This is not what I was expecting to write but this is precisely the point! God has an uncanny knack for using unexpected changes of plan to open us up to what He actually wants to do. In Mark 4: 33-5: 19, Jesus walks away from a bumper teaching session, with a huge crowd and sails headlong into a dangerous storm. All for what? To send some demons out of a lonely man and upset some townspeople. In Acts 8: 12, 26-40, God leads Philip, evangelist extraordinaire, away from a major revival and into the desert, for whom? A single, travelling official who can’t even have any children to pass on the message. Lastly, in Acts 16: 6-10, God shut down the plans of one of His leading apostles to send him off in a completely different direction.
God seems to enjoy sending us in unexpected detours.
I fully intend to take a closer look at these scriptures later but let’s think about what is common to all of them before that. Firstly, in all of them, God explicitly and deliberately goes against the grain of human thinking. It seems that it takes these kinds of detours to remind us just who is in control anyway. I am all for planning and strategy and thinking but we always need to remain open to God throwing a proverbial spanner in the works.
Secondly, in each of these instances, God shows that His priorities are not always the same as ours and the means that we have to change. In a world driven by popularity, PR and reputation, it is striking that, in these three passages, this is precisely the opposite of what God led people to do. God prizes obedience above advertising. One lost person finding salvation, freedom and life is a much bigger deal to God than a huge crowd that can’t make up its mind. Sometimes, it is even godly to leave a massive revival to touch someone who would otherwise be unreached!
Lastly, being willing to follow these unexpected detours is part of what it really means to follow Christ. The disciples could have sat out the storm, staying comfy on the seashore but they would have missed two amazing miracles. Philip could have gone on building a megachurch in Samaria but he would have missed the chance to affect the destiny of an entire continent. Paul could have insisted on his original itinerary but the people of Philippi, Corinth, Athens and even believers today would have suffered as a result. Obedience carries blessing, even if we don’t see it at the time.
I want to end this with a much less dramatic story. Over the past few years, Helen and I have lived through what I can now call a long unexpected detour (I didn’t call it that when I was in it!). Around two and a half years ago, we were minding our own business in a church conference when God decided to say that it was time to leave Glasgow, where we had gotten comfortable and where we could have willingly settled. His chosen destination was Wishaw.
It is probably fair to say that Wishaw was not on my top 5 list of places to live in. Helen and I went to church in the town but my commitment to the town ended there. Nevertheless, after realising the silliness of trying to argue with God, I decided to share with Helen what I thought God was saying. She agreed that it was probably God and so we made plans to move and to throw ourselves even more into helping the church we attended there. A few months later and we had a lovely new flat. Oddly enough, a few months after that, the church we were in, the church I had been in since about the age of 9, was no more. To my mind, with the reason for the detour now gone, we were free to move again to Edinburgh, nearer where I still study now.
God had other plans. What I imagined as a quick turnaround ended up becoming a two year odyssey. In the meantime, I battled feelings of loneliness, abandonment and a whole host of other issues. I also discovered, to my own cost, that settling into a church is not a matter of standing like a stoogie with a cup of tea in your hand before and after the meeting and waiting for someone to notice you. All too late, I learned that actually, building relationships with other Christians is a two way thing. If we feel left out, sometimes it is actually our fault.
Now, months after that uncomfortable detour is over, I can look back and understand what God was doing. Robbed of many of my old comfortable relationships, I had no choice but to try to rely on Him. In a whole new church, I was free to learn things about trust, openness and reliance on others that I could not have learned the same way where we were before. I learned that God can show His love through people we hardly even know. God is the same no matter where we are and wherever you find people who are truly serving Him, you find incredible love.
An unexpected detour, even with unexpected pain, led to unexpected growth. We never like it when our plans are disturbed but sometimes it’s the best means God has to teach us. Discomfort is an effective teaching tool and God only uses it because He loves us and wants us to lean on Him more than we lean on the circumstances and people around us.
Next week, we will leave this detour behind and find God in unexpected ways in Unexpected Beginnings.