Conversion: blinding experience or still, small voice?

Mary Copping, 22 January 2017

Acts 19: 1–22; Matthew 19: 27–30

A definition of conversion to Christianity: it primarily involves belief in the Christian God, a realisation that one falls short of the holiness of God and belief that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. I think one can say that that describes Saul’s conversion – his Damascus Road experience.

In his conversion Saul came to the realisation that, though he’d thought his life was lived for God even to the point of persecuting Christ’s followers, in reality he was going against all that God stood for. Through God’s response to his question ‘Who are you, Lord?’ Saul must have begun to see that, in thinking he was being obedient to God by persecuting the church, he was actually proving to be an enemy of God. As Saul considers who is speaking to him and accepts God’s perspective on his actions, his whole thinking and focus in life are completely overturned.

Some say that the conversion of Saul is the most important event in Christian history apart from the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. If Saul had remained as he was, we wouldn’t have 13 of the 27 books of the New Testament and the early gentile conversion to Christianity throughout the known world. In biblical times, Saul’s conversion was considered so important that it’s included in full in the Bible three times in the book of Acts.

God certainly made Saul sit up and take notice in this amazing experience of divine light and the voice of God speaking directly to him. There are many times in the Old Testament when God did something very unusual, miraculous, to get people’s attention and to guide them into the ways he had for them to go. Moses stood by a bush which ignited and the angel of the Lord called out to him, telling him to take off his shoes, as he stood on holy ground. God needed Moses’ attention; he was commissioning him to take the Israelites out of Egypt, through the desert, to the Promised Land.

Jacob had a dream of a ladder reaching from the earth up to heaven and saw angels ascending and descending. And God spoke to him, telling him that he would give him and his descendants the land he was lying on and that they would be numerous, assuring Jacob that he would always be with him. After this experience Jacob said in awe, ‘Surely the Lord was in this place’.

Isaiah in the temple was given a vision of God full of light and angels, and he was commissioned to go and serve God.

Some wish that they could have one of these experiences of God, so that they could be surer of their Christian faith. But as one writer put it, we won’t all have that blinding experience.

Saul was chosen and commissioned as an apostle, which we are not. God had great things for him to do. Also, would Saul have listened to the still, small voice of God without this experience? Or would he have continued on his way, thinking that he was serving God with his persecution of Christians?

Sometimes God has to intervene when we are not listening to his still, small voice. Some people I know have had specific experiences of God. For myself, I was brought up in a family who were not practising Christians and continued in my life surrounded by non-Christians. As a teenager I went to a Billy Graham convention and went up to the front to give my life to Jesus, as the saying goes, but this soon petered out. Perhaps God continued to speak to me in his still small voice, but I was too busy and distracted to listen. However, in my thirties God gave me a powerful experience of his love that I could not deny, and from there my journey as a practising Christian began. Obviously, in my situation God needed to do something drastic to get my attention!

Some may feel that they haven’t had a dramatic experience, but have had a gradual conversion, having been Christians since childhood and coming to church ever since. Some may have experienced going away from the Christian faith that their parents taught them but coming back to it later and making it their own. Others may have had a Damascus Road conversion experience similar to St Paul. All are valid; all are personal; and, most of all, our experience is individual and vitally important to each one of us.

In his book Love’s Endeavour, Love’s Expense, W. H. Vanstone describes how God took the ultimate risk in giving up his power and giving us free will. To illustrate how God continues to work for good and transform this world he gives an example. He describes a group of children who started on a large model made with papier mâché and paint. This model took a long time to finish, and each evening the children would leave the wet, unfinished model. When they came back in the morning, it had dried and changed a bit, so they worked with what they had. Each morning they worked with the changed model, until one day it was completed, and it turned out differently from what they had first planned – but just as good, if not better. A wonderful picture of God working in our world. He works with our choices, bringing good out of bad, bringing about his ultimate purposes, often unseen, hidden. God is still working in this world, still transforming, in ways we cannot imagine.

God works with our choices, bringing good out of bad, bringing about his ultimate purposes, often unseen, hidden.

So as we come into a new era in terms of Brexit, and with Donald Trump inaugurated as president of the United States, and people around the world wondering how things came to this, has God finished working in the world? As Christians who are being continually transformed by God, are we to stay as despairing people wringing our hands? Of course not. God continues to convert, to transform: in our lives, in this world, he works with the choices that we make, the free will that he has given us. The God who sent his Son to die for us on the cross knows the pain and suffering of our broken world and is in it with us.

As Christians we must not stay in despair and fear. Ours is to be people of hope, people of prayer, people of positive action. As God transformed the life of St Paul, and through him transformed the lives of many people around the known world who became Christians, so God continues to transform our lives, our situations, and situations in the world.

God has not given up on the world. Ours is to pray earnestly for God to bring good out of difficult situations; ours is to act when we feel God wants us to act; and ours is to be a people of hope, not a people wringing our hands in despair. God is among the sin and pain of this world and continues to work here. As St Paul was transformed by God, so we are transformed by him to make a difference for good.

Words of a hymn by Vanstone, based on his book:

Here is God: no monarch he,
throned in easy state to reign;
here is God, whose arms of love
aching, spent, the world sustain.