Taking Heart from the Apostle Paul’s Experiences of Setbacks and Failed Plans
It is common Christian experience for our lives not to work out quite as we expect. At any point in life, we will usually have ideas about how we think God will lead and use us in the future. But when the time comes, things often turn out differently from what we envisaged.
This can be a real source of discouragement, especially if we thought that the Lord had spoken to us about how He was going to use us, and then we find that this doesn’t happen.
The apostle Paul’s example
One of the reasons God has given us the Bible is so that we can be encouraged by the lives of saints who lived long ago. And Scripture makes it clear that God’s people in biblical times also knew what it was like for things to happen that they didn’t expect.
The apostle Paul’s life is a good example of this. Because he wrote so much of the New Testament and because Luke writes so much about him in Acts, we know a lot about his life. And there is no doubt that in some significant ways, things happened to him that he didn’t anticipate.
On many occasions Paul’s Christian work was delayed or interrupted. There were also times when he had to abandon his plans. But on the other hand there were ways in which God used him that he almost certainly never foresaw.
Delays, interruptions and failed plans in Paul’s life
Paul knew that God had called him to spread the gospel message and teach Christians (Romans 11:13; 2 Corinthians 10:8; Galatians 1:15-17). And so this is what he put his energy into.
However, things frequently got in the way of his work.
For example, he often found himself in prison (Acts 21:33-28:31; 2 Cor 6:5; 11:23; Phil 1:7-30; etc.), where his ability to share the good news was usually very limited.
There were also times when he had to get “an ordinary job,” so that he could earn money to live on (Acts 18:3; 1 Thessalonians 2:9). We can easily imagine that he would have much preferred not to spend precious time doing this.
There were occasions too when Paul made plans that had to be postponed through no fault of his own. For example, 1 Thessalonians 2:18 tells us that more than once he was prevented by Satan from visiting the young church in Thessalonica.
Romans 15:22-32 is also quite revealing. In this passage Paul tells the Roman Christians that he is planning to come and see them on his way to Spain. However, he says that before he can do this he needs to go to Jerusalem to give the money he has been collecting to the church there. He asks the Romans to pray with him that he will be protected from non-Christians in Judea and that the Jerusalem church will be pleased with his gift, so that he will be able to come to the Romans and be refreshed by them.
This prayer was apparently only partially answered positively. When Paul arrived in Judea, he was arrested and spent time in prison (Acts 21:33-26:32). If the most natural interpretation of Acts 24:27 is the correct one, this imprisonment lasted for no less than two years!
It is true that he was delivered from being killed in Judea. But he was not protected from being beaten or imprisoned. What is more, it is not certain that the Jerusalem church was fully happy with his gift. The fact that Acts only mentions it obscurely in Acts 24:17 might suggest that it was not accepted in the way he wanted. When he finally reached Rome, it is uncertain whether he received the refreshment he had hoped for, since he was immediately placed under house arrest for two years (Acts 28:16-31), and he would probably not have been able to visit congregations there during that time. It is not clear whether he ever made it to Spain.
There is no doubt, then, that things often didn’t run smoothly for Paul. There were delays and interruptions to his work, and some of his plans failed to materialize.
God used Paul in ways he never imagined
Nevertheless, Paul fulfilled his calling. God used him in bringing many Gentiles to faith, and more than a few Jews too. And he was able to use his great insights to strengthen those who were already believers.
Furthermore, there is one way in which Paul was used by God that would almost certainly have been beyond his wildest dreams: his letters.
Some Christians tend to think that Paul knew he was writing Scripture when he wrote his letters that ended up in the New Testament. However, this is extremely implausible. In Paul’s day Christians thought that Jesus would very probably return soon to earth (e.g., 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17). They didn’t expect that the New Testament would ever exist or be needed.
Besides, the obscurity of much in Paul’s letters also shows that he didn’t think that many of them would be read by a wide audience. There are many passages where it is difficult for us to figure out exactly what he is referring to. And the reason for this is surely that he saw no need to explain the context, since he knew that his readers knew the context and he wasn’t expecting anyone without that knowledge to read what he wrote.
So it is almost certain that Paul went to his grave without any idea that the letters he wrote, some of them in prison, would end up being used by God so greatly. And the amount that they have been used is absolutely enormous. Countless millions of Christians have studied and meditated on them for the best part of two millennia.
Taking encouragement from Paul’s example
In 2 Corinthians 4:8 Paul refers to himself as “perplexed but not in despair.” How right he was not to despair! He may have been perplexed, but God was using him massively in His service, and he was on track for everlasting blessedness after death.
When things happen in our lives that discourage and puzzle us, then, we should all take a leaf out of Paul’s book. Just because things don’t turn out as we expect doesn’t mean that the Lord isn’t working out His purposes through us.
If circumstances arise that prevent us doing what we expected to do, we need to take courage and fight the good fight as best we can from where we are at. Of course, if we are still convinced that He is calling us to do what we first expected, we must do everything we can to get into that work. But if there are delays or if things don’t work out as we thought, we should still expect God to use us in other ways. Maybe, like Paul, we might achieve great things for Him in ways that we never anticipated.
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