The “If Only” Regret: ACTS 25-26

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ACTS 25 & 26

After two years of imprisonment, we find ourselves in yet another trial and hearing for the Apostle Paul. He’s heard first by Festus, the newly appointed Roman governor over Judea, and then again by King Agrippa, the Jewish king subject to Roman authority. Every time I read these chapters I find myself getting emotionally rattled by the very last verse in chapter 26,

And Agrippa said to Festus, “He could have been set free if he hadn’t appealed to Caesar.” (Acts 26:32 NLT)

Upon reading those words I immediately start wishing Paul hadn’t appealed to Caesar. IF ONLY he’d waited A FEW MORE DAYS for King Agrippa and he could have been free!

Let’s back up. The whole reason Paul appealed to Caesar in the first place was to intercede the political maneuvering that had kept him wrongly imprisoned for two years already. Paul could see that Festus wanted to placate the Jewish leaders like Felix who preceded him. Festus was downright perplexed by Paul’s case. Although he could see that Paul hadn’t actually broken any Roman laws worthy of imprisonment or death, these Hebrew religious laws were confusing and obviously causing an extreme emotional reaction among the Jewish leaders.

The last thing this Roman governor needed was a riot on his hands. Loud and unhappy Jews was more of a reflection on his leadership style than anything else, so negotiating with local leaders and keeping order brought benefit to both sides.

Then Festus, wanting to please the Jews, asked him, “Are you willing to go to Jerusalem and stand trial before me there?” (Acts 25:9 NLT)

Paul was aware of his rights as a Roman citizen and wasn’t going to watch his trial get hijacked by politics again, risking an ambush as he travelled. He appealed to Caesar. A few days later King Agrippa arrived, and being Jewish, he was very familiar with the religious laws, the teachings of the prophets, and cultural customs. Festus asked him to hear Paul’s defense and offer an opinion. When all was said and done, everyone agreed that Paul was innocent.

By this point Paul had been forced to defend himself before his accusers multiple times, and it occurred to me, we are essentially no different. Our accuser, Satan, is routinely reviving memories from our past to accuse and condemn us. We naturally move to defend ourselves in a number of different ways, most of them ineffective. Paul’s defense is spiritually victorious, although from here on out his physical freedom was not the focus; he chose a wise defense and claimed spiritual freedom.

A DEFEATED DEFENSE

Four defeated defenses come to my mind as I reflect on my own life, because I have employed them all too often: building an emotional wall defense, the fight or flight defense, the penitent defense, and the “if only” defense.

I began building emotional walls to defend myself from the Accuser at a young age. It began in earnest when my church and Christian community at one point hurt me, and I determined they were too flawed for my continued participation. I isolated myself from anyone who looked like those people.  I kept them outside my fresh wall, and during this time I questioned virtually everything I’d been taught. I made many poor choices, and inevitably armed my accuser with more ammunition.

So when the Accuser showed up to condemn me for my choices, I would employ the flight or fight defense. Flight. When I ran away, I would run to the behavior I knew wasn’t right but provided a temporary respite.  Fight.  And when I would fight it would be against the people I blamed for my situation in the first place.  “They’re the ones who hurt me.”  Each time shifting focus away from myself and building my fresh wall a little higher.

When the guilt and shame hurled from my Accuser became too much to bear, I would employ the penitent defense. This is when I would confess and apologize for all those choices, living in a puddle of regret. I would confess them over and over because my Accuser wouldn’t leave me alone. I couldn’t claim the freedom that comes from true repentance because I was too busy emotionally punishing myself, fending off my Accuser, and building my wall even higher.

And then I naturally resorted to the “if only” defense, where I would spend an inordinate amount of time rehashing every choice I’d made, imagining the alternative with a spectacular future, and rolling myself deeper into guilt behind a very tall wall.  The safety of this wall was such a farce; its only provision was deep isolation, fear, and depression.

