When functioning as it ought, the heart of the Christian is so constructed that when he sees a need, his immediate impulse is to stop what he is doing and minister to it.
But what if the Father has something else for that believer to do, something more appropriate for this believer’s skills and heart and desires, something further down the road, something not apparent at the moment?
What if the Father does not want the disciple turning aside to minister to every need he/she notices along the way and needs him/her to–you’ll understand the expression–move it?
In that case, the Father’s primary plan seems to be to close doors in front of the believer.
Closed doors–when you are in a desperate search for an open one–can be frustrating and discouraging.
A letter arrived this week from a friend in another state. He is not a pastor but a minister of music and worship leader, and a good one, if I’m any judge. The gist of the letter said, “No one seems to want what I can do for their church. They all seem to want younger men who play the guitar and put on a show. I’m a traditionalist and not comfortable with contemporary trends in church music.”
“Right now,” he said, “I’m working with a church of another denomination, and the work is going well, although the pastor is being non-supportive. I want to get back into our denomination, but nothing is opening up. I’m frustrated and my wife is bordering on anger.”
He did not ask for advice and I did not offer any. I promised to pray for him, and I have.
I can’t get him out of my mind or off my heart.
It could be because there was a time 20 years ago when I was in a similar position. Before I resigned the church I’d been pastoring (due to internal conflicts and the recommendation of a consultant), I turned away pastor search committees from more than one mega congregations. After I became unemployed, only the tiniest of churches would talk with me. The prevailing thought seemed to be, “If you’re so hot, why are you out of the pulpit?”
Paul and Silas must have felt the same way. “If the world is so needy for the gospel and if God has called us to this work, why are we finding door after door closed?”
The way Luke tells it, this missionary team had ventured into northern Asia Minor–what is Turkey today–in their quest to bring the message of Jesus Christ to their world.
“And they passed through the Phrygian and Galatian region, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia.” (Acts 16:6)
We wonder about that. What means did the Lord use to communicate to this team of missionaries that the doors were closed thereabouts? Was it just an inner sense? Were the authorities there hostile?
Continuing: “And when they had come to Mysia, they were trying to go into Bithynia, and the Spirit of Jesus did not permit them.”
Get your map down. Luke’s description covers a lot of ground, possibly two hundred miles or more. And remember, these men are on foot. We’re talking about a minimum of two weeks of daily trekking across this far-flung region of the Roman Empire. More than likely, it took months.
And then: “And passing by Mysia, they came down to Troas.” That would be the ancient city of Troy, on the banks of the Aegean Sea.
They are, as we would put it, at the jumping off place.
And then: “A vision appeared to Paul in the night. A certain man of Macedonia was standing and appealing to him, and saying, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us.'”
“And 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.” (Acts 16:6-10)
And so does the gospel of Jesus come for the first time into Europe.
(It’s helpful to point out that the only way we know when Luke joins Paul’s teams–he was in and out, for reasons known only to them–is by his use of “we” and “us”. Otherwise, Luke remains invisible in this story. We gladly note that what we have here is an eyewitness account, not hearsay. Luke was there.)
We read this account in Acts 16–read it far too quickly in my judgement and rush along as though it all happened one morning between breakfast and noon–without any thought to the tasks and obstacles being handed this missionary team.
They had to cross the Aegean Sea. On our little maps it doesn’t look like much, but according to the scale, that leg of their journey involved over 100 miles of turbulence.
Then, they entered the province of Macedon, known in history as the home region of the father of Alexander the Great, known to us as Philip of Macedon. Macedonia was a Roman Province, not a town, something like our states.
Once the evangelistic team arrived, they still had to go looking for whomever the Lord had prepared for them to meet and minister to. (In fact, the best we can tell, they never did meet the man in Paul’s vision.)
Now, let’s stop. We’ve gone far enough for the moment. In fact, a little too far; let’s back up.
We’re talking about God closing doors at the very time when we’re looking for opportunities to serve Him. We’re talking about dealing with frustration and anger when it appears the God who called you into His harvest now has no place for you on His workforce.
So, here is what is to be learned from this account:
1. If it happened to Paul and Silas and Luke–if God closed the doors on them–we should not be surprised when He does it to us.
2. We must not look with envy at our neighbor (the pastor or minister across town) who goes from one success to another, from this church to a larger and from there to an even greater assignment. What God does with him has nothing to do with what He does with you. “What is that to you? Follow thou me.” (John 21:22)
3. God is trying to move us along. What He has in store further down the road is good and perfectly suited for our situation, our desires and abilities. But it may not be close at hand.
4. Our two-fold task is to keep walking and to stay close to the Lord so we will immediately sense two kinds of messages from Him: when He says “no” and when He says “go.”
5. The best prescription for anger I know is to get your eyes off the Lord and onto those “people/churches/leaders” who are not inviting us to work in their fields. They are not the problem. If you will allow me to say this without explaining it further, the Lord is your problem.
6. An overlooked aspect of the travels of these men is the expense involved. They had to live, had to pay for transportation across the Aegean, had to replace the occasional worn out sandal. Where did the money come from? The only answer is one far from adequate, but the best we can come up with at the moment: they did whatever they had to. Paul was a tentmaker, Luke was a physician (in Colossians 4:14 Paul called him “the beloved physician”), and others may have brought additional skills along with them.
The Lord’s servant may have to take a job doing anything he can to pay the bills. For centuries, that’s how the gospel of Christ traveled–evangelists and missionaries moved without a board or agency underwriting them, but simply as individuals taking new jobs and establishing the work in new towns, new countries.
7. Well, one thing we can know–once you walk through the open door God sets before you, all difficulties cease, that’s for certain. You are “home.” You’re now ensconced in the ideal church, serving the perfect congregation, living the life of your dreams and plans.
Bad wrong. In this same 16th chapter of Acts, Paul and Silas arrive in the Macedonian city of Philippi–named for whom? I’ll bet you know!–and are shortly arrested for preaching and ministering. They are beaten with rods and thrown into prison where they are locked into stocks. Later that evening, with their wounds open and untreated and dealing them excruciating pain, they began to sing.
You know the rest of that fascinating story.
Across this land, you will occasionally encounter a church with the inviting name of “The Church of the Open Door.” I’ve always liked that title. But it doesn’t tell the whole story.
Sometimes we have to deal with closed doors into order to get to the one God has opened for us. And the journey from here to there can be torturous.
If you know a minister passing through Bithynia and Galatia and Mysia, looking for their Macedonia, encourage them.