Life doesn’t always go as expected. We know this intellectually, but there is still some part of us which persistently believes we can completely plan out our lives. This seems to happen a lot with what we envision ourselves doing for Christ. We make these great plans and dreams of carrying out the work of the Kingdom, but then God chooses another path for us, one we didn’t see coming. The ironic thing about it is that the change turns out to be far more glorious in the end than our own detailed strategies. But then again, it makes all the sense in the world.
Paul experienced this in his own life. In the book of Romans, he expresses a plan he had for the next phase of ministry. While writing the epistle, he was on his way to Jerusalem to deliver a gift to the needy brethren, but afterwards, he would begin his journey to Spain, stopping at Rome for a while to fellowship with the saints there (Romans 15:22-26). Point A, point B, point C—he had his itinerary all planned out, and it seemed to be a great and noble one. It carried on his missionary goal, took the gospel farther west, and led him through the Gentile capital of the world. He even went so far as to say, “I know that when I come to you, I will come in the fullness of the blessing of Christ” (Romans 15:29). Sounds impressive.
But the truth is this: Paul did come to Rome, but definitely not as he anticipated. When he arrived in Jerusalem, he delivered the gift to the church, that part when as planned. But when he went into the temple, he was dragged out by the Jews who sought to kill him, and if it had not been for a Roman garrison who stepped in, they probably would have done just that (Romans 21:17-19, 27-36). Over the next couple of years, he was tried repeatedly, transferred between prisons, escaped assassination, and finally brought to Rome in chains. He would spend about two years there before finally being released after his trial. Besides arriving in Rome, nothing about this had been planned by Paul.
So was Paul wrong in believing he would come to Rome “in the fullness of the blessing of Christ?” (Romans 15:29). No, he was not, and here’s why. Although Paul had a plan, God had a greater one, a plan for Paul that began long before.
The first we see of this plan is at Paul’s conversion, but it is not revealed to him at all. Instead, it was given to a faithful brother named Ananias. He was the man sent to lay hands on Paul—Saul still at this point—and present the gospel to him. When Ananias objected to the plan because Saul had been persecuting the Church, God answered, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of Mine, to bear My name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel; for I will show him how much he must suffer for My name’s sake” (Acts 9:15, 16). We do not know whether Ananias ever shared this with Saul when he went to him, but that is not what truly matters about this passage.
Notice that right there at the beginning of Paul’s new life, God was already foretelling how he was “a chosen instrument” who would preach “before the Gentiles and kings” and that he would “suffer” many things (Acts 9:15, 16). Although some of this was fulfilled in part through Paul’s missionary journeys, it all came together after his arrest in Jerusalem.
But this wasn’t the only time God shared about His plan for Paul. During one of Paul’s trials, the religious leaders began fighting among themselves, and even started to pose a physical threat to Paul himself (Acts 23:10). As we might imagine, Paul was probably pretty discouraged by the way things had actually turned out. But in that low time of testing, Jesus appeared to him in a night vision, saying, Take courage; for as you have solemnly witnessed to My cause at Jerusalem, so you must witness at Rome also” (Acts 23:11). The verse actually says that Jesus “stood at his side” that night. That’s pretty incredible.
But here’s the point—God had a much greater purpose and plan than Paul did. Sure, Paul had done great things while travelling around the known world for Christ, but his trials of arrest, imprisonment, and confinement in Rome produced abundant fruit. For one thing, Paul himself came to recognize that as a result of what he endured in these things, the gospel was preached to “the praetorian guard…and that most of the brethren” were encouraged to press on for Christ, and even some “of Caesar’s household” came to believe in Jesus (Philippians 1:12-14; 4:22). But there was even more fruit than that. There are many great epistles that were written during this time of Roman imprisonment: Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon. These epistles are so rich and full of instruction as they express Paul’s joy in following Christ.
Paul could very well have finally made it to Spain after his first Roman imprisonment, but Scripture does not reveal this to us (Wiersbe p. 173). But whether he did or not, it did not happen as he thought it would. Yet even so, God was able to use Paul mightily during this phase of his life. Paul could have pushed back, growing bitter because his plans had not worked out, but he didn’t. Just read Philippians (for example, Philippians 1:18). He recognized God was doing something far greater, and though he may not have understood it all, he chose to faithfully serve Him through it.
So in terms of application, we are urged to be faithful to the Lord, even when it seems that our best-laid, most noble plans are turned upside down (see Hebrews 12:1). Paul even said that God “comforts us in our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction” (2 Corinthians 1:4). God does grow us through trials, absolutely, but He can even use us to serve and minister to others as a result of our trials (James 1:2-4).
While this may not be a difficult concept to grasp in our minds, it is another thing to internalize it so we hold it fast when we our faced with great moments of struggle. But even so, it is the truth of God’s Word. He has promised to be with us through whatever trials we go through, supporting us through them if we will trust and cling to Him (Isaiah 43:1-5; Hebrews 13:5, 6). No matter what we are going through, God can be glorified through it by our obedience and trust in Him. He knows it is hard, that is why He has given us the Spirit. But we have to be ready. As a friend of mine used to say all the time, “Prepare for the battle beforehand.” We don’t know when it’s coming, but God does. Besides that, He knows the plans He has prepared for us long before we do (Jeremiah 29:11). We must prepare for the struggles , the difficulties that are coming. Are plans may be radically changed, but if we are truly committed to the Lord, we will follow Him wherever He leads us. We exist to bring Him glory, after all, and we must strive to do that fully, regardless of what comes our way.
Wiersbe, Warren W. Be Daring: Acts 13-28, Kindle Edition. David C Cook, 1988.