SLIDING DOORS & IF ONLY

If only Paul hadn’t appealed to Caesar, he could be free! I am reminded of the 1998 movie Sliding Doors starring Gwyneth Paltrow. In this movie, the main character, Helen, gets fired from her job and comes home early. The movie tracks two different alternatives for her life: 1) she boards the early train and gets home in time to discover her boyfriend cheating with another woman; 2) she barely misses the early train, she’s mugged and taken to the hospital, and arrives home oblivious to her boyfriend’s infidelity. The viewer observes these two parallel universes and begins to form an opinion as to which alternative is the better life. The twist at the end is that neither life track actually proves a clearly better alternative. And this is the truth for anyone stuck in the IF ONLY regret.

And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them. (Rom 8:28 NLT)

Let’s take a minute and consider a hypothetical universe where Paul does not appeal to Caesar and stands before King Agrippa. In this scenario we should recognize that without an appeal to Caesar, all the heated pressure from the Jewish leaders would have continued looming heavily in that room. Wouldn’t they have still held a desire to please the Jews? Paul appealing to Caesar was, in all likelihood, the best outcome for these rulers. It absolved them from having to make a decision and deal with repercussions either way. How easy for King Agrippa to say Paul could have had his freedom, when he bore no responsibility or authority whatsoever in Paul’s release. Had they freed Paul, knowing full well his imprisonment was wrongful, it would have ignited a hotbed of tempers in the region. And ain’t nobody got time for that!

Here’s the other thing: God had given Paul his word earlier that he would testify of Christ in Rome. So truly, no matter the alternative, he was going to Rome.

Years ago, very early in my career, I was offered a relatively low-level position to go work for an executive who was leaving my company for the competition. I debated for days over the wisdom of leaving so soon and not showing a tenured track record. So I declined. My co-worker eagerly took the position and was named Vice President in less than two years. I kicked my self repeatedly for not seizing it first, and I imagined what my life would have looked like had I taken it. But in the end, God called me to write, teach, and speak his truth, and this “if only” alternative doesn’t change that calling. Whether my career went this way or that, God was taking me to “Rome.”

A SOUND DEFENSE

When the Accuser comes calling, the best defense is truth. The REAL truth, not the half-truth Satan so masterfully manipulates to confuse us.

And since we have been made right in God’s sight by the blood of Christ, he will certainly save us from God’s condemnation. (Rom 5:9 NLT)

With faith in Jesus we stand before him completely blameless and this is the truth.

He personally carried our sins in his body on the cross so that we can be dead to sin and live for what is right. By his wounds are you healed. (I Peter 2:24 NLT)

Payment for our sins has already been made. Allow God to heal you from painful memories so that they can leave you. We are not subject to our own punishment nor our Accuser’s and this is the truth.

For the word of the Lord holds true, and we can trust everything he does. (Psalm 33:4 NLT)

God’s word is true regardless of what the Accuser says. If God says we are pure, we are pure. If God says we have a purpose, we have a purpose.   If God says walk this way, we obey because his way is always good. Know that God’s call on your life will bring you to “Rome” and you can trust him.

DEFEND THE BATTLEGROUND

With a sound defense, we can defend.  Our mind is the primary battleground for Satan, and we must claim that territory in Jesus’ name, because that’s half the battle. I’ve often become so accustomed to accusatory and condemning thoughts that I no longer realize they’ve been assuaging me for days, or even years on end. A great example of this: For years, I would stand in front of the mirror and hear, “You are so fat. You’re just too ugly to wear these clothes. You’ll never look good enough.” It actually became very normal for me. Be still. What exactly are you listening to? If it’s condemning, you can be sure it’s not from God. My God never talks to me that way, and he will never talk to you that way.

Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus. (Phil 4:6-7 NLT)

Don’t Worry But Pray

Paul provides a great little guide in Philippians for breaking the Accuser’s battle plan. Anytime we start to feel anxious, immediately turn the thought into a positive prayer. Was your thought triggered by something? Did you resurrect a painful memory, a destructive image, or an unhealthy belief or fear? Pray over each one.

