Finding the Right Way Forward – Acts 16:6-10
By: Alistair Brown
I was thirteen, and I’d spent the day at a large air show about eight miles from my home. I had a wonderful day! I watched powerful fighter jets roar past just above my head, and I got to ‘fly’ a flight simulator. It was all a fabulous experience. Then it was time to go home. My plan was to walk to the nearby railway station and catch a train. And that was the moment I realized I had no money to buy a ticket. I’d spent it all. Maybe I had bought too many ice creams or souvenirs during the day. I was penniless. How was I to get home without any money?
“God, what do I do?” I murmured. Through my childhood I was in the habit of praying, even though I had never made any deep commitment of faith. “I’m stuck with no way to get home,” I told God.
I looked around, trying to think of a solution, and then I realized that deep inside I had a strong feeling I should still go to the railway station. That made no sense. I had no money. Why go there? Yet, over and over came the thought that it was the right thing to do. So I walked down the path towards the station, and reached a narrow road. The gates into the railway station were just ten yards away on the other side of that road, and I had no idea what do once I went through those gates. I paused to let a van go past – and suddenly it stopped. A head emerged from one of the windows, and one of my school friends, Allan, shouted, “Alistair, do you want a lift home?” I nearly fell over with shock. Allan was with his Mom and Dad, and there was plenty room for me in their van. I rode home in style and it cost me nothing.
That moment in my early teens made a deep impact on me. I could not explain back then what really happened and I can’t do it now. All I know is that I had no way to get home, so I asked God for help, followed a direction that seemed right but impossible, and suddenly something happened I could never have imagined and I got home safely. I have never understood that day’s events, but I learned that God can be trusted to find a way when there seems to be no way.
Paul’s experience of the same thing was even more remarkable.
6 Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia. 7 When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to. 8 So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas. 9 During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” 10 After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.
Paul and his companions were deeply committed to taking the gospel of Jesus to places where no-one had ever heard it. They had done all they felt they could for the moment in Phrygia and Galatia, and they reckoned Asia was next. Paul and Silas were probably aiming to pass through Colosse and head on to Ephesus.
But something stopped them. Did someone take ill? Were there legal obstacles? Did they get a message warning them not to go there? Or was there just some growing feeling – a gut check – that this was not the time to go to Ephesus? All that Luke, the writer of Acts, tells us is that they were “kept by the Holy Spirit” from going further into Asia (v. 6).
Instead they turned towards Bithynia. There were important Black Sea ports in that area, and evangelizing them made great sense. They would find travelers from all over who might in turn carry the good news around most of the ancient world. But again they were stopped by the Spirit. And, once more, we don’t know the details. Paul was a very determined man, and danger or difficulty would never hold him back, but somehow he knew by the Spirit that Bithynia was not the place he was meant to go.
So – with no clear idea what to try next – they went to Troas. By now Paul and the others were confused and frustrated. There had been nothing bad about the earlier plans, but neither of them were the right plans. So what was?
Maybe they were meant to stay in Troas. It was a large city which had been a significant Greek sea port for several hundred years. It sat right at the mouth of the Dardanelles, exactly on the border of Europe and Asia Minor.
Then the guidance came. Paul went to sleep a confused man but during the night he had a vision of a man from Macedonia pleading with him to come over and help them. He woke knowing exactly what he was meant to do. He shared the experience with the missionary party, and they were of one mind. They had never thought of going to Macedonia, but God had spoken and that settled it. For the first time, the gospel entered Europe.
This strange story provides several important and fascinating lessons about finding God’s will.
1. A good plan is not always the right plan.
Paul’s earlier ideas about where to take the gospel next had plenty merit. There was a fertile mission field throughout Asia. Everything made sense about going there. And it is entirely right to consider whether a plan makes sense. God gave us brains and expects us to use them.
But this was one of those times when human reason was not enough, and God’s plan was something else.
