“Then Agrippa said to Paul, “Are you going to persuade me to become a Christian so easily? ” “I wish before God,” replied Paul, “that whether easily or with difficulty, not only you but all who listen to me today might become as I am — except for these chains.” So the king, the governor, Bernice, and those sitting with them got up, and when they had left they talked with each other and said, “This man is doing nothing that deserves death or chains.” Then Agrippa said to Festus, “This man could have been released if he had not appealed to Caesar.” (Acts 26:28-32 HCSB)
Nobody enjoys it when life gets painful. We all tend to avoid pain, whenever possible. But, if we were honest with ourselves, we would recognize that pain can be beneficial especially when it is moving us away from greater harm or towards a better outcome. As we’ve talked about before, pain can actually have a good purpose. If pain has a good purpose then it may not be less painful but it might be more tolerable. For example, there are some cold medicines that just taste nasty but their benefits can outweigh the awfulness of their taste. So, we brace ourselves, swallow them quickly and then make an awful face while complaining about how nasty they taste – but, hopefully, we sleep better that night. Sometimes, the pain we face in life can be like the cold medicine, nasty tasting but beneficial in the long run.
I did not include additional text in our focal passage, above, but you might go read the first half of Acts 27 in addition to our focal passage. Paul has spent over two years in confinement in Herod’s palace in Caesarea. He had been used as a political pawn by the previous provincial Governor but now, the new Governor is determined to get this issue resolved. He has allowed King Herod Agrippa II to hear the case and offer insight and feedback and that is where we find ourselves in this focal passage. They have listened to the charges and to Paul’s defense of them and now the king, the governor and Bernice have determined that the charges are completely unfounded, but Paul has appealed to Caesar and they are obligated to send him. In the verses that follow in Acts 27, Paul is assigned to a member of the Imperial Regiment and begins his journey towards Rome.
It is important to note here, without Paul’s appeal to Caesar he would have been released. Because of that, it would be easy to respond “that was really dumb” on Paul’s part. If he had just kept his mouth shut, he would be free. However, there are other issues at play in this scenario. Paul had appealed to Caesar in an attempt to prevent the former governor from sending him back to Jerusalem for trial. Paul knew that the Jews were waiting for an opportunity to set a trap and assassinate him along the road to Jerusalem. He was safe as long as he was in Roman custody. In addition, Paul had been told by Christ that he was to testify of Him in Rome (see Acts 23:11) and that is really the key element, in this story. God’s will should be the key element in every story – even your story. Especially your story…
Let’s begin this study with a simple question: Would you rather have God’s will for your life, or your will for your life? Isn’t that the core question of scripture? Who’s in control of this story, me or God? We often want God’s blessing and benefits, but we tend to want them without His intervention into our plans. In other words, we expect and rely on God to bail us out when we get into trouble, but He should keep His nose out of our planning and decision making. We might like His help, but we don’t appreciate His will when it conflicts with ours.
Now you might think, given my previous comments about pain and bad tasting medicine, that my main point is that we can avoid much of the pain in our lives if we would just follow God’s will and plan but you would be wrong. While I would agree that we might avoid some unnecessary pain by more closely following God’s will, I do believe that even God’s plan will intentionally involve some painful paths along the way. But why? Why would God intentionally include pain in our path of following His will? His brother, James, puts it this way: “Consider it a great joy, my brothers, whenever you experience various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. But endurance must do its complete work, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking nothing.” (James 1:2-4 HCSB) In other words, God is using even these times of trial to develop and mature your faith.
In fact, James is not the only one who teaches such a view of pain, suffering and God’s will. We find in Hebrews, “Endure suffering as discipline: God is dealing with you as sons. For what son is there that a father does not discipline? …Furthermore, we had natural fathers discipline us, and we respected them. Shouldn’t we submit even more to the Father of spirits and live? For they (our earthly or natural fathers) disciplined us for a short time based on what seemed good to them, but He does it for our benefit, so that we can share His holiness. No discipline seems enjoyable at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it yields the fruit of peace and righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” (Hebrews 12:7, 9-11 HCSB) Did you catch that? No discipline seems enjoyable at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it yields the fruit of peace and righteousness to those who have been trained by it.
