I was reading in Acts a while back about Saul's (aka Paul's) conversion on the Damascus road.
It is a powerful story.
Saul was not a good guy. The majority of his life had been devoted to stopping whatever momentum the church was gaining. He arrested, he persecuted. He was all about shutting down what God was up to.
This all becomes clear in Acts when the story of Stephen is told.
Stephen was a close follower of Jesus and lived a life on fire for expanding God's kingdom. He was a great example of someone who lived their life running after God. But there were consequences as a result of his devotion.
Tragically, Stephen's life ended as he was stoned to death by the Jewish leaders; a similar crowd who begged for Jesus to be crucified. These leaders didn't like what Stephen was saying. They didn't like the unrest he was spurring. And so these religious leaders took him down. They took his life.
Stephen's death is described in Acts 7:57-60
"At this they covered their ears and yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." He then fell on his knees and cried out, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them." When he said this, he fell asleep. And Saul was there, giving approval to his death.
Saul watched the Jewish leaders. He saw their power, their authority, their prestige and he wanted in. And on the day of Stephen's murder, something in him turned. All those aspirations had been finalized as he saw this group's power and influence. They controlled the shots in determining who needed to go and who needed to stay. They were the law. And they were in charge of upholding that law even if it meant death.
After that event, Saul no longer wanted to be a passive witness to the action, he wanted to be front and center in shutting down the spread of the gospel and he was ready to do whatever it would take.
Committed to double down his efforts, Saul left the scene determined to put action behind his words. As Acts 9:1 says: Saul was breathing out murderous threats against the Lord's disciples. He was more than ready to take action in round two. The next time, he would not be on the sidelines, the next time, he would be throwing the first stone. He was ready to kill.
So Saul's second chance presented itself. The stage would be set in Damascus. Saul knew followers of Jesus were there spreading the gospel and he knew they would not back down: a fight, a stoning, something significant was to unfold in that city.
But in Acts 9:3-6 we see God had a different plan in store for Saul:
3 As he (Saul) neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” 5 “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.
“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. 6 “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”
I wonder sometimes why God chose Saul? Why was Saul needed when the disciples were alive, spreading God's message?
I think God saw something in Saul's heart the day of Stephen's death. He saw a young man who was so hungry to be a part of something meaningful. God knew Saul wanted his work to count. But there was something that held Saul back that day. There was a reason he did not participate in the stoning of Stephen. He could have easily joined in, but he stood back. And he just watched. Perhaps in the aftermath of Stephen's death he felt ashamed for not participating.
There have been a handful of moments throughout my life where I have stood on the sidelines and felt the literal tension between having to choose between good and bad. More often than not, I didn't pay attention to the tension and ran right into whatever felt good. I sought comfort above all else. I ran towards what the crowd was doing.
But God, He knows how to isolate us in these pursuits. He knows how to exhaust us in our searching. He knows how to make our bodies weary. He knows how to call out to us on our own Damascus road.
God is all about intervening in these moments. In these moments where we feel so close to achieving all that we set out to achieve. The job, the family, the book, the retirement, the savings account, the accolades, the marriage, the engagement, the deal, the title, the birth of a child. He calls out to us and His words usually sound something like this:
You are headed to the wrong place. You think fulfillment lies on the other side of achieving these things. You think reaching these things is going to take away that thirst and that hunger. But it's not. They are empty. Their nourishment will not last. I am the only thing in this life that will not fade away. I love you too much to let you go on this path. I love you too much to not redirect you. I am not redirecting your route and your destination, no, I am redirecting your heart. I am saying go to these places, achieve these things, but know they are not the real thing. I am the real thing. Let me lead you to these places, so you can go do these things in my name. In my name alone.
I love that Saul ended up in the very place he set out to go. God didn't snatch him up and tell him to go back to Jerusalem, start over, repent of your ways at the temple. Go, put yourself in church prison so to speak. No, he essentially said, go do you. Go to Damascus, but instead of arresting people and trying to shut down my church, I want you to build it. Saul, I saw your heart that day you watched Stephen be murdered. I saw there was goodness in you. I saw your ambition, I saw your drive, and I wanted you for myself. I wanted you back. And so I came, I sought you out. And now I am calling you to go build. Go do, but do it with me instead of against me.
There is this overarching idea out there that if you decide to surrender your life to Christ, it will mean selling all of your things, giving up all you love, and moving to a third world country. For some people, that is the call they receive on their lives. But for the majority of us, that is not what God is asking us to do. Instead, He asks us if we will we take that thing we are running so hard to obtain and replace it with Him. If it is success, purpose, rest, retirement, a family, whatever it is, over and over God calls out to us in the pursuit of these things:
Will you just run towards me and then trust me with the deepest desires of your heart?