By Allen Quist & Tim Robnett
Finding God’s specific plan for one’s life challenges every Christian. Christian leaders often thrive under the challenge of “hearing the voice of the Lord in specific matters.” Determining the will of God and his guidance for a group of people carries huge responsibilities. How is it that one can hear the voice of God and say to others, “The Lord spoke to me, this is the plan”? Let us look at an experience in the life of Paul and Silas that opens new horizons in understanding God’s ways of guiding his people. As we look, an interesting question awaits us. What happens when God says no?
Paul the apostle had been leading missionary work for half a dozen years. Since being commissioned by the Holy Spirit during his stay in Antioch (Acts 13:1–3), his life had been a whirlwind. Now well into his second missionary journey in northwestern Asia, a puzzling experience confronted Paul. The same Holy Spirit who had commissioned him and his team to leave Antioch for regions unknown resisted his plan of operation. Acts 16 records that the Spirit of Jesus and the Holy Spirit “would not let them” go farther into Asia.
Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia. When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to. So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas. During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the Gospel to them. (Acts 16:6–10)
The text does not say how God said no. However, it is clear that Paul had attempted to go in a specific, preplanned direction, and his efforts and leadership were stopped. First, Paul was listening and responding to the Holy Spirit. He was sensitive to God’s voice and leadership. Second, God did delay and even prevent Paul from certain activities.
Just as God kept the lions’ mouths shut and preserved Daniel’s life, he sometimes keeps us silent until an opportune time. Just recently, we heard the story of an Indian immigrant who was working as an engineer in London. For some years, his Christian coworker had not said anything to him about Jesus Christ or spiritual matters. Then at a certain point, his coworker began asking him spiritual questions and inviting him to church. It was this timing that was strategic in what the Holy Spirit was doing in his life. And those conversations at a specific time were used by God to bring him to salvation. God opens and closes opportunities for the gospel. God does prevent and delay certain experiences in our lives because he is all-knowing and all-wise.
In 1992, I (Tim) Kevin Palau asked me to visit the island nation of Jamaica. The pastors from the evangelical alliance had sent a letter of invitation to Luis Palau to conduct a national evangelistic festival. Kevin informed me that an invitation had come some seven years before, but it was determined that the timing was not of the Lord. Since the Luis Palau Association had specific biblical criteria for accepting invitations for ministry, their ability to say no was a wise choice. We need to remember that not all opportunities are God’s voice telling us to move in a certain direction.
As God speaks to his people, they need to realize that no is in his vocabulary. We can embrace that no with a positive attitude. For the moment, no may seem disheartening. But in the long run, no can bring many positive results. Many times the Bible tells us what we should not do or how we should not act. The purpose of God’s instruction has the goal to protect, to instruct, and to build up; not to tear down. When the Bible tells fathers “do not exasperate your children” (Eph. 6:4), it is a corrective statement. The purposes include stopping abuse, promoting a positive spirit within the children, building a better relationship between father and children, and helping the children to understand God as a father who helps them.
If we are to hear the voice of God, then we need to embrace the no’s that come our way. The Ten Commandments are a classic example of the voice of God directing all people into healthy relationships. The “thou shalt nots” of these commands are to show us that tragic consequences follow disobedient behaviors. Certainly, the linguistic style of these commands is not the point. Rather, the fact that God says, “Do not do this,” speaks volumes to the selfish and rebellious hearts of the fallen race. We, in our flesh, just don’t like anyone telling us “no.” Yet God corrects our attitudes and behaviors while confronting us in a direct way.
We want to put a positive slant on the fact that God says no to us. God does love us enough to direct us with a no. And he can do so through a variety of ways: through his direct statements in the Bible, through our conscience that he created, through the decision of the people of God as they wait on him, or through the voice of God to us on an amoral issue. The experience of Paul in Acts 16 and the stories of our own journeys reveal that no has positive and productive outcomes.
Paul and his companions took the no as an opportunity to stop and listen. As they waited on the Lord a new vision came; in this case, a vision in the night. Whether by dream or trance, the text does not say. But Paul woke the next day with a clear and compelling reason for changing his ministry direction and strategy. This vision in Paul’s journey is often referred to as “the Macedonian call.”