Thank God

Thank God for all he has done. There is always something for which to be thankful, in even the most dire of situations. With my diagnosis of Graves Disease, which is not dire in the least, gratitude was difficult me.  It’s very difficult to be thankful when wrapped in anxiety.  But I prayed over my worries, and I began to see God’s hand. He brought me to a good doctor. I finally received a diagnosis after years of suffering. And he availed a medicine that can help. Trust God to show you all he has done for you, and then thank him.

Expect Peace

The peace that results is a promise. It will protect the battleground of your mind. And remember, this promise comes with a life lived IN CHRIST.  This phrase is placed at the very end of those verses in Philippians. (For more on what IN CHRIST means, click here.)  When we are IN CHRIST, all the fruit of the Spirit flows through us, and peace is a fruit!

So much of what we face on a daily basis, results from wounds that remain unhealed and eventually exploited by our enemy. If we allow God to heal us, each wound in turn, we can then rest behind true and faithful defenses. A wall that is holy and perfect and sure.

As the mountain surrounds Jerusalem, so the Lord surrounds his people, both now and forever. (Psalm 125:2 NLT)

This was Paul’s defense.  A healed Church, a holy Church, a Church standing IN CHRIST, defended by walls he has forged in heaven, is unstoppable.

We’ve Got Work to Do: ACTS 22

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ACTS 22

The street in Jerusalem had been swept with silence, settling firmly on the thick layer of hatred. Paul was preparing to speak. Like any good speaker, Paul included the three essentials: 1) an opening, which included details of his background to grab their attention and make a personal connection, 2) the main body of his message, the account of his conversion, and the reason behind his life’s work, and 3) a conclusion, God’s ultimate purpose to pursue the entire world outside of Israel.

At first I didn’t know what to write this week. This passage seems pretty straightforward. After I prayed, I felt compelled to look back at the life of Jesus because I kept being drawn back to the moment when Jesus was presented to the Sanhedrin after his arrest. I can almost smell the air now, heavy with the exact same brand of hatred that surrounded Paul. I began to see a theme developing as stories from Jesus’ life were virtually dropped in my lap over the past few days, bringing depth and texture to this passage. It’s a theme of working until the very end.

THE WORK WILL NOT BE STOPPED

One of the first things we see Jesus do as he begins his official ministry was to return home to Nazareth. Up to now things were going pretty well for Jesus.

“Reports about him spread quickly through the whole region. He taught regularly in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.” (Luke 4:14b-15 NLT)

Then he enters Nazareth and attends synagogue on the Sabbath. Jesus reads from the prophet Isaiah and tells the congregation the scripture they just heard has been fulfilled that very day!

Everyone spoke well of him and was amazed by the gracious words that came from his lips, “How can this be?” they asked. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?”

Then he said, “You will undoubtedly quote me this proverb; Physician, heal yourself’ – meaning do miracles here in your hometown like those you did in Capernaum. But I tell you the truth; no prophet is accepted in his own hometown.

“Certainly there were many needy widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the heavens were closed for three and a half years, and a severe famine devastated the land. Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them. He was sent instead to a foreigner – a widow of Zarephath in the land of Sidon. And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, but the only one healed was Naaman, a Syrian.”

When they heard this, the people in the synagogue were furious. Jumping up, they mobbed him and forced him to the edge of the hill on which the town was built. They intended to push him over the cliff, but he passed right through the crowd and went on his way. (Luke 4:22-30 NLT)

Can you see the parallels between this speech and Paul’s? He includes an opening that grabs their attention and attempts to make a personal connection, a hometown boy, reading scriptures with authority. The main body of his message is the passage of Isaiah itself. Like the body of Paul’s message, it contains the reason behind his life’s work, “…the captives will be released…the blind will see…the oppressed will be set free” (Luke 4:18) And finally he concludes with God’s plan to pursue the entire world outside of Israel by resurrecting the examples of Elijah and Elisha. He compares the people of Nazareth to the hard heartedness of ancient Israel. And they knew it! Although still veiled in a modicum of mystery, Jesus was telling them of his plan to save the Gentiles even as Israel rejects him.

