“When daylight came, they did not recognize the land but sighted a bay with a beach. They planned to run the ship ashore if they could. After casting off the anchors, they left them in the sea, at the same time loosening the ropes that held the rudders. Then they hoisted the foresail to the wind and headed for the beach. But they struck a sandbar and ran the ship aground. The bow jammed fast and remained immovable, while the stern began to break up by the pounding of the waves. The soldiers’ plan was to kill the prisoners so that no one could swim away and escape. But the centurion kept them from carrying out their plan because he wanted to save Paul, so he ordered those who could swim to jump overboard first and get to land. The rest were to follow, some on planks and some on debris from the ship. In this way, everyone safely reached the shore.” (Acts 27:39-44 HCSB)
Do you have a plan? There’s an old saying that goes, “to fail to plan is to plan to fail.” The thought behind these words is that we must plan if we want to accomplish anything of value. While I think there is certainly truth in those words, I also know that God often uses circumstances the we would NEVER plan to accomplish things of value in our lives and in the lives of others. In fact, scripture says: “A man’s heart plans his way, but the Lord determines his steps.” (Proverbs 16:9 HCSB) Your heart may identify what you desire and where you want to go, but the Lord will actually determine how you get there and the steps your life will take.
In our story, Paul had set his sights on full obedience and absolute surrender to God and to proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ in Rome but the Lord had determined that Paul’s “steps” would take him on a journey through two years in a dank and dreary prison cell, followed by a tremendous and frightening storm and then a harrowing shipwreck. Think about that a bit. Paul just wanted to know God fully and be obedient to Him. Yet, God’s journey of faith would take Paul through some “steps” that would challenge anyone’s view of a God-ordained plan. In fact, if you were to view Paul’s Christian life from a human perspective you would conclude that God was nowhere to be found. Surely God wouldn’t treat one of His own faithful, obedient servants like that, but you’d be wrong.
So, is it possible that we often view our own lives from a human perspective and, thus, overlook God’s ordering of our steps? When you find yourself in a personal storm, don’t you often stop and question what’s happening and why God has allowed the storm to ravage your life? I know I have and still do, at times. Does it ever feel like you’re headed towards a “shipwreck” while crying out, “Where are you God?” Maybe your current circumstances are causing you to stop and question God’s love and presence. I want us to spend some time considering Paul’s circumstances and God’s purpose and see if there might be some lessons for our lives in them. Stay with me…
First, notice that their plan to beach the ship went tragically wrong. When daylight finally came, they could see land but didn’t recognize where they were. So, they determined that their best option was to cut the ship loose from its anchors and run it up on the beach. They had already unloaded the grain and thrown all of the excess tackle and fixtures overboard to lighten the ship so that it would sit higher in the water and, thus, get closer to shore and run aground on a beach. Good plan, bad outcome. The ship struck a sandbar and the prow was stuck fast while the waves battered the stern and began to tear the ship apart.
Our best plans are often interrupted or ruined by hidden rocks or dangers. When our plans fail because of unseen rocks, we must not lose sight of the real goal or fear that God has abandoned us to the waves. It is often easy to lose heart in the midst of a struggle when our plans seem to go wrong. Paul knew that even though the rocks were unseen, God’s purposes were not thwarted. I imagine that each of the sailors who surveyed the situation probably agreed that cutting the anchors loose, raising the foresail and steering for the beach was the best and most likely option to succeed… but it didn’t, the sandbar saw to that. At that point, they all realized that the ship was going to be torn apart by the battering of the waves. Don’t forget, we make our plans but God orders our steps.
We all have sandbars that get in the way of our plans. I doubt that any of us foresaw our current situation back in December, or even in January. We’ve now survived 6 or more weeks of “stay at home” orders and many feel like the storm must subside, soon. None of us wants to be in this mess. We’ve surveyed the situation, made our plans to reopen, cut the anchors loose and are steering for the beach in the hopes we can make it safely ashore. Will we hit a sandbar and see a setback? Only time will tell, but here’s what I do know… God is still good and in control even if we don’t get the results we desire and expect. Will you still trust Him if we hit a sandbar?
