God is not micromanaging things in Acts. While there are certainly times when He steps in, intervenes, and overrules (i.e., the call to Macedonia – 16:9-10), most of the time it is His will that His people choose, trusting that He will help them make the best out of their choices (note word “decide” in 11:29, 15:22, 19:21, 20:3,16, etc.,).
Paul might not have planned on going to Athens. They had been following the Via Egnatia (a major Roman highway connecting the east to the west) from Philippi to Thessalonica. Although Berea was a bit of a detour off this road, many scholars think Paul was planning on getting back on it and eventually heading to Rome (see Romans 15:23). But things got out of hand in Berea, and he ended up in Athens. In Athens, his original plan is to wait for Silas and Timothy to come down, but he is so disturbed by what he sees that he has to begin preaching and teaching (Acts 17:16-17). So Plan A gets changed when he has to escape to Athens. Plan B gets scrapped because he is too disturbed by what he saw to wait for Silas and Timothy, and Plan C is implemented.
Where is God in all of this? He’s with Paul—helping him to make the best of each of these situations. Was it God’s will that they were on the Via Egnatia? Yes, in the sense that He wanted them to make a choice and they did. But it was also His will when Paul ends up in Athens. And it was His will when Paul decides to start ministering without waiting for Silas and Timothy to arrive.
This is oh-so-important because disciples can get paralysis from analysis when they incorrectly assume God’s will is limited to just one choice: one college to attend, person to marry, one career to pursue, etc. Every once and a while that might be the case, but far more often it is God’s will that we decide between several good things and trust Him to help us make the best of whatever we choose.
What’s true for Acts is true for the rest of Scripture. A common misconception we have is that the people we read about in the Scripture had God whispering in their ear from the time they woke up in the morning until they went to bed at night. It seems that way because the story we’re told in Scripture is a highly compressed account that provides us with highlights (which would naturally include God’s giving people special instructions). The reality is that all of them spent the majority of their time doing what we do—taking known truth and applying it to the circumstances of their lives to the best of their ability.
This is all important to us because a good bit of the time our lives resemble Paul’s trip to Athens—we have to change plans quite a bit. This doesn’t make us less in tune with God or less spiritual or anything like that. As with Paul, what’s important is not whether everything goes as we planned, but whether we trust God to help us make the best out of whatever our circumstances are.