Like Paul’s enemies, they wanted to kill him, to push him off a cliff no less. I love this part of the story, “but he passed right through the crowd and went on his way.” (Luke 4:30) Did the crowd part like the Red Sea to let him pass?   Did he pull some invisible-miracle-thing where he just walked right through them like a ghost? All we know for sure is that it wasn’t his time to die. He still had work to do.

And it wasn’t Paul’s time to die in Jerusalem. He appealed to a higher authority, and with the basis of his Roman citizenship, he was spared for another day. Paul still had work to do. We all still have work to do!

THE WORK WILL BE COMPLETED

I brought glory to you here on earth by completing the work you gave me to do. Now, Father, bring me into the glory we shared before the world began. -Jesus (John 17:4-5 NLT)

But my life is worth nothing to me unless I use it for finishing the work assigned me by the Lord Jesus – the work of telling others the Good News about the wonderful grace of God. -Apostle Paul (Acts 20:24 NLT)

In hindsight, we can make easy sense of determining the completed purpose of Jesus and Paul. It’s not difficult to see that Jesus’ purpose was to fulfill every single prophecy and picture of himself. And then to see that Paul’s purpose was to take those pictures and explain them to the world. And because we see it so easily now, we might be tempted to think that it was super easy for them to see and do the work while in the middle of it. Okay, so Jesus had the advantage of a sinless nature that Paul and the rest of us cannot claim; however I’m not so sure he would say that it was easy.

Jesus and Paul completed their work beautifully not because they found it easy, but because they were filled with the Holy Spirit. When Jesus was born human, he did so by leaving the glory of heaven. He left behind many of his heavenly attributes like omnipresence, and omniscience, to name a few. He depended on the Holy Spirit to maintain a solid connection with his father to access his power and strength and insight. Because he was sinless, his Holy Spirit connection never faltered like it does with us, but nevertheless it was as vital for him as it is for us.

In his own words, recorded in the Book of John, Jesus articulates our purpose as he prays to the Father shortly before his arrest,

I am praying not only for these disciples but also for all who will ever believe in me through their message. I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one – as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. And may they be in us so that the world will believe you sent me.

I have given them the glory you gave me, so they may be one as we are one. I am in them and you are in me. May they experience such perfect unity that the world will know that you sent me, and that you love them as much as you love me. Father, I want these whom you have given me to be with me where I am. Then they can see all the glory you gave me because you loved me even before the world began! (John 17:20-24)

Our purpose is to remain in Christ, to see his glory, and to show the whole world so that they might know him too. If you are muddled in the haze of what this work tangibly looks like for you, go back to your primary purpose, which is to remain in Him. It is while we are in Him, in the Spirit, abiding in Christ, connected to the vine that we are positioned to see his glory and understand the work.

THE WORK IS ENHANCED BY OUR PAST

In Steven Furtick’s message, in his series The Genius of Jesus, he referenced the story of Jesus healing the lame man by the pool in John 5. This man had been paralyzed for 38 years. I’ve been struggling with a chronic illness myself for just a couple of years, and I’m amazed at how it has overwhelmed my thoughts. I just can’t imagine 38 years. No doubt his illness spoke doom over his heart and mind constantly. So much so, that when Jesus asked him, “Would you like to get well?” (John 5:6) he didn’t say yes. He had doomed himself to the point where he couldn’t really hear Jesus. Don’t we all do that? The man responds by saying, “I can’t sir…I have no one to put me into the pool…”

Jesus told him, “Stand up, pick up your mat, and walk!” (John 5:8 NLT)

Jesus told him to pick up his mat, knowing full well it exceeded the weight one could legally carry on a Sabbath. And of course the man was immediately called out for breaking the law. There are a litany of reasons why Jesus would instruct him in this way, but let’s consider that the mat was purposed as a symbol of this man’s past. We so often speak of putting our past behind us, and moving on, because God has redeemed our painful past.  We are all too eager to forget it and name it irrelevant.

