From Loss To Gain | Lessons From The Conversion Of Paul For The Covid Season

Introduction: Living In Times Of Disturbance

There is no doubt about it that the world is going through what is a season of profound loss related to the pandemic – a severe disturbance with which our generation has been faced.

It could be said that Covid hit many of us like a “blinding light” – a moment of shock and awe that converted us from one state of being to another almost overnight – a moment that currently keeps billions of human beings around the world reeling in bewilderment wondering “when will this end?”

Before I continue, let me say that I don’t believe that Christians should utter even one quick or pat answer related to why Covid has impacted the planet the way it has (I agree whole-heartedly with N.T. Wright’s article for Time in this regard). In the following, while I connect our current situation with Paul’s moment of conversion, I am not saying that Covid has been
“given” by God in the same way Paul received a divinely-bestowed blinding light.

What I am saying is that both instances are a disturbance of what we have known and relied upon – and that God has business to do in the heart when the tumult begins.

I believe we have been given an opportunity to mature in faith, love, perseverance, compassion, and hope in this relentless season of cultural difficultly. Add to Covid the racial-reconciliation opportunities that have presented themselves so graphically as of late, and the opportunity to become “converted” to a new way of being human is increased.

Triggers & Transformation

What is this season triggering in us? Many of us are feeling our own personal losses more significantly, and more overwhelmingly, in this time of cultural stress. The fight-or-flight part of our brain, the amygdala, swells and fires in times of stress, while our prefrontal cortex shrinks due to cortisol overload in the body.

What we knew and counted on is now mysterious and undependable in light of an invisible virus impacting our daily lives in unique and strange ways. In times of disturbance and prolonged stress, our sense of the negative, of loss and anxiety and fear and apprehension, is often heightened. We should not think for a moment that the internal anxieties we are feeling – experiences that seems so very personal and subjective – are not fed by the fuel of the wider anxieties quietly pulsing in society.

And it takes spiritual maturity, in the midst of the disruption, to both find and sustain God’s deep, gainful work going on beneath the surface of our lives.

From Loss To Gain: Lessons From The Conversion Of Paul

The Apostle Paul experienced a profound “disturbance” in his own life. While he didn’t experience a pandemic, he did go through a life-halting, personally cataclysmic experience in which he had the opportunity to lose one way of being human, to gain another way of being human. It was a watershed moment in his life.

And how he responded to that interruption has led to some of the greatest gains of human history.

From the moment of his conversion recorded in Acts 9, there is a fire-of-love that burns in the heart of the Apostle Paul that the Body of Christ has been seeking to attain for millennia. What sparked that fire, and what lessons can we learn about how great loss leads to great gain from the life of this foundational leader of the Church – lessons that can help us in such a time as this?

Acts 8:1-3; 9:1-19 give us key insights into the transformation of Saul to Paul; insights that can give you and I hope in uncertain times.

1 And Saul approved of their killing him. On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. 2 Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. 3 But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison. (Acts 8:1-3)

Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

“Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.

“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”

The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything.

10 In Damascus there was a disciple named Ananias. The Lord called to him in a vision, “Ananias!”

“Yes, Lord,” he answered.

11 The Lord told him, “Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying. 12 In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him to restore his sight.”

13 “Lord,” Ananias answered, “I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your holy people in Jerusalem. 14 And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name.”

15 But the Lord said to Ananias, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel. 16 I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.”

17 Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord—Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here—has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18 Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized, 19 and after taking some food, he regained his strength. (Acts 9:1-19)

One Man Emerges Another Man

In Caravaggio’s painting, The Conversion of Saint Paul, we see a stunned Saul at the feet of his horse (that most probably would have been a mule according to Wright’s book, Paul: A Biography), hands gripping his face in both shock and revelation.

The image, painted in 1600/1601, is striking; an angel restrains a man reaching out to help his fallen comrade, as if to show that God must have his full work in the man – let him be in his blindness and fallen state. Perhaps, in our times of uncertainty and knocked-off-our-horse bewilderment, angelic messengers are restraining others from rescuing us from God’s deep work within?

No matter the historic answers that have come from both believing and unbelieving sources (psychologists as well as historians) as to what happened on that Damascus road, one thing is clear – one man emerged another man. Or, to put it more faith-fully, one man emerged a fuller, truer, deeper, more authentic, more whole man.

What happened in Paul’s conversion that can help us navigate our own “blinding light” experiences of loss today?

3 Lessons We Can Learn From Paul’s Conversion

  1. Sometimes we have to lose our sight to gain a vision (v. 8).

    Paul is blinded in his encounter with the Lord of history – and the Lord at the center of the Jewish narrative – in this revelatory encounter. He falls from his horse, deprived of physical sight, as under the surface the eyes of his heart are being opened.

