LOOKING FOR GOD IN ALL THE WRONG PLACES
Written by Doug Ponder on April 14, 2013
This article is a recap of the sermon from April 14, 2013. The Scripture passage for the sermon is Acts 28:1-10.
Those Poor, Perplexed People of Malta
You hear a voice outside the door to your hut. “Probably someone who needs help picking up after the storm,” you think to yourself. “Guess I should stop pretending like I’m not home and go see what he wants.”
You’re barely outside before your friend Sergio begins talking excitedly at you. In between breaths he tries to tell you why he’s just sprinted all the way to your home.
“A ship has crashed,” he began, “on the reefs.”
You’ve lived your entire life on the island of Malta, so you’re used to ship wrecks by now. Why all the fuss?
Sergio continues, “All 276 survivors…” he says, still catching his breath. “Survived.”
“In a storm like that? You can’t be serious!”
But he was right. All 276 of the ship’s crew had washed safely ashore, still clinging desperately to pieces of cargo and bits of the broken ship.
“What does this mean?” you ask your friend, who now has your full attention.
“It’s a sign. The gods want us to welcome these people.” (Acts 28:2)
He must be right. Why else would they all have arrived safely on our island?
Later that night, as you sit with your new guests around a fire, a viper emerges from the wood and bites one of the prisoners (Acts 28:3). His name is Paul, but that hardly matters now. He’s only got a couple of hours left to live.
“Another sign from the gods,” you think to yourself. Some of your friends have already thought the same, and one of them speaks his mind. “No doubt this man is a murderer. He may have escaped from the sea, but Justice has caught up with him at last!” (Acts 28:4)
You wait for him to swell up or fall down dead, just like everyone else does after a run in with that kind of viper. No point in trying to save a murderer. He’s getting what he deserved.
An hour goes by, and then another. But still nothing happens. The man named Paul suffers no harm from the snakebite whatsoever (Acts 28:5). He doesn’t even seem phased by the incident.
What could this mean? Is it yet another sign? Before you could make up your mind, someone blurts out, “Surely this man is a god!” (Acts 28:6)
And so it was that in the span of just a few hours, you and your friends went from thinking that Paul was a murderer to thinking that Paul was a god.
You see, that’s the tricky thing about trying to interpret things as signs. You can never be quite sure what anything actually means. Are these people our enemies or our guests? Is that man a murderer or a god? How could you possibly know?
Are We Any Better?
We shouldn’t be too hard on the people of Malta. They weren’t doing much different from other ancient cultures. Even the sophisticated Greeks, with their love of logic, would visit oracles who used hallucinogenic drugs as a way to “predict the future.” The Romans weren’t any better. Their love for order and reason didn’t stop them from slaughtering bulls and throwing the entrails on the ground in the hopes of finding a meaningful sign. (How would you like to have gotten your degree in the art of reading bull guts?)
Some cultures tried to read tealeaves. Other cultures have tried to read the stars. (Astrologists still claim to do this very thing in our own time.)
What these groups of people all have in common is this: their religions taught them to look for signs and interpret them as clues about life.
If you think about it, religions like that put an awful lot of pressure on the people, don’t they? You must find the signs. You must interpret them. And if you don’t do it right, then who knows what kinds of horrible things might happen. Most of life would be a mystery to you. Never knowing, always waiting for the next sign, hoping that when it comes you can recognize it quickly and interpret it correctly.
What an uncertain, distressing way to live.
Are we much better than all that? Maybe we don’t enthrone snakebite survivors as gods and goddesses. But we many of us do seek truth through mystical signs. This is an especially common practice when it comes to knowing God.
Looking for God in Feelings
Most of us are guilty of making decisions on the basis of our feelings (or intuition) from time to time. “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.” “Go with your gut.” “I prayed, and I have peace about this.”
And when it comes to looking for God, people believe that if they feel good about something it must be right or true. It must mean that “God is in this,” or “God wants me to do this.”
