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God's Noninterventions

There is a purpose to God's silence.


When I was a boy, my sister left our home in Pitcairn, Pennsylvania, and traveled to Central Bible College. She had a lifelong problem with her eyesight. She had 20 percent vision in one eye and 50 percent vision in the other, and wore thick, Coke-bottle glasses.

During a fall revival at Central Bible College, she had been praying at the altar and saw a vision of Jesus on the cross. She felt a voice, saying to her, "Doris, take off your glasses." In those years, if you wore glasses, you were prayed for on a regular basis—that you would be healed. My sister had had enough of that, so she said, "No."

Again she felt the voice say to her, "Doris, take off your glasses."

Again her response was, "No."

A third time, while she was having the vision of Jesus on the cross, she felt this voice say to her, "Doris, take off your glasses."

She sensed it might be the Lord, so she prayed, "Lord, if I take these glasses off, I don't want to ever put them on again."

The vision disappeared, she opened her eyes, and she had perfect sight. It's been 50 years. She has never put on a pair of glasses to this day.

God offers both intervention and nonintervention in Acts.

We understand something about God's intervention. We don't understand the other side of the story all that well: God's nonintervention. The Book of Acts is an excellent text for us, because it tells of both God's intervention and his nonintervention. 

Over the years, I've come to conclude that his nonintervention is a companion to his interventions; both are part of his actions. In speaking of God's nonintervention, I don't want to minimize his interventions, and I don't want in any way to break a balloon of faith that would defeat you from praying for the Lord to change circumstances. 

The Book of Acts is loaded with interventions—the sending of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost or the Cornelius connections where the Holy Spirit links Peter with Cornelius and begins the whole explosion of the Gentile mission. There is Saul's conversion—direct intervention by way of a blinding light and voice from heaven. There are what I call "catalyzing miracles." These are the miracles that led to an expansion of the gospel—God's "interventions."

But there is a substantive amount of material about God's nonintervention in the Book of Acts, too. We read of the flogging of the apostles—the Lord did not turn the whips into spaghetti noodles so they would land softly on the skin. There is the martyrdom of Stephen and the subsequent persecution. There's the continued vulnerability of the apostle Paul. For example, right after he's converted and bears witness in Damascus, a plot on his life has developed. How does he get out of town? Does a squadron of angels escort him to the city gates with people unable to accost him? No. He's dumped over the city wall in a basket.

There's more nonintervention from God when Paul falls ill on the first missionary journey. He says later to the Galatians, to whom he had brought the gospel on that journey, "You know it was because I was sick that I first came to you." In other words: My travel plans got rerouted because I was sick. That's why I came to you.

There's the nonintervention of God that has Paul continually getting kicked out of towns he had witnessed in—including his expulsion from Antioch, Iconium, and Lystra. Where was God? Why didn't the rocks turn to marshmallows so they landed harmlessly? Why didn't a plastic bubble come down and protect him so he could smile while they kept throwing heavy missiles at him?

There's Paul's beating at Philippi. There's his arrest in Jerusalem and his subsequent two-year imprisonment, shipwreck, snakebite, and two-year house arrest. Writing to the Corinthians in 2 Corinthians 6, he says, "In great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses; in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger." That is a list of nonintervention.

If that isn't enough, there are the many disputes in the Book of Acts. There's the Acts 6 dispute over the neglect of a certain segment of the body of Christ. There's the Acts 15 dispute over doctrine. At the end of Acts 15, there is a dispute between Paul and Barnabas over whether or not they should take along John Mark for the missionary journey. Why doesn't the Holy Spirit in any one of those three disputes come down and settle the matter? Why doesn't he say: "Here's what you should do over the widow problem"? Why doesn't he say, in regard to the doctrinal dispute, "Here's what the true gospel is"? Why does he let them work this out?

There is the unexpected, unexplained death of the apostle James in Acts 12. Peter's released from prison, but what about James? James is put to death with the sword.