It is indeed true that God has redeemed our past, however our past is an intimate part of our story. It’s something we carry with us, albeit unburdened. We are to work our past, not let our past work us.

In this passage of Acts we see Paul’s “mat” when he tells the Jewish audience in the streets that he formerly hunted and killed Christians. We see his “mat” when he recounts that he held the coats of those who stoned Stephen. Paul didn’t let that mat keep him stranded by the pool, but he rolled it up and worked it.

After Jesus told this man to get up, take his mat and walk, he later found him in the Temple and advised him to turn from sinning lest anything worse happen. (John 5:14) Jesus had healed him physically, but he’s essentially saying, “Man, if you don’t allow me to heal you emotionally too and carry the burden of the mat, that mat is going to become too heavy for you to carry and it will work you all the way back to the pool.”

ARE YOU ABOUT THE WORK OF YOUR FATHER?

If you are lying on a mat, stranded, thinking you are indefinitely stuck, so stuck that you can’t even hear God ask you if you want to be healed, so focused on your circumstance that you can’t hear God speaking into your life right now, in the quiet of your heart, surrender your will into his and simply seek to be with him. The man on the mat was so focused on the pool, his will was to get into that pool.  So focused and distracted on his own will he didn’t see God’s will to heal him right there on the mat.

“Father, I want these whom you have given me to be with me where I am. Then they can see all the glory you gave me because you loved me even before the world began.” (John 17:24 NLT)

If you’re hungry for that kind of intimacy with God, pray for it and keep on praying for it. Seek it and keep on seeking it. Then, when the time is right, he’ll ask you to take up your mat and start working it.

Prepared for Purpose: ACTS 9: 1-30

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ACTS 9:1-30

Once upon a time there was a young music student studying voice.  Her instructor asked her to repeatedly perform one particular song to get it right.  “I’m not hearing the emotion in the song,” said the instructor after she sang it the fourth time.  “No,” the instructor said after the fifth time.  “Try it again, and this time share your soul with me.”  She sang it again.  “No,” the instructor resigned.  “Your voice is beautiful, fantastic in fact.  But alas, I think you are too young to sing it.  You need more life experience to convey the depths of its feeling.”

The first time I heard this story, it was during a leadership development session for all department directors at the hospital where I worked.  I was 28 years old, the youngest in the group, newest to the hospital, with the responsibility for departments that had historically performed poorly.  In my mind I had huge hurdles to jump in this position and my coworkers didn’t think I could do it.  Our leadership coach and facilitator shared this story and there was no doubt for whom it was intended.  I was humiliated in front of my peer group and furious with the facilitator because I had spent the last year desperately trying to demonstrate my competency.  I felt undermined, and I can still feel the sting of truth laced within this story.

Yes there was truth there, but this truth is not about age.  Ultimately it’s about what we do with the time that’s been given to us, and those who’ve spanned more calendar days tend to have the advantage.  The truth that undergirds the illustration here is that God cannot do a work through me, until he’s done a work in me.  I cannot sing the song until I’ve been fully equipped to sing it.  And it’s much more than knowing how to sing a pretty song.

PAUL WAS PREPARED FOR HIS PURPOSE

We must be prepared for our purpose, and we see it played out in this passage of scripture today in the story of Saul’s conversion.  Some scholars believe there is a three year gap in this section of scripture that Luke chose not to elaborate.  Paul is the one who mentions these three years in his letter to the Galatians when he describes his conversion experience.

