Faithful improv

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

Have you ever prayed for God to tell you what to do?

I’d guess most believers have at one time or another. There’s certainly good biblical precedent for seeking God’s direction when making a decision. Gideon, for example, had his fleece (Judg 6:36-40), and after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, his disciples prayerfully used lots to decide who would replace Judas Iscariot (Acts 1:15-26). 

That’s not to say, however, that if we just ask the right way, God will take all the ambiguity and uncertainty out of each and every situation. That’s not biblical faith; that’s religious superstition.

Asked by the scribes and Pharisees to perform a miraculous sign, Jesus replied, “An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign” (Matt 12:39, NRSV; see also 16:4). But Jesus was not saying that it was intrinsically evil for anyone to ask for a sign. He simply knew that the Pharisees’ request was not an honest one. They were not about to believe, no matter what he did; they had already hardened their hearts against him. Not even “the sign of Jonah” — “for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth” (Matt 12:40) — would sway them. Thus, as Jesus says at the conclusion of his parable of the rich man and Lazarus: “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead” (Luke 16:31).

Asking for a sign is therefore not in itself a faithless thing to do. But one can only ask rightly from a position of faith and trust.

These thoughts are in response to what seems like a startling contrast in the two stories about Philip the evangelist we’ve read in Acts 8. In the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch, we see him following clear and unambiguous directions from God: “Get up and go to this road” and “Go join that chariot.” And when the episode is finished, God picks up Philip like a chess piece and moves him to another place on the board.

If only it was always so clear. “Lord, what should I do next?” Go here. Do this. And don’t bother with Uber — I’ll take you there myself.

The entire book of Acts has been suffused with the sovereignty of God, enacted through the Holy Spirit. Nowhere is that clearer than when God is directly controlling the action.

But in the previous story, Philip and other Greek-speaking Jewish believers had to flee Jerusalem because of the growing persecution, landing them in, of all places, Samaria. It’s easy to imagine them feeling that things had gotten out of control. If they prayed to God for encouragement or direction, Luke doesn’t tell us. All we see is Philip faithfully and boldly preaching the gospel, wherever he happens to be.

This is faithful, Spirit-empowered “improv” — the Christian life as improvisational theater. Life is uncertain. We may ask for certainty but not get it; worse, we may mistake denial or wishful thinking for divine direction. The fact is, we typically don’t have a line-by-line script to follow, as handy as that might be at times.

What we do, realistically, is improvise. But not just any improvisation will do. We have to know the gist of where the story is going; we have to know the kind of performance the director wants. On that basis, we take what we are given and make the best of it. 

Through it all, we trust that God is sovereign, even when it may not seem so. 

And sometimes, as the drama unfolds, God will show us why we were right to trust.  

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