The power of this vision still touches our hearts today. Here is a man who is begging. Picture a strong man pleading for all he is worth for Paul to hear and respond to his pleading. On the one hand, there is not a more pitiful sight than a man begging, pleading, and crying out, “Come help us!” Men are supposed to be strong, self-sufficient, proud, capable, independent, but now here is a humble man, pleading for himself and a whole continent of people that have no hope. He is their ambassador, seeking to gain what no one else can get.
Can’t you picture this? A young yet physically buff man with the veins of his neck bulging as he cups his hands in front of his mouth and yells at the top of his voice, “Hey, Paul, look over here!” He then waves his strong arm motioning Paul to come his way. Then he speaks with a pleading voice, “See the children, see the women, see the young and old, rich and poor; we are without Christ, without hope. Please come and tell us the good news! Please, we have never heard! Come quickly, many are dying without Christ! Come now, come today, and, oh, please come!”
We have observed that when a believer hears God saying no, he often takes it the wrong way. We’re not referring to no in the case of the moral issues of life, but no in the area of guidance and ministry. These are no’s from the Holy Spirit regarding ministry opportunities, vocational choices, places to live or work, what to buy or own, timing issues, etc. Some take no as God saying, “I do not believe in you.” Or some might believe that God says no because of some sin in the past. God has set this person aside and can no longer use him for kingdom work.
For example, I (Tim) clearly remember my friendship with a man who was a committed follower of Jesus. He was twenty years my senior and displayed a real passion for God. He had married in his early twenties, but the marriage did not work and ended in divorce. Since that experience, he had felt that God and the church had placed a sign reading, “second class citizen” over his head. Though for many years he was faithful to the church, had married again to a lovely Christian woman, and lived a committed life to Jesus, he seemed blocked from taking on new roles of ministry. I have often thought of the many Christians living with this “second class” mentality, not yet able to embrace the grace and forgiveness of God. Yet, so often, the church has not extended the same forgiveness God has. Often we have incorrectly interpreted God’s no to the detriment of other people. God forgives sin completely. And he does not say no as a reminder of our failures in the past.
What the story of Paul in Acts 16 teaches is that no means yes, but not here (this direction), not now (timing), and not in this way (methodology). God directs his people to where they should be serving him. It does matter to God where we serve or do not serve him. Though Lot thought Sodom and Gomorrah were good places to live, the Lord did not think so. Places do matter.
Jesus ministered in Galilee for a time. In this context, he trained others to follow him and serve his kingdom. On at least two occasions, he informed those who went out to preach the gospel of the kingdom to minister where they were welcomed and cared for. That is, minister in those places where people are responsive (Luke 9:1–9; 10:1–16).
In our own journeys, we have on a number of occasions sought to serve the Lord in one particular setting, yet they “did not work out” because the Lord had another place of service for us. “Not here” may mean geography, or it may be addressing the people being ministered to, or a particular role in ministry. We need to be open to God’s leading as to the place of ministry.
Another issue addressed in serving the Lord is the issue of timing. Paul had been reaching those in Asia who had not heard the gospel when he realized God had another place for him to go. Paul did not seem particularly sensitive to the timing of God. It does not appear he was thinking that it was now time to leave this place and go to another place. He does not seem to be suffering from the “grass is greener” syndrome. He and his team were busy about making the gospel known in Asia. So the Lord Jesus had to “get their attention.”
We would love to know how the Spirit of Jesus and the Holy Spirit arrested their attention. How was it that the Holy Spirit “kept” them and then later “would not allow them” (Acts 16:6–7) to preach the gospel in the province of Asia and Mysia? Was there no interest on the part of the population there? Did Paul and his team get physically sick? Was there some type of natural disaster (earthquake, windstorm, etc.)? All we know is that Paul had to stop and wait (timing issue) upon the Lord.
