I’ve spent a lot of time this week thinking about a Bible story that never was. Thank goodness it never was. We’re all the better for it. I was considering the rather dramatic conversion of Saul to Paul. This change is so dramatic I have to confess that when I was little I spent more than a little while thinking these were two separate people. Full stop.
First, what actually happened was this: When we meet Saul in Acts, he was notorious for persecuting early believers. His first appearance is a horrific one. He’s standing by at the stoning of Stephen, giving his total, brutal approval to the gruesome scene. When he’s first described in more detail, it’s not a pleasant image. We’re told, “Saul was uttering threats with every breath and was eager to kill the Lord’s followers.” (Acts 9:1) Simply put, Saul is in complete opposition to anything concerning Jesus, which is just about the most horrific place a person can be.
Saul starts traveling to Damascus with letters that could bring about the deaths of an unthinkable amount of Christians. Of course, God had other plans and before Saul knows what hit him he’s been just about blasted off the back of his donkey, had a rather intense one on one conversation with Christ, and lost his sight. He has three long days to consider the course of his life thus far and I can only imagine how uncomfortable those three days were.
Then Ananias lays his hands on Saul, prays, and his vision is restored. “Then he got up and was baptized. Afterward, he ate some food and regained his strength.” (Acts 9:18-19) And just like that, Saul made a new start.
But what I keep wondering is what would have happened if Paul didn’t get up?
We like to convince ourselves that we’re good at giving ourselves grace, but truthfully most of the time we are absolutely terrible at it. I’ve seen Christian’s with deep wells of faith forgive others for horrible things, but refuse to release their own mistakes.
We may claim it’s repentance. We may claim that we’re policing ourselves so we don’t make the same mistake twice. But if we hold on to the statistics of our past failures so tightly we block out the next step God is calling us too, we aren’t being repentant at all. We’re just drowning ourselves in self-pity.
There is a big difference between repentance and wallowing and we have a responsibility to be aware of that difference.
What’s the difference? Repentance always comes with a next step. It acknowledges every awful and horrible bit of the past mistakes without shying away from them, but it doesn’t leave it there. It offers a way out to something better. A proper model of repentance acts as a response to salvation. It garners positive action that makes a start at putting the wrongs of the past behind you. Wallowing offers no solutions. It sits you in a dark corner and yells obscenities at you. It never offers you solutions. Instead, it invites you to camp out right where you are because it’s a thousand times easier to stay on the ground when you’ve been flattened. Stay on the ground. It’s easier there. And wallowing is right. It is easier to stay on the ground, but it’s not worth it.
What if after Saul’s vision was healed he’d kept his eyes clenched shut because he didn’t want to face all of the horrible things he had done? What if after his conversion he spent all his time feeling wretched about the life he’d lived before? What if he just never left the four walls of the house he’d been taken to in his blindness?
The possibilities are sobering. Never mind the chunks of text that would be missing from our Bibles, think about the people in Paul’s world. Think of the chances he would have missed to evangelize masses and how much of God’s story he would have missed out on. God would still do what he planned to do, but it would have happened without Paul in the picture. That’s not a version of the story I care to know.
We run that same risk. We all have horrifying mistakes and acts in our lives. Things we wish we could blot out or never be reminded of again. Things that have knocked us down by the sheer weight of their consequences. We all spend time sprawled on our backs with the temptation to wallow ringing in our ears. But we can’t afford to stay there. We just can’t. At some point, you still need to stagger back to your feet and keep moving forward. If you don’t, you’re not only keeping the problem of who you were alive, you’re feeding it little pieces of yourself as well. And I’ve never known something as voracious as a problem to be appeased by a few bites.
We do not have the luxury of wallowing.
Your time on this earth is far too precious to be held captive by the mistakes of your past. Captive certainly isn’t the word God had in mind when he sent Jesus to save us in the first place. We were not saved from one prison so we could lock ourselves in our own. We are meant for more than that.
We are meant for than a future spent keeping the fear of your past mistakes well-fed and missing out on the beauty and wonder of God’s redemptive story. If God’s willing to call us his children and send his son, the least we can do is believe that he meant it. This wasn’t a flippant plan. He knew all of your mistakes before you made them and still sent Jesus for you. He’s given you grace. He keeps giving you grace. He will not stop giving you grace. What we do with that information determines the part we have to play in His story.
Paul picked himself back up off the ground. You can too.
Let’s find some joy,