There's a little verse in the book of Acts that jars me nearly every time I read it. It happened to me again yesterday. And once again, I didn't see it coming. As I read the verse, I felt that familiar sinking feeling of disappointment over how Paul's circumstances played out toward the end of Acts, even though deep down, I know full well that they unfolded precisely how God intended them to.
In Acts 25:11, as Paul is defending himself before Festus, he appeals to Caesar in order to avoid being taken back to Jerusalem. Then just a few days later, in Acts 26:32, King Agrippa visits Festus and hears Paul's defense, and then says privately to Festus, "This man could have been set free if he had not appealed to Caesar." Right there. That's the verse that leaves me feeling struck with disappointment and regret. I wonder why Paul couldn't have waited a little longer with that appeal to Caesar. He had been in custody for about two years at that point, and then only a few short days before a man comes along who sounds like he would've authorized Paul's release, Paul appeals to Caesar -- so that he must then be sent as a prisoner to Rome! Why couldn't God have gotten Agrippa there a few days earlier?! Why couldn't Paul have been released so that he would've been free to go on so many more mission trips and write so many more God-inspired letters? And my struggles with such questions are a clear indication that I've lost the plot.
In Acts 23:11, God had promised Paul that he would testify in Rome just as he had in Jerusalem. And later, in Acts 27:24, as Paul sails toward Rome, an angel tells Paul that he's not to be afraid of the storm they're in, for he will surely stand before Caesar. So that must mean that when Paul appealed to Caesar and got an all-expense-paid trip, with an armed escort all the way to Rome courtesy of the Roman Empire (instead of being released and being in danger of people trying to kill him), all things were working according to God's plans, right? So why am I bothered that Paul's appeal to Caesar seems to have prevented him from becoming a free man? It's because I don't like trouble.
I like carefree highways. I like smooth sailing. I want happy endings, with Paul getting set free and happily heading back to his home church in Antioch or strolling down some Missionary Road with his band of brothers. So I must have an idea in my head that Paul's troubles (like unjust incarceration, false accusers and ending up in a storm-tossed boat) suggest that he was in danger of missing out on God's complete will for his life. And then when I face troubles, I can take it to mean that I must be missing out on the sunshine of God's favour over my life, and that I too may be outside God's will for my life. And that not only leaves me wanting to avoid troubles (which is quite natural), but also feeling quite threatened by them (which is quite unnecessary if I'm convinced of God's goodness and sovereignty).
But my reaction to Paul's prolonged custody is not a kingdom-view of things because it simply fails to see God in it all. Instead, it's a misguided notion that God wants us as North American, 21st century followers of Christ to find our fulfillment in a comfortable trouble-free life. Our whole culture aims at such goals, and we as Christians can be drawn into that view of things. But in contrast, God promises troubles (John 16:33), allows troubles (Matthew 6:34), causes troubles (Matthew 10:34ff) and uses all things (including troubles) to work together for good for those who love God (Romans 8:28, 35).
And so, if I can, by God's grace, "consider it all joy when you meet trials of various kinds" (James 1:2), I will be able to show the people around me that what truly gives me satisfaction and confidence in this life is not the absence of troubles, but a good God who is with me through every one of them, turning them all for my good and for His glory!
© 2010 by Ken Peters