“The Next Right Thing”

“And they went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. And when they had come up to Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them. So, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas.”

(Acts 16:6-8)

I’m not proud to admit it but, only a few weeks into this limited shelter-in-place thing, Rachael and I have already allowed our children to watch Frozen 2 four times. Yes. Four times. Don’t get me wrong. The movie is colorful, fun, well animated, skillfully voice-acted and has great music. But four times is a lot. Needless to say, the soundtrack is now stuck in my head. In the darkest moment of the film (don’t worry, no spoilers here) Anna sings through her grief and uncertainty. And in that darkness, she remembers the wise words of Grand Pabbie, “When one can see no future, all one can do is the next right thing.” She sings:

I won’t look too far ahead

It’s too much for me to take

But break it down to this next breath, this next step

This next choice is one that I can make

She resolves to move forward by simply doing the “next right thing.” This lesson is perhaps the greatest contribution of the film. We find ourselves in similar times now when, faced with uncertainty, all we can do is the next right thing. (Note the structure of Anna’s song resembles that of many Psalms of lament in the Bible, albeit lacking that one all-important quality of being prayers sung to God)

As Paul and Silas journeyed through the Cilician Gates into familiar territory in Southern Galatia, they picked up young Timothy in Derbe to join them on what we call the Second Missionary Journey. They traveled west “strengthening the churches” along the way (Acts 15:41) by communicating the important decisions of the Jerusalem council of the previous chapter (16:4).

Their natural route would have led them west into Asia but, for some mysterious reason, the Holy Spirit forbade them from preaching there (v.6). So they headed north through Phrygia into Bithynia, a 200-mile journey of about 2-3 weeks on foot, “but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them” there either (v.7). Their northward progress stopped, the band was forced west toward the coast and Troas (v.8). And because Troas was technically part of Asia they couldn't preach the good news while they were there (cf. v.7). 

Who knows what Paul was thinking in Troas, let alone Silas and not to mention poor Timothy! “What are we doing here? What did I sign up for? What does God want me to do? Where does he want me to go? Everything seems so muddled.” They were ‘in the dark,’ so to speak. Uncertainty, confusion, and perhaps small seeds of doubt, were trying to lodge themselves into their hearts. Only when we see a map of their progress does it become clear what God was doing. He was channeling them towards Macedonia, guiding them as one does the blind, keeping them on the right path.

But the view looked quite different from the ground. Paul and his friends didn't have a clue what their next move was. We all have moments in life when the future is uncertain and we’re not sure how to proceed. But in those moments, all we can do is trust the Lord and “do the next right thing.” God didn’t reveal his whole plan to Paul all at once. Rather, he did so in stages. Paul almost certainly would have been praying and waiting for the Lord to make his path clear. Who knows how long he waited in Troas. But finally, one night, he received a vision calling them to preach the good news in Macedonia (vv.9-10). God didn't want them rehashing old ground so he led his ambassadors into fresh, uncharted territory for the gospel!

What are we to learn from this? We never know what’s around the corner in life but we don’t have to because we know how the story will end. Walking in the light of God’s word (1 Jn. 1:7; cf. Psa. 119:105) doesn’t mean every future decision is revealed to us. But the light illuminates enough of the path for us to take the next step.  It's a bit like driving home at night with your headlamps on. You know where you eventually want to end up and you can see what's right in front of you but everything in between is a mystery. This is partly what it means to "walk by faith, not by sight" (2 Cor. 5:7). 

God’s word gives us the tools to prayerfully and faithfully “do the next right thing” each day. In the meantime, we can trust that God will bring us where he wants us in his own time. Pray for wisdom (Jas. 1:5) but understand it may come at an unexpected time and in unexpected ways. But when it does come it will be exactly what you need when you need it. While we might love to have a clear vision like Paul that night in Troas, the wisdom the Father gives his children is no less perfect a gift (Jas. 1:17).

The fact is, we lack imagination to conceive of the many thousands of possibilities that God might have in store. In what ways will he use us in his service? Whose lives might the Lord touch through us? How will he bring beauty out of tragedy? God knows and that is enough. Through it all, God works everything together for good to those who love him. And as we put our trust in him, he shapes us, experience by experience, into the image of his Son (Rom. 8:28-29).

We don't know what the next few months will bring. We can't know for sure. The virus may continue to spread and the death toll may rise but it will not go unchecked forever. Our holy God will not allow it. "He will judge the world in righteousness, and the peoples in his faithfulness." (Psa. 96:13) In the meantime, may our Father equip us with the wisdom and strength to "do the next right thing," in the name of Jesus and in the power of his Spirit.