Next, the soldiers knew that if any of the prisoners escaped, they would be held personally liable with their own lives. Once they hit the sandbar and realized that the ship would be torn apart by the waves, they decided it was best to cut their losses, kill the prisoners and, hopefully, save themselves. But Julius intercepted and redirected their plans because Paul and his relationship with the Lord had begun to have a very profound effect on Julius’ thinking and actions. Let me ask you, has your relationship with Jesus had an effect on anyone in this crisis? Now before you answer that question, notice that I didn’t ask whether it was a positive or negative effect. So, consider carefully your response…
As believers, we should be so compelled by the power, presence and authority of God’s Spirit in our lives that we should have transformed thinking and Christlike actions, regardless of our circumstances (See Romans 8 and 12). So, another very serious question… is our current situation and our personal and corporate response a hindrance to the work of God’s Spirit or an opportunity for God’s Spirit to be displayed through us and the Church? If you’re unsure then go back and look at Paul’s circumstances and ask the question, again. God used Paul’s circumstances to display His power, authority and love for a Roman Centurion and He’s doing the same thing through our circumstances. At least, He can if we’re being obedient and demonstrating a Christlike spirit and godly actions to our neighbors in these trying and difficult times.
Finally, Paul was committed to staying obedient to God regardless of where it might take him and what he might endure. In other words, Paul trusted God more than he feared the details of the journey. Paul was willing to keep his eyes on the goal and not on the circumstances. Instead of viewing his difficult circumstances as a sign of God’s displeasure, he knew and trusted God’s heart and character. If God was going to lead him through an extended period of sitting in a prison cell, then Paul knew God must have a purpose and plan in that cell. If God was going to step him through a horrendous storm, then he would pray for the life and safety of those trapped in the storm alongside him. Instead of seeking comfort and safety, Paul continued to seek God.
Are you committed to faithful obedience towards God regardless of where it might take you? Are you committed to following Him regardless of what you might be called upon to endure? Are you able to see through the storm and recognize God’s love and His enduring character in spite of the wind and the waves? Are you willing to trust His promises even as the waves build and the shipwreck becomes inevitable? For some of us, this seems more plausible than it does for others. We might want to blame our doubts on our circumstances, but doubts don’t arise from circumstances they arise from misunderstanding God’s character and plan which builds into distrust and results in fear. Distrust and fear of God then leads to doubt and disobedience. For example, if we mistakenly view personal success as a sign of God’s favor, blessings and approval then when we fail or our plans fail we begin to question whether obedience to God is profitable or we even question God’s love and goodness.
It is important to see that God’s purpose for Paul was the dominant factor in Paul’s circumstances. If Paul had viewed his circumstances the way we often view our own, then Paul would have questioned and doubted God, too. Instead, Paul saw his circumstances as the process by which God would achieve His purpose, bring glory to His own name and develop Paul into the obedient servant that God, ultimately, desired. So, that bring me to my final question for you this week… What do you see as God’s ultimate purpose for your life? Is it to make you financially successful or independently wealthy? I doubt it. Is it to make you a YouTube star, or the ultimate Twitter/Tik Tok/SnapChat influencer? Probably not. Is it to bring you to faith and then to emulate Christ and point other to faith? Absolutely!
So, if God’s ultimate purpose is to bring you to faith and then emulate Christ so that you can point others to faith then what are the circumstances and steps by which He will achieve His purpose? They just might resemble Paul’s. Oh great! I’d much rather His purpose have something to do with that independently wealthy option. I wouldn’t mind that so much, would you? But it doesn’t. Come on, be honest. You and I aren’t likely to focus much on God’s plan if we really were wealthy, would we? Not likely. We’d be distracted by our desires. So, God minimizes the distractions and tries to get us focused on those things that really are important. Maybe that’s precisely what He’s doing in the midst of our current crisis. He’s not trying to frustrate the church, He’s trying to get the church focused. Focused on His purpose, not ours.
So, let me end by asking that question one last time… what do you see as God’s ultimate purpose for your life? Your answer will determine your goal and your goal will determine the necessary steps and how God orders them. So, answer carefully and wisely…