    In the current losses you feel are occurring in your own life, is there a sense in which you feel blind, groping around in the darkness, pained and burdened by your lack of clarity and vision?

    It is in these obscure and obscuring times, uncertain in every respect, that we must work the muscles of our interior eyes.  We must squint until our eyes adust to the darkness. The Scripture says that we must, we simply must, become people who learn to “live by faith and not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7). That learning happens only with training and practice. Now is the opportunity to walk by faith.

    In other words, we must go through seasons of darkness that compel us inward, burrowing deep into our intimate friendship with Christ, where we learn to perceive His deep work with the eyes of our spirit rather than guess His actions with the eyes in our head.

    In this season, as my own issues with health are exacerbated and my anxieties are inordinately high, I am daily asking the Holy Spirit to open my eyes within me to perceive His presence and love, that I might believe what I see with the eyes of faith more than I believe what I see with the eyes of sight.

  2. Sometimes we have to lose our time to gain eternity (v. 9).

    Paul spent a few days in Damascus, presumably on Straight Street, a fascinating name for a street hosting one of the greatest “unbent road” recipients in human history. Galatians 1:17 tells us that Paul then goes on to spend 3 years in Arabia (or more specifically, the Nabatean kingdom), where he is instructed by the Holy Spirit – the Spirit of Jesus Himself – in the faith.

    Only then does he go on to meet Peter and James, and to become known by the Judean churches. While Paul did take his revelation and “run with it” immediately after his conversion, it is clear that he first needed a few days to soak in his new revelation of Jesus, and then after preaching in Damascus. Three years doing what? Three years re-learning, un-learning, and learning the faith from Jesus Himself.

    In the current losses you are experiencing, perhaps you feel as though you are losing time, precious time, that you could be spending being more fruitful, more passionate, more useful than you feel you are being right now. In these times of obscurity, of waiting, of acting in supreme patience, your heart is being trained – and neither you nor I want to miss that growth by pushing past it or complaining our way to its end.

    In waiting, we can be losing layers of our false selves – fear of what other’s think, pride in our own abilities, dependence on finances for security, indecision when it comes to loving the unlovable, anger in relating to our friends, spouses, and children, and more.

    The passage of time may feel as though it is useless and harmful – but if we lean into our loss, and sit at the feet of Jesus within it, we will learn lessons about ourselves and how God works that will penetrate not only our hearts, but the hearts of those to whom we are being prepared to be sent in this next season of life.

  3. Sometimes we have to lose our job to gain a mission (v. 15).

    To be honest, I’m not sure how this works. But I believe it does, and we must be a completely surrendered disciple to experience the reality of what happens when we lose our job (metaphorically or actually).

    Paul lost the job he (thought he) had been training his whole life to do, and found that his current job was actually a mere foundation for the greater work he would do of founding the churches of Jesus Christ – a calling for which God intended him from before time began.

    Paul’s business card changed in a flashing instant, from Christian-Killer to Beloved-Son, and his personal purpose statement was upended from top to bottom.It could be said that instead of Paul taking ahold of a mission, a Mission took ahold of him! And when we are taken ahold of by Love? Well, that is the chief end of humankind.

    We set out to change the world, and instead God is interested in changing us. I have lost a few jobs in my lifetime, and each time I had done nothing wrong that precipitated the loss. Despite my friend, I have seen in the rear-view mirror how the Father was at work behind the scenes in each circumstance, inviting me, as Parker Palmer put it, into “work I needed to do” (Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak, p. 99).

Conclusion: Loss Leads To Gain In God’s Economy

When you are faced with loss, there are many responses that may come naturally, but are unhelpful to making you more whole in Christ. Like Paul, embrace the loss and ask God to reveal the gain-opportunities with which you are being presented.

And as we together face the losses that are coming with this ongoing Covid-reality, I would encourage you, like Paul, to…

  1. Accept the new, revelatory vision you experience, of both God and yourself, as your new perspective,
  2. Accept that today is the perfect day for new beginnings of love and character, and take the opportunity to grow in virtue, and
  3. Accept the renewed mission that has taken ahold of your heart – a Christ-powered, love-infused sense of purpose that keeps the Good News of Jesus’ plan central – right where it should be.

Like Paul, our losses, felt more deeply and harshly perhaps in this time of cultural stress, can lead to some of the greatest gains of our lives. We don’t want to miss this opportunity to transcend fear and anxiety, and to gain the unseen strengths of spiritual adaptability, Christ-like character, and love-infused ways of relating to those to whom God is giving us.

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