From Saul to Paul
God desires all souls to be part of His flock, regardless of how far they have strayed. He even yearns for the salvation of the wolves that devour His sheep. We see this in Saul who later confessed that he “persecuted the church of God beyond measure and tried to destroy it” (Gal 1:13). In fact, God sought Saul personally and even appeared to him while he “was still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord” (Acts 9:1).
Upon hearing the Lord call him by name (Acts 9:5), Saul trembled and immediately fell to the ground. The Divine light blinded him but revealed the great darkness in his heart – it helped him see his own sins and weaknesses. All the men who journeyed with Saul heard the voice, but only he was able to discern every word. Thus, we can say that it was a personal encounter for Saul who accordingly considered himself as one who is chosen by God. “Last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared also to me.” (1 Cor 15:8) This special encounter also helped him realize God’s plan for salvation, accept the incarnation of the Divine Word, confess His Deity and personally experience His power. Thus, St Augustine spoke of St Paul saying: “His eyes were shut to the vanities of this world, yet his insight was enlightened. What was once a vessel for perdition became a chosen vessel of God.”
It’s hard to imagine the drastic Saul to Paul transformation. How can a notorious persecutor of Christians preach the very Name he sought to destroy? How can one who sought to demolish the church, pray and weep for its growth for many years? How can one so determined to torture, kill and torment Christians, eventually die for Christ’s sake? How is this possible? What triggered this radical transformation?
We cannot deny that none of this would have happened if the Lord didn’t appear to Saul. Thus, what triggered this magnificent transformation was a personal encounter with Christ. The same applies to our own lives. Too often we rely upon our own strengths and power – as if we can put an end to our sins and bad habits on our own. But the truth is, we can’t. The Lord clearly told us: “without Me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5) Thus, we need to earnestly seek the Lord for healing and change – only He can transform us.
It is also important to note that Saul could not have ascended to the work of the Apostles, without first falling to the ground and bowing in contrition. He was blinded that he may feel in need of someone to lead him by the hand. Saul, who once thought of himself as mighty and capable of destroying the Church, experienced weakness and utter helplessness. He entered Damascus, not haughtily but silently. He felt in need of the rich grace of God and the guidance of the Holy Spirit to start a new life. This was a very humbling, but necessary experience – not only for Saul, but for every Christian. Thus, we see that humility and repentance are essential cornerstones of the spiritual life and service. The humble confess their weakness and do not rely on their own wisdom, but the power of God. Unfortunately, we often complain that there are too many disputes in our services and that the servants are not co-operating together. Could this perhaps be a sign of pride? Although St Paul was given the honorable rank of an Apostle, he was very humble and considered himself “the foremost of sinners” (1 Tim 1:15) and “the very least of the apostles” (1 Cor 15:9). How many of us can dare say we have such humility?
The Lord told Saul to go to Damascus to learn the way of salvation through the Church. However, God did not wait for Saul to go to Ananias but rather instructed Ananias to seek him. In this we see the beautiful image of a loving Father running up to His son with arms wide open, ready to embrace him and welcome him into His flock. The Lord appointed Ananias to guide Saul that he may not fall into the trap of self-sufficiency and teach us the importance of obeying the instructions of the Elders. St Augustine says: “Let us beware of such dangerous temptations of pride, and let us rather consider the fact that the Apostle Paul himself, although stricken down and admonished by the voice of God from Heaven, was yet sent to a man to receive the sacraments and be admitted into the Church.”
The Church in its wisdom, likewise appointed for us confession fathers, spiritual guides and servants who are much more experienced than us in the spiritual life, to guide us. After all, it seems very logical for a person desiring to climb a mountain for the first time to go with a companion or guide who is familiar with the route. Yet, how often do we try to walk through our spiritual lives without seeking the guidance of our spiritual father? Many of the desert fathers used to say that a man “needs only to entrust his entire will into the hands of his father. Then he will be blameless before God, for God requires nothing from beginners as much as self stripping through obedience.”
But after all the harm and pain he inflicted upon the Church, how could Paul possibly call himself an Apostle and bondservant of Christ? How was he freed from the guilt of his past mistakes… wasn’t he ashamed to look into the eyes of those he once sought to destroy? Perhaps he even killed some of their loved ones!
No doubt, the enemy of good did not relieve the new believer from such attacks. However, St Paul did not allow such feelings to hinder the spreading of the gospel. In Philippians 3:13, St Paul mentions the secret to his power after his transformation – “but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead”. We too need to learn how to move past our sins and mistakes after we confess them. In the book of Isaiah, God said: “I, even I, am He who blots out your transgressions for My own sake; And I will not remember your sins.” (Isaiah 43:25) If God wants to forget our sins, why should we keep remembering them? I don’t mean that we shouldn’t use them to learn from our mistakes but rather quickly confess them and then not allow them to hinder the spreading of the gospel or stop us from serving.
St Paul’s transformation depicts the power of God who can take a fierce wolf and transform it into a docile sheep that longs to be slain for His sake and suffer for the rest of His helpless lambs. It serves as a beautiful reminder that no matter where we are right now, there is hope. God’s power is limitless – He can transform us, use us, work through us – take us through an extreme makeover… All we have to do is ask!
Glory be to God forever. Amen