There’s a little acronym that’s become common in managerial circles—VUCA, which stands for “Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity.” The US Army War College first introduced the concept to describe the new realities after the Cold War ended.
VUCA refers to the perfect storm of circumstances of life that sometimes strikes individuals, families, and churches. It’s what happens when you face a string of complicated and ever-changing “unknown unknowns.” Or as an article in the Harvard Business Review put it, VUCA is a catchall phrase for “Hey, it’s crazy out there!”
Have you ever been trying to achieve something good and God-honoring, only to find yourself swirling around in the VUCA? Have you ever been trying to get somewhere you know God wants you to go, only to find your plans sidetracked or your dreams shipwrecked?
A sidetrack is when life takes you on a detour you didn’t anticipate, and it isn’t on the way to where you’re trying to go. Sidetracks aren’t necessarily bad but can be perplexing and frustrating. A shipwreck is when life crashes your plans or dreams on the rocks, and all you can do is pick up the pieces. Shipwrecks are painful and scary, and you wonder, “Okay God, what now?”
My friend Ryker graduated college last year, got married to his sweetheart, and moved to another state to take a new job. He was so excited by how well his life was going. Only once he started work at his new job in his new state, he found out it wasn’t anything like what he had been told it would be; it wasn’t anything like what he expected or wanted or was good at. So much so that when he got downsized just months later, he told me it actually came as a relief to him. What happened? He had prayed, researched, consulted with others, but VUCA, man—it’s crazy out there!
How do we handle getting sidetracked or shipwrecked while trying to get where God wants us to go?
We can learn some valuable lessons from the Apostle Paul’s experiences in Acts 27.
Paul was determined to go to Rome to preach the gospel. The city of Rome was the center of the first-century world—from there, roads went out in all directions to all parts of the empire. Paul thought if Rome could be evangelized, and the church there enlarged and charged up with missionary vision, the gospel would go to the ends of the earth. And Paul had seen a vision of Christ while in prison, who told him he must testify in Rome. So Paul, a Roman citizen yet a prisoner for his faith, appealed to be tried before Caesar.
After spending two years imprisoned in Caesarea, he was finally onboard a ship on its way to Rome, along with some 275 Roman soldiers, prisoners, merchants, and crew. Among them were Aristarchus, whom Paul once called “my fellow prisoner,” and presumably Luke, who switches to first person and writes with remarkable detail.
They left Caesarea and stopped at Sidon, where Julius the Centurion in charge kindly permitted Paul to visit friends there. Then on to Myra where they changed ships and struggled on to Cnidus. But the winds were against them, and they could not hold their intended course. They struggled along to Crete and made it to Fair Havens on October 5 in the year AD 59. Now, mid-September to mid-November was dangerous sailing season. In good weather, the whole trip could have been done in a month, but now much time had been lost. So Paul stands up and says.
[Read Acts 27:10-11]
Remember the TV show 24, so titled because each season takes place over 24 consecutive hours? The hero, Jack Bauer, is always right about what he thinks is going to happen next but is constantly being overruled and thwarted by his by-the-book superiors, who slow him down and muck things up. If the other characters would just listen to Jack, the show could’ve been called 12!
That’s how I would have felt in Paul’s place. Now I don’t know whether Paul’s prediction was a special word from God, or just his experience and common sense. But the sailors don’t take his counsel, and instead push out for Phoenix, a harbor on the west end of Crete about 40 miles away. At first a gentle southerly breeze deceived them into thinking that they could manage it, but then a northeaster, a wind of hurricane force came howling down from the Cretan mountains, forcing the ship south and west. Almost without warning, they were caught in a terrible storm, which drove them away from land into the open sea.
[Read Acts 27:18-20]
The crew did everything they knew to do to save the ship. Then, finally, after days of a raging storm, with neither sun nor stars to guide them (nor compass or sextants or GPS either), the whole ship’s company had given up all hope. But in that crisis of despair, Paul stepped forward with a word of encouragement.
[Read Acts 27:22-26]
Paul declared that though the ship would be lost, no lives would be. And this time he had it on the authority of an angel of the Lord.
On the 14th night at about midnight, the sailors could hear waves breaking on the shore and took soundings. Fearing rocks or a reef, they dropped anchors and prayed for dawn.
[Read Acts 27:33-36]
The men had not eaten in many days, owing to the constant suspense, seasickness, and saturated rations. But now Paul presses them to eat in order to survive. With that he sets an example, giving thanks to God publicly for the food, and begins to eat. As a result, the rest of the ship’s company were encouraged and followed Paul’s example.
When daylight breaks, the ship runs aground on the island of Malta, on a sandbar of the island’s northeast coast at what is today known as St. Paul’s Bay. The surf breaks the stern to pieces and the soldiers, acting without orders, intend to kill the prisoners. But Julius stops them because he wants to spare Paul. He orders those who can swim for it to do so, and others drift in on planks from the ship. Everyone reaches the shore safely.
