will, but he tried again and again, albeit unsuccessfully to return to them. Not only were they in his heart even while separated by the miles, but he was filled with hope and joy because of their faith. Contrary to his critics who accused Paul of not caring about these people, the Thessalonians were Paul’s pride and joy.

I don’t know of anything that brings more joy to the heart of a minister than seeing people they love live out their faith. As John wrote, “I can’t tell you how happy I am to learn that many members of your congregation are diligent in living out the Truth, exactly as commanded by the Father” (2 John 4 The Message). And I know there is nothing that brings more joy to the heart of a parent than seeing your children walking with God.

Success and Failure

“You know, brothers, that our visit to you was not a failure. We had previously suffered and been insulted in Philippi, as you know, but with the help of our God we dared to tell you his gospel in spite of strong opposition” (1 Thessalonians 2:1-2).

By what standard do we evaluate success and failure?

Too often we calculate accomplishments solely on the basis of immediate results: “just win, baby!” Our sometimes idolatrous obsession with sports has colored our thinking. There are winners and losers. So when things are going smoothly, we feel successful. “Things have just fallen into place, I must be living in the center of God’s will.”

Such reasoning would be confusing, at best, to Joseph. Was he in the center of God’s will when he was thrown into the pit? Sold into Egyptian slavery? Wasting away in jail? This same reasoning was used like a weapon to discredit Paul’s ministry in Thessalonica. Critics accused Paul of being a miserable failure when he slipped out of town under cover of darkness.

So Paul steps up and answers the charges.

Had he suffered? Yes he had suffered – he was rocked and left for dead in Lystra. Along with Silas he was stripped, beaten, jailed, and fastened in stocks in Philippi. Not to mention the humiliating departure from Thessalonica.

Success or failure?

In spite of being surrounded by the opposition, Paul boldly, defiantly spread the Good News. Sure, people who are making judgments merely based on what they can see pronounce this failure. But Paul, with his awareness of things unseen, says it best: “our visit to you was not a failure.” How so? Paul understood – God was with him, strengthening him all along the way.

Perhaps we need to do some reevaluating.

By what standard do we evaluate success and failure?