God so attends to the regulations of individual events, and they all so proceed from his set plan, that nothing takes place by chance.
Chapter 1: When Your Plans Collapse, Make Sure You Don't
How could Paul have gotten it so wrong? As he finished his third missionary tour in Acts 20, he paused for three months in Corinth to pray, plan, discuss, strategize, and announce his fourth great campaign (see Acts 20:30). He stayed in a villa belonging to Gaius (see Romans 16:23). His closest associates joined the planning sessions—Timothy, Lucius, Jason, Sosipater, and Tertius (see Romans 16:21).
Paul had collected a large offering from churches in Europe for the impoverished believers in Judea, and he wanted to deliver it in person. From Jerusalem, he intended to head to Rome—a city he had never seen—encouraging the church there and using it as a launching pad to take the gospel to Spain. Some scholars suggest Paul believed he could single-handedly fulfill the Great Commission by getting the message of Jesus to the farthest realms of the then-known world.1
From the home of Gaius, Paul wrote to the Romans:
So after I have completed this task and have made sure that they received this contribution, I will go to Spain and visit you on the way. I know that when I come to you, I will come in the full measure of the blessing of Christ.
Having made his plans, Paul committed them to God and sent his letter to Rome by the hand of a remarkable woman named Phoebe (Romans 16:1), while he and his companions left Corinth for Jerusalem, and then, presumably, on to Rome and Spain and points beyond.
Paul was in Jerusalem barely a week before his plans fell apart like a child's tower of blocks (see Acts 21:27). His presence provoked a riot and he was nearly killed in the mayhem (see 21:30- 31). Roman soldiers seized him, stripped him, and hung him by the wrists. Out came the deadly Roman whips, ready to shred his flesh (see 22:25).
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Paul talked his way out of the flogging, but he wouldn't be a free man again for the duration of the book of Acts. When assassins tried to kill him in Jerusalem, he was shipped to the Roman headquarters in Caesarea (see 23:23), where he spent over two years in prison (see 24:27).
He finally appealed his case to the imperial court in Rome, and Acts 27:1 says, "When it was decided that we would sail for Italy…”
Notice the grammar: not when Paul decided, or when Luke decided.
Paul was now in the hands of the world's most brutal government, and circumstances were no longer under his control. Though he would eventually make it to Rome, it wasn't as he'd planned. He arrived in chains, and the route there was dangerous and miserable…
…and planned by Jesus Christ, who had never lost control of a single detail of the unfolding events. As ominous clouds literally rolled over Paul's life, the Lord was carefully navigating his route. Proverbs 16:9 (CSB) says, “a person's heart plans his way, but the Lord determines his steps.”
Dr. F. B. Meyer said, “The black clouds are only His water cisterns, and on the other side they are bathed in sunshine. Do not look at your sorrow in the lowlands of your pilgrimage, but from the uplands of God's purpose.”
I take two lessons from this. First, planning is essential. God made us to dream, to envision, and to set our purposes and goals for a strong tomorrow, which Paul did. Second, when our plans are then committed to Him, He navigates the route—and it may be different than we expect.
When, therefore, we commit our plans to Him and they go to pieces, we must not!
One of my dearest friends planned to retire so that he and his wife could take an around-the-world cruise, but the Lord took her to heaven in a car accident. Another friend thought he had met the woman who would become his wife, but she changed her mind and moved away. I planned to be part of the same church for the rest of my life, but things changed and it was a hard loss. Yet the Lord oversees our lives, even over rough seas. He overrules and He overcomes.
We must come to see disappointment as God's way of diverting us from lesser plans to better paths, which unfold with time.
The Lord is orchestrating events you cannot control. He has total foreknowledge of our fortunes and full authority over our misfortunes. We have to trust Him with disruptions, diversions, and detours. When we've committed our lives to Him in utter surrender, we let Him turn breakdowns into breakthroughs and setbacks into springboards.
That's why when Paul's plans fell apart, he didn't.
Neither should you.
Missing the Boat
Without the destruction of two great ships, I wouldn't be writing this book.
The first, of course, was Paul’s shipwreck in Acts 28, without which this little volume could never have been conceived.
The other was a British transoceanic passenger and cargo steamship named S.S. City of Lahore. It had seventy rooms for first-class passengers and forty second-class rooms.2 This ship sailed into New York Harbor in the fall of 1918 and docked at a pier on the Hudson River, where a man named Robert C. McQuilkin booked a stateroom for his family. With the war ending, Robert and Marguerite McQuilkin were heading overseas for missionary service.
At age seventeen, McQuilkin had given a talk about “the greatest enterprise ever before the world… and the only enterprise of any consequence”—global missions.3 He was personally yielded to God's missionary call and eager to serve the Lord in the “regions beyond.”
The McQuilkins counted the cost, applied to the Africa Inland Mission, raised their support, and in due time secured their room on the City of Lahore. With them were their three small children. All their equipment and supplies were boarded onto the ship. While the McQuilkins were offering heartfelt goodbyes to friends in Philadelphia, the City of Lahore burst into flame in New York Harbor. Bob was on a Philadelphia streetcar when he saw the headlines. Firefighters pumped the ship full of water and sank it to prevent the flames from spreading up and down the docks.
