During Paul's imprisonment, he and some other prisoners were escorted by the Imperial Regiment centurion, Julius, aboard a cargo ship destined for Italy. They sailed slowly through the Mediterranean Sea and, after many days, docked at Fair Havens, on Crete, where they stayed until the Jewish Fast was over. Sailing after the Fast was considered dangerous because of the increased winds and likelihood of severe storms, yet the majority on the ship wanted to press on, hoping they could reach Phoenix and spend the winter there. What should they do? Should they take the risk and press on toward Phoenix, hoping that the weather cooperates, or should they stay at Fair Havens for the winter? (Acts 27:1-8).
Guided by God regarding their journey, Paul advised the crew to be patient and wait until more favorable conditions prevailed. When a gentle south wind began to blow, the centurion and the crew thought they had obtained the sign they were looking for. After considering Paul's and the crew's opinions, the centurion gave the command to weigh anchor and sail toward Phoenix. But before long, the ship was caught in a tempest that lasted for many days, endangering everyone on board. Despite barely securing the lifeboat, lowering the sea anchor, and throwing the cargo and tackle overboard, they were battered and unable to control the ship. When neither sun nor stars appeared for many days and the storm continued to rage, they lost all hope of being saved (Acts 27:9-10).
Fortunately for Paul and the rest of those on board, God showed mercy and delivered them from the angry seas (Acts 27:22-24). Following this harrowing experience, the centurion came to know the power, mercy, and grace of God. He learned that all of his experience and knowledge amounted to nothing. Even a gentle wind blowing was not the signal he understood it to be. Nothing was guaranteed except the word of God, which never changes and is fully trustworthy. Realizing this, the centurion began to respect Paul and took his suggestions seriously, and all hands were saved (Acts 27:22-26, 31-32, 34-36, 41-43).
By Faith or by Sight?
With the benefit of hindsight, it is obvious that the centurion did not make the right decision. Yet when we consider the process he used in making his decision, he seems to have chosen a rational course of action. After all, he understood the dilemma facing him and the risks involved. He asked the ship's owner and crew for expert and experienced advice, listened to the majority, and, when the gentle south wind began blowing, he recognized an opportunity to reach his goal.
Unfortunately, he did not consider one critical element: God, the Creator of heaven and earth. God gives life to men, determines their lifespans, and, more relevant to the ship's occupants, controls the winds and the seas (Ps 95:3-5; 104:1-10; Acts 17:25-28). On the surface, it might seem that men have the freedom to decide their own fate, but clearly, it is the Lord who ultimately decides (Jer 10:23).
This episode highlights what happens when the paths of human judgment and the will of God converge. Faced with a challenge, the rational person will naturally begin an analytical process that will culminate in a decision. The decision-making process may take into account past experience, general knowledge, observation of the environment, and the pros and cons of the decision. This all sounds very logical and reasonable, yet the decision maker runs into trouble when his judgment contradicts God's will. The centurion certainly made what, at first, appears to have been a reasonable decision. A gentle south wind was blowing, which in past experience had always signaled a calm journey. In the same situation, how would we decide-by faith or by sight?
Rational decision making is a healthy and necessary process in the course of daily living. However, we must never let pride distort our decision making. Pride incites people to forget God, to discount His power and His will. The proud do not acknowledge God's sovereignty or trust Him. Instead, they only trust their own wisdom and understanding, living by sight rather than by faith, worshiping the advice of "experts" and respecting the rule of the majority. Like a gentle wind, pride lulls the unsuspecting into a false sense of complacency, driving them toward destruction.
We must entrust ourselves to God and be vigilant against such complacency. While men may be deceitful, God is faithful (Rom 3:3-4); where there is indecision, God stands firm (Ps 119:89); and while the imbeciles consider themselves wise, God's foolishness is wiser than man's wisdom (1 Cor 1:25). Compared to the Creator, the nations of this world are worthless (Is 40:13-17). The rationality and intelligence that God has given us must be tempered with the humble realization that we are nothing without our Lord, the Creator.
Reliance on God
As the men in Paul's boat could attest, life is rarely smooth sailing. Unforeseen events happen, and we are surprised by their suddenness. Can our rationality predict such incidents? Could it have predicted the tragic death of Princess Diana? Or an airplane crash? In spite of the rapid advance of science and technology, we still cannot predict or prevent many accidents.
Yet we are not helpless in the face of such unpredictable events. They attest to the undeniable fact that unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labor in vain; and unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchmen stay awake in vain (Ps 127:1). Reliance on God is the only way in which we can confidently walk through the valley of death.
Still, our confidence in the Lord often erodes; while Jesus never changes (Heb 3:14), our faith wavers from time to time. We complacently drift along, surrendering ourselves to the trends and pleasures of the moment. We replace our confidence in the Lord with a confidence in human rationality, and we perversely alter the truths of the Scriptures to suit our own needs. Like the scoffers found in 2 Peter 3:3-7, we may begin to wonder about the validity of the Scripture: "Where is the second coming that Jesus predicted? Everything is the same since the beginning of creation." Is this what God desires of us? Clearly, the answer is no.
Yet on a daily basis we are faced with choices that force us to answer a very basic question: do we decide by sight or by faith? Do we rely on God or on our own rationality? Let us not be like the centurion, who allowed the gentle south wind to caress his face and cloud his judgment. Instead, let us choose to rely on God and not become complacent in our own intelligence and knowledge.