The best laid plans…

I almost never go anywhere new without consulting a map first and getting the directions down pat.

That used to mean a visit to the auto club and taking home a stack of printed maps to pore over (and practice my origami skills). Now, I just whip out my smartphone and consult an app like everyone else. But whatever the technological means, the end goal is still the same: before I get behind the wheel, I know exactly where I’m going and how I’m going to get there.

Thus, frankly, I’m a bit mystified by this bit of missionary wandering described in Acts:

They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. When they had come opposite Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them; so, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas. 

Acts 16:6-8, NRSV

Paul and Silas had traveled north from Syrian Antioch, then west through the Roman province of Cilicia, until they came to the Galatian churches in Lystra and Derbe. In Lystra, the young Timothy joined them. From there, presumably, the three men continued to the churches in Iconium and Pisidian Antioch before continuing west through the region of Phrygia.

We don’t know exactly where Paul was going; did he? Paul apparently intended to preach the gospel in the province of Asia (think the western end of modern-day Turkey). He may have been headed for Ephesus, the city which would figure so prominently in his ministry later.

But somehow, the Holy Spirit diverted Paul away from Asia. Both Paul and Silas had prophetic gifts, so messages from God were probably nothing new. Still, it might have been nice to have God tell them where they were supposed to go instead.

They turned north, thinking that God might be directing them to the province of Bithynia (on the northern coast of Turkey, on the Black Sea). But here, too, they were turned back by the Spirit (this is the only place in the New Testament where the Holy Spirit is referred to as the Spirit of Jesus). So they turned west again, skirting Mysia and coming at last to the bustling port city of Troas, on the Aegean Sea.

Troas, by the way, is in Asia. Apparently, the earlier prohibition wasn’t an absolute “no” as much as a “not yet.”

That night, in Troas, Paul finally got the divine direction he needed:

During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.

Acts 16:9-10

Troas was a common point of departure for people sailing across the Aegean to Macedonia. Notice that the narrative shifts subtly from “he” to “we.” Though scholars differ in their interpretations of this shift, the simplest explanation is that Troas is where Luke himself joined the party, becoming a first-hand witness to the events he would later describe.

Perhaps Paul figured it would be good to have a doctor along?

The story doesn’t sit well with me. Now, don’t let my thing with maps fool you: I’m not by nature a meticulous planner and scheduler. I’ve had to develop those skills a bit to navigate a sometimes complicated life, but generally prefer to be more go-with-the-flow.

Just not when it comes to getting from Point A to Point B.

Perhaps Paul didn’t have a specific Point B in mind to begin with — though I find that hard to imagine. What we know from the story is that when they had a clear message from the Spirit, they obeyed it. The rest was guesswork.

And — this is important — in the end, they got where they were supposed to be.

I’ve been surrounded by ambiguity these days. Haven’t you? It’s the anxiety that comes from an uncertain future. We struggle with hard decisions, difficult diagnoses, and ambiguous prognoses.

We’re not expecting a painless existence. We know there’s no such thing as a guarantee. But we’d at least like to know we haven’t made a wrong turn somewhere.

There’s no map, no set of directions. Nothing as concrete as “in 2.4 miles, turn right on Main Street.” We don’t know where we’re going. We’re guessing at what we’re supposed to do next.

And we don’t like it. I don’t like it.

But I take solace in this: if we’re committed to the mission and obedient to what we know clearly from God, we’re free to follow our best guess and trust in the God’s sovereignty.

And sometimes — surprise! — we end up right where we’re supposed to be.