“You can believe that if you want—and be wrong and burn in hell!” I shouted to a coworker while passionately pounding on the table we were both sitting at. It was our lunch break, and I was speaking to him about the Saturday/Sunday “Sabbath” debate we’d been having. I had clearly won this disagreement by sharing only the biblical proof texts and historical facts; however, the look on his face made it instantly clear that not only had I gone too far, but I had lost his respect—and his friendship.
I quickly tried to apologize, but the damage had been done. He never talked to me again—and who could blame him?
As I sat there thinking about what went wrong, I realized that the two things I was right about were my motivation and my information. I was wrong about everything else—dead wrong.
I was 26, and since the age of about 15, I had been running further and further away from God. But He hadn’t given up on me, and I had finally found a real and intense relationship with God. I wanted to share Him with everybody with whom I came in contact!
Unfortunately, being the knucklehead that I was, in the process of “sharing Jesus” and maturing as a Christian, it took me several years—and many more broken, bruised, and strained relationships—to learn what I’m going to share with you. I share it in the hope that you don’t crash and burn as I did, but instead bypass all that emotional and spiritual wheel-spinning and get moving down Sanctification Road with Jesus.
Coming to a saving faith in Jesus transforms us from the inside out. The Apostle Paul himself testifies to this fact through the analogy of a total metamorphosis from one creature to another (2 Cor. 5:17). But just because we have received salvation and are inhabited by God’s Holy Spirit power, that doesn’t automatically mean we can move forward and succeed in the Christian life.
Realistically speaking, our “B.C.” (before Christ) thoughts, attitudes, values, beliefs, and behaviors haven’t changed. In fact, it’s safe to say that once we come to a full knowledge of who Jesus is and what He’s done for us, it is then that the real work begins. We must work in tandem with God’s Holy Spirit to change who we are (Phil. 2:12) and then allow God to keep changing us in order to be effective as Christians (1 Pet. 1:8) and to grow up into the full measure of the knowledge and grace of our Lord Jesus Christ (Eph. 4:13).
The early mistakes that the Apostle Paul, formerly Saul, made are instructive for us and evidence some interesting facts about the nature of identity, change, motivation, passion, purpose, and Christian growth.
Think about it: from an emotional or psychological standpoint, the things that Paul had seen, done, and experienced before his conversion (Acts 7:57–8:3) surely must have taken a great toll on him. He alludes to that in several passages of Scripture that we’ll comb to discover his secrets to a powerful and effective Christian life of deepening relationship with God.
At this point it would be wise for you to take several minutes to acquaint yourself with the biblical accounts of Paul’s conversion (there are three of them). The accounts are found in Acts 9:1-31; 22:1-22; and 26:1-23.
From Saul to Paul
Clearly Paul was a well-educated, strong-willed, highly motivated, intensely passionate individual of above average intelligence. After God got his attention and he was converted, he spent three days in meditation and prayer before meeting Ananias and being baptized. Immediately after that he began preaching to others about who Jesus really was.
Unfortunately, things didn’t turn out so well. The account (Acts 9:20-22) may sound fine on the surface, but in reality it reflects Paul going off half-cocked after his conversion. To say that he crashed and burned is an understatement. Ellen White, in her classic book on the formation and development of the early Christian church, The Acts of the Apostles, reveals that the hatred toward him and his message grew so fierce that he had to flee for his own safety (p. 125). Most likely it’s because, besides being an “eloquent speaker” with extraordinary reasoning ability, he was also “a severe critic” who “by his withering sarcasm could place an opponent in no enviable light” (p. 124). Like me, Paul did the right thing—at the wrong time and definitely in the wrong way!
Paul describes in his own words what happened after his epic fail: “I did not go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went into Arabia. Later I returned to Damascus. Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days” (Gal. 1:17, 18, NIV).
