WHAT THE APOSTLE PAUL TEACHES US ABOUT SUFFERING by Mark Talbot for Core Christianity
The Story of a Storm, a Shipwreck, and a Poisonous Snake
In Acts, Luke records an event in the apostle Paul’s life that helps us understand our experiences of profound suffering. When God called Paul from being the church’s persecutor to be a gospel preacher, the Lord showed him how much he would suffer for the sake of his name (see Acts 9:10–16). Part of Paul’s suffering came during a storm and shipwreck on the Mediterranean Sea (see Acts 27–28).
By this time, he was a prisoner being transported to Rome to appear before Caesar. Luke was with him and details the hardships suffered during the storm, including the crew’s having to throw the ship’s cargo and tackle overboard, and everyone being so worried that they didn’t eat for two weeks. Eventually the ship ran aground on a reef and everyone swam for shore after the Roman centurion in charge had persuaded his soldiers not to kill Paul and the other prisoners to prevent their escape. As if all that wasn’t bad enough, once on shore Paul was bitten by a poisonous snake.
When the Stars Disappear
For us, the main lesson of this story is that God remains in control of everything even when those involved lose all hope. For at one point in this story, Luke remarks that when “neither sun nor stars appeared for many days and the storm continued raging, we finally gave up all hope of being saved” (Acts 27:20 NIV).
In ancient times, sailors got their bearings by seeing the sun and the stars. So when the storm blotted out heaven’s lights, the condition of crew and passengers was indeed very grave. But then Paul stood up, telling everyone they should take heart because God had assured him in a dream that he would appear before Caesar and that in the meantime he would also keep everyone safe.
What happened to Paul and his companions in this storm when neither the sun nor the stars appeared for many days can serve as a metaphor for what often happens to us when we suffer.1 God has made us to be needy and wanty creatures who are constantly on the hunt for various goods—air, food, water, shelter, safety, health, love, and happiness. Pursuing such goods requires our learning how to lead our lives so we can navigate through life in ways that are likely to secure what we want and need. Taking a particular tack on life in order to pursue our wants and needs requires us to get our bearings, much as the sailors in Acts needed to see the sun and the stars in order to navigate the Mediterranean Sea.