If God wills

Ready? Let’s play Name That Movie. (No fair peeking at the picture.)

In which Oscar-winning film did the main character say, “When the Lord closes a door, somewhere he opens a window”? Who was the character, and what was the circumstance? I’ll give you 30 seconds to think about it (Jeopardy theme music plays softly in the background)…

And the answer is…

One of the most beloved musicals of all time, The Sound of Music took home Best Picture honors in 1966. Julie Andrews played Maria, a postulant who was asked to leave her abbey to care for a war hero’s seven children. She had aspired to be a nun, not a nanny — but it seemed that God had closed that door. Anxious but hopeful, trying to recover her confidence (“I have confidence in sunshine…” — everybody sing!), she was looking for a window.

And strangely enough, that’s one of the images that comes to mind when I think of Paul’s first missionary visit to Ephesus.

Ephesus was the most prominent city of the Roman province of Asia; indeed, it was the seat of the provincial government. It lay on the western coast of what we now know as Turkey. Of all the far-flung cities of the empire, only Rome and Alexandria were larger. Later, Paul would make it the strategic hub of his evangelistic efforts in Asia.

But on his first visit there, he was just passing through.

As we’ve seen, Paul, accompanied by Priscilla and Aquila, had just sailed from Corinth after a year and a half of church-planting there. Per his usual habit, when Paul arrived in Ephesus he went to the synagogue to speak to his fellow Jews about Jesus. As Luke describes it, the reception seemed positive. They knew he was leaving, but asked him to stay and keep the conversation going.

You would think that with all the challenges Paul had faced on his second missionary journey, with all the doors that had been slammed shut — especially in the synagogues! — he would welcome the invitation. An open door for once! Thank you, Jesus!

But he turned them down. As he left, he said, “I will return to you, if God wills” (Acts 18:24, NRSV).

“If God wills.” Today, those or similar words can be code for, “I really have no intention of doing what you ask, but it sounds more pious if I put the responsibility on God instead.” Let’s be honest: sometimes, that’s what “I’ll pray about it” really means. It’s a religiously acceptable way of avoiding saying no. I suspect that’s the kind of thing Jesus had in mind when he taught his followers to just say “yes” or “no” and mean it, instead of taking empty oaths (Matt 5:33-37).

That was not, however, what Paul meant.

When Paul left Corinth, Luke says his destination was Syria (Acts 18:18) — probably meaning his home base of Antioch. At that moment, Paul really was just passing through Ephesus. But why was he in such a hurry? Probably because the haircut he got in Cenchreae was only a partial fulfillment of his vow to God (Acts 18:18); he still needed to present himself in Jerusalem.

Scholars speculate that Paul was in Ephesus in AD 52 or 53 (based on the mention of the proconsul Gallio earlier in the chapter, who is known to have left that role sometime in 52). The sailing season typically didn’t open until nearly spring, and Passover came early both of those years.  Thus, if Paul wanted to be in Jerusalem during Passover to complete his vow, he needed to get going. Seafaring timetables were never guaranteed.

For Paul then, “if God wills” meant exactly that. Earlier in his missionary journey, he had wanted to evangelize Asia — probably with Ephesus in mind — and the neighboring province of Bithynia. But the Holy Spirit closed that door (Acts 16:6-7) and opened a window of opportunity to Macedonia instead. In many ways, the mission to Macedonia was a success; core groups of believers were established as Paul went from city to city. But even then, not every door was open. He had to learn to trust God’s will as it was revealed along the way.

Of one thing he was sure: God wanted him to fulfill the vow he had made in Corinth. That became Job One. If it was also God’s will that he evangelize Ephesus, he would learn this in time.

God’s time.

As the old evangelistic slogan says, “God has a wonderful plan for your life.” But some of us turn that into our wonderful plan for God’s life (with the best and most innocent of intentions, of course). If those plans don’t work out, if God closes a door, it doesn’t have to mean failure, just divine redirection. Somewhere, he’ll open a window.

We don’t have to walk through every open door. We can have priorities. And whatever our plans and purposes, we should never presume upon the future. As the apostle James wrote, the right attitude is, “If the Lord wishes, we will live and do this or that” (James 4:15).

We can say, “if God wills.” As long as we mean it.