That kind of thinking is foolish, and dangerous too. By themselves, our feelings aren’t very trustworthy. We all have tons of stories of when we felt like we should do something, but our feelings proved to be horribly misguided. (So why do we continue to make decisions this way, let alone try to know God like this?)
Another reason feelings are a terrible source for truth is that the Scriptures warn us that Satan disguises himself as an angel of light (2 Cor. 11:4), seeking to lead astray whomever he can. If I were him, I’d give people “good feelings” about all sorts of things that poison their souls and wreck their lives.
Looking for God in Circumstances
“I knew this was ‘the one’ God wanted me to marry, because she wore a necklace with a cross on it.” (But you get divorced two years later.)
“I asked God to show me which world religion is true, and a Mormon missionary knocked on my door fifteen minutes later.” (But a Jehovah’s Witness also shows up an hour after that.)
The problem with trying to read your circumstances is that they change quickly (just as they did in Paul’s case) and they can be twisted to suit whatever you want them to say.
Take the guy who prayed to know which religion is true. How should he interpret the circumstances? Is Mormonism true because their missionaries arrived first? Or are the Jehovah’s Witnesses right, because they came afterward as a “correction” to the Mormons? Or are both groups wrong? How could you even know?
When circumstances change so quickly and can be taken to mean so many different things, they are the very last place we should go looking for the truth about God.
Looking for God in Religious Experience
Thirdly, many people look for God in religious experiences. They throw themselves fully into some kind of religion, thinking their devotion will help them discover the truth about God. (“If I work hard, then God will show me the truth…”)
The end result of this kind of life is typically one of two dead ends. Either you feel good about your conclusions, thinking that you have come to know God through your own efforts. This produces very prideful people who look down on others that haven’t worked as hard to know God as they. But God says he opposes the proud (Jas 4:6), so clearly these people haven’t found God.
The other dead end is despair. People who work hard to know God but feel like they can’t make any progress end up thinking one of two things: either (1) the problem lies with them for not working hard enough to find God, or (2) the problem lies with God, who doesn’t want to be found, can’t be found, or maybe doesn’t even exist. (If God doesn’t exist, that would explain why he is so hard to find.)
Looking for God in All the Wrong Places
Maybe you’ve tried looking for God in feelings, in circumstances, or in religion. You came up empty-handed, more confused, more hurt, and more frustrated than before you began.
Maybe because of this you’ve given up on God all together, concluding either that God doesn’t exist or that we can’t know if he exists.
But maybe you’ve never realized that you were looking for God in all the wrong places.
The True Sign of God
You see, unlike all the examples above, Christians have always taught that if you want to know God you must look to Jesus.
“God has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.” (Heb. 1:2-3)
Jesus himself is the “sign” of God (Col. 1:15). He shows us what God is like, how God loves us, why God judges sin, and how God is making all things new.
The key difference between Jesus and every other sign you might seek is this: Jesus came looking for us, instead of making us look for him. And Jesus tells us why he lived, died, and rose again, instead of making us guess about what it all might mean.
Jesus is unlike every other sign because he doesn’t make us put the pieces together; he himself is the picture that makes sense of all the other puzzle pieces. By looking to Jesus, the light of the world, the dark mysteries of life are chased away.
Looking to Jesus in the 21st Century
How can we “look to Jesus,” since he is no longer with us?
Well, it’s not actually true that Jesus is not with us today. Jesus is alive, and he is with us through his Spirit, the Holy Spirit of God, who dwells inside everyone that has died to sin and been made alive in Christ. Thus he personally leads us and guides us into the truth.
“But,” you say. “How is that any different than our feelings?” The difference is this: We have the Scriptures, which were co-authored by the Spirit. In them we see who God is, what he is doing in the world through Jesus, and what he wants us to do in the power of the Spirit. So when someone says, “God told me to…” Go back to the Scriptures, and you’ll know whether or not it was the Spirit who told them to do that. The more you look at Jesus, the better you’ll know the story of the Scriptures. And the better you know the story of the Scriptures, the better you’ll know what to do in life.
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.