Why does God make us wait for difficult times to be over? Why does he sometimes delay his solution to the things that are troubling us? I was thinking about this while reading Acts chapter 8 and 9 this morning. Acts 8 describes what must have been a very difficult situation for our brothers and sisters in the early church:
At that time a great persecution arose against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria…As for Saul, he made havoc of the church, entering every house, and dragging off men and women, committing them to prison.
How long did this time last? We’re not told, but it’s long enough for the events of Acts 8 to take place. It’s more than a few days. It had to have been at least a few weeks, or even months. Imagine how stressful and difficult those weeks must have been. Acts 9 begins by continuing the story:
Then Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked letters from him to the synagogues of Damascus, so that if he found any who were of the Way, whether men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.
This gives us a further clue as to the fact that this time lasted for at least a little while. It lasted until Saul began to feel that his work in Jerusalem was sufficiently wrapped up, and he was able to turn his attention to other places. Where else were these Christians hiding? Somehow he heard about an enclave of them up north in Damascus, so he made plans to go there to keep his work going. And that’s when God decided to act. As it tells us in Acts 9:3-12—
As he journeyed, he came near Damascus, and suddenly a light shone around him from heaven. Then he fell to the ground, and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” And he said, “Who are You, Lord?” Then the Lord said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. It is hard for you to kick against the goads.” So he, trembling and astonished, said, “Lord, what do You want me to do?” Then the Lord said to him, “Arise and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.” And the men who journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice but seeing no one. Then Saul arose from the ground, and when his eyes were opened he saw no one. But they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. And he was three days without sight, and neither ate nor drank. Now there was a certain disciple at Damascus named Ananias; and to him the Lord said in a vision, “Ananias.” And he said, “Here I am, Lord.” So the Lord said to him, “Arise and go to the street called Straight, and inquire at the house of Judas for one called Saul of Tarsus, for behold, he is praying. And in a vision he has seen a man named Ananias coming in and putting his hand on him, so that he might receive his sight.”
So there it is—that’s how God decided to act, and bring this time of persecution to an end. But why did God wait for all this to happen, and why wait so long? Why do it this way? The short answer, of course, is, “Who knows? God knows.” But if we stop, and prayerfully consider, we may at least try to learn a little about how God does things, and why he worked this way.
For instance, maybe God wanted Ananias, specifically, to be the one to pray for Saul. That would mean that Saul needed to get to Damascus. But if Christ had appeared to Saul and blinded him anywhere but in the city itself or (as happened) just outside the city, Saul wouldn’t go into Damascus at all. He would have gone home to Jerusalem, and God’s plan to get Saul to Ananias would have failed. Which means God waited to save Saul until he had travelled that far first. But first, Saul had to decide to take the journey in the first place. And he wouldn’t make that decision while he was in the middle of all his work in Jerusalem—he wasn’t the kind of person to leave work unfinished. So God allowed Saul to continue persecuting Christians because it would cause him to exhaust the possibilities for his work there, because that would turn his mind to other places to root out believers, and his mind would settle on Damascus (where he had discovered another group of believers), because then he’d make the journey north, because that would put him in the perfect place, outside Damascus, on the road, for Jesus to appear to him, because then it would be easy for someone to lead him by the hand into the city, because then he could easily wait for someone to come pray for him, because Ananias was the one Jesus wanted to go to Saul, and it was simple for him to walk to the house where Saul was, because then Ananias could pray for Saul and he could receive his sight.
Why did God want all this? As I once heard someone say, why does God do anything? 10,000 reasons.
Why did Jesus want Ananias for this work, specifically? I can imagine being in Jerusalem, and praying for God to end the time of trial in Jerusalem. And I think, if God answered me and said, “It will not end right away, because there’s a man named Ananias in Damascus who I want to be the one who prays for Saul when I save him,” well, I think that answer would have seemed confusing to me, at best, and infuriating at worst. What? What does Damascus have to do with anything? They’re not going through what we’re going through! Why can’t it be someone in Jerusalem? Why can’t it be Peter, for crying out loud? This doesn’t make any sense!
Did it really need to be Ananias? Only God knows. The answer must be yes—it was necessary that he be the one to pray for Saul to receive his sight and the Holy Spirit. Maybe God’s delay in ending the persecution was all specifically for him. Is that really that unlike God? Didn’t Jesus construct an entire travel plan around meeting one woman in John 4? Yes, he did. But then, even that wasn’t just for her in the end, was it? By the end of the chapter, we see that it was for her whole town (and then again, for all the people in that same region who heard Philip’s preaching in Acts 8). So yes, it was all for an individual, and yes, it was all for much more than that. Maybe it was for everyone Ananias’ family, and the church in Damascus. Maybe it was for the work of evangelism in Damascus. Maybe God let the time of trial drag on because he wanted the Jerusalem Christians scattered (see Acts 8:4), but not those in Damascus. Why? Well, the scattering did not lead to the death of the church in Jerusalem, but maybe that kind of persecution would have eradicated the church in Damascus. Maybe they weren’t ready for Saul’s persecution yet.
Which means, that by delaying Saul’s salvation, God was accomplishing many things, for many people, including:
- Every Christian in Jerusalem
- The people in Samaria
- Every Christian in Damascus
- Everyone that heard the gospel when the Church in Jerusalem was scattered (Acts 8:4)
Imagine, again, a Christian in the middle of Saul’s persecution in Jerusalem, praying something like, “Lord why won’t you end this? Stop him! Save him! Something!” But what would God’s answer be? Maybe something like: “My timing has to do with thousands of things, and thousands of people, and everything I’m doing in the whole world to spread salvation to all kinds of people. If you had twenty lifetimes, I couldn’t tell you all I’m doing just in this several weeks of trouble. And no, I can not shorten this time without undoing all my work. Just wait a few more weeks. What I’m going to do outside Damascus will begin to show some of what’s going on. It’ll be just a glimpse—but a big, powerful glimpse.”
Which, I think, brings us to where we are today.
I am sure that, like me, you are ready for this time of spreading sickness and forced isolation and government-imposed shut-down to end. I am sure you’ve been praying for it to end. And it will end, one way or another. So, the question might arise, “If it’s all going to end in a few weeks or months anyway, why not just end it now? Why is God allowing this time to stretch on?” And, the answer must be something like we observed in the book of Acts, right? There must be something, or a hundred things, or ten thousand things God is doing in all this. It must be true—because that’s exactly how the Bible leads us to see the world. I don’t know why you can’t go out, but God wants to do a hundred things in your life from this time. I don’t know why school is shut down, but God wants to use this time for my kids’ good. I don’t know why much worse things are happening—deaths in isolation, people on ventilators, people losing work or businesses they’ve worked to build, loneliness, fear, global shut-down. And I don’t know why, as of April 15th, there’s no end in sight. But God knows why he’s allowing all this to go this way, and for how long it must. And he’s got good reasons.
It’s always easy to read the stories in the Bible, because we know how they end—gloriously, always—and so the trials only seem to heighten the drama. But when you don’t know the end, the lengthening of time doesn’t feel like growing excitement. It feels like drudgery. It feels like loneliness or uncertainty or anxiety. But friends, the Bible leads us to live, and think, and even feel like people who do know the end of the story.
Even when we don’t know the end to the chapter (like, “this will end when a man gets saved outside of Damascus,”) we do know the end of the book. This will end when a man rides a horse down through the clouds and conquers evil. And when he does, he’ll tie up every story line into the one perfect ending of the whole, huge plan. That’s true for the story line called Coronavirus, and whatever other storyline you’re living through at this moment. Because he works all things together, for the good.