What does it take to survive life’s worst situations?
[An Inner Circle exclusive]
When our lives spiral out of control, one knee-jerk response is to freeze, because we feel helpless. When you’ve tried everything, but nothing seems to work, what else can you do?
We took such a violent battering from the storm that the next day they began to throw the cargo overboard. On the third day, they threw the ship’s tackle overboard with their own hands. When neither sun nor stars appeared for many days and the storm continued raging, we finally gave up all hope of being saved. — Acts 27:18-20
What captured me was the level of drama in this story. Something told me that this story mattered for us and that there was something we could learn from it, so I spent weeks trying to confirm it. It was a simple principle that has the potential for incredible results, even when it feels like we’ve run out of options.
But before we get into it, let me set the context…
Acts 27: The Shipwreck
At the end of the book of Acts, Luke tells the story of how he and a group of nearly 300 prisoners and guards set sail from Jerusalem through Cyprus, Crete and towards Rome. In the middle of their journey, they got caught up in a hurricane.
They had done their best to weather the storm — like many of us do — but the situation was bigger than them. After all, who can control the weather? Intelligence and good technique could only get them so far, and it was time to surrender. This was a ship full of people from many religious backgrounds, or no faith at all, and Paul was one of those prisoners on the ship.
Just before dawn Paul urged them all to eat. “For the last fourteen days,” he said, “you have been in constant suspense and have gone without food—you haven’t eaten anything. Now I urge you to take some food. You need it to survive. Not one of you will lose a single hair from his head.” — Acts 27:33-34 [my emphasis added]
You can almost sense the tension on the ship. Bodies frozen by fear and weakened by a lack of food, food that they had saved to prevent them from starving. But if they had given up all hope of being saved, why were they hanging onto the food? Because they were human, and sometimes we keep things around for comfort, even though they are no longer of use. But comfort can deceptive because it doesn’t necessarily heal or protect, it just keeps us stagnant.
When it looks like everything is falling apart, it is only human to cling to what we ‘know’. Scarcity mindset sweeps in, telling us that we must hold tightly to the little we have left because if we let it go, we will miss out. Not only will be miss out, but we may never be able to get it back again. The irony is that by holding onto the one thing we believe can save us, we push ourselves further away from the breakthrough that we need.
So how do we shift from scarcity to breakthrough?
The clue is in what Paul did next:
The struggle reveals strength
“After he said this, he took some bread and gave thanks to God in front of them all. Then he broke it and began to eat. They were all encouraged and ate some food themselves. Altogether there were 276 of us on board. When they had eaten as much as they wanted, they lightened the ship by throwing the grain into the sea” - Acts 27:35-38
This counter-cultural response taught me a simple, yet important principle: when your back is against the wall, you are in the perfect position to move closer to God.
Sometimes, the only time we end up engaging God is when we have nothing left but him. Paul breaking the bread in thanksgiving reflects taking communion; remembering how Jesus gave his life so that we could be restored to our full potential.
When things fall apart, you can either ‘give up all hope of being saved’ or lean further into God.
Leaning in provides clarity. The clarity to stop holding back, to make the most of the now and become nourished in mind, body or soul. We also get the strategic clarity to look again at our situation, and lighten the load that weighs us down.
Even though thanksgiving may have seemed over-spiritual and eating the bread seemed impractical at the time, they triggered a turning point. Things changed: daylight came, and the ship safely reached the shore in Malta.
Now, I don’t believe that things have to fall apart in order for us to grow spiritually. But if we find ourselves in difficult situations, by accident or by our own ignorance (e.g. it was actually a dangerous time to set sail, but they still chose to do it), we can take comfort in the fact that struggle reveals strength.
We’re inclined to think of the negative things God wants to remove from our character. But we also have inner strengths and gifts that need to be refined but we’re not aware of them because a demand hasn’t been placed on them.
The principle is tried and true
This is a recurring theme seen throughout the timeline of the Bible:
While this story took place after Jesus had resurrected, the same principle also applied more than 500 years before he came to earth. When God sent Elijah to visit a poor widow for lunch, she only had enough for her very last meal. But by using the little she had to respond to this holy man’s request, her food lasted for many days, until the drought was over
Even while Jesus was on earth, he broke the tiny portion of bread available, gave thanks for it, and somehow, it was able to feed over 5,000 people.
Doing this was not just a ritual or tick-box exercise, it came from a personal experience with God. In Paul’s case, the night before they broke the bread:
An angel of God stood beside me and said, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul. You must stand trial before Caesar, and God has graciously given you the lives of all who sail with you.’ So keep up your courage, men, for I have faith in God that it will happen just as he told me. — Acts 27:23-25
God is always speaking over our lives. The question is, can we hear it? And are we bold enough to act on it? I have learned that this walk of faith is a partnership. Even before we start moving, God is speaking: but it’s our choice to opt-in. It is our choice to receive the word as Paul did and act on it, no matter how ridiculous it felt.
This is a brilliant examples of what real faith is. It is not a blind belief based on hope or inspirational quotes. It is how we respond to what we know God is saying over our lives.
Real faith inspires action, and worthwhile action is the product of faith.
What you can do next:
In the spirit of self-reflection, here are two questions you can ask yourself in response to this blogpost:
What might I be holding onto in my life, that I need to put to good use — or get rid of?
What do I believe God has said over my life, and do my actions reflect my confidence [faith] in those words?
Next week is my final blogpost of 2018. In this post, I’ll be sharing my list of winter warmers: books and podcasts to feed your soul over the holiday season. Stay tuned.