I think that one of the hardest things God does in our lives is to put a desire in our heart and then make us wait before He fulfills that desire. Sometimes it’s more than just a wait– usually it’s more than just wait. Usually it’s a detour, the long way round, and often it seems completely nonsensical to our human hearts. His ways are not our ways. They just aren’t. As we press in to Him, He changes us and our ways and desires align more closely with His; but that doesn’t mean that we ever fully understand what God is doing as He puts up a roadblock and takes us on the back road with its dirt and hills and cattle crossings and washed-out bridges.
This morning I was studying Paul’s circuitous journey to Rome, and I just couldn’t get out of my head how God works so many times in and through us while we’re on the detour. Paul had such a deep desire to go to Rome– a desire that came from God. He set his mind first on Jerusalem then on to Rome (Acts 19:21), even though he was warned that his trip to Jerusalem would end in imprisonment (Acts 21:8-14). He knew God’s will and He was willing to pursue it, even if it meant endangering his life.
One of the things about Paul’s life that challenges me is his devotion to the work of God, regardless of the cost. Can I be honest? I have never really been the type to take risks for the Lord. I cling to my comforts and my pride with fierce tenacity, instead of clinging to God. Paul wasn’t like that. Throughout his Christian life, he learned to cling to God with fierce tenacity instead; to trust Him and to want what He wanted. And so Paul was able to surrender to God’s plan so much more quickly than I seem to be able to.
Paul’s trip to Jerusalem ended with Paul in prison and beaten. When his jailers learned he was a Roman citizen, they panicked because he had been treated unjustly, and so he was sent to the Roman governor. And there he was kept in prison for two years because of politics, basically. Can you imagine how Paul must have felt? Surely he had expected to be bound, as it had been prophesied, but to waste in prison for two whole years that he had planned to spend preaching in Rome?
I expect all of us can point to times of waiting in our lives– I know I can. When Art graduated from college in 2003, we expected to be called into the ministry immediately. But every door closed. We had nowhere to go. Art was working as a security guard and I was staying home with our firstborn, and I felt so trapped. Eventually God did open a door– seminary. And another door– a part-time job for me. And we stayed there for nine more years, long enough for many college freshmen to come in, graduate, and leave with a job lined up. I struggled so much with it. I kept waiting for my real life to begin. In His mercy, God taught me that this was my life, and that I was wasting it. I learned to be more content. And then He led us on a painful detour through the valley of the shadow of death– not once, but twice. He brought us a daughter we hadn’t planned on. He led me from working in a daycare to staying home and teaching my own children. I learned to cook from scratch and to submit to my husband (at least sort of), to wait on God through the hard times, to trust His plan, to spend time daily in His Word. And then, when God’s timing was right, Art graduated from seminary and less than two months later we were here, in Tiny Town, Iowa, a pastor’s family at last.
Why don’t we ever expect the detours? Aren’t they the way God works? He showed Joseph the vision of his brothers bowing to him, but He didn’t reveal the long, excruciating road through betrayal, slavery, unjust accusations, prison, and famine before Joseph would finally arrive at that place. He showed Israel the Promised Land, but He didn’t reveal to them the long trek through the desert– the thirst and hunger, the belligerent kings, the battle against idolatry and the constant rebellion. And isn’t it almost always in those detours that we meet God and discover His goodness, His grace, His sovereignty, His provision? Surely Abraham never envisioned the detour up the mountain to sacrifice his son, but it was there in his most painful moment of faith-filled obedience that he saw the great provision of God.
God met Paul in prison, too. Acts 23:11 tells us that The following night the Lord stood by him and said, “Take courage, for as you have testified to the facts about me in Jerusalem, so you must testify also in Rome.” I love this. God confirms that the desire of Paul’s heart was indeed in line with God’s desires. This was just a detour. Paul was going to need faith and courage, but God was going to get him where he wanted to be. And I believe this is the message God has for us when we find ourselves in the unexpected paths. Take courage. He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion.
Paul’s detour on his road to Rome gave him the opportunity to speak to the men of Jerusalem, the Roman governor in Ceasarea, and Agrippa the king, all before he even set sail for Rome. His detour left him shipwrecked on an island, where he preached the gospel, did miracles, and maintained a testimony of godliness. And though he arrived in Rome in chains, and was kept under guard, a prisoner rather than a preacher, God was certainly not finished with Paul yet. Look at what Paul wrote to the church at Philippi, while he was imprisoned:
I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear.
Sitting in chains in Rome, Paul could rejoice, because he could see the results of his detour. God had taught him, and God had brought him to Rome at just the right time to do a great work among the Imperial guard– those who served in the palace of the Emperor himself!
The truth is that we can so seldom see what God’s end result is as we plod along on another detour. Sometimes we feel like we can’t even see our goal. We find ourselves wandering in the desert. We find ourselves grieving and bereft in the valley. We find ourselves crawling desperately up an impossible mountain. But God’s detours are never without purpose. They are always the most direct way to the place where He wants us, at the time when He wants us, with the strengthened faith and increased grace and wisdom that He desires to give us.
On the detour– keep your eyes on Christ. He is the Author and the Finisher of our faith. He has already walked this road, and He is always with us. He teaches us through every wandering path, and leads us and feeds us and ministers to our souls every day as we wait on Him. He is good.
One thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.