Suddenly there was such a violent earthquake that the foundations of the prison were shaken. At once all the prison doors flew open, and everyone’s chains came loose. Acts 16:26
I’m intrigued by this story in Acts 16, not only because Paul and Silas did not leave through the open door of their jail cell, but also because they were apparently able to convince all of the other prisoners to stay as well. Just a few chapters earlier, Peter left jail under similar circumstances (I know, I know, he had an angel directing him to leave and that is definitely a distinguishing feature!), and I cannot help but wonder if I might not have interpreted an earthquake and chains miraculously falling off me as a sign from God that I should leave!
I think there is a lesson here for the church. Discerning God’s direction for a church is never quite as simple as walking through every door that seems to miraculously open…never merely a matter of seeing God in isolated circumstances. That is true because, as it turns out, there is usually more than one possible interpretation of circumstances! The danger in discerning God’s will in that case is that we all tend to see what we want to see.
What about the scenario where a wealthy church member walks in and agrees to write a check to cover some dream the pastor has always had? Is that necessarily God speaking? What if your church has prayed and asked God to pave the way for a relocation and someone leaves the church a large tract of land in their estate? Is that God saying “move”? If the pastor has always dreamed of starting a half-way house ministry in the house the church owns, and the city planning division suddenly and “miraculously” has a change of heart and agrees to re-zone the property for those purposes, is that God giving the “go-ahead” for that ministry?
Here are some of the phrases we use in these situations…”God seems to be making the way straight for us”…or “God is opening a door”…or “Clearly God is doing this.” We see the chains fall off and the prison door swing wide open, which is exactly what we have been longing for (even praying for), and we are tempted to jump up and run, celebrating and praising God the whole way!
Do you see the danger? Circumstances are open to being interpreted in lots of different ways and we are all capable of seeing what we want to see. The truth is, we can do the same thing with scripture, or with our prayers, or even with interpreting what the pastor just preached or a Godly mentor just said to us. But we can have much more certainty about what God is doing and saying when all of these things line up and point the same direction. The Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 illustrates that beautifully. When circumstances, scripture, prayer and Godly counsel all point the same way, then we can feel much more confident that we have heard from God.
Otherwise, when all we seem to have is a wide open prison door…we should be very, very careful about what we think that means!