Do you think the Apostle Paul ever felt “stuck”? Did he ever feel frustrated at not being able to obey God’s call on his life because of external circumstances? If I found myself in his shoes, I might have.
This past year, a lot of people (including myself) have felt stuck and hindered by external circumstances, largely as a result of government restrictions in response to COVID-19. Plans have been frustrated and new plans were also frustrated, and then the most gingerly held and tentative plans were also frustrated. “Surely, by such-and-such a time, things should be getting back to normal” was in the thoughts and on the lips of many of us, but that confidence that it would only be a bit longer was continually upended.
But what does the train wreck of 2020 (and 2021?) have to do with the Apostle Paul?
Like most of us have been, Paul was buffeted by external circumstances outside of his control. As I read through the book of Acts recently, I was particularly struck by the stories of his imprisonment near the end of the book. In reality, Paul didn’t NEED to be in jail. If various people, including government leaders, had acted differently, his lockdown could have ended at any time. Paul had places to go and people to see. The apostle to the Gentiles surely would have been better able to fulfill God’s call on his life by being out and about visiting people and preaching than by sitting in jail and conversing occasionally with a corrupt government official. Yet, for reasons of political expediency and greed, Felix kept Paul in jail for two years without any criminal charges against him. And when he was succeeded by Porcius Festus, Felix left Paul in prison because he desired to do a favor for Paul’s Jewish enemies (Acts 24:22-27).
How do you think Paul felt about all this? Did he ever get frustrated or disillusioned with God for not changing the minds and hearts of his captors so that he could get on with his business of being an apostle? How was Paul’s mental health during his lockdown? Did he spend his time moaning and complaining about Felix’s ineptitude and wickedness that kept him there? Maybe Paul had some low points where he gave in to grumbling and complaining. We don’t know. However, even if he did, his letters indicate that that kind of mentality did not dominate his attitude and outlook on life.
Reflecting on a multitude of his life experiences, both good and bad, Paul told the Philippians, "I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me." (Philippians 4:11-13).
Paul never minimized pain and suffering, either his own or that of others. And the point of this post is not to say that lockdown and restrictions are not a big deal. They are. Whether you agree with the necessity and appropriacy of such regulations or not, they are still difficult to bear. For most of us, there is little in our power that we can do to change the decisions that government leaders make about lockdowns, stay-at-home orders, and other restrictions. We just have to live with them and find creative ways to work around them. There are constructive ways for Christians to work for change in society, but continually grumbling and complaining about what’s wrong is not one of them.
Like the apostle Paul, we somehow need to learn to be content in the circumstances in which we find ourselves and recognize the hand of God in the day of narrowed horizons and limited opportunities. Through his time in jail and the opposition of enemies, Paul learned what it was to be brought low and yet still be content in God. Have we learned the secret of being content in all circumstances, including our current ones? If we haven’t (and I confess that I struggle with contentedness sometimes), we need to turn back to reading Scripture, to prayer, to good Christian books, to attending / tuning in to local church services, and to fellowship with other believers in whatever way we are able to do so.
With the apostle Paul as an example, I believe that being content in lockdown and whatever other circumstances is possible because God is good. But we may need to pursue that contentedness and not give up because the world, the flesh, and the devil are against us.