–By Seamus H.
Recently I was reading over the conversion of Saul in Acts 9. This conversion is one filled with miraculous signs and wonders, from blinding lights to disembodied audible voices to physical scales that hold captive sight, only to fall away through prayer. Even more impressive, a man who had built a reputation of exacting persecution with a fervent zeal was made humble by God, and rather than simply breaking under the weight of His gaze, was able to accept correction and begin down a path of repentance.
Beyond these demonstrations of God’s power, both in physical miracles and in guiding broken people, there is another act of God in this passage that often goes unnoticed, and may need to be given more consideration in our day and age. When God calls on Ananias to support Saul’s transformation, Ananias first protests, saying “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints at Jerusalem. 14And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on your name.” In this statement, it is possible to see th4 state of heart Ananias may have had towards Saul at this time. He seems to understand Saul not as a child of God, but as an enemy of God’s Kingdom, beyond hope of redemption. He seems to see Saul’s actions and the fervent zeal that accompanies them and feel assured that Saul is beyond redemption, a person on whom his kindness and grace would be wasted. It appears that he may not have a concept for the potential that Saul has to serve God, and cannot seem to imagine the positive impact that Saul could have in the building of God’s Kingdom. However, God is not persuaded by his arguments, instead referring to Saul as his ‘chosen instrument’. With this, Ananias is willing to take a leap of faith with God, presenting himself before a known persecutor of Christians and offering himself as a vessel for God’s grace. This action to boldly offer mercy, may Saul is able to come into faith with God and is able to go on to spread that faith as one of the early Church’s greatest evangelizers and apologists, speaking God’s message through the culture of his audience to bring countless more of God’s children into the fold.
Considering the amount of the New Testament that occurs do to Saul’s mission work, both in actions that are recorded and writings that are saved, it is difficult to imagine where the faith would be without him. With this in mind, I ask the question, do we really believe that God is capable of such work today? Looking around America, and American Christianity in particular, I see a culture in which visions for redemption have been lost. Whether it is in criminal justice, where most of us would be uncomfortable engaging with someone who had a violent criminal background, seeing only a beast that could strike without warning, or in the idea of ‘canceling’ someone, whether liberal or conservative, believing that because they have a wrong opinion, they are incapable of change and not worth engaging with, we tie people’s thoughts and actions to them in chains of steel, locking their worst moments permanently and irrevocably to them. Now, this is not to say that beliefs and actions that harm other people should be simply waved off, saying ‘that is just how they are’. That approach only perpetuates sin that is contrary to God’s Kingdom. These issues must be addressed, but our form of addressing cannot be one based in a desire to bring harm to the person, in order that they fear the repercussions of making a similar transgression. Instead, we must approach these people through God’s eyes and with God’s grace, fervently believing in God’s power to bring his wayward children back into his fold. If we want to participate in the building of God’s Kingdom, we must be willing to allow God to work in anyone, be they a white supremacist, a protest looter, Hillary Clinton, or President Trump. Furthermore, we must be willing to allow God to use US to be a vessel of His grace to draw them to redemption. Otherwise, we are getting in the way of Kingdom work.
One might say that some harm is necessary. Did not God say that He would “show him how much he must suffer for the sake of [His] name”? Yes, but these were never punishments delivered by God against Saul in recourse for his crimes. The harm Saul endured fell into two categories. First, Saul went to Arabia, as he describes in Galatians, to be prepared by God. One can assume that during this time, Saul had to confront both the worldview he had been trained in, allowing God to change his perspective, as well as what he had done, reckoning with the harm he has caused to God’s people. I imagine that this process was not comfortable, but rather one in which Saul experienced deep lament and suffering as he empathized with his victims. These sufferings were not punishment, but rather the final cutting of barbs as they are removed from the flesh in order to allow the flesh to heal. Second, Saul faced regular beatings and torment at the hands of governing authorities during his time proclaiming God’s message, but these sufferings were directly the actions of the reign of sin and death, working to delay or dismantle the Kingdom’s encroachment, not punishments placed maliciously by God to pay Saul back for his crimes. Through these points, I mean to make clear that in bringing a child of God back into reconciliation with God, the harm experienced by them is not made in malicious and punitive ways by God, but is rather the effects of the reign of sin and death as it resists removal.
Now this kind of work is not easy, and I do not want to leave the flippant assumption that I think it is. For Ananias to work with and support Saul was not easy. Neither would it be easy for me if God called me into relationship with a white supremacist, even if it meant that that person might become a leading supporter of BLM. There is a natural inclination in such a situation to focus on speaking hard truths with a goal of breaking a person out of their worldview, but in my experience of working with an old friend who does not accept the realities of systemic racism, speaking hard truths only cements them in their worldview. Instead, the best way to support such people is through slow, loving, gracious effort. To submit to such work of offering love and grace to someone as they walk God’s path is draining spiritually, emotionally, and relationally. This kind of love and grace can only be done by the power of God, and the second we stop viewing those people whom God calls us into shepherding relationships with the lens of His eyes and with the disposition of His heart, the work becomes impossible. But to love God’s children to redemption is an act of worship, one which all disciples can be called to, in one way or another. Moving forward, I pray that we can have more faith in God’s power to redeem, and that we may not only offer ourselves, but even more that we might actually desire that God would use us to bring that redemption about, for the building of His Kingdom, so that we might experience just how powerful His grace and love are.
–By Seamus H.