It took the Apostle Paul a full three years to get his head screwed on straight after God got a hold of him on the road to Damascus! What was he doing in Arabia? Why was he there so long, and what lessons did he learn? The answers to those intriguing questions, in the form of five principles, will enable us to avoid many of Paul’s mistakes as we start our own Christian journey.
1. Consider Our Past
It’s important to take time to deeply consider the realities of our past core identity, beliefs, and values and make sure they square with the truth of our new reality: salvation! Just because we’ve received salvation doesn’t mean that our thinking, attitudes, values, and beliefs are saved and transformed as well.
Ellen White gives us this startling insight into what was going on in Paul’s mind immediately after his run-in with God:
For three days Saul was “without sight, and neither did eat nor drink.” These days of soul agony were to him as years. Again and again he recalled, with anguish of spirit, the part he had taken in the martyrdom of Stephen. With horror he thought of his guilt in allowing himself to be controlled by the malice and prejudice of the priests and rulers, even when the face of Stephen had been lighted up with the radiance of heaven. In sadness and brokenness of spirit he recounted the many times he had closed his eyes and ears against the most striking evidences and had relentlessly urged on the persecution of the believers in Jesus of Nazareth.
These days of close self-examination and of heart humiliation were spent in lonely seclusion. . . .Thus he seemed to be shut away from all human sympathy. His only hope of help was in a merciful God, and to Him he appealed in brokenness of heart.
During the long hours when Saul was shut in with God alone, he recalled many of the passages of Scripture referring to the first advent of Christ. Carefully he traced down the prophecies, with a memory sharpened by the conviction that had taken possession of his mind. As he reflected on the meaning of these prophecies he was astonished at his former blindness of understanding and at the blindness of the Jews in general, which had led to the rejection of Jesus as the promised Messiah. To his enlightened vision all now seemed plain. He knew that his former prejudice and unbelief had clouded his spiritual perception and had prevented him from discerning in Jesus of Nazareth the Messiah of prophecy. (The Acts of the Apostles, pp. 118, 119)
This process continued during his years in Arabia: “He emptied his soul of the prejudices and traditions that had hitherto shaped his life, and received instruction from the Source of truth” (The Acts of the Apostles, pp. 125, 126).
If we don’t take adequate time to carefully and closely consider the ugly truth of who we were before our conversion, then we can never be effective for God due to our emotional and spiritual blind spots.
2. Put Ourselves in Context
Just as Isaiah’s vision of God in all His glory and splendor rightly “reset” him and focused him for his ministry (Isa. 6:1-8), so a right perspective of who God truly is will do the same for us. Paul never forgot who God was, who he was, and the central role Jesus played in his life (Phil. 3). Paul never claimed to reach his goal of perfection. He acknowledged that he had learned a lot and was much more mature than when he began, but he admitted that he was not perfect.
Paul, writing to the Christians in Corinth, Greece, informed them that he had some sort of chronic physical condition he termed his “thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor. 12:7-10). This condition apparently limited his ministry and likely bordered on a lifelong disability. That was a big deal for him to share that sort of personal information, but after taking the time to thoughtfully and rightly consider himself and his assets and liabilities, he was able to tell them that “I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (v. 10, NIV).
Some Bible scholars believe that Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” was debilitating eye trouble. This is based on his apparent large handwriting (Gal. 6:11). Furthermore, he was blinded for three days (Acts 9:9) due to seeing God’s presence in the form of a blinding light brighter than the noonday desert sun (Acts 26:13), and when his sight was restored, he had something like scales fall from his eyes (Acts 9:18). Additionally, Paul, in Galatians 4:13-15, refers to the fact that the Galatian Christians loved him so much they would have torn out their eyes and given them to him. Whatever this “thorn” was, Paul not only learned to accept it, but recognized that God could use even it for His glory.
Paul’s personal letter to his protégé Timothy expresses his sincerity and humility about who he was and, more importantly, who God is:
I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength, that he considered me trustworthy, appointing me to his service. Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life. (1 Tim. 1:12-16, NIV)
Contrast Paul’s humility and thankfulness for Jesus’ salvation with the pride he once placed in his family and cultural history: “If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless” (Phil. 3:4-6, NIV).
