[Chapter 18 of “How God Guides.” Acts 16 has more food for thought about divine guidance than any other chapter I can think of in the Bible. This is a little longer than most of my posts, but I hope you’ll read it and see if it resonates with you.]
Acts 16 is my favorite chapter on divine direction where God did some amazing things to guide Paul and his friends throughout Turkey and Greece. Though there’s some overlap of some of the lessons that we’ve seen earlier in the study, I’ll insert the whole narrative here and cite some clues about how God guides.
Acts 16:6 Paul and Silas traveled through the area of Phrygia and Galatia, because the Holy Spirit had prevented them from preaching the word in the province of Asia at that time.
Not now, but later…
It sounds to me like they actually went to Asia Minor (modern Turkey), but the Holy Spirit said or did something to keep them from preaching there – he “prevented them from preaching.” If you’re familiar with Paul’s story or anything about the Holy Spirit, you know this is not at all common. The Spirit was usually telling Paul to “Go and preach,” but this time it was “Don’t preach!” I don’t know if he told Paul not to preach or just closed a door. I can’t be sure, but one way or the other he made it clear to them that though they were in place and poised to tell people about Jesus (which is usually the right thing to do, especially when that’s what you’re gifted to do), they weren’t to do it this time. Maybe they were in God’s will being in Asia Minor, but instead of preaching there, their assignment was simply to pray, as it’s usually a good thing to precede your preaching with praying!
I call this the “not-now-but-later-principle,” and here’s why. God didn’t want them to preach in Asia Minor at this time, possibly calling them to plow the soil with intercessory prayer. But a couple of years later Paul went back to the region (specifically Ephesus), remained longer there than in any other place of his entire ministry (three years), and we’re told that through Paul’s mission there that “all of Asia heard the word of the Lord.” (Acts 19) Apparently, it’s not that God didn’t want him to go and preach in Asia Minor; he just wanted him to do it later when the time was ripe (I guess).
Acts 16:7 Then coming to the borders of Mysia, they headed north for the province of Bithynia, but again the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them to go there.
Not you, but someone else…
This time, as they started north, the Holy Spirit wouldn’t even allow them to travel there. So far, all they were learning was what wasn’t God’s will! But sometimes that can be quite valuable, at least so that you can narrow down the options. By process of elimination you’ll eventually figure out what he wants you to do!
I can’t say for sure how the Spirit got through to them to sidestep Bithynia – it may have been by some form of personal or prophetic leading, or maybe he just closed the door in front of them (their donkey broke a leg, their guide got sick…). I don’t know, but my guess is that the Spirit inspired them to at least pray for the people of Bithynia. Though we have no record of Paul ever travelling there in the future, the Apostle Peter mentions that some of the recipients of his first Epistle were “those scattered in Bithynia” (1 Peter 1:1). My guess is that Peter went there as a result of Paul and Silas’ intercessions. In this case, Paul prayed and Peter preached. I call this the “not-you-but-someone-else” principle. Paul and Silas weren’t supposed to plant, but to plow in advance of Peter, who would sow his seed on prepared soil.
Remember earlier when I spoke about “the burden”? What we might glean from this story in Acts is that a burden for someone or something is not necessarily a leading from God to actually take some kind of action. It might not be your responsibility to do anything about something for which you have a burden except to pray. Your burden may only be lifted as you pray for the ministry to be performed by someone (else). God may have given you the burden just so that you would pray, not necessarily that you would go. I think of every burden as a “Prayer Cue” (a cue to pray). Here’s how it works. I feel a sense of compassion or concern for someone (like my friend in the hospital) or something (such as human trafficking). What do I do? The first thing I should do is pray. I ask God to heal my friend or free the children trafficked in Africa. As I do, sometimes I’ll get a sense that I am supposed to be the answer to my own prayers. I realize that God is putting this in my heart for something more than for prayer. So then I begin to ask him to lead me as to what I should do about the thing for which I have a burden. Other times I might not sense his calling to act, but to simply intercede for the one(s) in need for him to send someone to be his hand extended. [Rule of thumb: When you see a need, always pray. And sometimes become the answer to your own prayer.]
