When I walked into her room, I knew she was changed from the woman I had come to know over the years. The first sign was the missing smile from her face, and the second the lack of her unusually boisterous voice saying, “Well if it isn’t the preacher man!” No, this time she sat in silence, with barely the ability to move her face at all. The stroke attacked all her functions, but left her in the frustrating state of full-minded imprisonment. She could think, but not speak; she could process but not deliver. In the months that followed, one by one, her brain was retrained to learn things all over again – things we don’t even think about doing anymore. She once told me that she was “learning things for the first time all over again!” – I knew exactly what she meant as I watched her do each…
I mention my old friend because her story illustrates in the physical realm what happened long ago to Saul of Tarsus in the spiritual realm. In fact, and many of us went through in our first “growing steps” of faith in Christ learning life all over again. Though his story was nearly two thousand years ago, his conversion was not dissimilar to many people I know. They may not have been “struck down on the road to Damascus”, but God cut deeply into their broken lives – and they weren’t ready for what God wanted to change. Let me see if by looking at Saul’s early steps, we can see more clearly the struggle, and then allow God to make sense of His solution to the issue.
Go back in our story and observe Saul the day BEFORE he met Jesus on the road. He was a competent and capable student of the Word of God, and he was a zealous follower of Temple politics. He had gained the confidence of his fellows early, and used that to build a reputation that was formidable. He exhibited neither laziness nor dull minded slowness – but none of those attributes made him a re-born child of God. He was enthusiastic and zealous, but lost in self-moved and self-measured religion. At the moment of the apogee of his human influence, Jesus cut him down on the roadway, and his life was forever changed. By the end of that conversion story (where we left him in our last lesson) he was blind, hungry and separated from those who understood his past or could perceive his incredible destiny. What happened next is the story of this lesson – the “first steps” of new faith…Yet there is a single principle underlying the text that we must bear in mind…
Key Principles: Some of the initial lessons of faith are the hardest simply because they set the expectation for the rest of our time of service to the King.
Seven Lessons for the “New Beginning”
Paul faced an entire change in his life – one that moved him from an enemy of the Cross to a follower of the Savior. Few men in recorded history have such a radical transformative event, and yet literally millions understand what happened to Paul. They may not have had their lives documented, but they understand the radical changes that come into a life interrupted by God’s grace. Having lived a dramatic life before his Christ encounter, Acts 9 opens up eight critical lessons that Paul needed to learn to help set the tone and expectation for his life “in Christ”. Don’t skip by these lessons, for they are not mere “place holders” in the story. Our expectations weigh heavily in our walk – for those who don’t learn what to expect can easily be drawn off course in discouragement when their false ideas are not confirmed.
Lesson One: God doesn’t always remove troubles instantly – because He works through difficult circumstances (Acts 9:8-9).
The first lesson that Saul needed to confront is found in these two simple verses:
Acts 9:8 Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; and leading him by the hand, they brought him into Damascus. 9 And he was three days without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
Ironically, God blinded Saul so that he could get him to see the truth about life. God had an incredible plan for Saul’s life, but a man so competent couldn’t simply bound his way into that plan on his own power and with his own abilities. In fact, God could only get Saul to move forward by forcing him to a “dead stop”.
God didn’t just make him helpless… He left him in that state for three long days and nights. On the back side of the narrative that may not sound like a long time, but in the midst of it, Saul had no idea that this wasn’t going to be his “new normal” – and his whole life wasn’t about to unravel. There is no way Saul could be happy in darkness – but in the midst of the trouble, Saul could learn the meaning of JOY. Happiness is about what I am going through, while joy is about Who I am trusting as I pass through it.
Dwight L. Moody said it well, “Happiness is caused by things that happen around me, and circumstances will mar it; but joy flows right on through trouble; joy flows on through the dark; joy flows in the night as well as in the day; joy flows all through persecution and opposition. It is an unceasing fountain bubbling up in the heart; a secret spring the world can’t see and doesn’t know anything about.” [SOURCE: Dwight Lyman Moody as quoted by Edythe Draper, Draper’s Book of Quotations for the Christian World (Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1992).