Are you starting to see the delicate balancing act that must happen with a clear understanding of who we truly are—in Christ? Once we begin to do it and do it consistently, we can get over ourselves and get closer to God. Just as a toy whose batteries aren’t properly aligned with the leads can run only with partial power, so it is with our spiritual life: once we properly and correctly align ourselves with God through an admission of who we are and who He is, there’s no limit to how we can grow in Him!
3. Confess Our Sins
When we take the time to consider who we truly are and the lies we’ve believed and when we rightly perceive our context, God’s love, mercy, grace, and goodness will compel us to confession and repentance! We will want to get rid of all known sin, better understand why and how we sin, grasp the promises of God for victory, and make a plan for genuine repentance and further growth and deeper communion with Jesus.
Once again, Ellen White writes about Paul’s confession in eye-opening terms:
As Saul yielded himself fully to the convicting power of the Holy Spirit, he saw the mistakes of his life and recognized the far-reaching claims of the law of God. He who had been a proud Pharisee, confident that he was justified by his good works, now bowed before God with the humility and simplicity of a little child, confessing his own unworthiness and pleading the merits of a crucified and risen Saviour. Saul longed to come into full harmony and communion with the Father and the Son; and in the intensity of his desire for pardon and acceptance he offered up fervent supplications to the throne of grace.
The prayers of the penitent Pharisee were not in vain. (The Acts of the Apostles, pp. 119, 120)
Here, in the solitude of the desert [of Arabia], Paul had ample opportunity for quiet study and meditation. He calmly reviewed his past experience and made sure work of repentance. He sought God with all his heart, resting not until he knew for a certainty that his repentance was accepted and his sin pardoned. He longed for the assurance that Jesus would be with him in his coming ministry. (The Acts of the Apostles, p. 125)
Imagine what incredible insights Paul gained from his “down-time” during his three years of reflection, meditation, confession, and repentance! He—like us—had to spend time unlearning his old ways that led to death and allowing God’s Holy Spirit to educate him on the ways of life.
It’s because of that time he took that we have the very practical books of Romans (especially chapters 5-8), Galatians, and Ephesians, which describe so well and relevantly the internal emotional and spiritual workings of the ultimate battle that each of us daily faces with our flesh vs. God’s Spirit; as well as Philippians, which describes so beautifully the secrets of infectious joy and unspeakable contentment in any and every situation. Additionally, think of how much we as Christians have benefitted from Paul’s descriptions of the benefits of “keeping in step with the Spirit” (see Gal. 5:25, ESV) and the consequences of a lack of said relationship.
4. Connect with God’s Church
After Paul recognized that God wanted to use him, God connected him with a local physical church…the same church he had been trying to stamp out of existence! Can you imagine Paul’s success without initially connecting with Ananias or, after his three years in the desert, with Barnabas, Peter, or James? Even with all his spot-on self-insight and strong relationship with God, he would have continued to flounder.
You cannot ascertain God’s will or grow into maturity in Him without the church’s support, community, and encouragement. It’s foolish of us to think of ourselves as “The Lone Ranger” and act as if we don’t need others and can make it on our own—just us and God. The person who brought us such impactful illustrations on what it means to be rightly connected to God and others (1 Cor. 12; Eph. 2-3) likely learned these lessons during his time in the desert with God and during his early ministry to God’s church, with others.
It’s no surprise that the little old White lady has some straightforward things to say about this as well:
He [God] arrested him in his course and convicted him of sin; but when Saul asked, “What wilt Thou have me to do?” the Saviour placed the inquiring Jew in connection with His church, there to obtain a knowledge of God’s will concerning him. . . . The marvelous light that illumined the darkness of Saul was the work of the Lord; but there was also a work that was to be done for him by the disciples. Christ had performed the work of revelation and conviction; and now the penitent was in a condition to learn from those whom God had ordained to teach His truth.
