Confronting Paul’s Freedom in Christ

Sometimes I wonder about Paul.

I’ve spent more time with his letters than perhaps any other part of the Bible except for the Gospels, and I always come away from them with a particular impression of their author.  I imagine him to be endlessly energetic.  Stern when necessary, but never cruel in his sternness.  Fair.  Passionate.  Driven by a sense of profound urgency.  Dedicated to spreading the word.  Honest to the point of awkwardness.  Demanding.

But I never think of him as being guilt-ridden.  Pathetic.  Anxious.  Inward.

The thing is, I always have some sense when I read through Acts that he ought to be.  That Paul ought to, in some way, perform guilt or sorrow in his letters for my benefit.  Because pre-Christian Paul (Saul at the time, but I’m sticking with Paul for the sake of ease) was a nightmare on two feet.  He was oppression and malice made flesh.  We’ve lost some of our understanding of the depth of his cruelty, I think, due to our retrospective knowledge of his salvation story, but he was awful.

He set about to destroy the Christian church methodically and carefully.  Acts says he went from house to house, dragging off both men and women to prison.  He is present for the stoning of Stephen and, lest we think he was reluctant to be involved in the process, the Bible offers us this chilling tidbit:

“Saul approved of their killing him.” (Acts 8:1).

Nor does this event – Stephen glimpsing the Son of Man at the right hand of God and forgiving his murderers as he dies – shake Paul’s resolve or seem to bother him in the slightest.  Afterward, he asks the high priest for letters permitting him to raid the synagogues, carting off any believers in attendance (Acts 9:1-2).  Please understand: Paul aided and abetted in the deliberate and methodical execution of innocent people because they loved the Lord.

And if I am honest, I will admit that some part of me is wary of Paul because…well, because he never seems to be – externally, in Scripture – bothered by any of this.  After his conversion he seems to go on his merry spiritual way, on fire for the Lord, willingly taking up the authority to lecture and teach other believers.  It’s stunning, isn’t it?

Often, when I read Paul’s letters, I wonder: did Paul ever struggle with guilt?  Did he ever think of Stephen’s radiant face, and Stephen’s forgiveness, and Stephen’s broken, mangled body?  Did he hate himself for approving of it?  Did he think of the horrified faces of husband and wives reaching for each other as they were separated forever, and carted away to prison and eventual death?  Did he think of children left behind?  Did he mourn those people?  Did he grieve?  Somewhere in the midst of his teaching and preaching was he haunted by remorse, by the sense that he was a fraud, by regret?  Did he ever look at himself admonishing churches and marvel that he had the gall to do it after the atrocities he’d committed?

Some part of me thinks that ought to be included.

We don’t really know.  The Bible doesn’t say.  We can guess, of course.  It’s possible that Paul’s “thorn in the flesh”(2 Cor. 12:1-6) was psychological and not physical.  Maybe it was his guilt or self-doubt that kept him “from becoming conceited.”  We know that Paul certainly did not run from his earlier sinful nature and his wickedness, and indeed acknowledged himself as “the chief of sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15) and referenced his own past to the Galatians.  It’s not hard to hear dark self-deprecation in his letter to the Philippians, either:

…as to zeal, persecuting the church; as to righteousness under the Law, faultless. (3:6).

I have no Scriptural evidence for this whatsoever, but I’m sure Paul did feel guilt, and sorrow, and pain over his past acts.  I have to believe that he did because I am a believer and I struggle enough with my own sins for which I’ve been forgiven, with guilt over things said and done and unsaid and undone.   I think most believers do, regardless of what we know about grace and forgiveness.  In my heart, I imagine that on certain dark nights Paul did think of Stephen, of those families, of the lives lost.  Perhaps he wept for them.

But if he ever did, the Bible doesn’t show us this.  And sometimes what the Bible doesn’t show us is just as important as what it does show us. Because if Paul’s story should hammer home anything to believers, it is this: your sins, however awful, will not hold you back.  Because they did not hold Paul back.  You need not wallow in who you were, or what you did, or how you failed.  That is the story that Acts and Paul’s letters tell.

Wherever you have come from to the Lord, there is work for you and your sins will not disqualify you for it.

We do a lot of talking about being renewed in the Spirit and covered by the blood and what that means, but Acts shows us what that means.  It means that a man can commit nightmarish atrocities – and that he can turn away from those to Christ, and that God can then grant him unimaginable authority and opportunity.  It shows us that the people harmed by that man – the believers who lost friends and family – can forgive those atrocities enough not only to embrace him but to advocate for him and to listen to and respect his teaching.

I hope you feel uncomfortable with that.  It is uncomfortable grace.  It is uncomfortable mercy.  It is divine.  It is beyond anything we can grasp on our own.  The human in us wants there to be a reckoning; I want there to be a reckoning.  We want Paul to have to pay some sort of cosmic price for the awful things he’s done, even if it’s only by displaying constant remorse and guilt for our benefit.  But that isn’t what Scripture wants to show.  What Scripture wants to show us is redemption.  And redemption means freedom.

In Paul’s letters, you won’t find anguished outward expressions of guilt or remorse over the sins he’s committed – none of the “rending of garments” that God has already declared he has no use for (Joel 2:13).  But what you will find, everywhere, is grace.  Romans 8 is my favorite chapter in the entire Bible.  It is a thundering, unbridled sermon on what it means to be free in Christ.

Therefore, there is now no condemnation…

But if Christ is in you, then even though your body is subject to death because of sin…

Who will bring any charge against those who God has chosen?  Who then is the one who condemns?

For I am convinced that neither death nor life…

Those are words that can only be spoken with conviction by someone who has felt them.  By someone who has confronted his own hideousness, recognized to what degree it separates him from God, and found himself rescued by divine love anyway.  Yes, I imagine Paul did sorrow at times over his past.  But grace swallowed that sorrow, and gave a wreck of a man meaning.

And so it is with us, too.

Wherever you started isn’t where your ending is.  Whatever has dogged you from here up to now, whatever regrets and sorrows you have, God is going to transform them into something amazing if you will allow it.  You don’t have to stay hung up on them or believe that they disqualify you from ever doing meaningful work for Him.  He permitted a fiery, life-changing and world-changing ministry for a murderer of His very own children; He will permit it for you, too.

God’s grace is uncomfortable.  Blessedly so.  Embrace it.

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