Sermon 06-12-2022: “The Power Behind Positive Thinking”

Scripture: Acts 16:6-10, 16-34

Last week, we looked at how the Holy Spirit was poured out on all believers at Pentecost. As I said then, when we place our faith in Christ and are born again, every single one of us receives the Spirit. And the main thing the Spirit does, I said, is to enable us fulfill Christ’s commission in this world, the Great Commission. Today’s sermon is a sequel to last week’s, because in this week’s scripture we see examples of the Holy Spirit in action in the lives of Paul, Silas, and Timothy, and in the lives of people they’re reaching with the gospel.

And I want to focus on three things that the Holy Spirit does for us believers in Jesus. One, the Spirit enables us to overcome disappointing circumstances. As part of this point, I’ll explain the importance of discerning God’s specific will for decisions we make. Point Number Two, he enables us to overcome sin. And, Point Number Three, he enables us to overcome suffering… And when I say “overcome suffering,” I don’t mean we can reach a place where we magically never suffer anymore; rather, I mean that the Holy Spirit will equip to handle it much better, to deal with it much more effectively, without having it destroy us or harm us spiritually. 

Many years ago, long before I became a pastor, my wife, Lisa, and I were at church. And our pastor was preaching on the reasons we Christians have to be optimistic, rather than pessimistic. I don’t remember what scripture our pastor was using to make that point, but I remember the sermon’s “application.” Ushers went down the aisles and handed each of us rubber bands. Our assignment was as follows: In the week ahead, the pastor invited us to wear the rubber band on our wrists. And whenever we had a negative or pessimistic thought, we were supposed to pull the rubber until it was very tight… and snap it against our wrists.


Suffice it to say, by the end of that week, my wrist was red and welted and sore from all the snapping of the rubber band against my wrist! Even though I had been a Christian for about ten years at that point, I was not a very “positive” and “optimistic” person.

Now, if I could go back 25 years in time and listen to that sermon again, I’m sure I would agree with my pastor’s main point—even though it took many years for the message of that sermon to sink in. But the point was still a good one: As Christians we do have good reasons for “positive thinking” rather than “negative thinking”; we have good reasons, in other words, for optimism rather than pessimism… Just so long as we understand that there is no “power of positive thinking” in and of itself. In fact, some of you who are—shall we say—more advanced in years may remember a bestselling book from the 1950s entitled The Power of Positive Thinking, by Norman Vincent Peale. And you may remember that the popular televangelist Robert Schuller wrote books and preached sermons along these same lines.

“Positive thinking” was in back then; it was popular… Alas, a quick glance at Twitter or Facebook or cable news these days proves that we are not much for positive thinking anymore. We like negative thinking; we like pessimism; we like to be angry and bitter and mad at one another.

Surely there’s a better way to live!

I believe there is… Because… while I don’t believe the Bible teaches the power of positive thinking, I believe today’s scripture teaches the Power—with a capital “P”—behind positive thinking. And that “power” is God himself—as he works in our lives and in our world through the Holy Spirit, the very Spirit of Christ.

First, let’s notice verses 6 through 10: Paul is in the middle of his second missionary journey. He’s with Silas and Timothy. They’re in Asia Minor. The next most logical place for them to go would be the region of Asia. Luke here isn’t referring to the entire continent of Asia; rather, he’s referring to the specific geographic region under Roman control known as “Asia”—today it would southern Turkey. It’s to the south of where Paul and his fellow missionaries are. They haven’t been to that region before.

Notice that verse 6 says something strange: they were “forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia.” And notice the next verse, verse 7, says something very similar: “And when they had come up to Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them.” Bithynia was to the north of where they currently were.

So, do you get the picture: The Holy Spirit has somehow prevented them from going north and going south. Even though people of both regions need the gospel. Even though God had commissioned Paul as an apostle for the very purpose of bringing the good news of Jesus Christ to people just like them! There is absolutely nothing wrong with Paul wanting to go to either place. And seemingly there’s everything right with it.

Yet in both cases, God, through the Holy Spirit, tells them, in one way or another, no.

The Holy Spirit probably didn’t say “no” with an audible voice. There are at least a couple of places in Acts when the Lord speaks to Paul in an audible voice and Luke reports it. If something like that was happening here, it seems likely that Luke would have said so. 

I suppose the Lord could have sent someone with a word of prophecy, but Luke reports that happening elsewhere, and he doesn’t here. And it probably wasn’t a dream or vision, because as we see in verse 9, Luke reports when God gives a vision.

