God’s Will When Troubled

When I came to Troas to preach the gospel of Christ, even though a door was opened for me in the Lord, my spirit was not at rest because I did not find my brother Titus there. So I took leave of them and went on to Macedonia (2 Corinthians 2:12-13). ESV


I have been taught that one way to know if you are doing God’s will is when you feel peace of mind. This is often true. The sense of God’s approval and the peace of mind I felt when answering God’s call to serve him has been an important part of my own spiritual discovery, as I am sure it has been important to you in your spiritual journey.

At the same time, we need to put the role of “peace of mind” into perspective. Can a person be fulfilling God’s purpose and yet be troubled and lose peace of mind? A certain stage in the life of the apostle Paul has much to teach us on this real life question.

The Story of Paul at Troas

“When I came to Troas to preach the gospel of Christ, even though a door was opened for me in the Lord …” Paul knew it was right for him to be in Troas. He was preaching the gospel there and he looked at his situation there as “a door opened for me in the Lord.”

Troas was a city of respite for Paul.

During the second missionary journey, the team could not go west into Asia Minor or north to Bithynia. They ended up going northwest to Troas where God told Paul in a dream to go to Macedonia. This launched Paul’s preaching into Europe.

During the third missionary journey, Paul encountered a riot in Ephesus because of the large number of people turning to Christ and away from idols. After Ephesus, he went on to Troas and had reprieve from persecution. Acts 20:1-3 made only a brief mention that “he traveled through the area” on his way to Macedonia and Greece.

In 2 Corinthians, Paul reveals to us his spiritual and emotional condition when he was at Troas at this point in his life.

Being at Troas, the place of refuge, should give Paul some relief from the tumult of Ephesus, but Paul said, “I still had no peace of mind” (2 Cor 2:13 NIV). The phrase “no peace of mind” is our modern day expression. A more literal rendering of the Greek is “my spirit was not at rest” (ESV). They mean essentially the same thing. But it is important to point out the more literal rendering because it tells us Paul was not saying he had a nagging thought or some mild disquiet of the mind. The “spirit not at rest” tells us Paul’s trouble was visceral. This disquiet drove him to leave Troas and to sail for Macedonia.

This passage is very relevant for all who ask, “Can I lose my peace of mind when I am fulfilling God’s purpose in my life?” It happened to Paul. Why should it not happen to us? But how does this fit into the axiom that having peace of mind is one important way to discern God’s will for us?

The Lesson

Paul’s ministry in Ephesus was successful (Acts 19). We can infer from the crowd of listeners at Troas on Paul’s return trip that his earlier ministry there was also successful (Acts 20:7-12). It is strange that success in Ephesus and the success and respite in Troas did not bring peace of mind to Paul. Instead, his “spirit was not at rest.”

We can feel deeply troubled even when we are doing God’s will. But this goes against conventional Christian wisdom that says having peace is one sure indicator that it is God’s will for us that we are doing the right thing. This passage does not really reject that axiom. Instead it refines how we are to understand “peace of mind” in our decision making process. We need to also observe that Paul did not continue preaching in Troas when he became troubled. Instead, he acted on the not having peace of mind. Not having peace of mind moved him to do something else! Paul acted in response to being troubled in the spirit.

Why was Paul so troubled? It was because he expected to find Titus in Troas with a report about the welfare of the Corinthians. But Titus was nowhere to be found. Paul then sailed to Macedonia ostensibly on his way to look for Titus, but he did not want to go to Corinth personally.

The Story of Paul at Macedonia

Paul’s narration in 2 Corinthians 2:13 breaks off and continues in chapter 7:5 “For when we came into Macedonia, this body of ours had no rest, but we were harassed at every turn—conflicts on the outside, fears within” (2 Cor 7:5).

It is truly amazing that Paul had exchanged the tranquility of Troas for the tumult in Macedonia! While he had no rest in his spirit in Troas, he had no rest of the body in Macedonia. This does not mean he had peace of mind. Paul clearly tells us he had “conflicts on the outside, fears within.” This does not suggest a person untouched by trouble and pain. Paul describes himself as feeling “downcast” (7:6). Did Paul question if he did the right thing in going to Macedonia? We don’t know.

What we do know is that sometimes we take a certain course of action in our lives so we can have peace of mind, but the cure is worse than the problem! While Paul searched and waited for Titus in Macedonia, there was no Titus, but he had trouble aplenty. This cannot be better than being at Troas—humanly speaking.

Eventually, Titus arrived at Macedonia. “But God, who comforts the downcast, comforted us by the coming of Titus, and not only by his coming but also by the comfort you had given him. He told us about your longing for me, your deep sorrow, your ardent concern for me, so that my joy was greater than ever” (2 Cor 7:6-7).

The Lesson consolidates

There was real tension between Paul and the Corinthians. Paul sent the trustworthy Titus to the Corinthians to resolve the tension. As a father eager to remove all strains between himself and his children, he could not shake off the big question left hanging. “What is happening with the Corinthians?”

His concern for the Corinthians was pervasive. The tranquility at Troas could not lull him, and the trouble in Macedonia could not distract him. He was a father at serious risk of losing a child.

When Titus finally arrived, Paul’s great love for the Corinthians was rewarded beyond his expectation. He learnt that the Corinthians were also longing for him, that they were deeply sorrowful for what they did to him, and they were ardently concerned for him. It is no wonder that Paul’s “joy was greater than ever.”

Now that we have the entire episode, we can gain a more profound understanding of what we can go through emotionally even though we may be fulfilling God’s purpose in our life.

The starting point is Paul’s calling to be an apostle to the Gentiles. Once that was established, there was no more turning back. Like Paul, we need to know our calling.

(Allow me to add quickly that what God wants us to do is never far from what he wants us to become. In doing we become molded by God. Our life purposes are different. But our life purpose is first and foremost tied to what God wants us to become. It is like the soccer player who plays hard to score a goal, but the real benefit is his health, his social interactions with his team mates, and life lessons on winning and losing. Finding God’s calling for you is a separate subject from this article, so we will not go too far afield on it.)

Once Paul knew his life calling, he did not seek affirmation by looking at his level of success in bringing about conversions, or by how well his plans were executed, or by how well other Christians related to him. He had spectacular successes and disappointing failures. Perhaps one of his greatest struggles, up to that point in his life, was the very real possibility that he might lose the Corinthians. Peace fled from his heart. He was still fulfilling God’s purpose for him. But that did not exempt him from failure. Like Paul, we remain susceptible to fractured relationships and other troubles that rob us of peace even when we are fulfilling God’s purpose in our life.

Peace of mind is a vital component in discerning God’s will for us. This peace of mind should first be linked to our life calling and purpose. This is a peace that comes from having surrendered our life to God. Surrender to God supplies a deep sense of purpose and direction. With that comes peace and contentment.

When we live out God’s purpose for us, we do not become exempt from the vicissitudes of life. They can take away our peace, but they must not throw us off course. We shape the events around us, but we cannot deny that events also shape us. Behind the events that trouble and shape us, we need to see the hand of God calibrating our calling and refining our soul.

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