In Sliding Doors, Gwyneth Paltrow has just been fired from her job. Distraught as any of us would be, she narrowly misses the train (hence, the sliding doors). The story continues to tell two parallel stories: what happened to her life since she missed the train, and what would have happened if she had made it.
This part of Acts just drips with intrigue. The former Roman governor (Felix) has a Jewish wife (Drusilla). For two years, Paul has been under house arrest, with Felix and Drusilla frequently calling for Paul, to listen to more about “the Way.” As Felix is retiring and preparing for his successor (Festus), Paul is left in prison.
Of course, Festus wants to win the favor of the people as the new politician in town, so he sees an opportunity and tries to leverage Paul. We pick up the narrative here in Acts 25, with some of the Jewish leaders plotting again to kill Paul. An ambush has been planned to kill Paul on his transport back to Jerusalem, where the leaders were asking for another trial.
Paul before Agrippa, by Nikolai Bodarevsky, c. 1875
Seemingly on a whim, or by mere happenstance, Festus issues the executive fiat that the trial will occur in Caesarea, where Paul is already: there would be no transport.
I don’t remember anything else about Sliding Doors, but I remember the recurring question: What if? What if the light had turned red only two seconds later? What if she had made her train? What if Festus had been in the mood to have the trial in Jerusalem?
What if I had not been late for work on that Tuesday, or if it had not been raining? What if he said yes? What if God actually answered my prayer the way I thought he should (cue Garth Brooks!)?
For one dealing with any number of disappointments, this is not a light question: What if that one thing in my life could have been different? Our best thinking usually goes along the lines of, “… then I would be okay.” And to a great extent, that may be true. If this or that were not in my life or a part of my history, my life would be completely different: happiness, success, different relationships, etc.
But this is self-righteousness via karma. I would be okay if my life had turned out differently. (Of course, we rarely consider what we do have and who we are precisely because we did miss the train as the doors slid shut right in front of us. It cuts both ways.)
What’s the point? What can we glean from Festus’s declaration that the trial court will come to Paul, rather than bringing Paul to the trial?
It is Paul who frequently reminds us that the What if question is real, but also swallowed in the greater work of God. What if this thorn could pass from me, Lord? What if you took this affliction or malady or history or limitation or weakness or whatever from me: imagine what I could do, and who I could be!
No! As Paul says, “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content” (Phil. 4:11). Sliding doors or not—whether in Caesarea or Jerusalem, Birmingham or Timbuktu—among all the questions that may assault us, we can hold fast to the certain knowledge that God is yet working for the good of those who are called according to his purpose.