Prevented by the Holy Spirit

Where’s your Macedonia?

[Paul and his companions] traveled through the Phrygian and Galatian territory because they had been prevented by the Holy Spirit from preaching the message in the province of Asia. When they came to Mysia, they tried to go on into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them… During the night Paul had a vision. A Macedonian stood before him and implored him with these words, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” Acts 16:6-9 Call_to_Macedonia

This curious passage from the Acts of the Apostles demonstrates a little-discussed aspect of the spiritual life: before showing us what to do, sometimes God shows us what not to do.

First, a little context. On this second missionary journey (Acts 15:36–18:22), Paul builds on the success of his first journey, visiting the Christian communities that he had established earlier in central Asia Minor (present-day Turkey) and seeking to start new communities. In the passage above, Paul, along with companions that included Timothy and Silas, attempts to go further north into Asia Minor. Instead, they are redirected to Macedonia, which would be the first place the seed of Christianity is planted on European soil.

We’re not told exactly how the Holy Spirit prevented them from preaching in the province of Asia or going into Bithynia. Was it natural (a landslide, a flood, a missed connection)? Was it supernatural (a dream, a revelation, a physical presence that kept them from proceeding)? We don’t know. What we do know is that, whatever form the prompting of the Spirit took, these disciples got the message and heeded it. Sometime later, Paul received a vision inviting them to Macedonia to evangelize in Europe.

This episode has some lessons for us, as well.

First, are we doing what God has called us to do? Have we been faithful to God’s call? Have we prayerfully discerned the path that we are on? Certainly, we’ll stumble and fall along the way, but, in general, we living a life that’s pleasing to God and that models God’s love for us?

Second, are we in a position to recognize, hear, and respond to the promptings of the Holy Spirit? There’s a lot of noise in the world today, and that noise keeps us from hearing the Spirit. Daily prayer, time set aside each day for silence, and frequent reception of the sacraments position us to perceive and understand the call of the Spirit.

Finally, when we hear the call of the Spirit, do we obey? Hearing the call of the Spirit is one thing; obeying is another. Procrastination, willful resistance, unwillingness to change can all keep us from doing what God is calling us to do. We need to ask for the grace to act on our call. Alternatively, we need to ask for the grace to be patient when our call involves waiting or flexibility when our call moves us in a different direction.

This is a much different approach from what the world teaches. Conventional business wisdom, for example, would suggest that when a boulder is in our path, we should climb over, squeeze around, dig under, or blow up the boulder so that we can continue on the path. Instead, this passage from Acts suggests that sometimes a boulder in our path is God’s way of saying we’re on the wrong path. In those instances, we should turn around and let God lead us to another path.

None of this is easy. We have to be quiet and prayerful enough to hear the call of the Holy Spirit. We have to be selfless enough to recognize that God’s in charge. No matter how much we were counting on going down this path, God has a different, and presumably better, path for us. We have to trust that God will lead us on the right path. And we need to pray for the courage and strength to take that path.

If Paul and his companions hadn’t heard and obeyed the promptings of the Holy Spirit, they never would have brought the Good News to Europe. As we contemplate the words of Paul’s vision, “Come to Macedonia and help us,” we need to ask ourselves, “Where’s my Macedonia?”

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