Finally, there's the plot to assassinate Paul that redirects his travel plans at the end of his third missionary journey. What's going on?

Maybe you can identify with this. Maybe there have been times in your life when God's intervention would have helped you. But despite your prayers, despite your pleas, and despite your faith, God did not intervene. What's going on?

Let me suggest to you that none of us are bright enough to fully answer that question, but the Scriptures do provide for us some clues.

By nonintervention, God preserves human freedom.

First of all, by nonintervention, God preserves human freedom. If we are free, then we're free to do wrong as well as right. And wrong deeds have consequences, and because they do, the innocent might be impacted. Think of someone who is a victim of a drunk driver, for example. That person has been impacted by another person's free choice to drink alcohol to the point of inebriation and then get in a car and drive. God did not suspend their choice to do so, and there are times when the innocent suffer because of this human freedom that is given to people to have both good and bad consequences for their decisions.

Now imagine God saying to a person, "How do you plan to get money to pay your bills? Are you going to get a job, which means getting up early in the morning and doing hard work, or are you going to grab an old lady's pocketbook and run off with it?"

The man answers, "I was thinking of going out and stealing a pocketbook."

God says, "No, that's wrong, I can't let you do that. Choose again."

This time the man reluctantly chooses the job. A robbery has been prevented.

But has God permitted that individual to operate as a free, moral human being? Has he permitted that person to choose between the path of good and the path of evil? Or has God reduced that person to an animal by taking away his freedom to choose, compelling him to take the right path?

In order for us to be free and human, God has to leave us free to do right or wrong. The terrible suffering of believers in the Book of Acts is always rising out of the evil deeds of others, which come from their freedom to act. Let us rather suffer evil than do evil. God often does not intervene to protect us from the evil choices of others.

By nonintervention, God allows us to mature.

The second reason God may not intervene is to give us the opportunity to develop wisdom and maturity. That is why he does not intervene in the disputes of Acts—the dispute regarding the care of widows, the dispute over doctrine in Acts 15, and the dispute over methodology at the end of Acts 15. He wants us to develop maturity and wisdom. When we face a decision, the Lord will often simply say, "Now that you've matured sufficiently, I'm going to let you make this call. I'm not going to intervene to tell you what to do."

That's frustrating if you have the kind of relationship with the Lord that allows you to go down the aisle in the grocery store and say, "O Lord, speak to me. Do I buy a box of Cheerios or do I buy a box of Wheaties?" If you want God to make those choices for you, he might, out of his benevolent character, occasionally say, "Buy Wheaties," or "Buy Cheerios." But it's his typical character to say, "I want you to make that decision. You've got an adult mind now, and I'm counting on you to make an intelligent choice."

If we don't have the freedom of choice, we never develop maturity. God delights in giving us choices so we can develop wisdom and maturity. He's pleased when we can sort through difficult issues. He turns to us and says: "Now that you've asked for my will to be done, I'm going to turn back to you and say, 'Your will be done.'"

That's frightening, but it's the freedom God gives us. And that's often the reason for his nonintervention—to give us the opportunity to mature.

By nonintervention, God allows us to show grace.

A third reason God may not intervene in certain situations is that by not intervening, his family—his sons and daughters—may display in their life and countenance the grace of Jesus Christ. You have to remember that on the cross, Jesus did not clutch his hand into a fist and say, "If it's the last thing I do, I'll get even with you." On the cross he gives the word of amnesty, the word of grace: "Father, forgive them."

It's the word Stephen has as he's dying: "Lord, do not hold this sin against them." Saul, the future apostle, but then religious zealot—a member of the Taliban of his day—hears it, and that word of grace is like a dagger to his heart. He can't shake the fact that, at Stephen's death, his faith did not look like a thermometer of the rage around him, but instead reflected God's grace.

