GOD DOES NOT ALWAYS ANSWER OUR PRAYERS
Acts 16:9-15, Psalm 67, Revelation 21:10, 22:1-5
May 17, 1998 by Tad Mitsui
When Frank Sinatra died on Thursday, everybody said that he lived like his song, "I did it my way." We all wish, too, God answers our prayers by letting us to do it our way. But you notice that the Apostle Paul, on at least two occasions, did not have his way. God did not answer his prayers, and obliged him to go in God”s way, rather than his own. Today”s lesson from the Acts says, "The Holy Spirit forbid him to speak the Word in Asia." and "A woman (She) prevailed upon us." First sentence implies that he had not thought of ever going to Europe, but rather intended to stay in Asia. The second one says that a woman prevailed upon Paul, and he had to follow her way.
According to the book of Acts, the Holy Spirit prohibited Paul to preach the Gospel in Asia. It takes a bit of detective work to find out what this actually meant. Some of you with sharp eyes may have noticed a change in pronouns in the chapter 16 of the Acts, in verses 8 and 10. After Paul and his company crossed the channel into Europe, the writer switched the pronoun from "they" to "we". It means that the writer of this book joined Paul”s company in Europe. We all know that the writer of the Book of Acts was Luke, and he was a physician. We can assume that the reason why Paul could not continue in Asia had something to do with his health, and a medical doctor had to accompany Paul from that time on. We find many hints in Paul”s letters that he had some serious health problems, although we don”t know the exact nature of these problems. Especially, we don”t know the particular problem that did not allow Paul to continue in Asia. But his ill-health was a clear message from God; "Go to Europe instead."
A persistent health problem is annoying to say the least. How many time did some sickness prevent you from doing things you had wanted to do? It could be very frustrating. This is because we take an adverse situation like illness as a refusal, not as a message that points us in a new direction. We take it negatively and think that God or fate doesn”t allow us to do things we want to do. But we must realize that, from time to time, God speaks to us through an adverse situation, like an accident or sickness. It prevents you to do what you want to do, and directs you in a different direction – in God”s way. We will never find out God”s way if we insist that ours is the best way and the only way. We can only find God”s way when we are ready to make the best out of a bad situation. We may find that the bad situation is a message in disguise. God shows us the best way sometimes by not answering our prayers. We must learn to see the work of the Holy Spirit in disappointing situations and in our failures and mistakes. We must learn to say, "This is not good. But what is God saying in all this?"
Another surprise in today”s reading is the fact that the first European Christian was a woman. Her name was Lydia. It was in her home that the first church in Europe started. Actually, nobody should be surprised that this was the case. There have always been more women than men in the church. Two-third of the worshippers in the church everywhere are women. So it should not come as a surprise that the first person who accepted Jesus Christ in Europe and became a committed Christian was also a woman.
Lydia opened up her whole house as the place of worship. Also she offered her home as lodging for Paul and his company. But apparently those men were reluctant to accept Lydia”s hospitality. The Bible says that Lydia had to "prevail upon" them. Their reluctance is easy to understand, if you consider the accepted code of behaviours between men and women in those days. It could have been easily misunderstood if a group of Jewish religious leaders slept in a single gentile woman”s home. But they stayed in her home for a few days, and that”s how the first European church began.
The church in Philippi in Lydia”s home began to thrive, and eventually became Paul”s most beloved Church. In his letter to the Philippians, which he wrote just before he was executed in Rome, he said, "My brothers and sisters, I love you and long for you. You are my joy and crown." It is fascinating to picture the group of women who originally gathered around Lydia and to realize that a business woman and her employees, grew into a thriving church so generous and loving.
Considering the status of women throughout history, it is surprising that two thousand years ago the first important church in Europe was founded by a group of women. The Bible says that it was the work of the Holy Spirit in spite of Paul”s unsupportive opinion about the place of women in the church. He even wrote in another letter that women should not speak in the church. What happened in Philippi certainly was not within Paul”s scheme of things. But it was obvious that the will of the Spirit of Christ prevailed and some women took charge in the early church.
In fact, Rodney Stark, a sociologist, attributes the rapid growth of the early church to the status of women in the Christian community. In those days in Roman Empire, the status of women was extremely low. For example, the law allowed the killing of baby girls together with deformed children. Consequently, the ratio of men and women in Roman Empire was 14 men to 10 women – 40% more men. Many men could not marry and went to prostitutes. It was only in the Christian church this practice of infanticide was prohibited according to the teaching of Jesus. Women enjoyed more respect in the church than they did in wider society. So, naturally many women were attracted to the church and joined. Eventually, there were more marriages in the church and there was a population explosion among Christians. They practiced the teaching of Christ about the equality of men and women. It was rare in those days. And it brought about a burgeoning Christian community during the early days of the church.
If we honestly believe that God”s way is the best way, we must be ready to accept whatever may come our way, even if it was not what we have expected or wanted. Otherwise, we will never learn from our mistakes nor be able to make the best out of adverse situations. We will miss surprising opportunities that open to us when other doors shut. And we will always blame God for not answering our prayers. The Apostle Paul learned how the Holy Spirit worked when he found that he could not always do it his way. Thank God, some of Paul”s prayers were not answered.