Saul’s life has certainly been turned topsy-turvy. On the road to Damascus, when a blinding light stuns him, he suddenly realizes that everything he thought was good was evil; everything he thought was evil has been revealed to be good. He suddenly understands that the God he thought he was serving actually regards him as frustrating and opposing the divine will! In Jesus’ incomparable Sermon on the Mount he says to his hearers: “If the light in you is darkness, then how great is that darkness!” Saul suddenly realizes that what he thought was light was darkness, and what he thought was darkness was light. Whereas everyone else saw his violent zeal and righteous indignation as signs of his spiritual certainty, he knows that his passionate energy has been misguided. A voice has thrown him into absolute confusion: “Saul, why do you persecute me?”
Saul in his passion is not so different from us. Our lives, too, are an amalgam of passions. We are passionate about our schools, passionate about our jobs, passionate about our marriage, passionate about our children, passionate about our church, passionate about our family, passionate about our politics, passionate about our sports teams and our hobbies. We are zealous in our pursuit of what we consider to be important, in essence our light. But does it ever occur to us that what we deem to be light is actually darkness? Does it occur to us that many of our superficial passions simply gloss over an emptiness inside us? Does it ever occur to us, as it occurred to Paul, that maybe we have been giving ultimate concern to that which is not ultimate?
I firmly believe that Baptist churches keep Krispy Kreme doughnuts in business. And I suspect that Krispy Kreme doughnuts may be an apt symbol for many Christians. Like those doughnuts, many Christians are sweet on the outside — but empty at their core. Do you ever stop to ask yourself the question, ‘What is at my core?’ Years ago I conceived the great ambition of establishing an inner-city Bible School for impoverished Charlotte children who didn’t have any real opportunities during the summer. I envisioned combining the resources of several churches who belonged to a small but influential interracial Baptist Association, and we were going to do forty days of Bible School – eight straight weeks! Craziest ambition I have ever attempted! The effort almost killed me. At every turn I encountered conflict and confrontation. I had parents accuse me of stealing their children’s shoes, had deacons accuse me of wasting the church’s money and my time, had churches refuse to participate because they thought the VBS site was too dangerous – or the kids were too dangerous! I was accused of trying to heighten my own ministerial profile or bring my church some advantageous publicity. I pondered all of those criticisms and charges, and one day I sat down in my office and asked myself a simple but probing question: “Why are you doing this?” I knew that establishing and administering this Bible School was not making my life easier, rather it was making it infinitely harder. It was nor burnishing my reputation, rather, it was dragging it through the mud. But in that moment I realized that I wanted to do something for the children in that city who had very few people to champion them. When I identified my core motivation, I realized that all of the conflict and criticism didn’t matter. I knew that at my core I was fueled by an ambition that was spiritual, noble, and contributing to the improvement and transformation of young lives in behalf of the Kingdom of God. What is at your core?
Saul in his darkness peers into his core honestly and realizes that the motivating factor in his life is anger – anger at himself. Saul’s zeal, his passionate oppression of others, seems to reflect a great hatred of those he deems to be heretics, but he knows that at his core there is a profound self-dissatisfaction. Saul is dissatisfied with Saul. Why? Because he sees God as a merciless Lawgiver and Judge, and though he has spent his life trying to satisfy the demands of that Law and that Lawgiver, his efforts have not made him acceptable to God or to himself! All his seeming zeal against heresy is a reflection of his profound disappointment with himself. If you want to know why someone could move so quickly from being an oppressor of Christians to becoming a champion of Christ, realize this: at his core Saul knew that there was nothing but negativity. However, in those Christians whom he oppressed he saw a positive love for God. He envied those Christians and their positive passion for God even as he slayed them. In his darkness, Saul knew that those Christians’ positive energy and positive service to God served as an antidote to the self-loathing that was at his own core.
So many people feed mostly on negativity! So many people have no real positive energy in their own lives! They live to oppose those who innovate, who create ideas that are novel, visionary, and transformative. Lacking any positive energy within themselves, such people thrive on opposing others. Of course, there is value in criticism. Critics have their function. But often people’s criticism is simply derivative, trying to squelch that which is original and positive. There are a host of people who view life by saying, ‘Let someone else form an opinion or suggest an idea, then I will rise in opposition. That’s the only way I know what I believe.’ But anger is not a healthy core. Negativity is an acid that burns into your soul. Negativity is not a sufficient motivation for living. Hatred of what we claim is evil is no substitute for adherence to what we know is good.