I think of Anton and Maria, pastors of the Pentecostal Evangelical Church in Vukovar, Croatia. Maria and Anton told me of a member of their church named Veronica—how she pulled eight members of her own family out of a well. The Serbs had killed them and thrown them over the edge of its opening. She told Anton and Maria, "The story of Corrie ten Boom never left my heart. It's been repeated in our country. And I prayed to learn from her and learn from the past. I prayed that I would be freed from the hate and revenge. And then a miracle happened. I could forgive my enemies with a sincere heart."

That attitude is the source of redemption and healing in the world today. It is an opportunity to display the grace of Jesus.

Our life is a cup. When something hits us that's external, whatever is in the cup spills out. If what's in the cup is anger and resentment and rage and bitterness, that's what spills out. But if in the cup is the fruit of the Spirit—love and joy and peace and the grace of Jesus Christ—when we are hit, out of the cup spills the grace of Jesus Christ. God's nonintervention gives us a unique opportunity to display that grace.

By nonintervention, God advances the gospel.

A fourth reason for God's nonintervention is that it often acts to significantly advance the gospel.

The death of Stephen does this. In fact, there is an interesting cause-and-effect relationship. It was because of church trouble that there was a need for deacons. Because of deacons, Stephen emerged as a leader. Because Stephen emerged as a leader, he found an opportunity to begin preaching. Because he began preaching, Saul of Tarsus heard the message of Jesus Christ, and it penetrated him. It became the goad that was bothering him on the road to Damascus. Because Saul of Tarsus got stirred up, Stephen was put to death and the church was scattered. Because the church was scattered, it went to Antioch, of all places, and a great missionary-sending church originated.

It doesn't stop there. Saul (later renamed, "Paul") is brought into the faith because of Stephen's death, and because of Paul, we have the missionary journeys and subsequent church plants. And because of them, we have the thirteen letters of Paul. Because of Paul, we have Luke and both his gospel account and historical record of the early church (Acts).

All that came out of persecution. The gospel was significantly advanced because God did not intervene.

A young woman in the church I pastored in Southern California was praying at the altar one evening. She was a single mother with two darling little girls. She was weeping at the altar, and I said, "How can I pray with you?"

She said, "I'm still struggling with the aftereffects of my husband's infidelity. I began to suspect my husband was having an affair with my best friend. The four of us would often have dinner together. I was the only one of the four who was a believer. Even though I suspected that my friend was having an affair with my husband, I decided that no matter what, I would do my best to lead her to Jesus, because the reason she was having this affair was she didn't have God's love in her heart.

I faithfully was a witness to her. Our marriage broke up. My husband's affair with her didn't pan out. After it had all blown up, my friend came to me and said, 'There's something about you. I've got to have whatever you have, because I know you knew it was me, and yet you witnessed to me. I want to come to faith in Christ.' And she did."

It was a remarkable display of the advancement of the gospel through nonintervention. God didn't intervene. He didn't strike the husband or the adulteress dead. He intervened through his nonintervention.

There's a wonderful text buried in the Book of Acts that you almost don't see at all. It's in Acts 20:3. Paul is at the end of his third missionary journey. He has a delegation with him from the churches he had founded during his travels. They had collected money, and they're ready to take that offering to Jerusalem. Just as they're about to set sail from Corinth, Paul gets wind that there is an assassination plot for his life. He sends the others on ahead of him, and he goes north to Macedonia. He travels from Macedonia across the Aegean Sea and meets them in what is now southern Istanbul, a place called Miletus, just north of Ephesus.

Just after Paul reroutes his travel plans, the text of Acts is suddenly filled with plural pronouns. In other words, Luke, the author of Acts, is present. The last time there had been a "we" section was at the second missionary journey, when Paul left Philippi. The "we" dropped out, which meant Luke had been left to pastor the church at Philippi while Paul, Silas, and Timothy made their way westward. Suddenly, five years later, he's picked up again, and "we" sail from Macedonia. Luke is with Paul, then, during Paul's arrest and two-year imprisonment at Caesarea by the sea.

