Then Paul left the synagogue and went next door to the house of Titius Justus (Acts 18:7).
At some point our relentless commitment to a goal can become a stubborn refusal to be led by the Spirit. Sometimes faith shows itself in the readiness to adapt and course-correct. Sometimes faith shows itself in perseverance and tenacity.
Paul arrived in the city of Corinth with a plan. He would begin telling the Jesus story in the place he knew best – the synagogue. Acts 18 tells us that “every Sabbath” he reasoned in the synagogue “trying to persuade Jews and Greeks.” John Stott observes that the tense of the verb suggests that Paul did this repeatedly and persistently.
But resistance was strong. Eventually the resistance devolved into outright opposition. The folks at the synagogue stopped arguing and reasoning with Paul and became abusive. At this point Paul said “enough.” He “shook out his clothes in protest” and told them “your blood be on your own heads. I am clear of my responsibility. From now on I will go to the Gentiles” (Acts 18:6).
In other words, as far as the synagogue crowd was concerned, Paul had done all he knew to do. He had patiently presented Jesus and challenged them with his arguments that Jesus was their Messiah. But they were having none of it and after a while Paul was having nothing to do with them. They’d had their chance. Now on to the Gentiles.
Pushing the Plan
At what point do you stop pushing the plan? In our culture it’s an admirable thing to be committed to a task and to not be easily discouraged. Remember the movie Rudy? Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger had a dream of playing for Notre Dame and nothing could knock it out of him. Have you heard how John Grisham’s first novel was rejected by more than 30 publishers?
Ruettiger and Grisham didn’t quit. They didn’t stop after two or three polite “no thank-yous.” But at some point it seems that you just have to come clean with yourself and with God and step back and say “this just isn’t happening.” To borrow the language of Acts 18, you “shake out your clothes.”
Sometimes we are right to push the plan in ways that are aggressive and driven. We act with courage and conviction. All the while we’re doing this prayerfully, looking to God for the strength we need to do what we know God has called us to do. The resistance we encounter is nothing more than God’s way of testing us and in so doing making us stronger.
Sometimes, however, we push the plan quietly. We take to heart the frequent biblical admonitions to “wait upon the Lord.” We preach to ourselves a familiar sugar-stick sermon, remembering that our timing is not God’s timing. We resolve to wait on God to act, taking as our model Abraham and other giants of the faith who persevered in hope. We wait and wait and wait.
No Magic Eight-Ball
This is not a theoretical question. It is real and painful for many today: for applicants seeking a job, for couples trying to conceive, for patients going for yet one more round of chemo, for single people who always planned to be married, for students whose career plans depend on acceptance to a school.
There’s no formula that answers this. There’s no magic eight-ball to shake that will tell you to “hang on a little longer” or “hang it up now.” When Jesus taught us to pray, he gave the words “thy will be done.” He did not teach us to pray “thy will be known.” Maybe the best answer is nothing more than prayer – prayers for what we want; prayers for guidance and wisdom; prayers for all the usual standard requests. But we also need to pray as Jesus taught us to pray. And then we trust God to do what God wills to do.
What plan are you pushing today? What would it mean to “shake out your clothes” and move on? What would it look like to faithfully lean in as God leads on?
Grant us wisdom, O God, to live in the center of your will rather than forcing our own plans and exerting our own will. Give us strength to persevere and courage to let go. We trust you today, praying as Jesus taught us for the doing of your will and the coming of your kingdom, asking all these things in his name. Amen.