When this happened I did not rush out to consult with any human being.  Nor did I go up to Jerusalem to consult with those who were apostles before I was.  Instead, I went away into Arabia, and later I returned to the city of Damascus.  Then three years later I went to Jerusalem to get to know Peter. (Galations 1:15-19 NLT)

In the beginning of Acts nine Luke describes Paul like this, “Saul was uttering threats with every breath and was eager to kill the Lord’s followers,” and then by verse 30 Luke describes a very different man who preaches in the name of Jesus fearlessly.   How could such a transformation take place in 30 verses?  I’m not surprised by this three-year gap at all.  Before God could do a work through Paul, he had to do a substantial amount of work within Paul.  So today, I want to explore a possible scenario for Paul’s spiritual renewal during this three-year gap based upon my own experience.

Much like Paul, I intended my life and my career to be a ministry for God, and it could have been had I been doing so out of obedience, but my career choice was not part of God’s plan.   Over recent years I’ve pursued various ministry opportunities that just simply didn’t pan out.  Looking back, I can see that I wasn’t prepared to minister, and like Paul, I needed to be changed on the inside.  During my three-year gap, which has proven to be more like six years, I changed because I was humbled and I was healed.

PAUL WAS HUMBLED

So I believe Paul was humbled during this time.  It would have been completely uncharacteristic, and really non-human, if Paul were not entrenched in pride.  The training to become a Pharisee was rigorous to say the least, and Paul’s accomplishments to that end were no doubt admirable.  And considering the esteem he received from virtually everyone in his Jewish circles, even the most pious couldn’t avoid the pride of his position.  I’m sure he’d been told he was something pretty special a time or two.  In Galatians chapter one, Paul describes himself like this, “I was advancing in Judaism beyond many Jews of my own age and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers.”  For God to use Paul, his pride needed to be stripped.  Everyone who regularly enters the Lord’s presence cannot do so ridden with pride.

Here are just a few examples.  Joseph lost his position as favored son and found himself as a slave and prisoner before God used him.  He was humbled.  Moses lost his position as Egyptian ruler and found himself in the lowly position of a shepherd before he entered God’s presence at the burning bush.  He was humbled.  Isaiah found himself in front of God one day and his immediate response was, “Woe to me!  I am ruined!” (Is 6:5)   So whether the humbling process brings you to God, or whether God’s presence alone invokes a humbling, they go hand in hand.  Paul’s life afforded multiple opportunities for humility.  When writing to the Corinthians in his second letter, Paul said, “To keep me from becoming proud, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger from Satan to torment me and keep me from becoming proud.” (II Cor 12:7)

We’ve been talking for weeks now about how to plug into the Holy Spirit, how to abide in Christ, how to enter into his presence.  Pride prevents us from doing so.

Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise; give thanks to him and praise his name.  (Psalm 100:4 NLT)

This is talking about entering into God’s presence and describes the parameters of gratitude.  Can you truly be thankful while being puffed up with pride?  I’ll argue that the answer is no.  Being thankful is more than saying that you’re thankful.

Whatever is good and perfect comes down to us from God our Father. (James 1:17 NLT)

To truly be thankful, one has to recognize that we don’t get the credit for our life’s successes and that there really is no such thing as a “self-made man.”  All glory goes back to God.  Humility is essential for thanksgiving.  Humility is essential for his abiding presence.

PAUL WAS HEALED FROM HIS SINS

I also believe Paul was healed during this time.   There are two components to our healing, and the first is that we need to be healed from the effects of our own sin.  During this three-year gap Paul was healed not only from his physical blindness on the road to Damascus, but I think it’s safe to say he was healed emotionally too.  Here was a man who watched an innocent man stoned and ruthlessly searched for believers with the intent to destroy them.  Can you imagine the emotional baggage attached to that?  Don’t you know Satan wanted to torture Paul with the guilt of his past?  He didn’t become suddenly and blissfully ignorant of his transgressions when he was saved.  In I Timothy 1:15 Paul admits that he is the worst of sinners, yet he also speaks frequently in his letters of our freedom from sin through Christ.   He speaks much too often of freedom to think that he hasn’t personally experienced it.  No, Paul doesn’t forget his past, but he is clearly not wallowing in guilt either.