One of the great stresses in family life is what sociologists call natural or normal family life-cycle events. The normal time for marriage is between twenty and thirty years of age. Marriage before or after creates certain stresses upon the family system if the “timing” is not on schedule. Abraham and Sarah were too old to have children (biologically their clocks had run out of time). The unfolding of the drama of Genesis related to this issue is well-known. God showed his power and sovereignty in their lives. Abraham and Sarah showed their fleshliness and lack of trust in God, as no doubt any of us would do or have done. Timing relates to trusting God. God said to Paul in Acts 16, “Not now.”
One could say NOW is the time, but not here. We can be people who either have our heads in the sand or are looking for greener pastures and often, in either case, miss the leading of God in our lives. We are dealing particularly with God leading his church. When are we to change, or hold the course, or add a new ministry, or stop a certain ministry, or add staff? When is a word that addresses the issue of timing. Therefore, we must walk in a listening relationship with God and those whom we serve in order to discern the now of God.
A third question focuses on adopting new methodologies. New methodologies address the way or manner in which something is done. Paul had been working with a certain team and preaching the gospel initially to the Jews in Gentile cities. Now, following the departure of Barnabas and John Mark (Acts 15:39–40), Paul was developing a new team (Timothy, Silas, and Luke). This new team was now composed of Gentiles (Luke and Timothy), creating a multiethnic group. With this new team, there came a new place of ministry (Europe) and a new methodology. A change from the synagogue to the place of prayer, as the context of ministering the gospel, came with their transition from Asia to Europe. Not a huge change— still seeking the spiritually sensitive—but nonetheless a different place, a new place for ministry.
The methodologies expanded greatly when Paul arrived in Athens. There he added dialogue and debate to his normal preaching and teaching in the synagogues and places of prayer. In fact, these new methods made the ministry more effective in the new culture of Europe. Paul “reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there” (Acts 17:17).
God guides his people by confronting their comfort zones and complacencies with a startling two-letter word, no. However, the church can go for years and decades without hearing God’s no. We tend to justify old methodologies and forms. We seem to hang on to the “old wineskins” as if they are the power of God rather than a form through which God expresses himself for a moment in time. The no’s of God need to gain our attention. How can one identify them? Again, this is not a moral area. This question deals with the effectiveness and relevance of the gospel in any culture at any particular time.
One way of understanding when God says yes or no comes simply in measuring a particular ministry or method’s effectiveness. Is anyone coming? Are people interested? Are we addressing real needs? Are we answering a question that is being asked? Are we thinking relationally? Are we missing something? What is being overlooked?
One of the first Luis Palau crusades I (Tim) attended was in Des Moines, Iowa, in October of 1990. The crusade was held in the heart of the city at the downtown convention center. I was new on the team and anxious to learn all I could. I not only conversed with a number of staff and local committee members directly, but also did my share of eavesdropping to hear what people were “really saying.” On several occasions, the executive committee members shared what they were seeing God do not only in the crusade, but also before and during the crusade in relationship-building among the leaders of the city. Additionally, the story of how God was bringing these leaders together in new ministry alliances often came to my ears. While the evangelical churches had moved to the suburbs over the past ten to fifteen years, the heart of that city had become neglected. However, in the process of working together on the crusade, being held in the heart of the city, leaders once again saw the great needs in the heart of their city. God was saying to them, “You have forgotten the center of your city.” So in a subtle yet clear rebuke, a number of leaders renewed their commitments to the urban portions of their city. God guides by showing us what we are not doing. His voice of rebuke can correct our selfish ways and restore us to areas of great need and productive ministry.
God guides the church not only through subtle or overt rebukes, but also through new and innovative ideas. One benefit the church derives from its younger members are the creative ideas they often bring to the ministry setting. The young have a reputation of being radical, random, and obnoxious. However, youth are often the conduit for the passion of the gospel, and they have a willingness to embrace “new wineskins.” For this, we should all be thankful. Today the emerging church movement has embraced many new methodologies for packaging the gospel in ways that make sense to the youth in our culture. The “medium is the message” has far more power than we would like to ascribe to it. Yet Jesus said, “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35). This was no one-liner in a pop song, but a description of radical Christianity. A message from the Master that said our actions do speak louder than our words. With no action to back up our words, our words sound very hollow. Yet our unwillingness to embrace new methodologies often leads to the demise of the church.