I’d like to suggest three important takeaways from this passage for when you find yourself sidetracked or shipwrecked.
We should expect difficulty
Jenna Fischer was once a struggling actress in Hollywood trying to find work. Well-meaning family members would give her unhelpful career advice, without truly understanding how actors get cast. Looking back after getting her big break as Pam on The Office, Jenna says, “Just because you see someone who is successful at something, you shouldn’t think that success came easy for them. And when you’re on a journey and it’s difficult, it doesn’t mean you’re going to fail, and it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be on that journey.”
Jesus had said to Paul, “You must testify in Rome” (23:11). Yet circumstance after circumstance seemed calculated to make this impossible. Paul had expressed his intention to proceed straight from Jerusalem to Rome. Instead he was arrested in Jerusalem, subjected to repeated trials, imprisoned in Caesarea, threatened with assassination, and then nearly drowned in the Mediterranean, and almost killed by soldiers! Each incident seemed designed to prevent him from reaching his God-given destination. But that doesn’t mean Paul is on the wrong journey.
Luke draws our attention to the storm, and we need to remember that the sea was a regular Old Testament symbol of evil powers in opposition to God. It wasn’t just the forces of nature or the schemes of men that were arrayed against Paul but demonic forces at work through them. We must remember that the devil is always seeking to thwart God’s saving purpose through his people and his Christ:
He tried through Pharaoh to drown the baby Moses.
He tried through Haman to annihilate the Jews.
He tried through Herod to destroy the baby Jesus in Bethlehem.
He tried through the Sanhedrin to smother the church in its infancy.
And now, through this storm at sea, he attempted to stop Paul from bringing the gospel to the capital of the ancient world.
We get this idea that if we’re obedient to God’s will, following God’s playbook, life will be easy. I’ve had church people tell me as much. But where do the Scriptures teach that?
Jesus told his disciples in John 16: “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” Yes, Christ has the power to still every storm, but he does not immunize us from every problem. Sometimes he miraculously delivers us from the storm, while at other times he gives us the courage to endure it.
We will face spiritual opposition when we decide to follow Christ, so it isn’t supposed to be easy! Expect difficulty, but remember that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28).
We can exercise leadership
Note Paul’s role under God’s sovereignty—even though he is a prisoner throughout, he never stops thinking and acting like a leader. We’ve seen Paul as the apostle to the Gentiles, pioneer of three missionary expeditions, prisoner, and defendant. Yet here Paul was an ordinary man among men, a simple Christian among pagan soldiers, prisoners, merchants, and crew. Still, leaders will lead, and Paul’s God-given leadership gifts emerge. Once he warned these men, and twice he urged them to keep up their courage. That’s leadership. Even though he wasn’t in charge, once he won the ear of Julius the Centurion, he might as well have been.
The movie Lincoln provides a glimpse into some of the challenges that President Abraham Lincoln faced while he was in office. But the level of real-world suffering this leader endured throughout his life is simply astonishing.
His mother died when he was nine. His first love died when he was a young man. Later, three of his four children died in childhood. His wife may have been affected by mental illness, and he himself is believed to have suffered from what we would now diagnose as clinical depression.
His political path was no easier. This man we view as a unifying hero was largely unpopular in his own times. The media portrayed him as a hapless hick from the backwoods. Eastern society rejected him and his wife because they were from Illinois—then considered the rough Western frontier. And when he ran for president, leaders in Southern states made clear that if Lincoln were elected, the country would divide. With 82 percent voter turnout in 1860, he won with less than 40 percent of the popular vote.
Rather than shrink from a leadership nightmare in the making, Lincoln accepted leadership of a country that was already deeply divided below the surface, knowing his election meant division would soon be obvious on the surface as well. Sure enough, after his election Southern states made good on their threats and began seceding from the union before he even took office. Then, roughly a month after he took office, all-out civil war erupted. His popularity grew during his presidency until, four years after he took office and just six days after the Confederate surrender, he was shot and killed in a final tragedy that helped to bring the nation back together in their grief.
What made Lincoln such an effective leader during this great crisis? Here’s one theory: Lincoln’s intimate acquaintance with sorrow and hardship had prepared him for the kind of self-sacrifice his presidency would require.
When you see things going sideways, if you are gifted in leadership, take a leadership role and be an influence for good. But even if you don’t see yourself as a leader, you can still learn from Paul’s actions here: give hope, share wisdom, offer help, and point people to God. Exercise leadership whenever leadership is needed.
The Nigerian city of Jos sits on Africa’s great fault line between the Muslim north and Christian south and thus has faced terrible conflict in recent years. In 2013 a Nigerian Baptist church was attacked by Muslim extremists who burnt the church building and the house of the church’s leader, Pastor Sunday Gomna.
On the second Sunday after the violent outbreak, when the people of that Baptist church returned for worship, they gathered in a little mud wall community center about one kilometer from their burnt church building. Pastor Gomna stood up and offered some beautiful words of gratitude.
