Closed Doors & The Will Of God

doors

As we continue in our Boundless series on the Book of Acts, we’re going to be skipping over the five verses that would come next.  It’s not that they’re unimportant, it’s just that we’re trying to get to a certain place in the text by Christmas.  But I don’t want to skip over them entirely because they have tremendous value for us in navigating our occasional frustrations with the ways God reveals His will for our lives:

And they went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia.  And when they had come up to Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them.  So, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas.  And a vision appeared to Paul in the night: a man of Macedonia was standing there, urging him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.”  And when Paul had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go on into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.

Acts 16:6-10

We live a lot of life on the front side of a Macedonian call.  Yes, there are moments when it feels like God literally pulls back the curtain of heaven and tells us exactly what to do.  But, for most of our lives, it feels like we’re stumbling around, banging into closed doors and trying to figure out what Jesus is asking us to do.  Even as I write this, I can think of at least three ways Laura and I are trying to navigate that right now.  In the midst of that frustrating and painful lack of clarity, this text brings three helpful reminders:

Don’t Let What Seems Illogical Distract You From What Is Certain

Imagine how disorienting all of this must have been to the Apostle Paul.  He’s the great evangelist and church planter of the early church.  He’s completed one missionary journey and is on the first leg of his second journey.  His whole aim is to tell people about Jesus.  He’s not praying through whether or not he really needs the iPhone X.  He wants to pluck as many people as possible from the clutches of hell.  And his biggest obstacle seems to be the Holy Spirit.  What’s wrong with preaching the gospel in Asia?  Does God hate the Bithynians?  How can the God who has always said go now say no?

Closed doors are so frustrating because they often seem so illogical.  Why is God doing this?  Why won’t He open the womb, help us with the down payment, get me into grad school or accelerate our adoption process?

Paul doesn’t minimize the confusion but he also doesn’t get distracted from what he’s certain about – the mission God has given him.  He’s going to preach the gospel.  If not in Asia, Phrygia will be just fine.  If not Bithynia, Troas works.  He was so committed to that mission that when he finally has a revelation from God, his only conclusion is that God has called him to preach the gospel in Macedonia.  He isn’t thinking sea side sabbatical.  He’s thinking gospel mission.

You may not know what God is doing in your life right now.  But you do know your purpose in life – to glorify God by making disciples.  Everything else finds its place in relationship to that mission.  So, don’t give up on it when life doesn’t make sense.  Keep pressing forward.

Obedience, Patience and Inactivity Aren’t The Same Thing

Paul demonstrates a tremendous amount of obedience and patience in all of this.  He doesn’t try to kick down any closed doors (one of my favorite ways of running afoul of God’s will for my life). Imagine how easy it would have been for him to conclude he was mishearing the Spirit of Jesus.  That Spirit is always telling us to go.  Now He’s saying no? I probably would have stormed into Asia demanding God’s blessing on my well-intentioned disobedience.  But not Paul.  He obeyed and waited.

But he didn’t stagnate.  He kept moving.  His bias was towards unblocked action.  If God was saying no in certain ways, Paul was determined to keep moving forward in a way that God was allowing.  He didn’t grind everything to a halt and linger in neutral until God told him what to do.  He kept moving, trusting the Lord to make it all clear.

I know so many followers of Jesus who struggle with this.  They assume the default posture of the Christian soul is passivity interrupted by the occasional Macedonian call.  Not true!  We are a people with a bias for action.  This passage simply reminds us that action must walk down the paths of obedience and patience.

God Will Open The Right Door, The Right Way, At The Right Time

Don’t get discouraged!  God is more than able to break through the fog of closed doors whenever He needs to, in whatever way He needs to?  For Paul, all of the closed doors finally make sense with one vision.  God has been leading Paul and his team (which now includes Luke, the author of Acts) to Macedonia the whole time.  The gospel moves forward and we’re reminded that God has known what He’s doing all along.

Today, those moments are more likely to come through a study of God’s Word, wise counsel and circumstances than dreams and visions but dreams and visions are still on the table.  If that’s what it takes, that’s what God is going to do.

In the midst of the uncertainty of closed doors, we can cling to the hope that God will keep us on the path He has designed for us. All of our confusion isn’t going to thwart God’s plan for our lives.  Job 42:2 has been such a comfort to me over the years, “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.”

When the time comes, God will get you right where He wants you.

There are few things in the Christian life as disorienting as illogically closed doors.  They can give rise to all kinds of fears – has God abandoned me, is He angry at me, am I being punished?  Don’t fall for that kind of thinking.  You might be facing many closed doors but the arms of your Savior are wide open.  He’s already made what He thinks of you abundantly clear on the cross.  He tasted death so you never have to.  He purchased you, declared you His own and adopted you into His family.  He didn’t do it to leave you helplessly floundering through life.  You can trust Him, cling to Him and pray for the day the fog lifts.  In the mean time, keep walking!

Singing In A Cave

Cave

My heart is steadfast, O God,
my heart is steadfast!
I will sing and make melody!
Awake, my glory!
Awake, O harp and lyre!
I will awake the dawn!
I will give thanks to you, O Lord, among the peoples;
I will sing praises to you among the nations.
For your steadfast love is great to the heavens,
your faithfulness to the clouds.
Be exalted, O God, above the heavens!
Let your glory be over all the earth!