No, I think that we can infer from verses 7 and 8 that the Holy Spirit prevented Paul and the othersfrom going to Asia or Bithynia by using perfectly natural, perfectly explainable, probably unremarkable and by no means supernatural,circumstances. Maybe the missionaries ran out of money. Maybe they couldn’t raise the financial support they needed. Maybe they couldn’t get the transportation they needed. Maybe they were being threatened by hostile political or religious authorities in those regions. Maybe the weather was bad and made travel difficult. Maybe the roads were washed out. Who knows?

But my point is, they discerned through these difficult and disappointing circumstances that—despite the plans they made to go there, despite how much their hearts were set on going there, despite how much good sense it made to go there… they discerned that the Holy Spirit, the very “Spirit of Jesus” in verse 7, was telling them “no.”

How do you think they felt?

Well, how would we feel? Likely, we would have been frustratedembitteredangrydisappointed

Do you ever feel like you’re a victim of bad luck, or bad timing? I do! I remember that old Hee Haw song they sang every week: [sing] “If it weren’t for bad luck/ I’d have no luck at all/ Gloom, despair, and agony on me.” 

But according to today’s scripture, if we are beloved children of God through faith in his Son Jesus, and we have the Holy Spirit living within us, we should never, ever feel that way! 

Bad luck and bad timing are never ultimately responsible for the circumstances in which we Christians find ourselves! Not if Romans 8:28 is true: “In all things God works for the good of those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.” 

So the Holy Spirit was using these circumstances to tell the missionaries, “I don’t want you to go there.” And if he did that for them back then, he does that for us today!

When God tells us “no,” he only does so for one reason:He has something better for us!

There’s a great song by a Christian singer-songwriter Phil Keaggy back in the ’70s called “Disappointment.” He sings,

Disappointment – His appointment,

Change one letter, then I see

That the thwarting of my purpose

Is God’s better choice for me.

Disappointment is his appointment. Just change the “D” to an “H.” God only “thwarts” my purpose and your purpose because he’s making a better choice for me and you!

And listen, brothers and sisters: When God appoints us to something other than what we planned, he is not giving us a consolation prize! He’s not saying, “Well, what you originally planned would have been ideal—that would have been perfect—but what I’ve got for you is not too bad.” 

No, when our plans don’t work out, God is not making us settle for second best. 

But I want us to notice something else about these verses—and consider Point 1 B: As I said earlier, there was nothing wrong with Paul and Silas’s attempts to go to Asia or Bithynia—and there were many things right about it. In fact, the only reason not to go to these places was this: God wanted them to go somewhere else. 

But how could they know what God wanted them to do—without the specific guidance that the Lord gave them through the Holy Spirit?

Followers of Jesus need the specific guidance of the Holy Spirit, constantly, in order to know what God wants us to do.

Not everyone agrees with this. I read a book several years ago, written by a theologian I admire named Phillip Cary. It was called, Good News for Anxious Christians: 10 Practical Things You Don’t Have to Do. And the first chapter—the very first thing he says you don’t have to do—is you never have to wait to “hear” God speak to you in your heart about specific decisions you have to make. In other words, he says, you don’t have to try to discern what God’s will is in a specific instance. 

He argues instead that God has already spoken, in his written Word, and we’ve got approximately 750,000 words in this book to guide our decision-making. And we’ve got the wisdom that his Word promises that God will give us. Between those two things, we don’t need additional words from God to figure out what we should do.

But I’m sorry, by that logic, Paul, Silas, and Timothy might have just kept on trying to go to Asia and Bithynia. And if they had succeeded, they might have gone to those places, only to see their journey end in disaster.

By all means, Paul and his fellow missionaries needed scripture and wisdom, but if they failed to discern that the Holy Spirit was giving them this additional word—“Don’t go there; go here instead”—then it’s no exaggeration to say that they would have been disobeying the Lord; they would have been failing to perform God’s specific will for their lives.

The Lord spoke and gave them a specific instruction, and these disciples discerned that the Lord was speaking to them, they listened to that voice, and they obeyed. And we need to do the same in our own lives, and in our own church!

