When Paul visited the island of Malta, he performed miracles, healed the sick and shared the gospel with the inhabitants. It sounds like a fabulously successful short-term missions trip until you remember that the only reason he was there was that he was a prisoner being transported for his trial and had just survived a horrendous shipwreck.
Chapters 27-28 of the book of Acts relates the account of this event. On reading through it recently, I was struck for the first time at the way Paul did not lose focus. It’s well-documented that he considered himself a servant of God, as he started just about everything he wrote with that declaration. In fact, the very fact that he was going to Rome was due to his obedience to the Lord; at the beginning of his journey, King Agrippa said to Governor Festus, “This man could have been set free if he had not appealed to Caesar.” (Acts 26:32, ESV)
Later in his imprisonment, Paul wrote down this attitude of servanthood in a letter to the Philippians, showing that his focus was entirely on God’s kingdom rather than his own life:
I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. (Phil. 1:12-13)
It’s one thing to intellectually assent that, yes, that Paul fellow, he sure did want to serve the Lord. But when I put myself into his shoes, aboard a ship that was about to sink in a terrible storm, I started to see a more personal application.
Throughout the shipwreck ordeal, Paul did not lose sight of the fact that he was there to serve others. His concern was for the people on the ship, not himself. Once they landed on the island of Malta, instead of lying on the ground in a daze recovering from the cold and wet, he helped the natives of the island gather wood for a fire. Even in his dire straits, he felt responsibility for those he was with and acted in service to them. When a snake fastened itself to his hand, he shook it off into the fire and kept gathering, as if he didn’t have time to deal with poison because he had better things to do.
When the islanders then were astounded that he didn’t die, he turned that into an opportunity to share the gospel with them. When Publius, the chief man of the island, invited him to his house, he prayed for healing for Publius’ father. When people then began bringing their sick to him, he prayed for them too.
Everything he did spoke to his position as a servant of God rather than as a prisoner of Rome.
If he had leveraged this situation in order to escape, no one would have blamed him. He could have run away instead of gathering wood. He could have begged Publius for asylum. He could have simply asked the centurion to look the other way; at that point the man was undoubtedly so thankful that no one had died, he could have easily agreed to let Paul get lost in the commotion with no one the wiser.
But no matter how the circumstances played out, Paul stayed focused on his mission. Just as he shook off the snake into the fire so that he could keep serving those around him, he treated the imprisonment as if it was almost incidental to him – he knew God wanted him to go to Rome, and he wasn’t going to let a shipwreck get in the way. Later he writes it down:
For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. (Phil 1:21-24)
It is so easy for me to focus on circumstances, which, as we live in a fallen world, are often difficult, unfair and uncomfortable. It’s easy to see a change in plans as a game-changer; the first adversity that comes up is a good excuse to take a break, drop the ball or even seize a personal advantage. I wonder, though, if I had Paul’s perspective, if I would see that trip to the emergency room as a reason to feel sorry for myself and take it easy or as an opportunity to minister to nurses, doctors and fellow patients. Would I see a difficult situation with a co-worker as a sign that I need a new job, or an opportunity to pray for that person and show them love?
When the goal is not my comfort, my advancement or my success but rather my service to God’s Kingdom, my reactions change vastly.
I can’t, however, keep my eyes fixed on the goal set before me if I don’t know what that goal is.
So what is my goal as a member of God’s Kingdom? What is my purpose as a Christian? If my understanding of being a Christian goes no further than making it to heaven when I die, it’s not really going to change my actions here on earth because that problem has already been taken care of by Christ’s sacrifice; I don’t have to do anything else to earn it.
A little personal inventory, time spent in prayer and specific goal-setting might be in order here. What is the goal I am aiming for here on earth? Service to God? That’s pretty vague. What does that service mean?
Paul knew that his service to God, at that time, meant specifically going to Rome and standing trial. He knew that that ordeal would open doors for him to tell more people about Christ, and he considered himself not a victim of the circumstance but an active participant in it.
It goes without saying that if I don’t know what my service to the Kingdom entails, in this time and this place, then I can’t stay on mission with it. This leads me to wonder whether my focus on circumstances isn’t just a bad attitude – maybe I don’t know what else to focus on.
So maybe, before the next shipwreck comes my way, I need to seriously quantify what God is telling me to do. Maybe I need to pray “your Kingdom come, your will be done” not as a rote recitation but as a question.
“God, let my day today, this week, this month, this season, be about building Your Kingdom rather than my own. Show me what You are doing so that I can align my thoughts and actions with it.”
And then, even if I have to wince and grit my teeth when I say this, I need to keep going:
“Let Your will be done in my life today rather than my own – let that be the focus of my day. I think my plans for the day entail x, y and z, but please show me what Your plans for the day are, and I will be happy to set those things aside.”
Every time I have made a habit of praying this way upon waking, my life starts turning into a series of divine appointments. I still pay the bills, buy the groceries, do the work and chauffeur the kids, but along the way I find myself having significant conversations. I start feeling a higher sense of purpose and find it easier to see the problems that arise as more of an unexpected change in schedule, which might be the beginning of a divine appointment, than an actual problem.
I want to be able to say with Paul, “I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel,” instead of “Why does this always happen to me?”
I’m feeling the need to do a little personal inventory today so that I can get that goal more clearly set in my mind. Anyone want to join me?