In prayer yesterday with a group of women, we used the term Saul/Paul conversion to describe our desire for unsaved family members. Saul was about as anti-Christ as a person could be, zealous to restrict and harm Christians, however when Jesus confronted him this man was instantly changed. Or was it instant?
The records indicate this encounter was sudden and dramatic with an enduring result yet every Christian knows that salvation brings with it the need for great psychological and intellectual readjustments. Paul was no different. He spent time in Arabia and Damascus before his first visit to Jerusalem. He said:
“But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone; nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus. Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and remained with him fifteen days. But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother. (In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie!) Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia. And I was still unknown in person to the churches of Judea that are in Christ. They only were hearing it said, ‘He who used to persecute us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.’ And they glorified God because of me.” (Galatians 1:15–24)
The next verse says that “after fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas . . . .” One commentary says Paul also went back to his home territory, and for a period of eight to ten years little is known of his activities. No doubt he was spending time with God — learning His will and how to walk in it.
Another verse comes to mind. When writing instructions to Timothy about appointing elders in the church, Paul said, “He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil.” (1 Timothy 3:6)
How did he know this? He admitted that his early Christian life was filled with revelations from the Lord. This put him in danger of spiritual pride. God singled him out for a dramatic conversion and a major ministry. The human ego has a habit of puffing up with privileges which Paul probably realized during those unknown years.
Another issue that makes a long time of training necessary is that he was saved as an adult. While children have the same sinful nature, they have not had the time to practice fleshy living like an adult does. Saved as an adult means more thoughts and habits to untangle.
A major lesson in his life was the issue of a ‘thorn’ that is not defined but was related to both pride and weakness in his life. He describes it in 2 Corinthians . . .
So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:7–10)
Many Christians struggle with this valuable lesson. That sense of weakness is contrary to what we think we should feel like when filled with the power of God. Human experience relates power to confidence, boldness, an ability to take charge, yet I’ve had to learn this contrasts God’s ways. He used years of experience to show me how feeling strong before teaching a class was a sure sign the class would flop. Feeling weak, nervous, afraid and unable was a far better way to go into the classroom.
For thus says the One who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: “I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite. (Isaiah 57:15)
. . . This is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word. (Isaiah 66:2)
Dear lord Jesus, a conversion like that of Saul/Paul takes but a moment and it clearly declares that nothing is too hard for God, yet the training of this man was not instant. Like everyone else, You worked in his heart to shape his thoughts and actions. That takes time. As we pray for others, we want a powerful conversion, but help us remember that discipleship and growing in grace is a process. I know from experience that the more stubborn sinners were in their former life, the longer that process takes in their new life! Thank You for Your patience.