Seeing the Light: Miracle or Mirage?
By Audrey Stallsmith
Let’s imagine Saul, the violently uptight Pharisee, muttering to himself on the road to Damascus. “They say I’m becoming obsessed with tracking down Christians. That this new religion is, after all, just a rustic sect about a carpenter led by fishermen. Why can’t people see how dangerous these particular bumpkins are?
"Preaching that God is willing to accept and forgive all that come! When some of us have studied and struggled for years just trying to figure out how to please Him.
"But the way the Christians—like that Stephen—die could actually make the gullible think there is something to their fairy tales. Ridiculous on the face of it, of course! A carpenter from the sticks claiming to be the son of God. But men are never willing to suffer for something they know isn’t true. So some of them, at least, must believe it.
“How crazy would you have to be to swallow a story of a man rising from the tomb? And you will notice that Stephen didn’t get raised up himself. Oh, no! Granted, he may have died well. What wouldn’t I give to have that kind of peace! But his must have been the oblivion of the self-deceived fanatic. Stephen is still just as dead as—“
Suddenly a brilliant blast of light knocks Saul out of the saddle. And, an instant before darkness descends on his seared sight, he glimpses the face of the Man whose followers he’s been persecuting. The Man who, as it turns out, must really be who he said He was after all. Can anybody say “Uh-oh?”
I’ve been hesitant to write about conversion, as the process is different for every person. The intellectual Lewis, for example, describes his own as follows. “That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929, I gave in and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.”
Since he titled the autobiography from which this account is taken Surprised by Joy, we can deduce that he didn’t remain depressed over his choice! And, from Chesterton’s rollicking and spirited defense of Christianity over the years, we can assume that he was drawn into the universal Church long before he joined its Catholic branch.
Saul, on the other hand, experienced a much more violent turnabout. He had been present at the stoning of Stephen, and we can only conclude that the martyr’s shining face must have had a profound effect. Afterwards Saul’s persecution of the Christians heightened to almost maniacal intensity.
He must have fought, with all his being, the idea that they had a kind of joy that his own self-righteous religiousness couldn’t begin to buy him. “Low-sunk life,” as George McDonald notes in Creation in Christ, “imagines itself weary of life, but it is death, not life, it is weary of.”
Saul had struggled so hard, after all, to earn his salvation--to manufacture goodness. But he must have realized, from the way his character was degenerating, that he had failed. Not only hadn’t he succeeded in making himself good, but he didn’t even have the joy possessed by those who called salvation an undeserved gift. To one raised on the stringent requirements of the Jewish law, the idea of free grace must have been maddening.
All Saul’s frenzied action, no doubt, allowed him to avoid thought on the issue. But Christ put a stop to that by personally confronting and blinding the man. With someone so obdurate, it took extreme measures to force him to face the Issue.
“Why are you persecuting me?” Jesus asked, implying that it was really God with whom Saul was so violently angry. The God whom he’d tried so long, and without success, to please and placate.
“So here I am,” Jesus seemed to be saying. “What are you going to do with me?” That is the element present in almost all conversion experiences—not necessarily an actual vision of Christ, but the realization that a choice has to be made about Him.
Another common element is the influence of those already Christian. As Saul was “bothered” by Stephen, so Lewis was heavily influenced by the fact that many of his favorite writers—both living and dead--were Christians.
When Chuck Colson faced investigation in the Watergate affair, a client witnessed to him. And, leaving that Christian’s house, the tough lawyer found himself crying uncontrollably. That’s usually the third element, the realization of sin and need. As long as a person sees him or herself as “a pretty good Joe” (or Josephine!), who doesn’t require any help, there will be no desire to repent.
Getting a glimpse of himself in Christ’s light, Saul must have been aghast at the violent and hating individual he had become. And “when a man loathes himself,” as MacDonald points out, “he has begun to be saved.”
But, not only did Saul realize his own unworthiness, he also saw love and compassion looking down at him. He had, at long last, viewed the face of God as it really is. And it wasn’t the severe and judgmental one he’d been envisioning all those years.
For that Person, the former bully was willing to make one of the most drastic reversals in history. We can only imagine what it cost Saul’s pride to admit to the Christians that they were right after all. Most people wouldn’t have had the guts to do it, no matter how convincing that vision of Christ may have been.
A weaker man would have called it a “hallucination” —caused by sunstroke, perhaps--and renewed his persecution with even more angry vigor. But Saul made the much more difficult decision to turn around. And that is what the term “repent” literally means, to reverse the direction in which one is headed.
