Faith Reflections: The work of God in human failure
by Collette Broady Preiss
They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. When they had come opposite Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them; so, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas. During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” When had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.” Acts 16:6–10
What this means is not clear, but this is not the first time the Spirit (or voice of Jesus, as the case may be) had stopped Paul in his tracks (Acts 9:1–19), and sent him in another direction. He encountered Jesus on the road to Damascus when his name was still Saul, and his mission was to persecute the church rather than to build it up.
In that experience, a bright light and the voice of Jesus left him blind and cowering on the ground, a feeble version of the man he had been. He was utterly dependent on his soldiers to lead him the rest of the way to Damascus, and then on the disciple Ananias to proclaim the will of Christ and heal his eyes.
Paul knew what it was to be redirected by his Lord, to change his plans in favor of Christ’s. And in this later Acts story, it seems like no big deal that he has a vision of the Macedonian man beckoning. Paul and his companions don’t ask questions of this vision, they just follow its direction and set off to Macedonia.
Wouldn’t that be great if things were so clear and dramatic for the rest of us! I know of people in the church today who have dreams like the one Paul had. They wake up clearly knowing the direction God wants for their lives. But for most of us, myself included, the blinding light of tragedy, disappointment or failure is not accompanied by a voice that tells us what to do. We question and wait and seek God’s will, in the midst of God’s seeming silence.
It is frustrating, and heaps disappointment upon disappointment, but these two stories in Acts show us that God’s guidance comes to us in a variety of ways. Sometimes it is dramatic and show stopping like being blinded by a bright light and shouted at from heaven. Sometimes it is like a dream when we are barely even conscious. Sometimes it comes to us in darkness through a friend whose faithfulness to God stands in for our own.
It is important, I think, that in both stories Paul is surrounded by believers that help him follow where God directs.
In Acts 9:17, Ananias, explains to Paul that “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” Later, when Paul shares his vision with Timothy and Silas, they respond immediately, confirming that this is God speaking.
In my own experience, those traveling companions have also been important. As I sought God’s will after my music dreams were dashed, I was surrounded by faithful women who prayed for and with me, then confirmed God’s call when I finally heard it. When I resigned from the church in Pennsylvania, many other pastors and my bishop and spiritual director helped me to see the new work that God was preparing for me when I was too worn down to see clearly. And in the midst of my divorce, my friends, family and congregations have continually borne witness to the faithfulness of God through their own constancy and support.
God finds a way to guide us, whether we are listening or not, whether we are seeking or running in the opposite direction. Because like Paul, God has important ministry in mind for each of our lives, good news to be shared with those we live, work and play with. May we be ready to see and respond to the visions God brings for our lives.
Collette Broady Preiss lives in Mankato, Minnesota, with her son. She serves a partnership between a large, city congregation and a small, rural one.
1. Has God ever redirected your life? Was it dramatic and sudden, or gradual and gentle? Was it like Paul’s experience on the Damascus road, a vision in the night, or something else entirely?
2. Were you disappointed when something didn’t turn out the way you had planned? How did you cope with your feelings of disappointment?
3. How have your traveling companions helped you to see and respond to God’s direction? How have they sustained and encouraged you when you couldn’t see or hear God?