Acts 16:8 So instead, they went on through Mysia to the seaport of Troas.
You’ve got to love their tenacity, when after being denied twice, they kept going forward! They didn’t get cynical about the delays that they experienced or become discouraged about not getting to do what they had done before with such great success. Lesser men would’ve given up or given in to apathy. But they kept moving. “God must have something for us to do; we just need to find it and do it!”
Have you ever tried to turn the steering wheel of a large truck while it’s still parked? You have to get it going, even just a little, in order to be able to steer it. In the same way, I think God has a difficult time steering parked people (ones that are waiting around for lightning to strike to get them off their couch)! It’s much easier for him to steer us in the right direction if we’ll get moving at least a little.
When you see a need, always pray.
And sometimes become the answer
to your own prayer.
Sometimes finding out what God wants you to do is like winding through a “House of Mirrors.” You can give up and just stand in one spot, because you’re tired of bumping into your own reflection, but you don’t make much progress that way. You need to keep moving! (By the way, in case you’re wondering if there could be a method to this madness, I’d guess yes! What with the ambiguity of his leading, the frustration of having to wait, and the annoyance of trial and error – he’s most likely after something in us!)
Acts 16:9 That night Paul had a vision: A man from Macedonia in northern Greece was standing there, pleading with him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us!”
Hear the “help us”…
I’ve always been fascinated by this “man from Macedonia.” Was he an actual man who was translated across the Aegean Sea (like Phillip in Acts 8), a holographic virtual man that God projected in front of Paul, an angel from heaven, or simply a picture of a man in Paul’s mind? I don’t know, but whoever he was, he got the job done. They were so sure of God’s leading that they let go of any previous plans and found the first ship sailing for Greece. Let’s call this one the “Hear-the-‘help-us’” principle.
“Lord, help us to hear the ‘Help us!’ Help us to know where we’re needed most, where you want us, and where they’re crying, ‘Help us!’”
Acts 16:10 So we decided to leave for Macedonia at once having concluded that God was calling us to preach the Good News there.
Don’t expect a smooth ride…
I like the phrase, “at once…” Prior to this, God seemed to be slowing everything down with delays and deferments. But when it was time to go, they went “at once.” It was as if the Spirit had been “downshifting” just before he finally hit the gas and got them on the road again!
Fast-forwarding the next part of the story — they grab the fastest thing sailing to Macedonia, start preaching to people, and cast a demon out of a fortune-telling slave girl. Since the girl was making a lot of money for her masters, they got angry and had Paul and Silas stripped, beaten, and thrown in jail. The how-God-guides principle I derive from this is – Don’t expect that God will always lead you to pleasant and pain-free circumstances. Sometimes he leads us straight into the storm instead of away from it. Their response to what must’ve seemed like a setback was surprising – they prayed and worshipped God while in their stocks! They weren’t dissuaded, but rather even more persuaded to advance to whatever adventure God might lead them into next. Difficulty and trial are not necessarily an indication that we’ve missed God’s will. It might even be a symptom that we’re right in the middle of it! Though to be honest, if I were Silas, I might’ve wondered if the Macedonian man had been more of a hallucination than a vision!
Their praises were interrupted by an earthquake that shook open the prison doors, the jailer and his family decided to follow Jesus, and the missionaries went on to the next town leaving behind a band of impassioned new believers to form the church of Philippi. Whereas earlier on the journey, God seemed to say “No” a lot, when he finally said “Yes,” he led them right into the lion’s mouth of suffering. When all seemed lost, the Lord showed up, shook the place, and made converts of their persecutors. I’m sure that it wasn’t what Paul had expected when he first set out to help the Macedonian man, but God had a plan, which involved both setbacks and surprises (as do most of his plans)!