Psalm 57:7-11

Those words were written by David, the great King of Israel.  But he didn’t write them from his throne.  He didn’t write them after he defeated Goliath, got married, brought the Ark of the Covenant back to Jerusalem or entered into a covenant with God.  He wrote them from a cave.  He was there because Saul, the then King of Israel, wanted him dead.

I’ll be honest – caves creep me out.  I hate caves.  They’re dark, wet and you have absolutely no idea what else is in there with you.  Bats are a given and then the horror just spirals out of control from there.  Being in a cave is like being locked in a dark basement as a kid but with actual reason to be afraid.  So, when a cave is the safe option, you know you’re having a bad day.  And David was having a pretty bad day – he was being hunted like an animal with no help in sight.

Yet, David holds a worship service.

That should stop us in our tracks.  We so often struggle to worship on a Sunday morning when everything is going well, never mind a Thursday morning when nothing is going right.  What had David found in God that we overlook?

Focus On His Soul & Savior, Not Circumstances

Yes, David asks God for mercy (v.1,2) but he’s not obsessed with his circumstances.  I would have made sure God understood just how bad my situation was, how unjust it was and how much I really, really wanted Him to do something about it.

But not David. He seems most focused on the condition of his own soul.  Five times in the psalm He makes a reference to His own soul or heart.  It’s his soul that takes refuge (v.1), is in the midst of lions (v.4) and is bowed down (v.6) in addition to being steadfast.  Which leads me to ask, are we more focused on our souls or our circumstances?  I know that when it comes to my soul, I tend to take more of a “we’ll deal with all of that once you get me out of this cave, God” approach.

David’s focus on his soul is so essential because it leads him to focus on his Savior.  David’s hope is in God’s steadfast love (v.10).  He’s not praying that God will bless his plan in some way.  He’s confessing that his only plan is to take refuge in the shadow of God’s wings and trust God to rescue him.  God’s grace is plan A and there is no plan B.

Confidence In The Promises Of God

Even though life is falling apart, David is totally confident that God will be faithful to all of His promises.  He knows that God’s promises aren’t dependent on our circumstances but on His character.  So, David is sure that God will send from heaven and save him (v.3).  It’s not a question for David.

We get so concerned when God deviates from the script we’ve written for Him.  If only we could learn that God’s deviations aren’t because He doesn’t love us but because He does.  He’s going to fulfill every single one of His promises to you.  Don’t look to your circumstances to figure out if you believe that – look to the cross of Jesus and be sure of it!  You can trust a God who’s already died for you.

Caves aren’t a reason to forget the promises of God.  They’re a reason to cling to them even more fiercely.

Desire For The Glory Of God Above All Else

We become brave when we find something bigger to live for than our own lives.  That was David’s story.  Even in his cave, his desire was constant, “Be exalted, O God, above the heavens!  Let your glory be over all the earth.” (v. 5,11).  He’s so focused on God’s glory that he prays the same thing twice!

If all we care about in life is our own comfort, the inevitable caves of life will kill our joy and crush our spirits every single time.  But if we find something bigger, something that can’t be touched even in the darkest cave, something that spans all of eternity, caves loose their power.  No, we’ll never enjoy them.  But we will trust that God can use them.

Songs of hope are most powerful when they echo out of caves of despair.  When praise erupts in the middle of affliction, the world notices.  When thanksgiving comes in the same breath as a plea for mercy, people listen.

Your cave isn’t a sign that God doesn’t love you.  It’s an invitation to put all of your life in His hands and trust that He will be faithful in using you in a story that spans all of eternity.  Caves aren’t comfortable.  But they aren’t catastrophic either.

We really can learn to sing in a cave.

Reordering Our Prayers

Praying

One of the clearest indications that we’re growing in our understanding of the gospel is a continuous reordering of our prayer lives.  What we chose to talk about when we’re alone with God is one of the best indicators of what’s important to us.  In a lot of ways, prayer is a wonderful diagnostic tool for our hearts.

All too often, I’m not comfortable with what my prayers reveal about my priorities.  Like most of us, I can be extremely self focused.  My prayers tend to be about me, my circumstances, my needs, my problems, my desires and how God can help me have a better day according to my definition of “better.”  Sometimes, it feels like other people, our church or our city only get thrown in at the end as a formality.  Praying for others is something “professional Christians” are supposed to do, so I make sure that box is checked.  But what often goes unprayed for is my own heart.  It seems like I’m more interested in my circumstances than my heart.

But as we grow in the gospel, that gets inverted.  All of the sudden, we find ourselves praying for our hearts more than our circumstances.  So, the new gospel shaped prayer priorities look like: my heart, others and then my circumstances.  No, there’s nothing wrong with asking for our daily bread or making our requests made known to God.  We’re told to do that (Matthew 6:11, Phil 4:6).  But the psalms filled with far more prayers for our hearts than for our circumstances.  Consider just a few:

  • “Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.” (Ps. 90:14)
  • “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” (Ps. 51:10)
  • “My soul longs, yes, faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God.” (Ps. 84:2)

The gospel shaped heart realizes it’s greatest enemy is the sin within, not the circumstances around.  So, we pray for our hearts.

Then, we pray for others.  As God transforms our hearts, we can’t help but look to the world around us.  We see needs, suffering, injustice and people desperate for a knowledge of Jesus.  All of it breaks a heart shaped by the gospel and that shows up in our prayers.

Finally, we get around to praying for those things the Father already knows we need.

So, what do your prayers say about your priorities?  Heart, others, circumstances.  Which gets top billing in your time with God?