Saul needed to learn to trust God and not the circumstances – but he needed something even DEEPER – a lesson many have forgotten. God is not cruel when He delays respite from trouble. He has a purpose that is perfectly timed and properly placed into your life. You may not think so, but that is one way we can learn that we are not God. He is not a genie in our bottle, but a Creator, Sustainer and Master. I am the needy, He is the Knowing One. Trust will always be an issue if I don’t learn early that God does not use my watch to operate His Kingdom. That was the point of the three days and nights…
Here is the point: Either God gets to be God or He doesn’t. Either He chooses my path and I follow His lead, or I am faking the Christian life and trying to lead the dance of life. Saul needed that lesson – but so do we all.
Lesson Two: Your mission from God will require the involvement of others – because God works through teams (Acts 9:10-12).
A second lesson was also in order:
Acts 9:10 Now there was a disciple at Damascus named Ananias; and the Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” And he said, “Here I am, Lord.” 11 And the Lord [said] to him, “Get up and go to the street called Straight, and inquire at the house of Judas for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying, 12 and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him, so that he might regain his sight.”
It is easy for gifted, talented and capable Christians to miss the need for others – and it is a deep lesson we all need to take to heart. A few years ago, Galen Clark wrote this commentary about team members that I clipped out: “Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin had every reason as teammates to be friends, but they were not. Incognito harassed and bullied Martin. He called him a racial slur in a voicemail played by every media outlet in the country. He threatened to kill him and his family. Incognito claimed all of this was just locker room talk. It is the way the guys talk to one another in the NFL. Apparently, Martin didn’t get the memo. Martin left his lucrative job citing emotional issues and fearing for his life. Though we don’t know all the details, it appears as if Martin has some culpability, as well. He was far too passive in dealing with Incognito’s threatening behavior. As a teammate, it appears, he should have expressed how troubling Incognito’s threats were to him. These two men had many more reasons to get along than to have a toxic relationship. Consider all the reasons they had to be friends. They were both football players. On the same team. Had the same coach. Both were offensive linemen. Both played on the same side of the line. Both were starters. Both wanted to win. Both are big dudes. Both were millionaires. Yet somewhere along the way one or both of them forgot they played for the same team and began to treat the other like a New England Patriot. They forgot the enemy was in another city. They forgot enemy is on another team.” How often I have heard Christian conversation that seemed like brothers forgot where the battle truly can be found. Strong leaders need to be especially careful of the way they learn their need for others.
This past week I participated in a forum on doctrine for the fellowship of churches to which I belong. Men came together from across the country, and hours of discussions produced a newly affirmed doctrinal framework for our churches as we face the emerging issues of our time with renewed vigor and hope. It was a lively discussion with men who love Jesus and yet found themselves quite different from one another. All of us were called by One Lord, but we all felt drawn to specific issues and emphases in ministry – based on the path Jesus placed before us. Gathering together in one room, the energy of team and the gentle reasonableness of maturity overcame what could have been a very negative experience. I will not soon forget how positive this experience was for all of us.
One of the men that impressed me deeply was a long-time friend and fellow Pastor from a Pennsylvania church that tried (sometimes in vain) to “chair” the meeting. He was kind to all of us, careful in his speech, and affirming in his words. Yet, he had conviction in his voice and firmness in his words. I was encouraged by the combination.
Saul needed to learn to temper his voice with those God would place on his team. It isn’t always easy – especially when we are used to being the leading voice in the room. At the same time, it is an absolutely essential lesson – we cannot, we will not and we must not work alone in the Kingdom. Sometimes we have to go a long way to help people know we understand where they are coming from, and that we love them in spite of our differences.
Fred Parsons wrote many years ago a little story that makes the point: A grandfather found his grandson, jumping up and down in his playpen, crying at the top of his voice. When Johnnie saw his grandfather, he reached up his little chubby hands and said, “Out, Gramp, out.” It was only natural for Grandfather to reach down to lift the little fellow out of his predicament; but as he did, the mother of the child stepped up and said, “No, Johnnie, you are being punished, so you must stay in.” The grandfather was at a loss to know what to do. The child’s tears and chubby hands reached deep into his heart, but the mother’s firmness in correcting her son for misbehavior must not be lightly taken. Here was a problem of love versus law, but love found a way. The grandfather could not take the youngster out of the playpen, so he crawled in with him.
Sometimes the best way to show love is identify with the plight of another. It doesn’t rescue them, but it does give them comradery in the trouble! Seriously, Saul needed to learn the value of the team.
