“Circumstances and Extremes”
Acts 28:4-6, “And when the barbarians saw the venomous beast hang on his hand, they said among themselves, No doubt this man is a murderer, whom though he hath escaped the sea, yet vengeance suffereth not to live. And he shook off the beast into the fire, and felt no harm. Howbeit they looked when he should have swollen, or fallen down dead suddenly: but after they had looked a great while, and saw no harm come to him, they changed their minds, and said that he was a god.”
This morning, we perceive things and make judgments and conclusions based on our observations. However, our perception and observation is limited at best, making firm conclusions harder to come by in many things. Due to the rise of instant communication, people’s “snap judgment” levels have increased, even though the plethora of information has actually diluted much truth rather than magnified it. One of the biggest pitfalls that well intentioned children of God can fall into in this regard is judging who is and who is not a child of God. To avoid allowing circumstances get us into extreme thinking, we need to be cognizant of our limited perspective. For example, the best that I can say when seeing good works manifest is, “To my best observation, they have displayed grace that can only come from God.” When I see nothing but evil works, the best I can muster is, “To my best observation, I really don’t know.” The dying thief on the cross is a good example of a lifelong experience of evil, changed at the 11th hour by the Holy Ghost. Esau is a good example of God providentially blessing His chosen – Jacob – by preventing Esau from an evil purpose, thereby looking like a good man outwardly.
The lesson above shows how circumstances can lead to extreme thinking – in both directions. Paul and his companions were on a boat in Chapter 27 ultimately headed for Rome when a storm capsized the boat. Paul and the rest of the boat’s passengers all made it safe to an island inhabited by barbarians, though they were quite cordial barbarians. These very blinded natives observed the above happen to Paul and showed their ignorance about Paul’s position and state. When things went evil, they assumed that he was an evil man (not cutting him enough slack), and when things went well, they deified him (giving him too much credit). There are two popular clichés today that have been around all my life: 1. When things go well, someone says, “You must be living right.” and 2. When things go poorly, “You ain’t living right.”
What goads these conclusions? Circumstances do. Circumstances may and do change, but truth does not. Truth is not dependent upon circumstances as it stands firm no matter what is going on outwardly. Now, circumstances can lead us into truth when we observe things for what they really are. Courts have tried and convicted men by piling enough circumstantial evidence together that the jury felt compelled that they were really innocent or guilty. Good deeds piled together can give us a good indication that someone has been touched and regenerated by God Almighty. Though I do not spend a lot of time wondering who is and who is not a child of God, I do not have any real concern that those that I preach to on a week in and week out basis are really God’s children. They have exhibited Christian grace and charity over and over, thereby indicating to a reasonable conclusion that they are God’s own.
When Paul had bad circumstances go his way, the barbarians assumed the worst in him. Job’s three miserable comforters assumed the same when his bad days were in season. The heart of their inquiry to him was, “Job, obviously you’re guilty of some secret sin. Why don’t you just confess it, get it into the open, and get it over with?” In Paul and Job’s case, they had not done anything wrong to merit a bad experience, but life is full of circumstances where people suffer having not done anything wrong. I am always amazed by the disciples’ question to Jesus in the introduction of John 9 when they encountered the man born blind. They asked who sinned to make him this way: him or his parents? What a question! How could a man have sinned before his very own birth to get born that way? Yet, that is the power that circumstances play in warping our mental patterns.
There is perhaps no more important natural life lesson that parents can teach their children than this: The world is not fair, and bad things will happen whether you have merited it or not. People suffer. That is part of life. Not a pleasant thought, but it is verily the truth. Yes, if we live rotten, wicked lives, we should expect that we will suffer for it. If we live righteous lives, we should expect to be persecuted for it. Either way, we will suffer. Peter’s admonition is to suffer as a Christian rather than as a murderer, etc. (I Peter 4:15-16) When bad things happen, we should not automatically assume the worst as these barbarians did. We should rather seek to know the truth. Maybe the reason it happened is beyond our ability to determine, but either way, the truth is what is important. Paul was not a murderer under the curse of some intangible entity like “vengeance.”
On the other hand, they glorified Paul overmuch when the miraculous happened. God spared his life by not allowing the poison to kill him, thereby making them assume he was a god. To different degrees this happens to ministers a lot. While we do not get bitten by snakes and live, we are blessed with miracles from God’s hand repeatedly when we enter the pulpit. When the man’s words become more than words and the gospel goes forth miraculously in demonstration of the Spirit and power, there is a tendency to think too much of the messenger. More credit is given to the man than is deserved. Paul labored to expunge preacher worship in his opening to Corinth (I Corinthians 1), but sadly that mindset still plagues people today. If “their guy” really knocked one out of the park, they crow about what their guy did. Friends, if real preaching is to be had, the Holy Ghost blessed it, and God alone is glorified in it.
In a more natural application, we tend to credit people with things beyond their real scope of influence. I get sadly amused today when people pin successes and failures in all areas to the president. Now, the president has an important job function to fulfill, but he is not culpable for every up and down that we see daily. Just as the preacher is responsible to put forth his effort in study, meditation, and prayer, the president must labor honorably to execute his office to the best of his ability. However, the president is not the one who ups and downs the gas prices or many other things. The pastor is not the source of credit for new members nor necessarily the cause for dwindling members. Those things may be beyond his control, yet good circumstances can deify someone and bad circumstances can vilify him in people’s minds.
What was Paul’s position? He was neither a murderer nor a god. What is our position? Hopefully we are not murderers, but we are definitely not gods. Paul was dependent on God for all things. So are we. Paul labored to follow the will of the Lord. So should we. What is the real truth? The real truth is that man by himself is nothing. God is everything. We can do all things with His help and strength. We can overcome problems, honorably bear suffering, and deal with the doubts and dark days of life. He has loved us with an everlasting love. Because of that love and His work, we will abide with Him where he is. None of the good or bad circumstances in life will change these truths. When things go well and we think we can do all right by ourselves, we deceive ourselves. When things go awry and we think that God has forsaken us, we deceive ourselves. God does not change; His truth does not change. Therefore let us not let the sliding and slipping sands of life cause our minds to wander from the unchanging One and His promises. Let us not ascribe too much credit where none is warranted, and let us not overly criticize someone/something when we may not know all that we need to know about the situation.