So, when and why is pain a part of God’s plan? The simple answer is, when it achieves His purpose. In Paul’s case, the pain of chains and a prison cell were leading him towards an encounter with Caesar and a date with the executioner. How can that possibly achieve God’s purpose? Isn’t God concerned with our health and well being? Why would He ever put us in a situation that puts our health or life at risk? This is where Christian faith begins to get very real or, as the saying goes, where the rubber meets the road. In our focal passage and the first half of the next chapter (Acts 27), we find Paul needing to rely heavily on the promises of Christ. To be honest, that’s where we find ourselves, too. It is easy to have faith when everything seems to be going just the way we planned and expected. But when things take a u-turn and begin to head in a physically or emotionally difficult direction, we tend to question God and our faith. At least, I do. Don’t you, too?
How many of you would have been willing to continue trusting God while you sat in a prison cell for two years waiting for some kind of resolution to the false charges levied against you? Many years ago, an early Protestant pastor had a similar situation. His name was John Bunyan and he had been arrested for holding worship services in defiance of a law established by British Parliament in 1593 called The Conventicle Act. That law forbade religious gatherings of more than 5 individuals outside of one’s immediate family that were not affiliated with the established Church of England. In other words, a pastor couldn’t hold a puritan (or “dissenter”) worship gathering of more than 5 people because British law prevented it. Bunyan was arrested and jailed on at least two separate occasions, from 1660 – 1672 and then again for six months in 1675. While scholars are not entirely sure, most modern scholars believe that Bunyan wrote Pilgrim’s Progress during his first and much longer imprisonment. Not two years, but twelve years because he refused to stop preaching and meeting.
Yet, it was during this long and difficult time in his life that Bunyan wrote what is considered to be one of the greatest works of religious or theological fiction ever composed. It is also during this same time that Bunyan struggled with what has been deemed his own “dark night of the soul.” If he would simply concede to the demands of the law and cease his preaching, he would be released. As he sat in his jail cell, he struggled spiritually and wrestled with the circumstances under which he languished. I can understand, can’t you? And yet, he knew that he must remain faithful to His Lord. Is it possible that the intense spiritual struggle Bunyan faced during his prison time was the very seed for the words of encouragement and discipleship we find in the Pilgrim’s Progress? In other words, the pain of his struggle were the seeds of his soaring faith as demonstrated in the journey of faith his book describes and his life demonstrates.
That’s also what we find of Paul in our focal passage. It is during his imprisonment (whether in Caesarea, Rome or both, we are unsure) that he wrote some of his greatest letters, Colossians, Philemon, Philippians, and Ephesians. These letters, known as his prison epistles, are full of words of encouragement and spiritual discipline. How can Paul write from a prison cell, “In Him we have boldness and confident access through faith in Him. So then I ask you not to be discouraged over my afflictions on your behalf, for they are your glory.” (Ephesians 3:12-13 HCSB)
So, what does all of this have to do with you and me? Don’t you feel a bit like you are in prison, right now? I know that, at times, I do. Are you struggling with questions about faith, fear, God’s love, nearness and care? This isn’t a time to turn away from faith, it is a time to lean into it. A time to fully embrace your faith. At times like this, our faith can deepen and strengthen in ways that we cannot even imagine during times of spiritual and emotional ease. God certainly isn’t just the God of the good times, the times of personal achievement and physical blessing. He is most especially the God of the dark times, the times when things seem to be at their worst, like now. He’s still God even when people seem to be at their worst.
So, what did Paul do when times got tough? He appears to have deepened his prayer life. In his prison epistles he repeatedly talks about his prayers for the churches. Now, one of the problems with our prayer lives is that we often seem to approach prayer with assumptions and expectations and then when God doesn’t respond in the ways we assume or expected then we come away disappointed and discouraged. Instead, what if we approached prayer with our needs, fears, hopes, praise and thanksgiving and then waited expectantly to see how God would respond. In fact, Paul says this very thing to the Ephesian church:
“I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, would give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him. I pray that the perception of your mind may be enlightened so you may know what is the hope of His calling, what are the glorious riches of His inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of His power to us who believe, according to the working of His vast strength.” (Ephesians 1:17-19 HCSB)
We often read words like this, but we skim over them without fully understanding their meaning. So, go back and read those words again… slower. Paul’s prayer is that the Ephesian Christians would be given spiritual wisdom and the ability to clearly perceive (revelation) God and His work among them. He prays that they might be able to clearly see and know the hope of faithfully following God (hope of His calling) and that they will recognize the eternal benefits of being Christ’s disciples and God’s strength at work among them. Imagine how your day and outlook might change if you began to recognize the hope of being faithfully obedient to God, if you truly saw the benefits of being Christ’s disciple and marveled at His work in and through your life. Instead of seeing your problems, you began to see God’s presence in the midst of them.