In those days, few ships ferried passengers around the world. For nearly two years, the McQuilkins waited for another vessel, but their plans were waylaid again and again. Finally in July 1919, Bob wrote to his supporters saying:
We are writing to let you know the present state of our missionary plans. These plans have suffered many interruptions and changes, which must have tried the patience of our friends and caused them to wonder if we had missed the sure guidance of the Lord. But through it all He had one perfect plan that has not suffered any changes and we can see how every step has helped toward that plan and every apparent disappointment has served a purpose.4
Notice that powerful last phrase: “Every apparent disappointment has served a purpose.”
Disappointments are God's way of weaving our circumstances into more beautiful patterns than we could have contemplated. Like an artist with multicolored wire, the Lord bends, shapes, coils, braids, piles, pulls, and spins every detail into the handicraft of heaven. Broken dreams become divine schemes in the hands of the Almighty.
The sinking of the S.S. City of Lahore, which happened thirty-four years before my birth, changed my life. While waiting for God's open door, Robert C. McQuilkin continued his itinerant ministry preaching the truth of the victorious Christian life. His travels brought him to Columbia, South Carolina, where a group of praying women longed to open a Bible school to train Christian workers.
Dr. McQuilkin became the first president of Colombia International University and infused it with his message of victorious faith. And there in 1971, I yielded my life to vocational Christian service, grew in Christ, was mentored as a Bible teacher, met my wife, Katrina, and launched into the ministry God had for me. Dr. McQuilkin's son, Robertson, was by that time the school's president, and I count him among my mentors.
Dr. and Mrs. McQuilkin never made it into vocational overseas missionary service, but CIU is one of the world's leading training institutions for global evangelism, with thousands of graduates serving overseas.
The Puritan Thomas Goodwin said in his commentary on Ephesians, “[God] plots everything beforehand…. Nothing falls out but what He had laid the plot before.”5
On the final night of His natural life, Jesus knew His disciples didn't understand what was happening. Events were crashing around them like tumbling boulders, and they didn't know how to manage His imminent arrest and crucifixion. He said, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”
And, later, did they ever!
Take every apparent disappointment as an appointment of God's providence, and recognize that sunken ships don't mean submerged hopes. When your plans fall apart, make sure you don't—for the Lord's never will.
He will grant your desires by what He ordains.
Have You Not Seen?
All three daughters were with me as we hovered around my wife, Katrina, at Vanderbilt Medical Center and waited for her final breath. The attending doctor prayed with us, and our hearts were breaking. Suddenly Katrina opened her eyes wide and smiled—the Lord gave us another blessed month with her. It’s perhaps the greatest gift the Lord ever gave me.
The day after Katrina came home from the hospital, we entertained a group of German worship leaders whose visit had been planned for a year. My friend Johannes Schoeder led the group. We catered supper by the pool, and then the group came inside to discuss hymns and worship.
I told them Katrina and I had a favorite German hymn—“Praise Ye the Lord, the Almighty” by Joachim Neander. They sang it as if giving Katrina a private concert, and the videotape of her smiling with every note is one of my greatest possessions. It’s as though the Lord sent a special choir from around the world to sing to Katrina as her home-going approached.
The second stanza of Neander’s hymn is a powerful affirmation of the overruling providence of God. Apart from the Bible, I know of no better words to encourage us to remember we have a God who misses no details, breaks no promises, and makes no mistakes.
Why not learn this song and sing it before your ship runs into headwinds?
Who o’er all things so wondrously reigneth,
Shelters thee under His wings,
yea, so gently sustaineth!
Hast thou not seen how thy desires e’er have been
Granted in what He ordaineth?
- Read Acts 27:1-2. What happened to Paul that countered his plans to travel to Rome and Spain to preach the gospel? What does that tell us about the way disruptions can seem to hamper our progress for the Lord?
- Acts 27:1 says, “When it was decided…” What does this say about Paul’s role in these plans? When is a time you felt like your plans were decided for you, and how did that contradict the plans you had made?
- Read Proverbs 16:9. How does this verse come to bear on the account of Paul’s travel plans before his arrests? What encouragement can we take away from this?
- Read John 13:7. What confidence can be taken from Jesus’ words in this passage?
1See, for example, Michael S. Heiser, The Unseen Realm (Bellingham, WA: 2015), 302-306.
3Marguerite McQuilkin, Always in Triumph (Columbia, SC: Columbia Bible College, 1956), 84.
5Thomas Goodwin, An Exposition on the First Chapter of the Epistle to the Ephesians, in The Words of Thomas Goodwin, ed. Thomas Smith (1861-1866: reprinted, Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Book, 2006), 1:211.
The Mediterranean Sea Rules reminds us that God can always guide us through whatever comes our way, even through the worst storms and choppy waters.