Lesson Three: Though your sin is forgiven, some troubles will still follow you – because God uses even our weakness to grow us to full stature in Christ (Acts 9:13-14).
A third lesson was just as essential:
Acts 9:13 But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much harm he did to Your saints at Jerusalem; 14 and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on Your name.”
The verses are clear – Saul was a known quantity in Ananias’ life, and not a desired one. The fact is that our reputation is forged over the long haul, and God’s forgiveness doesn’t automatically equal man’s forgiveness. If we were poor parents before we came to Christ, our adult children may not greet our new faith with open arms. We sinned against THEM as well, and that will take time to repair – if it can be this side of heaven. I doubt that Saul would have been fully embraced by Stephen’s family the first week of his new faith.
We all WANT to forgive people – but we have to admit it isn’t all that easy to do when the hurt was deep. Don’t take Ananias’ words too lightly. He wrestled with God because he didn’t KNOW if Saul was sincere in a change of heart.
Look at his words. “Lord, I know about this guy!” Was he implying that God didn’t? I don’t think so. I believe what he was doing was making clear something that Luke included in the text for a specific lesson to the church – When “all things become new” (2 Corinthians 5:17) for the believer the reference primarily concerns our state before God. The mortgage company doesn’t forgive our debts and our waist line doesn’t automatically shrink to a manageable and healthy level. Things that took a long time to break will take a long time to fix – unless God decides to chop into the norm with a miracle. He can – but often He chooses to let us learn to work our way back out of the problem. It is in working through our problems that God builds our strength, and teaches us patience for one another. After all, all the believers around you have their own dragons of the past to slay.
We make a terrible mistake when we try to apply the benefits of our “new life in Christ” to some guarantee that repairs to injured relationships and physical damage from poor habits will be either immediately healed or easily righted. God didn’t say that – poorly educated televangelists did. Real healing takes real work and real time. God can do it instantly, but that shouldn’t be our expectation – or we may set ourselves up for deep disappointment.
Lesson Four: God’s choice of you trumps any deficiencies you bring to the mission – because God chose the best vessel for the work He called you to (Acts 9:15).
Fortunately, for the last lesson, there is a balancing truth, found in the next verse…
Acts 9:15 But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of Mine, to bear My name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel;
Take a deep breath… God chose you. He knew what He was getting better than you knew what you were giving Him. He made you. You are genetically perfect for God’s call in your life. You aren’t from the wrong side of the tracks – but from exactly where you needed to be from to help you think the way you do. God has a chosen path for His children – and your job isn’t to invent it, it is to FIND IT.
It is ironic that Saul wasn’t the one learning this lesson in the text… Ananias was! Saul, like many great leaders, likely sensed God’s hand in his life. At the same time, Dr. Luke (the writer of the account) made clear that is what God told Ananias. God essentially said: “I’ve got BIG PLANS for Saul!” Go wanted to march him into places of power and give him the task to speaking truth to powerful men and women. His job wasn’t going to be easy.
Not to step off this lesson at all, but consider this: God is preparing in our midst some of the children and youths that will tackle the next great challenge of the Kingdom. We dare not take nursery duty lightly! Sunday School must be prepared well. Children’s ministry must include Godly models! Youth must be drawn into the study of God’s Word at the deepest level we are able to give them. The days ahead will require confidence and knowledge of the Word of God, and we must train them – for they also are chosen instruments of our Master.
Lesson Five: God’s plan for you may include living through times that are very uncomfortable for you – because God’s plan is set in a battle to redeem a fallen world (Acts 9:16).