The significance of this is found in the prologue to the Gospel of Luke. Luke writes that he did a great deal of research and spoke with numerous eyewitnesses. Where did he get the time to conduct his research and interview those eyewitnesses? It was during the two years Paul was sitting in prison at Caesarea by the sea. Luke is traipsing the countryside, talking to Mary (the mother of Jesus), Martha, Lazarus, and to who knows who else. When he gets done, he's got the largest segment of the New Testament. Luke has more words than any other writer, including Paul.

How did we get this wealth of information? We got it because there was an assassination plot on Paul's life that redirected his itinerary—another time in which God had not intervened.

By nonintervention, God deepens our faith.

Fifth, God may not intervene because he wants to give us opportunity to have our faith powerfully deepened.

One of the instances of this reason for nonintervention is at the end of Acts 4, after the first imprisonment and flogging of the apostles. The prayer the apostles offer after they rejoin the rest of the disciples begins with these words: "Sovereign Lord." In the Greek text, it's one single word from which we derive the English word, "despot." It means, "someone who is a totalitarian ruler; a sovereign whose word is unchallengeable." In English, this word often has an evil context, but not so in the Greek text. Despot simply speaks of someone who has total power and control.

Their world has been out of control. They just had the living daylights beaten out of them by the religious opposition, and they come back to their prayer meeting, get down on their knees, and they're saying, "Sovereign Lord." They understood this great truth: God is in control of history, and specifically, he's in control of your history. He's in control of my history. He's in control of his people. He is in control of his church. He is sovereign Lord. When everything is going wrong, he is still the sovereign Lord.

What a powerfully deepened character and faith! That's why Paul writes these words in Romans 5: "We rejoice in our sufferings, because suffering produces endurance." God can either remove the burden from your back or give you the strength to carry the burden. And what does endurance do? "Endurance produces character, and character produces hope."

Here is the process: First suffering hits you; it's a blast that just about knocks you off your feet, but you get steady. As you steady yourself, you find out that God's saving power becomes his keeping power. As you discover that, your character is being refined. As you continue to walk through this process—it can be days, weeks, months, or even years—you move from suffering to endurance to character development to hope.

The next time something hits us, we can rejoice, because we know suffering is never God's last word. It's only the first word of a process that always ends in hope. That's why we can say we rejoice in our suffering—because we are persons of faith who understand God is working over the course of our human history, developing in us the character of Jesus Christ.

We may never know why God doesn't intervene.

The sixth and final reason for God's nonintervention is one that, if we're going to be honest, we have to include. It is the "undetermined reason." We may never know. That's the caveat. You look at Acts 12, the death of James, and we're never told why it happened.

One of my best friends in college became the only Assemblies of God chaplain to ever be killed in the Vietnam War—Phil Nichols. He was out bivouacking with his men one night. Somebody tripped a wire, and all ten men in the company were killed. Phil had just been in my home before he was deployed to Vietnam. He carried my little girl Evangeline on his shoulders around the house. He had three kids of his own. I'll never forget traveling to his funeral, trying to understand, trying to talk to Joanna, and seeing those three little children. I had no answer then; I don't have an answer now. I don't know why.

I struggled with the fact that he was with the Lord, and I was still here. Why is one called and another not? There's mystery to faith. If we had all the answers, we wouldn't need faith. We could reduce it to a rationalistic formula. But "my faith is built on nothing less than Jesus' blood and righteousness." Jesus' death on Calvary and resurrection from the dead say he's answered the basic question: Who is the Lord of life and death? Who is on the other side? On the other side is Jesus, my Lord. And I can trust some things to be answered on that side.    

George Wood is superintendent of the U.S. Assemblies of God.

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Sermon Outline:


I. God intervenes, and does not intervene in Acts.

II. By nonintervention, God preserves human freedom.

III. By nonintervention, God allows us to mature.

IV. By nonintervention, God allows us to show grace.

V. By nonintervention, God advances the gospel.

VI. By nonintervention, God deepens our faith.

VII. We may never know why God doesn't intervene.