Tuesday, March 20, 2012

"I Will Show Him How Much He Must Suffer..."

  I've been trying to meditate today on a verse that I came across in my tracing the origins of the Apostle Paul in my last post [1]. It struck me when I first read it some months ago, and it seems so apt for me to think about it now.

  It appears in the context of Christ's instructions to Ananias, one of his early disciples, regarding Saul of Tarsus after Saul had been struck blind while meeting Christ enroute to Damascus to persecute Christians there:

"But the Lord said to him, 'Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name." - Acts 26:9-11, ESV

   I have read the book of Acts a number of times over the years, but that tiny verse has escaped my attention till now. It's strange how these little things in the Bible just jump out at me in the middle of my personal circumstances, when my own heart is wrestling with God and asking the question: "Why, Lord?"

   I feel a certain twitch in my heart as I read this verse. Maybe it's because verses in the Bible on pain, suffering and hardship seem alright to read from a distance and nod the head in agreement with, until they're actually being applied to us. As a colleague at work thinking about his own experiences remarked yesterday, "It's alright as long as it's happening to someone else and not to you". Suddenly, I know what he's talking about.

   Looking back at the verse suddenly makes me feel sorry for the Apostle Paul, having found out something about the rest of his life. It's not fun when God allows pain and suffering for a purpose in someone's life, especially those who want to follow and obey Him. I suppose it must have been even less appealing for the persecutor of the church who thought he was doing God a favour, only to discover that he was in the wrong and now being recruited by Christ into the ranks of His persecuted.

   But those verses aren't really about Paul, or the disciple named Ananaias. I want to ask myself the question which is probably more important for me to think about at the moment - what do they say about God, and what can I learn from it?

   I was struck by God's mentioning of Paul as His "chosen instrument". It meant that God deliberately and purposefully picked and chose Saul of Tarsus, the terrorist, the religious zealot and Pharisee. Saul didn't chose God. God chose him, even when he was persecuting Christ and His church. God chose to meet someone who was an enemy of His gospel, and Saul had no say in the matter. He couldn't even raise a single line of protest. It says something about the overwhelming, unstoppable power and authority of God to do as He wishes in mine and everyone else's life. God has His say, and His way, all the time. He has the power and authority to pick and choose who He wants, to do what He wants, when He wants. As much as we like to think and talk about ourselves as being "captains of our ship", "masters of our fate", "in control", "self-actualization", "self-made man/woman", "confident", "assertive", "secure", "achiever",  the reality is that we delude ourselves in subscribing to that kind of thinking. It is an illusion, because it does not describe the reality of God, and the reality of the world that we live in.

   Thought I'm a firm and committed Christian believer, part of me feels uneasy thinking about that reality of God. I suppose it's because at the bottom of our sinful hearts, we want a "safe" God - a God who will leave us alone except when we need Him, not intrude into our lives, answer when we call Him, deliver what we ask of Him, when we ask Him and in the way that we tell Him to get things done. We want a God who will not protest, object, rebuke, get angry, discipline, judge what we do, and why we do it. We want a God who can only see into the areas of our lives that we want to show and share with Him, and doesn't know what we don't want Him to know or ask about. What we want, then is a "tame" God, a God in shackles, so that we can order and structure our world in the way that we want.

What we want, then, is not God, but "god". A servant.
We don't really want God, we want to be the God of god.
And that is called sin, and why we are called sinners.

   But God won't have any of that; He cannot be tamed. And so He picks Saul of Tarsus, to the shock of everyone else. He doesn't pick a pious, mild saint; He picks a terrorist. And then He goes on to pronounce what He intends to do with him: "I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name." (Acts 26:9-11, ESV).

    Chills run down my spine when I read this verse, for a number of reasons. The New Testament is replete with the story, suffering, sorrow and magnificent writings of Paul the Apostle. His is a great story to read about. But then the thought suddenly occurs - "What if God does that with me?" 

   As much as we admire and praise those who have suffered and experienced loss for Christ and lived lives of obedience and surrender, it doesn't feel that appealing when God brings it to our door, and demands obedience, promising us true joy in the process. Life isn't as rosy when God asks us to give up something we cherish and trust Him with our precious hopes and dreams for the future, when a spouse or child dies, when we experience financial loss, crippling health problems, and all the other myriad trials of life. 

   But yet there is hope, because Paul's suffering was not without purpose. It was for the sake of God's name, for the sake of God's glory. Paul's life, suffering and witness for Christ as an apostle took the Gospel into the heart of the Gentile world, and because of that we who are gentiles have heard the good news and been saved. Because God places the utmost worth on the glory and splendor of His name and His Gospel. In them I and everyone else who calls on His name has hope, for God's name and reputation are worth putting our trust in, and His Gospel is only good news. God has proven Himself to be good, true and faithful time and again in the lives of those who trust and hope in Him.

And I trust and hope in Him too.

- The Wisdom Seeker