I’ve recently been intrigued by a question concerning those who exhibit great faith in their lives: are they so focused on God that they are no longer subject to the doubt, anxieties and worries of the rest of us – or, instead, is it only because they are determined in their obedience to God that they overcome them?
Two things have pushed me to dwell on this. The first was a homegroup discussion, based on Acts 18. Paul arrived in Corinth, and as was his custom he went to the Jews and told them about Jesus being the Messiah. However, they did not take kindly to this, so ‘he shook out his clothes in protest and said (or thundered!) to them, “Your blood be on your own heads! I am innocent. From now on I will go to the Gentiles.”‘
Shortly after, Paul has a vision, in which the Lord says “Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people.” Marvelous – Paul knows of God’s protection, so everything’s going to be alright, isn’t it? It’s the next bit that intrigues me.
But when Gallio was proconsul of Achaia, the Jews made a united attack on Paul and brought him before the tribunal, saying, “This man is persuading people to worship God contrary to the law.”
How did Paul feel about this? Did he think, “I have no concerns about this, God always protects me”? Or did he think along the lines of most of the rest of us, “Hang on – I thought God said no-one was going to attack me – so why am I being attacked? Did I really hear God in that vision – or did I just interpret a dream to make it say what I wanted it to say?”
While we can never know exactly what Paul was thinking, there is a little hint in the text that what was happening did seem at the time to contradict the promise of the vision. The crucial word is “But when Gallio…”. My knowledge of Greek is scratchy at best but it’s up to the task for this one: the original Greek uses the word ‘de‘ which is the equivalent of ‘but’ or ‘to the contrary’.
Paul was expecting to have to defend himself, but before he could do so Gallio airily told the Jews that disputes according to their law were no concern of his, and dismissed the case. The Jews took their frustrations out on the synagogue ruler by beating him up. The text does not record the reaction of Paul and his companions but I suspect relief and celebration may have been part of it.
The second thing that has caused me to ponder the question is a book given to me by a friend, “A reed in his right hand” by Gail Rozell. She and her husband moved to Zimbabwe in 1982 as missionaries among the Vadoma tribe. The compelling nature of the book is that it is written by someone who exhibits great faith – and yet is incredibly honest about the struggles that she went through on her journey. For example, they have adopted many children, but not without years of demanding of God why they couldn’t have children of their own. At one point she writes,
People see the public image of a man or woman anointed by God and can sometimes be deceived. There is life beyond the platform, and sometimes that life reflects great cost. When the anointing of God is upon you, you feel as if you can take on the world single-handed. When the crowds have gone home, however, and you climb aboard some old boneshaker, and find yourself choking on the dust coming up through the floor, it is a very different story. Only God’s Word keeps you.
When we experience the doubts, fears and anxieties, it is tempting to think that we’re not cut out for the life of great faith. In fact, I suspect that the opposite is the case. When we face these doubts, fears and anxieties, it is only then that we have the opportunity to exercise faith: by being obedient to God.