Thus Jesus gave sanction to the authority of His organized church and placed Saul in connection with His appointed agencies on earth. Christ had now a church as His representative on earth, and to it belonged the work of directing the repentant sinner in the way of life.
Many have an idea that they are responsible to Christ alone for their light and experience, independent of His recognized followers on earth. Jesus . . . respects the means that He has ordained for the enlightenment and salvation of men; He directs sinners to the church, which He has made a channel of light to the world. (The Acts of the Apostles, pp. 120-122)
5. Move Forward with Conviction
Immediately upon his Damascus Road experience, Paul was convicted—not only of who Jesus truly was, but also of God’s great plan for his own life. However, I find it interesting that even with his initial dismal failure, Paul’s vision and mission to share Jesus still burned brightly after three years in the desert!
It’s easy—and natural—for our brand-new excitement and love for Christ to compel us to want to tell others, but Paul’s continual, laserlike focus constantly amazes me. Once Paul took time to receive the education that God wanted him to get and let go of the education that his fellow Jews had raised him in, then and only then was he able and ready to grow continually and effectively in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus.
Take a look at what Paul himself wrote this about his initial convictions:
I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ. . . . But when God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, my immediate response was not to consult any human being. (Gal. 1:11-16, NIV)
After spending time with God learning about himself and God’s ways, Paul, in the paramount passage that describes his life (Phil. 3:7-14) powerfully states three different times that there is nothing more important than knowing Jesus! The same convictions he had initially were now tempered and focused into a supreme passion to daily know more of and love Jesus.
Had Paul’s focus on mission changed? Of course not! His focus was now rightly informed by the overarching focus of his life: to know Jesus more and more every day and become more and more like Him. Out of that would spring the rest of his life’s work—not because he was blindly following God’s orders, but because his love for Jesus naturally overflowed into everything he was doing, to everybody he was with, and everywhere he went!
May it be so with us as well. Paul loved Jesus much because he was forgiven much (Luke 7:47), and that love flowed out of him as naturally as you and I breathe.
Ellen White writes of the distinct correlation between the depth and strength of our relationship with Jesus and the clarity and power of our convictions: “As he pondered these things in his heart, Paul understood more and more clearly the meaning of his call. . . . And so, viewing the wisdom of the world in the light of the cross, Paul ‘determined not to know anything, . . . save Jesus Christ, and Him crucified.’ 1 Corinthians 2:2” (The Acts of the Apostles, pp. 127, 128).
Transformation Takes Time
The Christian life is fraught with obstacles, difficulties, immense joy, and devastating suffering (2 Tim. 3:12). However, we can always be sure that God will never leave us and will be with us until the end of the world (Matt. 28:20). We can be confident that He is in us to convict us of sin (John 16:8), to empower us to draw closer to Him, and to help us succeed in becoming more like Him (Phil. 2:12, 13).
If we, like the Apostle Paul, are not careful, after coming to an awareness of our need for Jesus and His salvation, we can, in our haste, inadvertently place obstacles in our own path of drawing closer to Him—not to mention in the paths of others! But if we take the time to deeply consider the truth of our own sinful perceptions, beliefs, values, and actions, we will then be able to clearly and rightly see ourselves in the correct context. This will help us to confess and repent of our sins, which will allow us to more fully connect with His chosen tool, the church, to help us build a relationship with Him. As we draw closer to Jesus, we will become more and more convicted of our sinfulness and deeper need of a relationship with Jesus. We will then be able to minister effectively to others.
If we make these principles our pattern of life and continue in this way, daily drawing closer and closer to Jesus, we, like the Apostle Paul, can sidestep consistent crashing and burning. Instead, we can with certainty proclaim, “He [Jesus] is the one we proclaim, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may [be fully mature and] present everyone fully mature in Christ” (Col. 1:28, NIV).