I know I’m going to sound like a broken record, but it’s important.  If God is going to use us, if we are going to live a life of heaven on earth, we must remain plugged into the Holy Spirit.  Experiencing freedom and healing from the sins we’ve committed is absolute in heaven, and it just goes with the territory when we are intimately connected to him.  Satan works against this process by trying to saddle us with regret and guilt, but we must commit every single one to Jesus.  Jesus said,

Come to me all who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest.”  (Mt 11:28 NLT) 

Listen, we’ve all screwed up many times.  And sometimes those screw-ups really affected other people in our lives, like our children and family.  Maybe they’re suffering through terrible things because of us, but repentance means that we pass the baton.  We were not designed to carry the burdens of our guilt.

PAUL WAS HEALED FROM THE SINS OF OTHERS

I believe Paul was healed from the sins of others during this time.   The second component of our healing comes when we forgive the sins that were inflicted upon us.  Freud didn’t develop the “blame mom” theory for nothing.   I don’t think you can show me one person who’s reached adulthood without some kind of pain or trauma.  As children we grow up with parents or guardians who sin (some dramatically more than others) and we go to school and work with people who sin.  There must come a time when we no longer allow these things to dominate and define us.  How?  A healing that only Jesus can provide.

Paul doesn’t talk much about his childhood and the hurts he grew up with, but I think it’s safe to assume he had them, and that he began the process of healing during this three-year gap.  Becoming a Pharisee alone held a lot of pressure.  I wouldn’t be surprised if his parents wanted this more than he did in the beginning.  It required a tremendous amount of training, memorization, and testing.  There were multiple opportunities for weeding out the less worthy, and Paul passed every test.   I wonder how many nights of sleep he lost worrying if he would fail.  What would dad think if he had to return home to assume the family trade?  What would the community think?  Would he be disgraced?

In my opinion, the fact that he was so blood thirsty before his conversion demonstrates a certain level of anger and anxiety within him, even though he tried to justify his actions with the law.  And I wonder if he experienced any anger when his eyes were finally opened to the truth and calculated the failure in his training.  Not only did Paul’s teachers miss the truth in the scriptures, but they also killed Messiah and tried to kill Paul repeatedly.   Yet he mentions his love for his Hebrew brothers too many times to believe he harbored any anger.  Whoever was to blame, whoever hurt him, I’m confident Paul forgave and allowed Jesus to shoulder the anger.

I want to take a moment to highlight forgiveness, because our inability to forgive is a giant open door to Satan.  The tricky thing here is that we’ve often become so accustomed to carrying the burden of anger, that we can easily become numb to it.  And if we do admit we’re hanging on to anger, it’s because we believe the lie that it benefits us in some way.  From my own personal experience, it’s been like peeling an onion.  With every layer I discover something new that requires my forgiveness.  I have even begun praying that God would reveal these things to me despite the pain I go through, so that I actively forgive, let it go, and heal.  Like any rehabilitation or therapy, the healing process is painful and must be endured to reach the strength and freedom on the other side.   Embrace it like you would embrace Jesus.

DON’T STOP THE WORK

So Paul’s story is not unlike ours.  He ultimately sang the song that God prepared for him.  He’s prepared a song for each of us to sing.  We look around at our life and our direction and maybe we don’t see the results we’re looking for, or maybe we’re not doing the work we’d like to be doing, but we must keep moving forward.  We just might be in our three-year gap, preparing for the purpose he’s designed.  We need to place our expectancy in God alone.  God spoke to Zechariah after the Jews returned to Jerusalem from Babylon.  Remember, they’d stopped their work on the Temple and God wanted to encourage them to keep moving forward.

Do not despise the small beginnings, for the Lord rejoices to see the work begin. (Zechariah 4:10 NLT)

So if you haven’t begun your work, begin.