There’s an old joke about a Christian being caught in a flood but was able to safely make his way to the roof of his home. From there, he began to earnestly pray for God’s help and deliverance. Soon, a neighbor in a small boat came by and offered to make room for him in his boat. He declined, stating that he was trusting in God to rescue him. A little later, a rescue boat came by but, again, he refused citing his faith in God’s deliverance. As the waters continued to rise, he continued to pray even more earnestly for God’s deliverance. About that time, a rescue helicopter hovered overhead and offered to lift him to safety but, again, he declined. He was finally overwhelmed by the flood waters and, unfortunately, died. When he arrived in heaven, he asked God about his prayers during the flood and why He had failed to deliver him. God replied, “I sent two boats and a helicopter. What more could you possibly want?”
Like the man in my terrible joke, we often overlook God’s provision, presence and power in the common and mundane things of life. We keep expecting Him to show up in the thunder and lightning while He’s speaking to us in the monotonous and relentless drip, drip, drip of the rain. Or, in Paul’s circumstance, I suspect other Christians were hoping God would deliver Paul from the hand of the Roman governor and, eventually, Caesar through some miraculous intervention. Instead, God was at work in the midst of Paul’s imprisonment and was using him to encourage and strengthen those same believers who were facing their own spiritual challenges and daily struggles with faith.
Are you struggling? Do you wonder where God’s provision and presence are in the midst of this pandemic? Do you keep praying that He’ll show up in the thunder and lightning of a powerful and miraculous intervention? Perhaps you’re missing it. I believe He is present. He is at work. But not in the miraculous, unexpected, loud and flashy things. I believe He’s faithfully at work in the common, quiet, unexceptional, but extremely dedicated and tired frontline medical workers. Those doctors and nurses who refuse to quit, who keep working with little sleep and even less protection. I believe He’s at work in the lives of teachers who refuse to let a pandemic keep them from teaching and caring for their students but are finding fun and creative ways to engage them in learning as they try and care for their educational, physical and emotional needs.
I believe He’s at work in Christians who refuse to let fear define their actions as they seek out new and creative ways to help, minister and care for the crying, the hurting, those dying and those surviving. In many ways, our church has been spared much of the grief. We are inconvenienced, we might even be hurt and fearful, but we are not hopeless and dying. We are being given an opportunity to serve in the midst of this crisis. We have the opportunity to offer hope to the hopeless, light to the lost, care for the hurting and encouragement to those struggling. This is not a time for us to cower in fear, wishing God would intervene. It is time for us to demonstrate God’s power through sacrificial service. To show God’s love through the loving hands of His beloved, the church.
Instead of stepping back and waiting for His intervention in this crisis, we must lean into this opportunity for the church to demonstrate to a fearful world how fear is driven out by God’s perfect love. We should demonstrate how it is more blessed to give than it is to receive, and instead of complaining about how we have been hindered in our private gatherings we should embrace the privilege we’ve been given to go public with our worship as we flood the Internet with sermons, praise music, live feeds of our sermons, our worship services and also our prayers.
You might be wondering, how is all of this found in our focal passage and how do we answer the question, when is pain a part of God’s plan? If so, I challenge you to go read it, again. Notice how Paul refused to let a jail cell hinder his witness, instead he used it to preach Christ to King Agrippa and Bernice. Instead of complaining about the pain and cowering in fear, he boldly proclaimed the good news of Christ and then challenged the king to believe. By the way, he continued to do this same thing, if you continue to read, into the the early verses of the next chapter (Acts 27). Instead of worrying about the outcome of his trial before Caesar, he began to influence the demeanor (and I think the spiritual outlook) of the Imperial Guard assigned to escort him to Rome.
My hope and prayer for you is just like Paul’s plea for the Ephesian church. I pray that you will be given a spirit of wisdom and revelation so that you will be able to see God at work in the midst of this crisis. I also pray that you will not only see God at work, but that you will offer yourself to Him for that work. Instead of waiting on a “thunder and lightning” intervention from God, make yourself available to Him as an common, unexceptional but willing servant, the same kind He uses each and every day to impact the world for the Kingdom of God. Instead of praying for Him to remove the pain, ask Him to give you insight to see Him and His work in spite of the pain.
By the way, if you need a little encouragement in the midst of this crisis… go read Hebrews 11. Now, that’s faith!