When congregations face major decisions, need to develop long range plans, or are in the process of a calling a pastor, church leaders often ask the session, deacons and trustees to try and discern God’s will. Sometimes weekend retreats are set up for all church members to consider the future. The assumption is that once decisions are made, God will give the church the tools to implement them. But what happens if Presbyterians pray and the Spirit says “no way!”?
That such a thing can and does happen is illustrated by Paul’s experience recounted in Acts 16:6-10. In strong language, we are told that even though Paul and his colleagues were traveling in the regions of Phrygia and Galatia, they had “been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia.” What is more, when they attempted to go into northwestern Turkey instead, “the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them.”
How did they know that the Spirit negated their plans? It must have come through prayer somehow, by the Spirit working in the inner persons of the church leaders (Ephesians 3:16) or perhaps via the gifts of prophecy and discernment of spirits mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12:10. In any case, the prohibition was so real to them that they could not preach any more until they got a spiritual green light.
This was not an isolated happening in the ministry of the early church. In 2 Corinthians 12:7-9, in his “boasting” chapter, Paul mentions that he had “a thorn in the flesh” that seriously impeded his work and, even though he asked God three times to take it away, it did not happen. All God said was, “my grace is sufficient for you.” Paul also mentions elsewhere that he really wanted to start a mission in Spain, but there is no evidence he ever made it.
Why would the Spirit forbid churches from engaging in some activities? Obviously, if plans include something unethical, immoral, shady, dishonest or unjust, we would hope that the Spirit would erect a roadblock. If a program is being formulated that would ultimately injure the congregation or the community or prevent God’s word from being heard, it should be cut off. Often unknown things have to happen before God’s will can truly come about, and we cannot rush it. But sometimes there is no clear signal like that. On occasion, God does not reveal the reasons for the prohibition. If we know that the answer is “no,” we have to wait patiently for the “go” from the control tower.
One of my mentors in ministry was Edward “Ted” Pollock, who worked long years with his wife Dolly as a Presbyterian mission worker in places like Egypt, Sudan, Kenya, Mozambique and Ethiopia. When I was on a mission trip with him in Africa one time, everything seemed to be going wrong. When some of us complained that all of our plans were ruined, he said something like, “Americans are so intent on carrying out their own ideas, they are so A-Type in their ministries, that when something changes they spend more time worrying about what was lost than the people and opportunities that God is placing in front of them right now!” And sure enough, if we waited quietly and openly, we were always amazed at what happened, even the next day.
Sometimes Christians need to be slowed up, tempered down, compelled to wait in the wilderness, be in painful transition, before doors are opened. In the case of Paul and his colleagues, they did not realize at first that the mission in Asia was ended so a whole new one could begin in Europe.
EARL S. JOHNSON JR.is a retired Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) pas- tor living in Johnstown, N.Y., and an adjunct professor of religious studies at Siena College.