Have you ever wondered if you are really living in God’s will and doing what He wants you to do? Sometimes it is very difficult to see God’s will when you are walking through it. Life seems crooked, erratic, and even out of control. We don’t always see His hand, feel His presence, or know if we are hearing His voice. Perhaps a lesson from the life of the apostle Paul might be encouraging to you.
A paradox is not a contradiction; it is an apparent contradiction. In this chapter’s passage we find three paradoxes in Paul’s life.
The first one we encounter is the paradox of God’s timing. Paul wrote, “Now when I went to Troas to preach the gospel of Christ and found that the Lord had opened a door for me, I still had no peace of mind, because I did not find my brother Titus there. So I said good-bye to them and went on to Macedonia” (2 Cor. 2:12–13).
Troas was a very strategic place to preach the gospel. As the chief point of northwest Asia Minor, it was a major commercial, athletic, and intellectual hub and would have been a suitable base for missionary activity. Troas was also an important meeting point—a natural place of rendezvous. There, Paul had expected to meet Titus, who had been sent from Ephesus to Corinth, and an unnamed companion as the bearer of the letter we know now of as First Corinthians. Paul arrived there and found an open door of opportunity, but he had no relief in his spirit. Have you ever felt that way? Paul did not know what to do. He wanted to go into Asia Minor, but the Holy Spirit kept prompting him to not go there. Finally, one night, Paul received a vision of a “man of Macedonia,” who pleaded with him to come over to Europe (Acts 16:6–10). Paul determined that this must be the call of God, so he crossed over into Europe and had a very fruitful ministry. This is where he encountered Lydia, the cloth dyer, who became the first European to turn to Jesus Christ. This would be the door that would lead to major church plants in Philippi, Thessalonica, Athens, and Corinth.
Years later, Paul was on his third major missionary journey and had no intention of going to Troas. He went instead to Ephesus and spent more than two years there and traveled to other parts of Europe. Finally, he made arrangements to return to Syria and Jerusalem. However, in Acts 20:3 we are told that Paul discovered a plot against his life, and at the last minute he decided to not return by ship, but to travel by land. This brought him, quite unexpectedly, to the city of Troas, where he had a great ministry.
Have you ever felt God calling you to do something, and then it all seemed to go awry, only to find years later how it all made sense? In the summer of 1990, I left six years of pastoral ministry to work in Nigeria. However, we encountered numerous obstacles and finally were forced to abandon our plans and not move to Nigeria as we had planned. It was a difficult time for us as a family. When I returned to the United States from Nigeria, all my plans (which had seemed to be confirmed by God in so many ways) were in tatters. I recall telling my wife, Julie, “If God would just give me an explanation as to why we went through all of this, I could accept it.” My wife wisely responded, “God doesn’t owe us any explanations. Our job is to just be faithful and follow Him as best we can.”
I ended up becoming the pastor of a small church in Carnesville, Georgia. That church was quite close to Toccoa Falls College, where I began to teach and, eventually, had a full-time career in teaching. Looking back, I can see how God used the whole experience to teach me to trust Him. There is an old Portuguese saying, “God writes straight with crooked lines.” How true that is. I couldn’t see what He was doing until years later.
In life, we, like the apostle Paul, do not always see God’s will when we are walking through it. Sometimes, even major setbacks are but preludes to God’s deeper work. All I saw was my circumstances and the limited vision of the year I was in this directional agony. God saw the whole canvas, and I was always right where He wanted me to be.
The second major paradox Paul encountered is found in verse 14 of our passage. Paul said, “Thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ.” Another translation says, “But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumph” (RSV). Paul was trying to be faithful to God and to the gospel. But as he outlined in 2 Corinthians 11:24–29, at every turn he faced persecution. He was imprisoned, flogged, and exposed to death again and again. Five times he received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times he was beaten with rods, stoned, and left for dead. Three times he was shipwrecked. One time he even spent a night and a day in the open sea. He faced dangers from rivers, bandits, his own countrymen, and Gentiles. Frequently, he was hungry, thirsty, exposed to cold, or without adequate clothing.
Every outward measurement suggests that Paul was not experiencing the blessings of God. In fact, it must have felt as if God was abandoning him. But God writes straight with crooked lines. Paul was learning an important lesson about the relationship between our outward experiences and the blessing of God. You may not have experienced these kind of physical hardships, but you may have gone through a very difficult period where you just felt as though God had forsaken you. Paul recognized what we must also recognize: namely, that our victory is not based on outward circumstances. Titus would eventually reunite with Paul. Corinth would eventually reject the false teachers who had infiltrated their ranks. Paul would ultimately be known as the great apostle to the Gentiles. But none of that was the basis for his newfound confidence. Instead, Paul’s confidence was found in the deeper truth that God always leads us. In his own words, “But thanks be to God, who always leads us as captives.” It is the picture of a celebration of a military victory. In the ancient world, the captives would be paraded through the streets and exposed publicly. The word Paul used here means “to lead someone captive in a victory parade.” Paul had once literally dragged Christians out of their homes and publicly disgraced and humiliated them. Paul who once captured others was now reflecting on his own captivity but of a different kind. Christ had, in effect, taken him captive through the power of the gospel. Though in this present life we may suffer and be exposed to the world’s ridicule, by allowing ourselves to be captivated by Christ, we are able to share in His triumph!
We are servants of Christ. Only by becoming Christ’s captives are we able to share in His triumph. He is leading a triumphal procession through the world. Paul affirmed the paradox: in Christ we are both conquered captives, slaves of Christ, exposed to the world’s ridicule, and yet, at the same time, joyful participants in Christ’s victory celebration! This is the paradox of the cross.
The third and final paradox Paul pointed to in this chapter’s passage is found in verses 14–16, in which he drew upon the Jewish image of sacrifice. The sacrifice would fumigate the entire altar. Paul said that now we are God’s sacrifice: “For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing.” We are the aroma of Christ to the world—and that is the paradox. We are living sacrifices. The world sees us as the stench of death. We are those who are persecuted, shamed, and decried by the world. But God sees it not as the stench of death but the aroma of life. By any human standards—while he was in the midst of it—Paul’s ministry was a disaster and a failure. Only by taking the long view and looking at it from a divine perspective could it be properly measured.
We often measure whether God is with us by the results and the world’s standards of success. But God calls us to another level of faithfulness when things seem crooked and distorted and out of control. Our task is to live in this world but be judged by the standards of another world. It would be easy if we were called to live out our lives in some heavenly plane of existence, or if we were called to retreat from this world and live in a corner somewhere. But we have called to be His ambassadors right in the midst of a world who rejects our claims. We are called to take up our cross and follow Christ daily (Luke 9:23).
One of the most important passages to remember is that word of wisdom from Proverbs 3:5–6: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.”
God does make our paths straight, but He often does it through what seems like a lot of crooked lines. Truly, God writes straight with crooked lines.
This excerpt is taken from Keeping the Main Thing: A Never-Changing Gospel in an Ever-Changing World by Timothy Tennent. Through this series of incisive scriptural reflections Timothy Tennent helps readers discern the challenges of living out an uncompromising gospel in an increasingly compromised culture. Get it from our store here.