The word of the day is “shall.” Often, changing circumstances get in the way of the fulfillment of our intentions. When that happens, we find that we are not in control of the course of our lives. In our reading of Romans 15:17-29, Paul reveals his ambitious plans for his outreach to the Gentiles. He writes, “Whenever I journey to Spain, I shall come to you. For I hope to see you on my journey, and to be helped on my way there by you” (OSB vs. 24). Today we will find that Paul’s life did not turn out as he had projected. The apostle did get to Rome but as a prisoner. And we do not know if he made it to Spain. With Paul’s example in mind, we will reflect on the Providence of God that takes us in directions that we do not choose, directions that are wiser and better for us than our own designs.
In our reading of Romans 15:17-29, St. Paul finally gets around to the purpose of his letter. The apostle wants to preach the Gospel to those who have not heard it and live at the “ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). That means traveling to Spain, which lies is at the outermost reaches of the Roman empire. On his way to Spain, Paul hopes to visit the faithful in Rome (Romans 15:28 ).
Paul Writes to Get the Romans’ Support for His Plans
Paul writes his epistle because he wants to enlist the Romans’ support. As he puts it, he wants to “be refreshed together with you” (Romans 15:32). The apostle has already asked for their prayers. When he visits, he seeks their encouragement—and perhaps material support. However, first, he must deliver the offering he has collected for the poor in Jerusalem (Romans 15:25-26).
These are St. Paul’s expectations which he expresses when he says, “I shall go by way of you to Spain” (OSB vs. 28) and again, “I shall come in the fulness of the blessing of the Gospel” (OSB vs. 29).
Paul’s Plans Were Obstructed
From the book of Acts, we know that Paul’s arrest in Jerusalem thwarted his plans. After two years as a prisoner, his guards brought him to Rome in chains. There he spent an undetermined amount of time under house arrest.
Did the apostle to the Gentiles get to Spain? There is no biblical evidence that he did realize his intentions. But starting with Clement I, ancient church traditions say that he did. Twenty years after Paul wrote his epistle, Clement wrote that Paul preached the Gospel at the “farthest limits of the empire” (Spain). But surprisingly, there is no evidence of Paul’s work in that remote corner of the empire.
Whether the apostle realized his fondest hope or not, all agree that St. Paul was martyred in Rome. In conclusion, we learn from what we know and do not know of Paul’s final days that our “shall” is not always God’s “will.” The well-known maxim puts it “Man proposes, but God disposes” (Thomas a Kempis).
Ultimately, Paul had to surrender his intentions to God’s will. Whatever Paul proposed, the Almighty had a better plan. God’s will is the qualification for every human purpose. Therefore, the apostle writes, “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, spend a year there, buy and sell, and make a profit, whereas you do not know what will happen tomorrow.’ For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away. Instead, you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that’” (OSB James 4:13-15).
God Rules By His Providence
God is the master of our destiny and the ruler of our all that happens to us. That would make us pawns of a cruel and arbitrary fate except for one thing. The God who governs all is a “good God who loves mankind” (The Divine Liturgy St-Tikhon’s 1984, 37). St. Elias Miniatios said, “It is an indubitable truth that the highest Divine Providence arranges all of creation. God considers all things beforehand and takes care of all things. This is the Divine fatherly care of which the blessed apostle Peter speaks: ‘Cast all of your cares upon Him because He is concerned for you’” (1 Peter 5:7) (Quoted in Maksimov 2011).
The Almighty does not rule over all things by brute and insensitive force but by His Providence. He orders all things by His everlasting love. And He directs all that happens with care. Therefore, though we do not know what is on the horizon, we can know that the Lord is guiding our ship to a far better destination than we could devise.
Maksimov, Deacon George. 2011. “Three-Hundred Sayings of the Ascetics of the Orthodox Church.” Orthodox Missionary Society of Venerable Serapion Kozheozersky. http://orthodox.cn/patristics/300sayings_en.htm.
St-Tikhon’s. 1984. Service Books of the Orthodox Church. Third ed. South Canaan, PA: St. Tikhon’s Monastery Press.