When I was pastoring my first church, I had a lot of growing up to do. The same year that the church turned 200, I turned 23. I couldn’t understand why the church didn’t respond to all my new ideas. It was too painful, so when a way of escape came, I took it. I moved my family 150 miles away, and tried my hand at church planting, not even making ends meet while working various jobs that didn’t pay. These days, my wife and I roll our eyes when we talk about “the Roanoke years.” For three years I banged my head against the wall of church planting until one day I rubbed my forehead and said, “Who put this wall here, and why am I banging on it?” I realized that I had put the wall there myself, as a way of escaping God’s call to pastor an established church. I found out that I was banging on it because of my pride, and that the headache would end when I stepped back into God’s calling, and back into the sort of pulpit I was made for. So from that time, I gave up the notion of church planting, which is a great task for some people but not for me. I got back in the saddle of established church ministry.
Again, when you’re beating your head against a wall, you have to ask yourself, “Who put this wall here, and why am I banging on it?” Maybe you put it there, and maybe you’re only banging on it because you’re too stubborn to stop.
In the sixteenth chapter of the book of Acts, Paul and his companions were on his second missionary journey. Paul and Barnabas had parted ways, but he now brought along Silas and young Timothy. Verses 6-8[i] describe their travels as being a bit like Israel’s wandering in the wilderness, unable to get where they want to go because they were trying to go somewhere that God wasn’t leading: “ They passed through the Phrygian and Galatian region, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia; and after they came to Mysia, they were trying to go into Bithynia, and the Spirit of Jesus did not permit them; and passing by Mysia, they came down to Troas.” Specifically it says that God disallowed Asia and Bithynia, and we can assume that because they bypassed Mysia, they weren’t permitted there either.
If you’re like me, then maybe you wonder how it was that they knew they weren’t permitted in those areas. Like in the Garden of Eden, was there an angel with a flaming sword, keeping them out? Probably not. Did the Spirit of Jesus appear to them and specifically tell them, “No, you’re not allowed?” Maybe—Paul had seen the Spirit of Jesus before. Or, maybe they just kept hitting their heads against a wall as they tried to minister unsuccessfully in those areas. We’ll never know exactly, but we do know that there came a point where God wanted them to quit trying to do what wasn’t working.
Verses 9-10 say, “A vision appeared to Paul in the night: a man of Macedonia was standing and appealing to him, and saying, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us.’ When he had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.” Just as chapter fifteen marks a turning point in the welcoming of Gentiles to the church, chapter sixteen marks a place where the church takes another new direction. Instead of continuing to evangelize Asia Minor, Paul and his companions crossed into the continent of Europe to continue their mission.
In chapter fifteen, the church shifts to become a predominantly Gentile religion. In chapter sixteen, the church shifts to become a primarily Western religion. Byzantium becomes the hinge upon which the church swings, and from this point in history the church turns to the West. It wasn’t that God preferred the West or despised the East that the Almighty chose this direction, any more than God preferred the Gentiles rather than the Jews in the previous chapter. It is a mystery of God’s sovereign will that we do not judge—we simply observe that this became a turning point in history. At this present moment, we see the church swinging on its hinge again, with more and more Jews receiving Jesus as the Messiah, and with the most explosive church growth in the East as the church declines in the West. Who can understand God’s purposes? It is up to us to discern and follow God’s leading.
Have you been in a place where you’re banging your head against a wall, lately? Have you been trying to do one thing, but all the while it seems like one obstacle or another has been blocking your path? It may be time for a new direction. Pray that God would clarify His purpose in your life, and be open to His direction as He speaks through dreams and visions, the advice of friends and family, His written Word, the testimony of nature, or the voice of circumstance. I can’t say what that answer may be—but I do believe that there is an answer, if you will listen.
One word of caution for those who listen to God: The Lord rarely leads us in the direction we’re already going. As long as you have momentum in one direction, it’s best to follow that path—like a river flowing down its watercourse. But when you hit a manmade dam or natural obstacle, it’s then that you’re forced to find a new direction. What does water do in that case? It sits for a while and swirls, eddying and swelling until gravity shows it the way. I pray you’ll take the time to sit for a while and pray, growing in faith and grace until God shows you His new direction. Once you hear and obey, God promises, “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous! Do not tremble or be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go (Joshua 1:9).”
[i] All scriptures are taken from the NASB.