In my Acts of the Apostles course, one of the projects the students are required to complete is the Personal Application Paper, which requires the student to catalog twenty principles they have discovered in their study of the book of Acts. They are then required to formulate a plan to apply each of the principles to their lives.
An example of how this project works follows:
PRINCIPLE: Everything isn’t as it immediately seems, therefore, don’t draw definite conclusions hastily.
TEXT: Acts 28:3–6
BACKGROUND: En route to Rome according to his appeal to Caesar, Paul survived a treacherous voyage at sea and landed at Malta, battered but alive. Paul was among 276 survivors who were welcomed by the local residents. However, he was a prisoner, which apparently communicated certain things about him to his hosts; namely, that he was somehow shortchanging justice by surviving the shipwreck. This conclusion regarding their assumptions is based on what his hosts said in response to Paul being bitten on the hand by a viper,
“No doubt this man is a murderer. Though he has escaped from the sea, Justice has not allowed him to live.” – Acts 28:4 ESV
In the minds of those who were watching Paul, certain things were obvious: a) He was a prisoner who was guilty, likely of murder; b) he deserved punishment, though somehow he had apparently dodged it by surviving the shipwreck; and c) Justice (or fate) had finally caught up to him by way of the viper.
The dots were connecting very nicely . . . until Paul simply shook free of the viper and suffered no ill effects (28:5). However, being certain that “a” leads to “b” leads to “c”, their confidence was only slightly halted by the delay in any obvious effects of the snake bite. Because these dots were so easy to connect, they could wait expectantly for Paul “to swell up or suddenly fall down dead” (28:6). But, after waiting a long time and having none of their expectations realized, they had to reconsider their conclusions regarding Paul.
This time, though, things were more clear: a) a man who survives a stormy sea and shipwreck, b) which is immediately followed by a deadly snakebite that has no ill effect, c) is clearly “a god” (28:6). Paul must be a god. Yes, that has to be it; those dots connect very nicely! Or, . . . perhaps, there is still a better – more correct – explanation.
POINT: Sometimes, things aren’t what they seem . . . even when they seem so obvious or clear. For those of us who believe we can read people well, this is a difficult thing to accept. Better yet, it’s difficult to practice patience. And this lack of patience can be particularly harmful (to us and others) when we begin to assign motive for their actions. Here’s the truth: sometimes people do things for reasons that appear very obvious, but in reality, are for very different reasons or for no real reason at all. Sometimes we do dumb things or do things badly, just because we are people.
“Why did you throw a rock through Mrs. Jones’ barn window?” the teenager’s mother angrily enquired. “It’s because she told us she saw you smoking at the back of her property; it’s payback, isn’t it?” his dad accusingly interrupted, conveniently wrapping up the mystery. “No! I didn’t even think about whose window it was. I don’t know why I did it; Joe and I were walking behind her barn and we saw some rocks and a dusty old window, and without really thinking we thought, ‘let’s see who can hit the window.’ He threw first and missed. Unfortunately, I won; I hit it on my first try,” the teen explained.
In the fictional conversation above, the dots connected very easily for the teen’s parents: a) They knew their son, b) Mrs. Jones had reported his smoking, and c) that report obviously led to retaliation. Or did it? In reality – as much as a fictional story can portray reality – their son broke the window because: a) he is a teenage boy in the company of another teenage boy, b) with access to rocks and an old window, and c) it seemed like fun to see who could break the glass. Pretty simple. Pretty reasonable, … if you know teenage boys who have access to rocks and old windows.
But, if the glass is still broken, what difference does it make if it was broken for revenge or the result of a poor decision? It makes all the difference in the world in terms of how the matter should be handled. In this case, revenge is a matter of the heart; a poor decision is a matter of maturity. Furthermore, the revenge angle wrongly assigns evil intent to the teen, which unfairly harms his reputation and the relationship between him and his parents.
APPLICATION: I will endeavor to be slower and more considered (i.e., investigative) in connecting dots, particularly when the dots lead to negative conclusions about others based on their actions. Proverbs 18:17 offers wisdom to this end:
“The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.”