What do we make of the road not taken? The romance that does not lead to marriage; the job we don’t get; the house that falls through; the career that doesn’t materialise.
We cannot control other people – the lover, the interviewer, the seller – so these incidents can happen to us many times in the course of a life. And the way we interpret outcomes depends a lot on the way we think about the world. For some, luck is the only explanation. If you don’t believe in God, luck is a kinder way of looking at events than a cold, reductionist view of life that is no more than the random interaction of atoms. Luck feels shinier and is accessible to all. She even has a name, Lady Luck. But no-one knows what this means and when you begin to unpack it, there are usually other factors at work. Napoleon used to ask the question about aspiring generals: is he lucky? Behind this lies the hint that people are lucky for a reason. So perhaps there is no such thing as luck at all.
The faithful usually believe that God is at work in circumstances and that nothing really happens by chance. We remind ourselves of Romans 8:28: all things work together for good for those who love God. This mysterious saying of Paul has been a consolation to generations of believers, but it is important we do not become fatalistic about God’s will. We are called to work out our own salvation; God has given us freedom to express who we are and the call to follow Christ is not coercive, telling us what to do at every point of our lives.
If we are not fatalistic about God’s will, we have to accept that God’s will does not always get done. This idea sometimes makes people afraid. But logic tells us this is true. How can it be God’s will that people are trafficked as slaves or children are blown up by cluster bombs? The very reason we are given the Lord’s Prayer is because God’s will is not always done on earth and we must intercede that it is. Though God’s will is not done in every case, he does not desert those who suffer or are perplexed at life’s outcomes.
One of the things we find hardest is when our desires aren’t realised in life, when we are sure God was in them. Does this mean we were wrong to have the desire in the first place? Or that the desire was of God, but his will was frustrated in some way?
Acts chapter one contains the story of the replacement of the twelfth Apostle. Curiously, this is the only incident recorded in scripture of what happened between Jesus’ ascension and the Day of Pentecost. Lots of other things will have happened, but Luke does not think to record them. Why was this incident so noteworthy? For the disciples, the words of Jesus about sitting on twelve thrones, judging the tribes of Israel, may have been uppermost in their minds. There was an absence in one seat as palpable as the empty chair at the Christmas dinner table. They had been told to wait in one place by Jesus, and the absence was all the more pronounced. Without a replacement, the true nature of Judas would have played all the more on their minds.
There were two criteria for Apostleship: that the person be with Jesus from the start and be an eye witness of his resurrection. Two people were shortlisted for the role out of several others. We don’t know how many there were or why only two were put forward, but Joseph and Matthias were the last men standing in an election to choose who joined the most important team in the world’s history.
The disciples prayed to God in words reminiscent of Samuel’s choosing of David, where the determining factor was the nature of the heart, not the appearance of the man. It is not just today that we are in danger of being deceived by superficial outward indicators like looks, height and voice. As God alone sifts the human heart, we need him to direct us as we make appointments in his name.
And then the disciples drew lots.
It feels a little bit like an interview process that lasts a day and includes lots of clever psychometric tests, only for the final candidates to fight it out with Rock, Paper, Scissors. Why trust lots when they could have debated each man’s merits and found a consensus? Most people seem to think there is a pre-Pentecost ethic at work here. The Holy Spirit had yet to inhabit the people, filling them with the knowledge of God’s will and purpose, and so older methods were used.
So in the end, a combination of God and luck seems to have been at work: prayer and lots. But the disciples clearly believed that God would work through chance processes if they asked him to. And, if we’re honest, this is often what we pray today when things seem to be out of our control. We ask God to overrule in the circumstances we face. Most of us use the language of doors opening for God. Through the eyes of faith, a door opening is a work of God. Without the eyes of faith, it is luck.
To do his work in this world, God has to work through human beings, the institutions, laws and customs they create and the circumstances that unfold, often as a result of human failing or ignorance. And we believe he does. In fact, there is something deeply romantic about the way God sometimes uses co-incidences both to get his work done and to show us how much he loves us. Incidents that can feel like the unexpected delivery of flowers from someone who wants us to know we are not forgotten.
In the upper room, the lot fell on Matthias. Luke does not waste time telling us what this looked like; how the two men took the result. He has an understated writing style which spends little time on feelings. But we know this from reading the rest of the New Testament: Joseph was not rejected just because Matthias was chosen. When doors close for us – in relationships, jobs, property – God is not refusing us access to his goodness and grace. He is choosing another means to deliver it. Sometimes he is saving us from our own choices. The road ahead may look unfamiliar and difficult to the one we wanted, but if we were given control over everything that happens to us in life, most of us would choose route one: the shortest and easiest distance between two points. This is not authentic discipleship.
The funny thing about the substitute Apostle is that neither the one chosen nor the one not chosen is mentioned again in the Bible. Instead, Paul becomes much more influential than either after his dramatic conversion. The future rarely pans out as we imagine. Most importantly, Joseph was not impeded by not being chosen. He had been with Jesus from the beginning, seen his resurrection and would shortly be filled with the Holy Spirit.
The only response to apparent rejection and failure we can make is to open our lives afresh to God. Route one is a human preoccupation. God has more routes than this in his divine map. Sometimes the longer routes have the better scenery. And the safer arrival.
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