Saul knows there is no positive energy in him, so his life is thrown into confusion when the voice asks him, “Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Saul does not try to answer the question because he knows there is no good answer. Saul participated in the stoning of Stephen. At the time the act seemed logical and necessary to him. But now he has heard Christ asking, “Saul, why are you persecuting me?” and the action that seemed logical and necessary then now seems foolish and shameful. Over the course of a long counseling career I have asked many people who have authored destructive and foolish actions, “Why did you do that? What was your reasoning?” Often, their answer is silence. Sometimes the best they can manage is, “It seemed like a good idea at the time.” The killing of Stephen may have seemed like a good idea at the time, but in response to Jesus’ question, “Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Saul can now give no answer. In his persecution of the people of the Way, Saul has been skating on psychological thin ice, and we cannot be surprised when he falls through, with devastating results. How many of us are skating on psychological thin ice, yet not expecting to suffer the inevitable consequences of that risk? You might think you can do so with impunity, but that is not the way life works. And when you fall through, you will ask yourself, ‘Why did I take that risk?’
For all of the astounding good that he accomplished, the great theologian Martin Luther was prone to periods of deep depression. During one of his darkest moments Luther confessed to hearing the voice of God saying to him in essence, “Martin Luther, you are going to be buffeted, bruised and beaten. You will experience conflict and controversy at every turn, but know this: ‘You shall live.’ “ Luther said that he emerged from that depression with the sure conviction, ‘You shall live.’ That’s exactly what happened to Saul who became Paul. The voice that confronted him on the road to Damascus would eventually say to him, ”You are going to become my apostle to the Gentiles.” This command meant that his life would become infinitely more difficult. Instead of being the persecutor, he would be the persecuted. Instead of throwing the stones, he would be receiving them. Instead of wielding the whip, he would be the one scourged. But inside, at his core, Paul had the positive conviction and certainty that he was now an apostle of the Light of the world. He was now a champion for the Christ. So, while on the outside his life was immeasurably harder, on the inside he knew an unquenchable joy. Saul, who soon would become Paul, heard the same word of Christ that Luther heard, ‘You shall live! You shall be buffeted and bruised and beaten, but you shall prevail. But you shall live!’ That word of comfort lifted Saul out of his darkness. I suspect the scales of blindness inside Saul’s soul fell before gracious Ananias came to touch him and remove the scales from his external eyes.
Theologians have a description for those times when our lives feel as if they have fallen into an abyss. They call such times the “dark night of the soul.” If you have ever experienced such a time, you will never forget it. It can have a definitive impact on your spirituality. As a seminary student nearing the end of my Master’s work, I can remember when I had no idea of what I should be doing or how God could use me. My entire future seemed to be a impenetrable abyss. In the wee hours of the night, thrashing restlessly in my bed, I cried out to God for guidance, for some sense of certainty, for some small bit of light – but none came. After hours of ceaseless anguish, I realized that I would have to be patient and allow God’s Pentecost moment to come to me in God’s own time. Some of you have seen pictures of me this week on Facebook holding my granddaughter. What you might not know is that her birth was a tenuous affair. There was a moment at her birth when the doctors feared she was stillborn. For a terrifying few minutes my son and his wife did not know if they were bringing a baby home from the hospital. But then the Ruah, the breath of life, entered her little body, and she was most certainly alive! That was a Pentecost moment for my son and his wife. There are times in every life when our ambitions are stillborn, and our hopes are frustrated, and our future is an abyss. And often these are times when we must wait in patience and hope for God’s Pentecost moments to come and find us.
I an not surprised that Saul who became Paul would one day write in triumph, “If anyone is in Christ, he or she is a new creature.” The old has passed away; the new has become. For Saul, his time in the darkness became the chrysalis from which he emerged as a positive force for God’s Kingdom. So, too, there are times when our own dark nights of the soul can serve as a chrysalis out of which we emerge as stronger, more energized, more committed servants of Jesus. Saul came to realize that God was not the merciless Judge and Lawgiver, but the Redeemer who summons us out of our darkness into light, out of death into life. That is what we hold to in our own faith, that whatever our moments of confusion and despair might be, still we trust that God’s Pentecost Spirit can fall upon us and move us from darkness to light, from death to life. We will not remain in confusion and despair. We can hear God’s voice of assurance speak to us, “You shall live! You shall live!”