When I first started out preaching in 1971, I wanted to be an evangelist more than anything else. I went to a Billy Graham Crusade and thought, That is what I want to be when I grow up. I never dreamed that I would preach in large stadiums, but I felt that God had called me to bring the good news to people. I didn’t feel called to be a Bible teacher; I just wanted to share the gospel.
I was doing that for awhile, traveling around with Christian bands and sharing the gospel. And then there was this little Bible study in Riverside, Calif., that no one else wanted to lead anymore. It was passed around from pastor to pastor, friends that I knew. I was around 19 or 20 at the time, and someone said, “Well, Greg, why don’t you do it?”
So I went and did it. God blessed it, and it started to grow. So I thought, I have to get someone to take over this Bible study, because I am called to be an evangelist. People started calling me “Pastor Greg,” and I was thinking, I am not your pastor. I’m 21 years old. I don’t think you really want me as your pastor.
But I began to realize that God was calling me to be a pastor. But here was the problem: I was born and raised in Orange County. I did not want to go to Riverside, which was inland. I wanted to stay at the beach. But God was directing me, and so I went. And I continued to teach. And the Bible study became a church that grew and grew – and continues to grow.
Sometimes God says no to us, and we get upset. We say, “Well, God didn’t answer my prayer.” What we really meant to say was that we didn’t like the answer.
We pray, “God, will you do this?”
And when he says no, we say, “Oh, God doesn’t love me.”
But that isn’t it. God said no because he does love you. He said no because he has a different purpose in mind.
Sometimes God leads us differently than what we wanted to do. David, for instance, wanted to build a house for the Lord. That was really on his heart. God told him no, but he would let David’s son do it. So David didn’t get to do what he wanted to do.
God also said no to the apostle Paul, who had planned to go to Asia with his fellow missionaries to preach the gospel. Acts 16 tells us, “They were forbidden by the Holy Spirit to preach the word in Asia” (verse 6 NKJV). I don’t know how the Holy Spirit conveyed that to them, but God changed their plans.
Sometimes God may be saying no through something as simple as the car not starting or a flight being canceled. But whatever it was you were about to do doesn’t happen.
Sometimes our plans are changed through sickness. We realize we can’t go where we wanted to go. We can’t do what we wanted to do. God has His timing.
And God had His timing with the apostle Paul. His timing wasn’t right for Paul, Silas and the others to go where they wanted to go. God wanted them to go to a different place. He wanted them to go to Philippi.
When they arrived in town, they went looking for the synagogue. But there was not a synagogue, because there were not enough Jews there to form one. So on the Sabbath, Paul went down to the river, where some women were meeting, and he spoke to them. One of them was a woman named Lydia, who became a believer. After her conversion, Paul and Silas found themselves being followed around town by a demon-possessed girl. Strangely, she was yelling out, “These men are the servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to us the way of salvation” (verse 17 NKJV). Finally, Paul couldn’t take it anymore and cast the demons out of her. Along with that went her ability to make money, because she was a slave who was generating a lot of income for her masters. So they were angry with Paul and Silas and dragged them to the authorities.
Paul and Silas were brought up on false charges, beaten and then thrown into prison. Then the Bible tells us, “But at midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them” (verse 25 NKJV).
When you are in pain, the midnight hour is not the easiest time for a worship service. But God can give songs in the night. Psalm 42:8 says, “The Lord will command His lovingkindness in the daytime, and in the night His song shall be with me – a prayer to the God of my life” (NKJV).
Not only were Paul and Silas worshiping, but the other prisoners were listening. In the original language, the word that is used for “listen” is significant. It means to listen very, very carefully. Another way to translate it is “they listened with pleasure.” I doubt they had ever heard anyone sing in that dungeon before.
I think the fact that Paul and Silas were singing to God was a platform for evangelism. You see, you can talk about trusting God in adversity, but when someone sees it in action in your life, there is an undeniable authenticity. It is a powerful witness. It carries a lot of weight. And that makes your words more powerful. That is what was happening here. Paul and Silas had perspective, and they praised God in a stinking dungeon.
Only a person with a relationship with God can do this, I think. Our joy and contentment in life does not come from what we have. Whatever you acquire in life, you will grow tired of it in time.
The Bible teaches that true happiness does not come from what we have, but from who we know. That is how Paul and Silas were able to rejoice in their circumstances. And that is how you can rejoice in yours.