A fifth lesson is both powerful, and in some ways, troublesome…
Acts 9:16 …for I will show him how much he must suffer for My name’s sake.“
Consider how clear God was on the coming troubles for Saul of Tarsus. Why? Why didn’t God clear the path of trouble if He loved Saul and wanted his mission to succeed? Those are loaded questions. The truth is that there are a number of reasons – but one of them is that Saul needed to learn to trust God THROUGH the troubles, not just recognize that God was greater than his troubles. Let me illustrate what I mean with the words of a woman writer:
“[My daughter], Allison, came home for the weekend. She opened the door, didn’t speak, and dropped her duffel bag. Smudges of mascara circled her eyes. I whispered a “God-please-no” prayer. “Come tell me about your classes.” I patted the sofa. She muttered, “Gotta take a shower.” As she clomped upstairs, I analyzed the recent changes in her: complaints of not having any money, rarely answers the phone, weight loss, pinpoint pupils, and a “who gives a rip” [facade]. I searched her purse and found a leopard-colored pipe and the unmistakable sweet odor of pot. My heart fluttered wildly like a bird stuck inside my chest. She plodded down the stairs, hair in a towel, wearing the same wrinkled clothes. Be still and talk in a sweet voice, I told myself. You must convince her to stop. “We need to talk, honey.” “Not now. I’m tired.” “I found your pipe.” She stared at me with death-row eyes. “Chill, it’s not that big of a deal.” The tightness in the den suffocated me. I needed air. “Want to walk?” I asked brightly. “Like we used to?” “Whatever.” I knew I could talk some sense into her. “Honey, please. You’ve gotta stop.” I grabbed her hand. “Mom!” She jerked away. “We have a strong family history. You don’t want to…” I never got to finish the sentence. Allison stormed out of the room and within minutes was headed back to college. I knew what I had to do–abandon everything in my life and start to worry/fix/control full-time. I began spending most days by the phone. I evaluated Allison’s reactions, gestures, and comments. Thoughts circled my mind like buzzards: What if she never stops? What if I never see her again? What if she overdoses? Or goes to jail? I lured Allison into therapy by promising we’d go to an Italian restaurant before visits. Her first appointment day arrived. She played with her spaghetti, and I couldn’t eat. “So, what do you plan to say to the counselor?” I asked. “How should I know?” When they called her name at the office, I hurried in to make sure the counselor understood. Allison refused to sign for me to have any information. I considered eavesdropping, but too many people were around. An hour later, she walked past me as I paid. “What’d you talk about?” “Just stuff.” Our therapy/lunch charade continued that way for a few weeks. Then Allison’s sister informed me she was still using. She denied it, refused to see the counselor, dropped out of college, and stopped answering my calls. I was convinced if I forgot about Allison, even for a second, or enjoyed anything, something bad might happen. Several months later, after another night of little sleep, I glanced in the mirror. I could have passed for the addict: dark circles under hopeless eyes. I called my friend Linda. Her son, also an addict, had been sentenced to state prison. “You can’t imagine all that’s going on here,” I said. “Come over for coffee,” she urged. I wanted to stand guard at home but knew she’d listen and understand. “Hey, girlfriend.” Linda hugged me. I didn’t touch my coffee as I blurted the saga. Linda didn’t sweet-talk. “You need help.” “You haven’t heard the whole story,” I argued. “I’m fine–my daughter, she needs help.” “You’re addicted to worry and control,” Linda said. “I’ve been where you are.” She stretched out on the sofa. “The only one you can control is yourself.” The possibility that she might be right terrified me. “It took me years to realize that I’m not in charge. God is,” Linda admitted. “By worrying, you’re telling God he can’t handle things. Go to Al-Anon with me.” I’d heard of Al-Anon but didn’t see how it applied to me. But I agreed because I was in awe of Linda. I didn’t open my mouth during the meeting. Every word spoken sounded like my own thoughts: “I worried myself sick about my alcoholic husband.” “My peace comes only when I let go and let God.” Then the speaker said, “To change, you’ll have to leave behind some familiar lifelong habits.” But how? This is who I am–what I do. “An alcoholic can’t drink, and those of us in this room can’t allow an ounce of worry. For us, it’s every bit as dangerous and addictive. Worry robs our serenity.” I didn’t think change was possible. Not for me. But I knew one thing for sure–I was destroying my life. That night at home I got real. “Help me, God. I can’t do this without you.” I began to ask God for help each morning. I whispered, “Not my job,” as worry, fear, or control tried to needle back in. Two years after that first Al-Anon meeting, Allison and I met for an impromptu lunch. She’d gone back to the same therapist. On her own. “You can’t imagine how easy it is to study when you’re not high,” she laughed. “Nope, I guess not.” I blinked back happy tears. “Thanks, Mom.” “For what?” “When you didn’t fix my problems, it scared me. A few times I had to dig change out of the seat of my car for gas money. Some days,” she paused, “I didn’t have food.” My throat felt warm with pride. She’d done it on her own. “I’m making A’s. And look,” she handed me her checkbook. “I have money again.” Recovery defies logic. It means doing the opposite of what feels natural. When I took care of myself and my addictions, Allison did the same.” Citation: Condensed from our sister publication Today’s Christian,© 2008 Christianity Today International Julie W., “Not My Job,” Today’s Christian (July/August 2008)
Here is the bottom line of this lesson: we live in a fallen world, and the influence of the enemy is all over the place – but God is at work. He is not at work only in the GOOD THINGS of life – God is at work everywhere. The question isn’t: “How do I get out of the pain and trouble?” as much as it is: “God, how can you use me in the pain and trouble? What do I need to learn from you today?”