When our churches are committed to relevance our message never changes, but our methods are adapted for effective communication of the gospel. Truth and love are our guiding principles, the methods are only a means of delivery. As Luis Palau has often said, “I do not necessarily like the music [of a Palau festival], but I love the kids who like the music.” In order to adopt new methods, we need freedom from the fears that lurk in the shadows of our unsanctified memories. In chapter 8, we will deal with fear as a roadblock to ministry growth and development. We must all remind ourselves that the message of the gospel never changes, but the understanding of the culture should always shape our methods.
Let’s review. Not now, not here, and not in this way are three guiding principles behind the Lord telling us no. Here we are discussing ministry opportunities and strategies. God does say no from time to time. God actively guides us if we will only listen and will not be disheartened by the no’s he sends our way. Rather we should stop and listen. We should ask ourselves, if not here, where? If not now, when? If not in this way, how?
Two helpful principles will guide us in answering these questions.
First, where is the greatest need? Where are people crying out for help? Where is there an urgent appeal for the good news? Where is there an absence of the love of Christ? Where are the responsive? There are substantial biblical examples to indicate that a determining factor in selecting a ministry setting should include the responsiveness of the people.
Paul’s experience demonstrates that the gospel needs to go where it has never gone before. Many ask, “Why should so many have multiple opportunities to hear and receive the gospel when many have not yet had one opportunity?” A dear friend, Dr. Bill Thomas, often says of his own focus of ministry selection, “I go to where the call is the loudest and the need is the greatest.” Paul and his team were responding to the cry of a desperate man.
Therefore, when we ask ourselves about where God might be calling us to serve him, we need to include in our meditations the question, “Where is the greatest need?” The answer to this question could involve geography, relationships, and/or personal interest, such as people who are new to our neighborhoods and cities. For example, in China today, twenty-five million people move from the country to the city each year. This presents an opportunity for ministry to many organizations that deal with humanitarian and social needs. Many American cities are also undergoing substantial demographic change. Therefore, we need to be asking, “Where are people most vulnerable to the changes in their lives? What people are open to new relationships? What specific needs can we address for these people? How has God uniquely equipped us to meet these needs?” (We have knowledge, skills, money, etc., that makes us a resource to others without these resources.)
Second, where is the team? Who wants to serve? Who is willing to go? Who has God brought to work with us? The makeup of the team affects how ministry will be done. God’s sovereign deployment of workers into the harvest often addresses how the ministry will be done. In Acts 16, Paul had a new team. One new member was Luke, a physician. Luke had a strategic role in applying the art of medicine. Both Paul and Silas were in need of medical attention not many days after their journey began. In Philippi, Paul and Silas were attacked by a crowd, dragged before the Roman officials, severely flogged, and thrown into prison (Acts 16:22–24). Though miraculously released, they were no doubt in need of Dr. Luke’s assistance. God provides through the team skills, talents, and spiritual gifts that will equip the team for what is needed.
In determining the place, timing, and methodologies of ministry, we need to assess the team, for God works through his people. How has God outfitted our team? What are the unique gifts, talents, experiences, and passions of our church family? Ministry flows through relationships. When we wonder what God wants us to do, we need to evaluate the team God has brought.
In the mideighties, while I (Tim) was a pastor of a church in Southern California, I welcomed a new couple into our church. Not long after meeting them, I had the opportunity to lead the husband to join our ministry of visiting those in the hospital. Dick eagerly received my mentoring and faithfully visited those persons that I asked him to see. Dick quickly understood that the Lord was using him in a special way. He delighted in cheering people up. He enjoyed praying with them, and reports came my way of how much the people enjoyed Dick’s cheerful visits. A significant ministry developed for Dick as his joy in ministry helped him recruit others. Identifying an interest, giving knowledge and skill in ministry, modeling ministry, and encouraging Dick brought a new level of service not only for Dick, but also for many others in the church.
God says no to us from time to time. This may be to rebuke us, but it also can be to direct us into new seasons of strategic ministry. So when your ministry runs into an unexpected resistance, stop and pray. Take some time to wait upon the Lord and see if there is some new place, new focus, or new way of serving him. Maybe no—or maybe yes, but not here, not now, or not in this way.