At age eighteen my strong ambitions were taking me into a career in journalism. I was doing well and I could see a bright future. Then I gave my life to Christ, and within three months I knew God was calling me to a different route in life. So if not journalism, what? Almost immediately I knew. I had heard missionary story after missionary story throughout my childhood, and I was sure there was no greater need than taking the gospel to some far off foreign land. So I would be a missionary. Need defined the call. Within a couple of months I was being interviewed by the representative of a missionary society.
But need is not always the call. I grew uneasy, and there were God whispers in my heart that there was ministry nearer home that was my calling. I didn’t want to hear that, but I knew the voice was God’s. It was awkward to change direction, but I did, and looking back over decades now I give thanks that God was gracious and turned me on to the path that wasn’t just good but was right for my life.
2. Humility to recognize when God says “No.”
Determination is a good quality but determination easily degenerates into stubbornness. If Paul had surrendered to stubbornness, he would have pressed on into Asia. Or, if he’d accepted “no” the first time the Spirit stopped them, he’d have thought “I’m not halting another time,” and pressed forward into Bithynia no matter what. But Paul was humble. He recognized God was the one putting on the brakes, and Paul accepted that at that moment he had no idea what he was meant to do.
For most leaders, that is very hard to admit. And not just leaders. For almost all Christians, to accept uncertainty is very difficult. Isn’t it lack of faith to admit we have no idea what God wants? Or a failure of vision? Or a breakdown in our prayer life? So we press forward with the plans we think best because surely we must do something…?
Samuel nearly fell into that trap when he was sent to anoint one of Jesse’s sons as the future king of Israel (1 Sam. 16:1-13). Jesse brought out the oldest, a tall, strong handsome lad, and Samuel saw king material, and very nearly anointed him. Only at the last second did he sense God saying “No, not him.” He moved to the second son, and he looked perfect too. But again God whispered “no.” Down the line of seven sons he went, and though they all looked great none were right.
In the end, Samuel asked if there were any more sons. There was, David the shepherd boy, and though he was the youngest and smallest, then – and only then – did God say “Yes – this one.” If choosing a new king had been left to Samuel’s own wisdom, he would have selected the first son. But God stopped him and so son number eight, David, was anointed.
God also saved Paul from relying too much on his own wisdom. Determination must always be softened with humility to accept the answer “no.”
3. Openness to a new direction.
There is a charming but dangerous naiveté that if you are sincerely following God, he will keep you on the right path automatically. It is the idea that when you walk by faith you can’t get lost, as if God is our personal, infallible GPS system, with unfailingly right directions to God’s perfect will. Doubt would be failure to trust the guidance we have already. Such confidence in God’s directing sounds wonderful but it has its dangers. One of them is the risk of a closed mind to any plan other than what we believed was right back at the beginning.
Going to Macedonia was the third plan in Paul’s mind. Initially, he had no intention of going there at all. But Asia had proved wrong, Bithynia had proved wrong, and now here is a vision in the night of being called by a man of Macedonia to come and help. If Paul had stuck with Plan A, the missionary band would have been heading into the wrong continent.
When it comes to guidance, Paul’s story highlights two particular dangers to avoid:
a) The assumption that we have understood God rightly first time. Being convinced that you have complete understanding of God’s will right from the beginning can be arrogance. Many times people have told me that they know God’s special will for them or for people around them. A loved one is going to be healed. A job for which they have applied will be theirs. The gorgeous looking girl in the next dorm will fall in love with them. They have particular Bible texts or they’ve had an experience of prophetic words being spoken over them, and they are convinced God has promised these things. All too often the things they were so sure would happen don’t happen, and it leaves them with serious spiritual difficulties.