But Dr. Cary is absolutely right to place the emphasis on God’s Word in all of this: For one thing, the Holy Spirit won’t tell us something today that contradicts what he told us back then—when he breathed out the words that the authors of scripture wrote down. So we can check what we discern the Spirit is telling us against scripture.But even more, the primary way that God speaks to us is through his Word. New Testament scholar N.T. Wright puts it like this:

[A]s we read scripture it will from time to time inform us in no uncertain terms that something we’ve been doing is out of line with God’s will. Sometimes this will lie plainly on the surface of the text; other times, as we read a passage, we will begin to hear the voice of God gently, or perhaps not so gently, telling us that this story applies to this area of our lives, or perhaps that one. When that happens—as it may often do for those who read the Bible prayerfully—we do well to pay attention.1

I’ve told you before that as I pray and read scripture in my daily quiet times, hardly a day goes by that I don’t see how this passage of scripture or these verses I’m reading and meditating on apply to some specific situation in my life. And I say, “The Lord is speaking to me.” It’s not an audible voice; but it is a strong intuition: this is what the Lord is telling me to do.

In fact, as Pastor April can attest, one important part of becoming an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church, for instance, involves telling your “call story” to other people: Here’s how I have discerned that God is calling me into ministry. And then these other people in our church prayerfully discern whether God is calling us.

So it takes scripture; it takes prayer; and it also takes other Christians. Notice Paul doesn’t make this decision about going to Macedonia alone. He has at least two other disciples with him: Silas and Timothy. I think that Paul told Silas and Timothy something like this: “So I know we’ve had these ‘setbacks’ recently in our ministry—these really unfortunate circumstances. But maybe they’re not setbacks at all. Maybe the Holy Spirit is using them to tell us something else. Also, I had this weird dream last night, or maybe it was a vision, I don’t know. But here’s what I saw, and here’s what I think it means. What do you think?” 

We at Toccoa First United Methodist need to be a people who—leaning on the authority of God’s Word, and leaning on prayer, and staying in fellowship with one another—are always seeking to discern what our Lord wants us to do as we make important decisions…

And as we do so, I want us to understand that we are not victims of circumstances… Rather, we understand that the Lord is using and transforming all of our circumstances in our favor, for our good, and for his glory. The Holy Spirit himself is always doing this!

And that’s Point Number One.

Point Number Two: The Holy Spirit enables us to overcome sin.

Let’s look at this episode involving the slave girl in verses 16 through 24. As we often see in the ministry of Jesus, a demonic spirit is possessing this person—and is enabling her to tell other people’s “fortunes.” And for the slave girl’s “owners,” this was a dream come true. They didn’t have to work for a living! People would come from far and wide to have this girl tell them their fortune. And pay her owners for the privilege.

Now, none of this should surprise us. Demonic forces have some degree of spiritual power in our world, and the Bible warns repeatedly not to play around with them

But what may surprise us is that this demon was giving the slave girl’s owners prosperity, and financial gain, and financial success. Those are good things, and we usually think of demons as doing only bad things. But not so fast: The very fact that they thought they owned this young woman in the first place, and they were exploiting her for their financial gain, was evil. And the devil knows that as long as she was their meal ticket, her owners were in no hurry to free her from slavery or even try to free her from this demonic possession.

So the devil was using the slaveholders’ prosperity to do them and others great harm!

Also—and this might hit closer to home—it’s not for nothing that Paul warns in 1 Timothy 6:10 that “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. And some people, craving money, have wandered from the true faith and pierced themselves with many sorrows.”

And remember when Jesus told his Parable of the Sower. Jesus said that the seed that was sown among thorns “are those who hear the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful.”2

You may recall that I talked about our mission statement last week: “Treasuring Christ Above All and Teaching Others to Do the Same.” These slaveholders are only one extreme example of what happens in the hearts of all of us when we find our greatest treasure in people and possessions rather than in Christ alone.

And I get it: Many, if not most of us, face financials troubles. All of us face financial trials of various kinds. All of us are constantly being tested by God in the area of our finances. And the test goes something like this: “Do we treasure money and possessions more than we treasure Christ?” Or “Do money and possessions make us happier than our relationship with Jesus Christ.”

We all face this kind of testing whenever we feel anxious about money. And we often believe that the solution to worrying about money is… what? Having more money… “I’m worried that I don’t have enough money. What I need is more money.”But that’s not true: The solution to worrying about money is not making more money, it’s making more ofJesus… it’s trusting in Jesus more! It’s having more faith.

Am I wrong? Jesus said, “Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need.”3

What’s amazing about these slaveholders is that they didn’t deny that Paul’s God had great power—the very God whom Paul invoked in verse 18 when he commanded the demon to come out “in the name of Jesus Christ”… They knew that whoever Jesus Christ was, he must have been a great and powerful God. But this knowledge wasn’t enough to change their greedy hearts. Look at verse 19: “When they saw that their hope of gain was gone,” they caused great trouble and suffering for Paul and the others.

