The story is told of Franklin Roosevelt, who often endured long receiving lines at the White House. He complained that no one really paid any attention to what was said. One day, during a reception, he decided to try an experiment. To each person who passed down the line and shook his hand, he murmured, "I murdered my grandmother this morning." The guests responded with phrases like, "Marvelous! Keep up the good work. We are proud of you. God bless you, sir." It was not till the end of the line, while greeting the ambassador from Bolivia, that his words were actually heard. Nonplussed, the ambassador leaned over and whispered, "I'm sure she had it coming."[i]
Just as Roosevelt was continually whispering to people who refused to listen, I fear that God’s people are still refusing to hear His voice when He whispers Truth to our hearts. Or, if we do hear His voice, we often are so stubbornly focused on what we are trying to achieve, that don’t we pay any heed. The apostle Paul frequently got himself into trouble—sometimes legitimately because of his testimony about Christ, but sometimes because he was just plain stubborn and didn’t listen very well.
Acts 19:21[ii] says, “Now after these things were finished, Paul purposed in the Spirit to go to Jerusalem after he had passed through Macedonia and Achaia, saying, ‘After I have been there, I must also see Rome.’” The question we must ask ourselves is whether he purposed in the Holy Spirit, or in his own spirit. In Acts 20:22-24, He makes a clear case to the elders of the church in Ephesus that he believes this guidance is from God, yet imbedded in his words we can see his characteristic ego and martyr complex:
And now, behold, bound by the Spirit, I am on my way to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit solemnly testifies to me in every city, saying that bonds and afflictions await me. But I do not consider my life of any account as dear to myself, so that I may finish my course and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify solemnly of the gospel of the grace of God.
The reason I throw doubt on whether or not Paul was truly led by the Holy Spirit is by his own admission, the Spirit warned him in every city of the trouble that awaited him. God rarely leads in the direction that you are already going. Then, In chapter 21, God warned Paul against going to Jerusalem two or three more times. Luke writes that they met with the elders in the city of Tyre. “After looking up the disciples, we stayed there seven days; and they kept telling Paul through the Spirit (emphasis mine) not to set foot in Jerusalem (v. 4).”
In Caesarea, Paul received another warning:
As we were staying there for some days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. And coming to us, he took Paul’s belt and bound his own feet and hands, and said, “This is what the Holy Spirit says: ‘In this way the Jews at Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles.’” When we had heard this, we as well as the local residents began begging him not to go up to Jerusalem.(vv. 10-12)
Just before Paul met Agabus, he may have received a similar warning from the four prophesying daughters of Philip the Evangelist (vv. 8-9). Yet his stubborn heart refused to listen to either the godly counsel or Spirit-led prophecy of church leaders. He replied: “What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be bound, but even to die at Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus (v. 13).” Notice that Agabus never prophesied anything about dying in Jerusalem—Paul just adds this in for dramatic flair, much like Peter, who declared that he was willing to die for Jesus (Luke 22:33). In response, the church leaders threw up their hands in resignation. Luke writes in verse 14, “And since he would not be persuaded, we fell silent, remarking, ‘The will of the Lord be done!’” This isn’t a recognition that Paul is doing God’s will, but an appeal to the Lord’s will, to set Paul straight. The result of Paul’s decision, of course, was that he did end up suffering needlessly in Jerusalem, and he would not have had to if he had simply heeded their warnings.
Sometimes, God speaks to our hearts in a way that we become fully convinced of His leadership. Yet other times, we can become so ego-driven that we craft our own plans and convince ourselves that God has commissioned us to some great purpose. This was the case with Paul’s determination to go to Jerusalem. I wonder—do you have a “Jerusalem” in your life, that is the destination for your ego? Is God repeatedly warning you through the advice of friends and family and church family, to abandon your prideful determination? Will you press on, convinced of your righteous calling, or will you hear what the Spirit is saying to you through the voices of these people?
Sometimes God speaks through other people. Other times God speaks through our observations of nature, or through the Bible, or through His quiet voice impressed upon our hearts. Sometimes God speaks through “coincidence” and through the things that we observe in our world around us—even through events that are taking shape on the world scene. God spoke to me through a photograph on the news: the image of the drowned Syrian toddler, washed up on a beach near the island of Kos. That island sounded familiar to me, then I realized it was through this area that Paul passed in Acts 21:1. God spoke to me through an image, and through the “coincidence” of this island, which happens to be in today’s scripture. This child died because the international community is doing an abysmal job providing safety and sanctuary for refugees fleeing the war in Syria. Through this child’s death, God speaks to me about my own lack of effort to provide social justice to the endangered and hurting people around me. I wonder—in what ways am I like Paul, stubbornly convinced of my own righteous mission and yet oblivious to what God is actually saying? Proverbs 19:20 (ESV) says, “Listen to advice and accept instruction, that you may gain wisdom in the future.” I pray that our ears and hearts will be open to receive it.
Most Christian denominations have a logo. I love the logo of the United Church of Christ, which is a simple red comma. Generally associated with the comma is a quote from Gracie Allen, who said, “God is still speaking,” Note that her statement ends with a comma, and not a period. The period indicates finality, but the comma is a pause that keeps you listening for more. Yes, as we stubbornly pursue our own agenda, doing what we righteously believe is the will of God for our lives, God is still speaking. The question is—when God speaks, will we listen?
[i] http://www.sermonillustrations.com/a-z/l/listening.htm. September 4, 2015. Original Source Unknown.
[ii] Unless otherwise noted, all scriptures are taken from the NASB.