God does speak to people, but there is great risk in over-confidence that we have heard God rightly first time. For me God’s voice isn’t always clear, like when my radio isn’t tuned properly and I can’t quite make out what’s being said and so I misunderstand the news story that’s being reported. If only we had perfect reception to the signals God sends… But we don’t, so we need to be careful.
b) Not realizing God is in the diversions or rerouting. More than once Jesus changed direction or priorities. A woman who had been bleeding for twelve years interrupted his journey and he stopped and healed her (Matt. 9:20-22). Jesus wanted to take his disciples away to a quiet place to rest, but crowds ran round the end of the lake to hear more of his teaching, and Jesus not only spoke to them he fed them all (Mark 6:30-44). Children were being brought to Jesus and the disciples saw them as a distraction, but Jesus made time for them (Luke 18:15-17). He sensed by the Spirit that these people mattered, that God had business with them. And other plans were either dropped or delayed. The new thing was God’s priority, what God wanted him to do. It wasn’t second best. It was now exactly God’s will for these people and for him.
When businesses today set their strategic direction they usually do two things: they stick with a short time frame, and they stay open to new ideas.
What they don’t do is rigidly fix a business plan on a distant goal, refusing to consider anything else along the way. They are open to ‘emerging strategies,’ new opportunities. Maybe customers become interested in something they had never thought about; perhaps technology makes a new product possible; maybe the economic environment changes. When any of these happen, the emerging strategies frequently become the firm’s number one goals. That is where their future profit will lie.
There are emerging strategies in our lives too. When they happen, they’re surprises for us but not surprises for God who has perfect foreknowledge. What we see as surprises are God’s opportunities, and blessing follows obedience to them.
4. Perseverance to find and do God’s will.
When a new pastor to a church proposes a plan to the leaders, there is a one sentence reply any pastor dreads hearing. It is not: “I don’t think that’s a good idea” or “I’ve got a better plan.” The dreaded response is: “Sorry – we’ve tried that before – it didn’t work – there’s no point in doing it again!” Sometimes churches feel that trying once without success is an all-sufficient reason never to try again. It’s an attitude which paralyses. It sentences a church to pessimistic inactivity.
Paul tried and tried to find God’s will. He persevered. He was struggling, but he wasn’t giving up. He had healthy determination.
Ask Olympic level figure skaters – the people who leap and spin on the ice – how many times they’ve fallen in practice… Ask Olympic level gymnasts how many times they’ve tumbled off the beam or landed badly from a vault… Any top athlete has failed thousands of times and has the bruises to prove it. But they get up and try again, and drawing on deep wells of perseverance they get to their goal.
Christians have a prize greater than any gold medal, the prize of their time, their money, their gifts and their lives helping people here, near and far experience God’s great love.
Paul did not give up just because he was stopped from going into Asia. He did not give up when prevented from going into Bithynia. He didn’t know what he was supposed to do, but then came a vision in the night and what God wanted was clear. They were to go to Macedonia.
Macedonia was Europe and that decision – what looked like a third option – was God’s perfect plan to take the gospel into new territory, and down through the ages the significance of that transition has proved momentous.
One commentator on this passage writes this: “Authentic turning points in history are few. But surely among them that of the Macedonian vision ranks high. Because of Paul’s obedience at this point, the gospel went westward; and ultimately Europe and the Western world were evangelized. Christian response to the call of God is never a trivial thing. Indeed, as in this instance, great issues and untold blessings may depend on it.”
Paul persevered. Not knowing what was next was not an end point but only a phase on the journey. He refused to get ahead of the Holy Spirit, and waited until he found God’s way. No other goal would do. The result was that the gospel entered Europe, and the destiny of millions down through many centuries was changed because of that moment.
At the start of a new year – or a new phase of life – or a new relationship – or being in a new place, we may not be sure what lies ahead. With patience and with perseverance from us, the God who already knows it all perfectly will make his will known. And when he does, we’ll go forward boldly, with confidence and determination, because this way is God’s way, and there is no other place we would want to be.
 R. N. Longenecker, “The Acts of the Apostles,” in John and Acts, vol. 9 of The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. F. E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1981), 458.