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Today, the Fourth of October, is the twenty-third anniversary of the car accident that left me differently-abled. Since Post Day for the blog fell on Anniversary Day, I wanted to do something special. I thought and thought and searched for the perfect words to say…what? What do I know after twenty-three years of living differently-abled that will mean anything to anybody?
I recently read a quote by a spiritual leader whose writings I have read and admired in the past, something that made the quote so astonishing. This leader was talking about us believers taking a carnal rather than a spiritual approach to our enemies and said our carnal approach could put us in a place where God cannot help us. I don’t have the full context of this quote so perhaps I am interpreting these words in a way the writer never intended. However, I was struck by any leader saying we humans could end up in a place where God could not help us, regardless of the context. I declare to you today such a statement is not true. I know Paul’s words are the truth: “For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created things, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39). He is truly the One who keeps His promise never to leave nor forsake us and I know from experience we are never beyond His help.
At the time of the car accident, I was not living a life in Jesus Christ. I believed in Him certainly but, sick of the rules and regulations and a Father God I could not please no matter what, I had walked away from trying to live a Christian life. I was miserable, of course, but God never once let go of me. In fact, He was with me the moment I woke up in that car after the accident. His presence urged me to get out of the car and He was with me every step of the mile and a half journey I had to take to find help. He was with me as I went away from rather than towards town and He was with me when I found the men who, by a remarkable coincidence, had postponed their fishing trip a week and were thus close by to get me to help and save my life.
I didn’t die in my car accident and I know that isn’t the outcome for many. I lost a family member in an accident a few short months after my own. What about death? Isn’t that a sign that God didn’t help? That is not a subject that can be addressed in the limited space I have today but let me quote again that neither death nor life…shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. I can tell you He was with me through this experience as well and I can assert along with Paul that death and the grave do not have the final word (1 Corinthians 15:55-57). We can trust Jesus even in these circumstances. He is the Living One and he holds the keys of death and hell (Revelation 1:18). (Note: while these passages have the words grave and hell respectively, the Greek word in both places is the same-hades [G86]).
But what about consequences, I can hear some asking. We make our own choices and God doesn’t spare us the consequences of our actions. We suffer from our own choices and we suffer because of the choices of others. I don’t disagree. I do disagree-utterly-with the idea that the choices we or anyone else make somehow thwarts God. For a beautiful story of what God can do when others mean evil toward us and our sufferings do not stem from anything we did, read the story of Joseph related in Genesis Chapters 37-48. But, what about situations like mine where, while it was an accident, I can’t deny I made my own choices. I have already shared how I did not put myself in a situation where not even God could help me, but there have been life changing consequences from this accident. What can I now hope for? I find reassurance in a story from Paul’s life in Chapters 20-23 of the Book of Acts.
I do wonder if this story doesn’t start in Chapter 18. The end of verse 18 says, “He had his hair cut off at Cenchrea, for he had taken a vow.” I’ve read various commentaries on just what this vow was and whether the cutting of the hair meant completion of the vow as such a completion usually meant the necessity of a sacrifice in Jerusalem. I cannot say one way or another but this vow is something I can’t help but keep in mind as I read Chapters 20-23. Paul is determined to get to Jerusalem for the Day of Pentecost (Acts 20:16) and nothing, not even the Holy Spirit Himself, is going to stop him.
Paul states, “And see now I go bound in the spirit to Jerusalem, not knowing the things that will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies in every city, saying that chains and tribulations await me. But none of these things move me; nor do I count my life dear to myself…”
The Holy Spirit spoke to Paul through another as well. Chapter 21 relates how a prophet named Agabus comes down from Judea, takes Paul’s belt, binds his own hands and feet and says, “Thus says the Holy Spirit, so shall the Jews at Jerusalem bind the man who owns this belt and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles” (verses 10-11). Those with Paul plead with him to change his mind but he will not be persuaded. I have to laugh a little when I read verse 14: “So when he would not be persuaded, we ceased, saying, “The will of the Lord be done.” I do wonder just what they meant by that…
Paul goes to Jerusalem and everything happens exactly the way the Holy Spirit warned it would. You can read the details of his time in Jerusalem and arrest through the rest of Chapter 21 and into Chapter 23. And so…wouldn’t you think that disregarding warnings from THE HOLY SPIRIT would be a terrible sin? Wouldn’t you think God would have no choice but to wash His hands of Paul and find someone else, someone more willing to be obedient? Wouldn’t you think Paul’s choices had put him in a place where not even God could help him?
God doesn’t abandon him. Verse 11 of Chapter 23 starts with “But”. I always pay attention to the ‘buts’ I find in scripture and focus what came before. Verse 10 says, “Now when there arose a great dissension, the commander, fearing lest Paul might be pulled to pieces by them, commanded the soldiers to go down and take him by force from among them, and bring him into the barracks.” And then verse 11: “But…”
I spent some time between verses 10 and 11, imagining what Paul might be thinking and feeling. He knew what to expect. The Holy Spirit made clear what was going to happen if he chose to come to Jerusalem. I wonder if Paul felt like a failure. I wonder if he was sure God would have to use someone else, someone less stubborn, more malleable. I wonder if he had any hope of being used to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ ever again. I wonder if he was overwhelmed with thoughts of “what if” and “if only”. I wonder all of this and then read verse 11: “BUT the following night the Lord stood by him and said, “Be of good cheer, Paul; for as you have testified for Me in Jerusalem, so you must also bear witness in Rome.”
What would Paul have been if he had heeded the warnings of the Holy Spirit and bypassed Jerusalem? I think the question is worth asking but the answer really is “it doesn’t matter.” The wonderful lesson I glean from this story is our choices cannot thwart the plan of God. God was with Paul through his imprisonments and the things that happened to him as he was transferred from one place of incarceration to another. And we have his letters, some written during these times of imprisonment, like the Epistle to the Philippians which bubbles over with the Joy of The Lord.
There’s a phrase, “You made your bed: now lie in it.” What breaks my heart is when I hear the disdain in this phrase echoed in the words of Believers. We ought to know better because we see Jesus. If God, who is love, could possibly have in His heart the idea of “you made your bed: now lie in it”, He never would have given the promises of the One to come throughout the entire Old Testament and would have never given Jesus. This is what I know. I know He loves me and I know there is nothing I can ever do to stop Him loving me. I know there is no mistake I can make He cannot redeem. I know He is with me in this mess I have made of my life and that He is making it all work for good and for His purposes. I know because Jesus lives, and lives in me through His Spirit, I can face whatever this life might hold.
Because He lives, I can face tomorrow
Because He lives, all fear is gone
Because I know, He holds the future,
And life is worth the living just because He lives.
All scriptures are quoted from:
The New King James Version of The Holy Bible, Thomas Nelson, Inc., Nashville, Tennessee, 1982