Ever tried to peel one of those tough onions? You know, the kind that takes the very tip of the knife to pierce through that outer layer of skin? Tough exteriors always make me wonder what conditions must have been present for that outer layer to become so thick.
Saul the Pharisee needed the sharp, pointed rays of Love’s light to effectively penetrate his tough exterior. His entire life had been spent layering coat after coat of do’s and don’ts onto his sterling resume’. No one pushed him any harder toward upholding the letter of the Law than he pushed himself. Since there always seemed to be more to learn and more to do, he floundered constantly in a sea of introspection. The more he judged himself, the more he judged others. Pointing out flaws in the lives of others kept his eyes off his own imperfections, glossing the sheen on his tough exterior.
But God kept His eyes on Saul. He knew exactly what it would take to turn Saul’s self-centered introspection into God-centered self-examination – three days of darkness! Let’s sit with Saul for a while and imagine his time in the darkness. Based on my experiences, it could have happened this way:
Saul sat quietly with his elbows propped on a small table in a house on Straight Street. The palms of his hands held his face, then ran across the top of his head, and back again. He wanted time alone to make sense of all that had happened. Yet, no matter how much he rubbed his crusty eyes, he saw no glimmer of light. His thoughts ran wild. “Could that have really been Jesus on the road? Will I be blind forever? If that was Jesus, then everything I’ve been doing for God has actually been against Him! Who can save me from this mess?” Saul did the only things he knew to do; he pondered Scripture, worshipped, and prayed.
He could see nothing with his physical eyes, but now he wished his mental eyes were blind as well. Face after frightened face unmercifully scrolled across his memory. Some crying and pleading. Some stoic and resolute. Because of Saul, they were all on their way to being punished or killed for believing in the One whom he had miraculously met.
Saul wondered, “If this man Jesus really is who He said He is then how could I have missed it? How could I have been so blind?” The irony in that last question caused him to pause and roll his blind eyes up to the ceiling. He fretfully rubbed his face again as he muttered, “Hmph! Blind indeed. I knew the Scriptures forward, backward, and sideways! I trusted them to save me! Now I’m finding out that they’ve been trying to point me to Jesus all along.”
Completely undone, Saul began to sadly hum a familiar tune; softly at first, then slowing adding the words. Music always calmed his soul. (Perhaps, he and King Saul had more in common than just their name.) As he sang, Saul moved away from the table, kneeled, and placed his face on the hard, stone floor. Tears dropped and puddled, but he managed to keep singing. The more he sang, the bigger the drops of regret that fell from his sightless eyes. That’s when he felt a touch and heard the voice again – the one from the road. A simple, yet profound question landed softly in Saul’s ears, “You know I love you, right?”
Believing now that Jesus was sent to him by God, he responded, “Yes, Lord. But do you know how much I love you?”
Though Saul couldn’t see Jesus’ face, he knew He was smiling by the tenderness of His touch and the inflection in His voice when he whispered, “You just need to rest now. We’ll talk again later. I have much to teach you.”
The coolness of the night air wrapped around Saul, and he made his way to the bed that had been prepared for him. As he lay there with eyes wide open but seeing nothing, he opened his hands and prayed loudly to the God he’d grown up with, “God, I’m sorry. I made honoring you more about proving my worth. I thought if I did more good things than bad I’d make it to heaven. I made everything all about me. I spent so much time thinking about following the rules and doing things perfectly that I ignored loving You and everyone else. I completely missed Your greatest act of love. You sent Jesus to demonstrate the love you have for us, and I missed it! Lord, teach me how to love You and how to love other people the way you love them.”
Eventually, Saul drifted off to sleep, and Jesus met him in his dreams. He explained to Saul that the only thing that mattered was faith expressing itself in love. It’s that kind of faithful love that gets rid of the old man and creates a new one better wired to love others. Jesus then reflected on the scene in the Garden of Gethsemane where He surrendered His own will to the Father. He told Saul it was that kind of trusting surrender that backs up one’s own personal faith. Even the demons believe that He is THE Messiah, but He wanted Saul to believe that He was HIS Messiah!
Jesus couldn’t help but take full advantage of this teachable moment, so He kept on teaching, “Saul, now that you’ve met me, I know you’ll learn to love me and follow my ways. Obedience comes naturally to those who truly love me. But, Saul, I know you, and I know you’re going to be hard on yourself when you make a mistake. That’s exactly why I came! I paid your sin bill in full. Completely! Let. Me. Love you.
I saw your face in my mind when I was hanging on the cross, and I just kept thinking about how much I love you. I set you free from sin. You couldn’t do that on your own. Accepting God’s love and my grace creates an overwhelming thankfulness that will keep you from wanting things that don’t honor God and aren’t good for you. Above all, please don’t forget, when the Son sets you free, you are free indeed! You and my Spirit are going to do wonderful things together, Saul! Now, sleep well, my son.”
Saul spent the rest of his dark days quoting and rethinking the many Scriptures he had memorized. With every passage, he became more and more amazed and excited to discover how each one pointed to Jesus. He sang hymns of praise to his God for leading him into His marvelous light by way of the darkness. His prayers turned more passionate than ever. God’s sharp point of conviction had finally pierced through Saul’s tough legalistic exterior. Whether God allowed his sight to return or not, he was sold out for Jesus!
Thank you, Jesus, for loving us enough to use whatever means necessary to draw us closer to you. Teach us how to find and accept the love we crave so that we can experience the overwhelming grace we need. Remind us to be patient in the process of finding more.
Not to us, but all for You!
In Jesus’ Name, Amen!
Next week, we’ll explore Paul’s years of retraining his brain and how that can work for us today.