Paul - thank God for the silent years

The account, according to Paul, is that he was a persecutor of Christians, he converted on the way to Damascus whereupon he went off to Arabia, then returned to Damascus and spent three years there before going up to Jerusalem to "get acquainted" with Peter for two weeks. He sees no one else. (Oh, yes, James popped in and dropped off a home barbecue set he'd borrowed from Peter, but they only acknowledged each other with a cursory nod.) He then disappears into Syria and Cilicia for an undisclosed number of years - the silent years.

Luke is a bit more dramatic about the whole business. He doesn't just have Saul being a "persecutor of Christians," he has him witnessing the stoning of Stephen, approving of it while he attended to the clothes of the vicious mob. He has him "breathing out murderous threats against the Lord's disciples" as he makes his way to Damascus. On the way he has an astounding visitation from the Lord Jesus himself. He is struck blind and led by hand to Damascus, where he is called on by Ananias, "and something like scales fell from his eyes." He then spends many days in Damascus before falling foul of the Jews when he has to flee the city. He goes to Jerusalem where he spends some days "moving about freely, speaking boldly in the name of the Lord," before upsetting more people (this time the Greeks) and the brothers send him off to Tarsus for an undisclosed number of years - the silent years.

The church rejoices. Well, "it enjoyed a time of peace. It was strengthened...encouraged...and grew in numbers." I don't know whether there is any connection between Saul's departure and the church's elation, but it is a delicious irony that Luke should place the words so.

Those silent years are a mystery. Actually, those silent years are a godsend, because when nobody knows what went on, you can say pretty much anything happened.

For F. F. Bruce, Saul was preaching. When he went off to Arabia, he was preaching. When he went off to Tarsus, Saul was preaching, and probably establishing a church, or two, and doing more preaching etc etc. Which I'm sure says more about F. F. Bruce than it does about anything else. And, my fantasy says more about me, too, no doubt.

My Saul has to go and have a lie down for several years. In a darkened room.

You see, I don't think you can watch a man have his head staved in with rocks, and not have something uncouple deep within your soul.

Stephen was Saul's Messiah, but there was no way in hell Saul was going to see the risen Stephen, not after witnessing him die an agonising death. Much easier to go through a proxy. He wasn't going to get any healing for the wrong he had committed through his Israelite faith. God burst through his walls of resistance with a thunderous, "Deal with this, Cloakroom Boy!" and Saul dealt with the trauma in the only way he knew how. He tried to bury it deeper by getting busy. And even when it hit him like a bolt from the blue that this Jesus thing was absolutely right - that rule by law was not the way back to God - he just kept right on being busy doing that instead. The good news rushing in upon him, invigorated him. He was stoked, wired. He got so busy he became a liability.

What Luke conveys in a single wondrous event, a sudden revelation, was more likely a series of revelations. He continued to be "blind" for however many days he spent in Damascus, rushing around, blurting out this new-found belief. But, where was the repentance? Saul didn't even know the meaning of the word.

Towards the end of his stay in Damascus, when things have reached a humiliating level, Ananias visits Saul and says enough to help Saul see that all is not well. He encourages him to go to Jerusalem and talk to Peter.

The Extravert Meets With The Introvert
Paul records that he spent two weeks with Peter. Oh, to have overheard their conversations. Saul, excited, eager, pacing back and forth, pouring out his plans for the future, a possible mission to the gentiles. Peter listening sagely. No doubt they would have shared notes on their conversion experience, the revelation they both held in common - similar, but not the same. Eventually, one day, Peter raises an awkward but important matter.

"How did you feel, watching Stephen die?"

"What do you mean?"

"It must have been awful, seeing him suffer like that."

"I suppose so. But I was different then. I thought what I was doing was right. I was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers. And anyway, we have this, now."

"For God's sake, Saul, have you really changed at all? Is your heart so twisted up with bitterness and hatred that it has blinded you to your own callousness? I knew Stephen. He was a spiritual man, full of God's grace and power. I see his mother still in the city, and she hasn't stopped mourning..."

By this time, Saul is not saying anything because the shepherd, Peter, has turned a light on and shined it on a dark place in Saul's heart, and his knees are beginning to buckle, and he suddenly needs to go and have a lie down. In a darkened room.

Peter knew what it was like to stare into the abyss. He has been in anguish on more than one occasion. Doubtless he was at his lowest after he had denied knowing Jesus. He wept bitterly - and he hadn't even been complicit in murder, although he might have felt like he was. The difference with Peter is that when the full revelation rushed in upon him - when God pushed through the last walls of resistance, ie. his own guilt and shame - it was all about understanding that "Your sins are forgiven," and what that meant in his own life and relationship with God. Not so with Saul. He needed to go off and do some serious soul-searching. He needed to repent in the truest sense of the word. He had caught a glimpse of his own misery, but he would need to go a lot further before he could say, with any genuine confidence, "I am free from the blood of all men."

Study of a Work in Progress
It is a kinder, gentler Saul who returns to the fray several years later.
The patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. (2 Peter 3:9)
There is still a streak of vindictiveness in him; he still has a propensity for self-justification, and a tendency to rant, but then, repentance is an ongoing process. Perhaps Peter encouraged him in that regard: It was getting on to the road that mattered, facing in the right direction.

So, now Saul knew what it was to have an internal struggle. He had learned about the forgiveness of sins, and God's great mercy. It had impacted on his own life. He saw his own sinfulness. He was now able to talk about "putting off the old self," and being "made new in the attitude of your minds," because these were all things Saul had to deal with personally. He stripped off "Saul" and put on "Paul", if you want. He could only talk about "forgetting what is behind and straining towards what is ahead" because he appreciated that only by revisiting the past is it possible at all to let it all go.

That is what my Paul was doing in his silent years, and I like him a lot more for it. Thank God.