Have you ever looked back on a decision and seen what you could have done differently to avoid a world of hurt? When it happens to me, my mind starts to race through a game of “should-have, could-have, would-have.” It’s a bartering, of sorts, with the past. “I should have done this instead,” or, “I could have done that as well,” and, “It would have been different.” But no matter how many scenarios play out in my head, one fact remains: I am exactly where I am, as I am. A game of what-ifs does not change what’s happened.
Sometimes it’s even harder when the decisions were exactly the ones I knew I had to make. At least when I know I’ve made a wrong decision I’m justified in trying to reverse the negative consequences. But with right decisions I have to realize that resulting challenges are just part of the package of being precisely where I’m supposed to be.
I started to think about this the other day as I was reading the book of Acts. There’s a twist about halfway through the book when Paul heads to Jerusalem. Paul has always gallantly gone forth to spread the word of God, but now we see that Paul is heading towards what will ultimately be his death. It’s a deeply disruptive and confusing portion of Scripture.
It reminded me that the decisions we make for God don’t always guarantee an easy path or smooth sailing. Quite often they open up a new direction that includes unexpected challenges ripe with opportunities to question whether or not we’ve done the right thing.
Paul says in Acts 20:22-25, “Now compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there. I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me . . . I know that none of you among whom I have gone about preaching the kingdom will ever see me again.”
I can hardly imagine this farewell. At least when my wife and I left our family and friends in Orlando to start a church in Vancouver we knew that we could always call, text, email, Skype — you name it. But Paul knew this was the last time they’d ever see each other. And if that departure wasn’t hard enough, when Paul arrived in the next city on his way, the people who received him didn’t understand his mission. “Through the Spirit they urged Paul not to go on to Jerusalem” (Acts 21:4).
Can you imagine that? You’ve heard clearly from God about what you have to do, you’ve made some painful steps towards that realization, and then God-loving people through the Spirit urge you not to move forward. Wouldn’t you begin to start questioning the decision you’ve made? Where you’re heading is hard enough, and now it is creating wave after wave of pain for those who care about you. But Paul could no be dissuaded. He continued onward.
When Paul arrived in Caesarea, a prophet named Agabus came and prophesied. He took Paul’s belt, tied it around his own hands and feet and explained, “The Holy Spirit says, ‘In this way the Jews of Jerusalem will bind the owner of this belt and will hand him over to the Gentiles’” (Acts 21:11).
The picture intensifies. Each step towards Jerusalem reveals more danger. Apparently this was even too much for Luke, the author of Acts. “When we heard this, we and the people there pleaded with Paul not to go up to Jerusalem” (Acts 21:12). Surely the logic could have been something like, “Paul, clearly this is a prophetic warning! God is saving you from a world of hurt.” But again, Paul could not be dissuaded. And it came to pass, all of it.
Paul was handed over to the authorities on his way to Jerusalem; he was mistreated and falsely accused. He ended up spending years in jail while Roman authorities neglected him, and while Jewish authorities sought his death. And while in captivity, Jesus himself consoled Paul and said, “Take courage! As you have testified to the facts about me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify in Rome” (Acts 23:11).
After a few more sham trials, Paul — exasperated by the false accusations — appeals to Caesar, which was his right as a Roman citizen (Acts 25:11). But the kicker here is that the authorities were ready to let him go; they recognized Paul’s innocence.
“Agrippa said to Festus, ‘This man could have been set free if he had not appealed to Caesar’” (Acts 26:32). Instead he was sent to Rome, experienced shipwreck on the way, more imprisonment, and church history tells us he was beheaded in Rome. There were so many difficult moments in this part of Paul’s life that I can’t help but wonder if he asked, “Did I make the right decision?”
Surely he could have played the game that we all sometimes play. He had opportunity after opportunity to turn around or reset his course. “I could have responded differently to Agabus,” he might have thought, or, “I should not have appealed to Caesar.” Finally, “If I had chosen differently, I would have remained with my friends.” Did these sorts of thoughts play as a continual loop in his head?
Acts unashamedly underlines what is undeniable in all these events: that what unfolds is all according to God’s plan. Paul kept his eyes fixed on Jesus and would not look away. I can’t help but wonder though, was Paul just being stubborn? Maybe. But even if he was, it seems that God used Paul in all his stubbornness to accomplish His plan.
Are you looking at what’s going on in your life and seriously questioning some of the decisions that have led you to where you are? Maybe you know you made the right decision, but had no idea what it would cost you. The decisions we make to follow Jesus will not always be easy, and they won’t always guarantee outcomes we desire. Paul’s journey was met with resistance, it was misunderstood, and yet it was fundamentally God-inspired.
Maybe this retelling of Paul’s life is discouraging for you. Following God and discerning what he has for us isn’t always clear. Sometimes we make decisions based on God; sometimes they’re just based on what we want. Often we have difficulty hearing God’s voice amid the array of opinions. So we pray, make the decision, and move forward in hope. But then you look at your circumstances and start thinking, “Did I really listen to God?” “Should I have done this differently?” “I could have spent more time in prayer.” “I would have sought more counsel.”
Ultimately, playing the “should-have, could-have, would-have” game does nothing but cause anxiety and regret. It’s really just a way of avoiding your discomfort, or pain, or disappointment. No matter where you are — be it the outcome of your good decisions or even mistaken decisions — you are where you are.
The only true way forward is to take one step at a time towards Jesus, trusting that God is the one who guides even if the path is dark and the situation bleak. We have to remember that God guided Paul, and he guides us as well.