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.