“He cannot save himself,” as McDonald writes, “but he can let the Lord save him.” It is, in its way, a kind of death. A letting go of all our own effort, to allow God to work in us. And it often means a completely new set of friends and priorities. Saul must have known that his choice would cause him to be rejected by all those whose good opinion he had sought before. And he would have to humbly beg forgiveness from those whom he had once despised.
His fellow Pharisees probably posited that Saul had become much too obsessed with the Christians, to the point of it being a love-hate relationship. And he had conjured up his vision to support his secret inclination to join them.
The metamorphosis in a man often speaks for itself, however. And, so profound was the change in Saul, that he even took a new name--Paul. Then this “hothead” who had done his best to kill the Church became one of its most stabilizing influences. Not only did the former bigot shame his fellow Jewish Christians into full acceptance of their Gentile converts, he wrote letters to the early church that have kept us later Christians in line for hundreds of years.
Paul probably wouldn’t have been considered the ideal leader, as he had—according to his own account—little charm or charisma. He wasn’t even, he admitted, all that great a speaker. But his zeal and air of authority apparently more than made up for his other deficiencies.
Not to mention that he was better educated than the fishermen and better versed in Judaism than most of the fellow Jews he attempted to convert. The early church needed a wise and stern shepherd, and that is certainly what it got! But we must remember that this unyielding type also wrote one of the most profound descriptions of love ever recorded. (I Corinthians 13)
It must have been tempting for a strong-willed type like Paul to despise the vacillations of his weaker brothers. But it is apparent from his letters that he loved and yearned over his straying flock, even when he was excoriating them.
Most of us probably can’t boast as extreme a reversal as Paul’s. Raised in a Christian family, I first got “saved” as a child at a Good News Club. But I suspect my primary motivation at the time was to escape hell! I also renewed my commitment a couple times during emotional evangelistic service when I was a teenager. But, at the time, my religion frequently seemed a burden to me. Something that I thought other people contrived to do quite well without.
The more I matured, however, the more I realized that those unbelievers weren’t doing as well as I had thought. One night, while reading Lewis, I got a sobering glimpse of my own extreme selfishness—and knew that I couldn’t beat it by myself. “Never soul was set free,” as McDonald notes, “without being made to feel its slavery.”
So that time, alone and without any emotional pressure from anyone else, I made my own decision. And, no, I still haven’t managed to beat that self-centeredness entirely, but God and I are working on it.
I suspected for years that none of my conversions were “genuine,” since I didn’t have the wildly emotional response common to some. But then I realized that, since I am not an excitable person, I could hardly expect my conversion to be tempestuous either. (My manic-depressive college roommate used to tell me that my emotional cycle was a straight line. I think that’s a bit of an exaggeration. But, compared to hers, it probably was!)
God works with each of us on the basis of who we are. He doesn’t demand that we adhere to someone else’s formula that may be alien to our natures. And he has the advantage of knowing where our strengths and weaknesses lie!
To be forgiven, we do have to admit to more than “errors” however. It bothers me that the brothers recently released from prison for killing their father continue to talk of their crime as a “mistake.”
To me, a mistake implies something done inadvertently. And, while I concede that their father’s death could have been inadvertent if the boys were in the process of defending themselves at the time, they have admitted that their father wasn’t abusive. Therefore the cold-blooded killing they describe was no accident. A sin, rather, of the worst kind.
I recently watched the movie, The Scarlet and the Black, which is based on the heroism of Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty. An Irish priest stationed at the Vatican during World War II, he helped thousands of Allied prisoners of war and Jewish refugees escape the Nazi occupation. The movie is all about the “good against evil” struggle between him and Nazi Colonel Herbert Kappler.
As the Allied armies are approaching Rome, the priest is beseeched by his former enemy to smuggle the Colonel’s wife and children out of the city. To which O’Flaherty, who has seen too many of his friends imprisoned or killed by Kappler, understandably replies, “I’ll see you in hell first!”
But the priest does eventually accede to the request. And, when the Allies sentence the Colonel to life imprisonment, his only visitor is O’Flaherty, who finally succeeds in talking the ex-Nazi into the Church. And, though Kappler could have made a case that he was only following orders when he committed many of his war crimes, I suspect the straight-talking priest didn’t allow the Colonel to get away with any palaver about mistakes!
I would guess that Kappler’s decision had more to do with O’Flaherty’s actions than with his words. The kind of forgiveness the priest exhibited, after all, can only be managed with supernatural help. And “to be a witness does not consist in engaging in propaganda,” as Emmanuel Card Sukard points out. “It means to live in such a way that one’s life would not make sense if God did not exist.”
Stories like this one and Saul’s prove to us that we should never despair of anyone. The only sin that cannot be forgiven, as McDonald points out, “is the sin of choosing to be evil, of refusing deliverance.”