He said, “First, I am grateful that no one in my church killed anyone.” Apparently, during the chaos of the attacks, Pastor Gomna had gone around the community and some of the Muslim people said, “Pastor, thank you for the way you taught your people. Your people helped to protect us.” So Pastor Gomna was proud that his people did not kill any Muslims.
“Second,” he said, “I am grateful that they did not burn my church.” Everyone looked at Pastor Sunday with disbelief. After all, they were meeting in a small, uncomfortable mud hut. But Pastor Gomna continued: “Inasmuch as no church member died during this crisis, they did not burn our church. They only burned the building. We can rebuild the building, but we could not bring back to life any of our members. So I am grateful that they did not burn my church.”
He continued, “Third, I am grateful that they burned my house as well. If they had burned your house and not my house, how would I have known how to serve you as pastor? However, because they burned my house and all my possessions, I know what you are experiencing and I will be able to be a better pastor to you. So I am grateful that they burned my house as well.” That’s leadership.
We need to express faith
Many readers of Acts have a hard time with chapter 27 (the voyage, the storm, and the shipwreck). Why did Luke devote so much of his account to this detailed, yet seemingly unedifying story? The lesson we are meant to learn concerns the providence of God, who “works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will” (Eph. 1:11).
Faith in God means you never have to panic. Paul trusted the Lord, even when life didn’t turn out like he’d expected. He knew that God was always in charge, and that trusting God for the outcome would always be worth it.
In his 2016 book Washed and Waiting, Wesley Hill shares about his struggle with same-sex attraction and his desire to obey Christ and remain celibate. He writes about a time when he felt the world was caving in around him:
I had been living in Minneapolis for only a few months, and I felt burdened—physically so, at times—by loneliness, confusion, and fear. During a brief visit to Wheaton, Illinois, I arranged to meet with my good friend Chris, and on a cold winter afternoon I told him how I was feeling and asked for his help. Out of all the things Chris said to me in response to that day, one sticks out. With compassion in his voice, he said, “Imagine yourself standing in the presence of God, looking down from heaven on the earthly life you’re about to be born into, and God says to you, ‘Wes, I’m going to send you into the world for 60 or 70 or 80 years. It will be hard. In fact, it will be more painful and confusing and distressing than you can now imagine. You will have a thorn in your flesh, a homosexual orientation that is the result of your entering a world that sin and death have broken, and you may wrestle with it all your life. But I will be with you. I will be watching every step you take, guiding you by my Spirit, supplying you with grace sufficient for each day. And at the end of your journey, you will see my face again, and the joy we share then will be born out of the agonies you faithfully endured by the power I gave you. And no one will take that joy … away from you.’”
“Wesley,” Chris said, looking me in the eye, “would you say yes to the journey if you had had that conversation with God?” I nodded. “But you have had it, in a sense. God is the author of your story. He is watching, supplying you with his Spirit moment by moment. And he will raise your body from the dead to live with him and all the great company of the redeemed forever. Can you keep walking the lonely road if you remember he’s looking on and delights to help you persevere?”
Wesley Hill comments: “Your struggle isn’t a mindless, unobserved string of random disappointments. It will be worth it. The joy then will be worth the struggle now. In the end, I think that is how I am learning to live faithfully as a celibate Christian who struggles with same-sex attraction.”
When we find ourselves shipwrecked, we have a choice either to turn from God or turn to God. Many people turn from God, sometimes subtly, over time. They allow feelings of entitlement and resentment and disappointment to choke away their faith and rob them of joy. But let’s don’t be like that, even when shipwrecked. Instead, turn to God, trust God, and express faith in God.
Here’s how to respond when you find yourself sidetracked or shipwrecked: expect difficulty, exercise leadership, and express faith.
Dan McConchie, vice president of government affairs at Americans United for Life, was riding his motorcycle through a suburban intersection in 2007 when a car came into his lane and pushed him into oncoming traffic. When he woke two weeks later in a level 1 trauma center, he was a mess: six broken ribs, deflated left lung, broken clavicle, broken shoulder blade, and five broken vertebrae. Worst of all, amid all the broken bones, he had a spinal-cord injury that left him a paraplegic. The neurosurgeon told his wife that it would be a “miracle” if he’d ever walk again. Eleven years later, Dan is still in a wheelchair.
“What I learned,” Dan said, “is that this life isn’t for our comfort. Instead, the purpose of this life is that we become conformed to the image of Christ. Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen when everything is unicorns and rainbows. It instead happens when life is tough, when we are forced to rely upon God through prayer just to make it through the day. That is when he is most at work in our lives molding us into who he designed us to be.
“My prayers are different today than they were eight years ago. Back then, I looked at God like Santa Claus. I asked him to send nice things my way. Now, I have one prayer that I pray more than any other: ‘Lord, may I be able to say at the end of today that I was faithful.’” In 2016, Dan was elected to the Illinois state senate, where he continues to serve, lead, and witness for Christ.
David Ward is Pastor of Teaching Ministries for New Hope Church in Greenwood, IN.