Lesson Six: All the preparation and talent in the world isn’t enough to fulfill your mission – because God’s power is vested in God’s Spirit (Acts 9:17).
Saul was incredibly gifted, and excelled early in life. He needed the lesson of the next two verses…
Acts 9:17 So Ananias departed and entered the house, and after laying his hands on him said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road by which you were coming, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.“
Saul needed God’s Spirit more than he needed the restoration of his physical eyesight. God was about to give him both – but the Spirit became the secret to really being able to see. God wanted Saul to see as few others could. He wanted him to evaluate things in a spiritual way. He wanted him to recognize the truth articulated well by C.S. Lewis: “You don’t have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body!” No believer is truly mature until they see the physical world as many times smaller than the spiritual world that entirely engulfs the cosmos.
“In January, 1995, according to an article written by Gary Thomas, J. Robert Ashcroft had fewer than forty-eight hours to live, but he was holding on to life, hoping to see his son, John Ashcroft, sworn into the U.S. Senate the following day. [John Ashcroft, as we all know by now, is in the process of being confirmed as our next Attorney General]. As family and friends gathered in Washington for a small reception, J. Robert Ashcroft asked his son to play the piano while everyone sang, ‘We Are Standing On Holy Ground.’” “After the song, the frail old man spoke some powerful words: ‘John, I want you to know that even Washington can be holy ground. Wherever you hear the voice of God, that ground is sanctified. It’s a place where God can call you to the highest and best.’” “Wherever we are in our vocation, if Jesus is Lord of our lives, that place is a holy place of service for Him” (Thomas, “Working for All It’s Worth,” Moody, July/August 1998, p. 13, as quoted in Morgan, p. 796).
There was a man who knew that WHERE was not the question – but IN WHOSE POWER was the ultimate query. Work done by the talented will wash quickly away. Work done by the Spirit of God cannot be undone by mere mortals.
Lesson Seven: Though conversion is a spiritual act, not everything about you is spiritual – because God works through the frailty of earthen vessels (Acts 9:18).
One final lesson from our text…
Acts 9:18 And immediately there fell from his eyes something like scales, and he regained his sight, and he got up and was baptized; 19 and he took food and was strengthened.
Here is the great truth that we are but men and women. We who know God and proclaim His love, do so in earthen vessels… in cracked pots. Our bodies are not indestructible, and they need tending. We need not baby them – they also need discipline. I am heartened by this story:
One of God’s faithful missionaries, Allen Gardiner, experienced many physical difficulties and hardships throughout his service to the Savior. Despite his troubles, he said, “While God gives me strength, failure will not deter me.” In 1851, at the age of 57, he died of disease and starvation while serving on Picton Island at the southern tip of South America. When his body was found, his diary lay nearby. It bore the record of hunger, thirst, wounds, and loneliness. The last entry in his little book showed the struggle of his shaking hand as he tried to write legibly. It read, “I am overwhelmed with a sense of the goodness of God.” Allen Gardiner. (from sermon central).
Allen didn’t LOSE to a broken body, he WON to a good God. He was called home after doing all he could for Jesus. Like Epaphroditus of old, he was sick from his call – and gave all he could.
At the same time, Saul was needed for the long haul, and had to learn to eat right, hydrate well, and rest when the time was given by God. He couldn’t be DRIVEN by ministry, he needed to be DIRECTED by Jesus. Elijah learned that long before… A walk with God may need more prayer time, or it may be time to take a day and rest before God. We need to learn to pace ourselves in our ministries…These were some beginning lessons that helped flavor Saul’s expectations and temper his steps… and they should ours as well.