Their “hope of gain”?  Jesus said, “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?”4 Why didn’t these slaveholders see that by losing this income stream and repenting of their evil ways, they could gain eternal life, they could gain entrance into God’s kingdom, they could gain Jesus Christ himself… and that would be infinitely better than anything the world offers—including a profitable fortune-telling business?

But if all that’s true, what’s our problem? We already believe that Jesus was resurrected from the dead. Hasn’t he earned our trust when he says things like, “Don’t worry about money.” If we are already in a saving relationship with God through faith in Christ, why do we so often treasure other things and other people more than Christ? Why do I?

It’s because we have a problem with sin… a problem that desperately needs to be healed… And this is Point Number Two: the Bible says that only the Holy Spirit can heal us. We call this kind of healing sanctification, and we all need it.

And it’s clear that Paul and Silas, for example, were further along in this process of sanctification than many of us—certainly further along than me. Because look at the third episode in today’s scripture, in verse 25 and following: This jailer was ready to commit suicide because he believed the prisoners he was guarding had escaped. If he didn’t kill himself, the Romans would have killed him. That was the penalty for letting prisoners escape. But look at verse 28: “But Paul cried with a loud voice, ‘Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.’” 

Do you get the picture? Paul had no idea what harm awaited him if he stayed in that jail. He could be executed. He didn’t know. Besides, he and Silas and Timothy had already endured incredible suffering: The magistrates and stripped them, took rods and “inflicted many blows upon them,” and put their feet in stocks. 

This might be their only chance to save themselves! And it was right there for the taking! But they chose not to save themselves.

Why? Because they treasured Christ more than they treasured their personal freedom… or their safety… or their very lives… Because they’d rather die than disobey the Lord, and they knew that the Lord had put them in these incredibly difficult circumstances for a reason. And one of those reasons was to bear witness to this jailer and their fellow prisoners—and indeed, to bear witness to us today, to encourage and edify us.

They couldn’t have known for sure that their evangelistic efforts would prove successful. They must have known that by staying in that prison they might die. But they surely remembered Jesus’ words: “If you cling to your life, you will lose it; but if you give up your life for me, you will find it.”5

So if they were being tested by God to see if they treasured Jesus more than anything, including their lives, well, and they passed that test with flying colors.

But I want to focus on something happened before that earthquake, before their stocks fell off, before the prison doors opened… And I find this to be as a great a miracle as the earthquake itself. Look at verse 25: “About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them.” Praying and singing hymns.

They weren’t in church. No one was forcing them to have this impromptu worship service. This was completely voluntary. As we probably know from experience, it is very difficult to sing hymns to God—and mean it—when we are depressed, and worried, and stressed out. In our estimation what Paul, Silas, and Timothy are doing here is the last thing they should have wanted to do!

The only explanation for their behavior is that they knew an abiding joy in the Lord, and that joy was greater than even the humiliation, the pain, and suffering that they had experienced—which was immense.

In our worldly estimation, we don’t think it’s possible. We often think, “We either have joy or we have pain and suffering, but not both. It’s impossible to have both at the same time.”

But this simply isn’t what today’s scripture, and the example of these three believers, teach us. 

I want that kind of bulletproof joy. I’d give everything to know that kind of joy. It would be worth everything. 

The Bible teaches that the Holy Spirit gives us this joy. And that’s Point Number Three.

A psychologist friend of mine who teaches at a college in metro Atlanta and is not yet a believer in Christ, told me one time that while “pain happens to everyone, suffering is a choice.” Pain happens to everyone, but suffering is a choice. And his point is this: how we respond to pain in our lives determines whether or to what extent we suffer. 

I’m sure there’s wisdom in this, but given what we see in today’s scripture, I would rather put it like this: “Suffering happens to everyone, but suffering alone does not have the power to rob us of our joy. And if suffering doesn’t rob us of joy, it’s only because God has worked a miracle greater than this earthquake he sent to break open the doors of this jail: he has changed our hearts by the power of the Holy Spirit. 

“But this change does depend on faith. It depends on the Holy Spirit, as we surrender more and more of our lives to Jesus.”

Will you do that? Will I do that? Will we?

Because if so, I believe from the bottom of my heart and I believe scripture teaches us that we will know and possess the Power behind positive thinking!

  1. N.T. Wright, Paul for Everyone: The Pastoral Letters (Louisville: WJK, 2004), 121-2.
  2. Mark 4:19 ESV
  3. Matthew 6:33 NLT
  4. Matthew 16:26 ESV
  5. Matthew 10:39 NLT

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