Little details in familiar stories can make a big difference. Consider the story of Paul’s conversion.
I’ve read or heard the story of Saul/Paul’s conversion (Acts 9:1-19) many, many times, but noticed something new this time that I’ve been thinking about.
The voice of Jesus tells Saul, “But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” Saul, now blind, goes to the city and waits. And waits. And waits. “For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.”
I’ve never had a Damascus Road experience, but I’m pretty sure if I did I would expect things to start happening pretty quickly. I would not expect to wait three days in the dark.
But God waits three days before giving Ananias his vision to go find Saul at a house on Straight Street. That’s assuming, of course, that Ananias went right there. I have this somewhat irreverent habit of turning Bible stories into dark comedies, so I imagine Ananias waking up three days later like “I feel like I’m forgetting something,” or spending multiple days wandering around Damascus saying “Straight Street? They’re ALL straight!” But let’s assume Ananias is both punctual and well-oriented. So it wasn’t his “fault” for the time lapse. It was God’s. It would have been no thing at all for God to arrange for Ananias to meet Saul right as he entered the city.
(While this is the first time I’ve noticed this detail, I have noticed Straight Street, and it has always bothered me. It sounds like what a ten-year-old does when they’re trying to write a fantasy novel and they have to make up a name for a street. I say this as a former novel-attempting ten-year-old.)
So why did God make Saul wait? It was so agonizing for Saul that he neither ate nor drank, and I wonder if he found himself questioning whether or not he had really heard a voice at all. Imagine being newly-blind, unsure if the voice you heard was the Lord of Heaven and Earth, and unsure if you would hear that voice again.
There is one potential answer in the text: God tells Ananias, after Ananias objects to God in a pantheon “I’m going to tell God how to do God’s job” moment, “I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” Perhaps Paul’s three days of no food or drink (which would have, by the way, almost killed him) was the beginning of this school of hard knocks. But I don’t think it’s as simple as that. Paul lists his hardships in 2 Corinthians 11, where it’s clear that this suffering was a lifelong deal. I think God would’ve gotten the point across without the three days of blindness. It’s a little reckless of me to parse the language, not knowing Biblical Greek (maybe my brother can help me out), but I wonder, too, if Luke would’ve recorded God’s words as “I myself am showing him how much he must suffer,” rather than the future tense, “I myself will.”
So if we don’t know what the point of making Saul wait was, I’ll suggest three things we can learn from this.
It was part of the conversion process. Our shorthand reference to Saul’s conversion is The Damascus Road, but the conversion is hardly done en route to Damascus. When Ananias finds Saul, Ananias lays his hands on Saul, filling him with the Holy Spirit and triggering the major WTF “something like scales fell from his eyes.” Saul’s sight is restored, and he declares his faith through the sacrament of baptism. Conversion for Saul wasn’t, it seems, done in an instant.
We often imagine and recount our lives as series of life-changing moments, perhaps nowhere more so than religion, faith, and spirituality. But the Bible, full as it is of holy shit moments, reminds readers again and again that God is in the still small voice, the gleanings of grain, the holding of hands. Perhaps we will, at some point in our lives, have a Big Moment, or receive a Sign, or witness a Miracle, but those things are means – not ends.
Saul’s humanity acts within God’s sovereignty. There’s a little detail, a little clue, at the end of this story that helps illustrate my point here. “Then [Saul] got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.” Saul regained his strength after taking some food, which happened after he was baptized, which happened after the scale things, which happened after he was filled with the Holy Spirit. So, what, does the packaging for powered Holy Spirit have a disclaimer “Does not restore strength”? He was filled with the Holy Spirit, which is, mind you, literally God, and he was still hungry?? Apparently. Maybe this is Luke being a skeptical physician and making sure to include this detail because surely the Holy Spirit is low-cal and low-carb, and, well, he’d be right. We don’t live on bread alone…but we still need bread. This is not to say God can’t grant humans superhuman abilities at times – there’s that Samson fella, and Jesus fasted for 40 days and still beat Satan in a rap battle – but it appears that God works in humans through our humanity. We see this in Saul’s physical need for food, but I think also in his spiritual metamorphosis.
Perhaps Saul needed the three days to do some soul-searching, find himself, and whatever other somewhat useful cliché applies. He needed three days to think of the people he had arrested, to remember Stephen’s face as he was stoned to death, to reexamine all his vast knowledge of the scriptures to see if he had missed the point. I imagine these sorts of things are all he really thought about – I don’t get the impression he was into sports or sex or fine dining. Maybe tents. He might’ve thought about tents. Whatever it was, he had plenty of time to think and to feel without hearing the Voice. Perhaps in Saul’s own human agony, his ruminations, his meditations, his heart was being prepared to accept Jesus as Lord.
I am not getting into a free will debate today, but I do think that we might be, at times, a little too rigid in our notions of God’s irresistibility. God might not zap people into belief without their consent so much as set up events around them to make sure they get to God, kinda like how Bart-Eye engineered Harry Potter’s victory in the Triwizard Tournament, yah know? Maybe God doesn’t just go around shooting people with Cupid arrows to make them fall in love with God. Maybe God at work in the world and in our hearts looks surprisingly human sometimes.
Saul had to search for God in God’s absence. After his supernatural encounter with the voice of Jesus, Saul would have suddenly felt God’s absence in those three dark days. By day three, he might’ve wondered how long he was going to have to wait before hearing or feeling God so acutely again. Based on his letters, it’s clear that for much of his life he felt a very strong connection to God, and probably received divine revelation more often than just about anyone in the history of the Church, but in 2 Corinthians 12 he writes that after a divine encounter, he received a “thorn…in the flesh,” and while debate abounds about what this was, it’s clear that, for a time, he was held at arm’s length from God, suddenly unable to access visions and revelations from the Lord. Though he appealed to the Lord three times to have this thorn taken away from him, God would not. I would guess that, during his three days of blindness, Saul repeatedly reached out to the God of his people – the Jewish people – and to the voice that identified itself as Jesus, begging for revelation.
Feeling God’s absence – though God is never really absent – is part of faith. Examples abound in the Bible and in Christian history, the most famous example probably being Teresa of Calcutta. God made Saul go three days in the dark, and if that could happen to Saul, it could happen to us. And that’s okay. We should continue to seek God, even in the grief – the agony – that can come when not feeling God like we once did. It’s the lesson of Holy Saturday, and while the hope of Easter Sunday should, ultimately, be the rock on which we stand, life is maybe more often than not more like that Saturday of uncertainty. It is often a dream deferred, a birth overdue, a sleepless night. One day, if our eschatology is true, we’ll be totally satisfied by God every moment of every day. We’re not there yet. We can’t be.
I came to the above conclusions because I thought a little more about a verse I’ve read a dozen times but hadn’t – until now – really thought about. So my final thought here is that rereading is a good thing to do, and not just with the Bible (but, of course, especially with the Bible). Works of great complexity (which are sometimes also works of great length) reward rereading as readers find something new each time through – sometimes because a text can resonate differently depending when in life we read it. I reread The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion about once a year for just such reasons – I will not ever cease to find new things. I’ve read every book of the Bible at least once, and there are some passages that are so familiar that sometimes I roll my eyes at reading or hearing them again. But there’s always something more, and experiences like I just had reading Acts 9 remind me of this. Those scales continue to fall from my eyes and I’m drawn towards the Lord who sometimes seems so distant.
Forth now, and fear no darkness.
Soli Deo Gloria