What if St. Paul didn’t respond to God’s call in his life?
Too often, I assume that the saints would, naturally, follow God’s will in their lives. I mistakenly believe that it was easy for them–of course they responded correctly, they are saints.
Now we hold them to be saints, but they were not always so. They had free will and probably had many compelling reasons for not following God. It probably seemed just as inconvenient to them as it does for us at times.
St. Paul is bound for Damascus and Jesus intervenes into his life in a very dramatic way. The bright light, the physical blinding, and the clear voice all point to a powerful divine intervention. “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” What if, after this encounter, Saul instead returned to his original mission of hunting down the Christians? In many ways, it might have appeared to be a better life decision. Or he stops pursuing the Christians, but he doesn’t start to follow Christ.
Following his conversion, Paul goes off to immerse himself in the study of the Gospel. Then, he presented himself to the Apostles and they were hesitant to accept him. For a while, he is then considered a traitor by the Jews and someone not to be trusted by the Christians. When he goes on his journeys to preach the Gospel, riots will frequently spring up as he evangelizes. At one point, they pick up stones and hurl them at Paul, intent upon killing him. Dragging him outside the city, they leave him for dead. When his disciples surround him, he gets to his feet and continues preaching the next day. In the end, he will be beheaded in Rome, a death he underwent since he was a Roman citizen.
The Lord gave St. Paul the grace of an indomitable spirit, but that doesn’t mean that each movement was filled with absolute certainty. Perhaps some mornings, Paul woke up and was tired, not wanting to preach and be ridiculed yet again. Maybe as his feet pounded over miles and miles of Roman roads, his heart was constantly uttering, “Lord, come again. Lord, end this suffering. Lord, take me home.” In the spirit of St. Teresa of Avila, maybe St. Paul experienced the pain of being pummeled with rocks and as he pulled himself to his feet said, “Is this how you treat your friends, Lord? It is no wonder you have so few.” St. Paul was a dedicated and faithful evangelist, but that doesn’t mean the Lord surrounded him in constant reassurance or prevented any doubts from entering his mind. The beauty is that Paul chose Christ daily, even when it seemed foolish in the eyes of his friends and family.
These thoughts about Paul came to mind when I started to watch a video about him in preparation for one of my classes. The movie opened proclaiming what a great evangelist he was after encountering Jesus and the thought came to mind, “What if he didn’t answer that call?” The realization was similar to when I realized that perhaps in Old Testament times, God called other people, but it isn’t recorded because they didn’t say “Yes.” St. Paul had a free choice. Although God revealed Himself in an undeniable way, it didn’t require St. Paul to choose to follow Him.
My students received the assignment to write an imaginative story about either being a traveling companion of Paul or being a villager in one of the places Paul preached the Gospel. The goal of the writing was to consider how they would respond to his preaching and to think about what it would be like to experience those events first hand. Scripture isn’t a nice storybook about events from hundreds of years ago, but rather it is alive and applies to us right now. So the underlying question to consider is: how am I now responding to the compelling, radical message of the Gospel?
Familiarity with the message of Christianity makes it appear dull and commonplace. Yet it is anything but that. We preach of a God who loved so much that He entered into humanity so that He might pay the price to reconcile all of humanity with Himself. All of salvation history is God reaching out to humanity and working with our “Yes” to bring about transformation. God knows how we will respond but He never takes away our free will in order to get a “Yes.” And even if He knows we will refuse, He still asks and offers us a chance to follow Him.
The beauty of the life of St. Paul is not so much that God called him. God calls each of us to a unique mission that leads us closer to His heart. The beauty of St. Paul’s life is that he heard the voice of God and he responded with zeal. His fervent “Yes” opened the pathway for others to hear the Gospel and commit their lives to Jesus. May we, in this world that is thirsting for the Gospel in all of its truth and radicality, present the beauty, truth, and goodness found in the message of Jesus Christ. One that is compelling enough to sacrifice home, family, social status, and all worldly goods to pursue.
St. Paul responded wholeheartedly to God’s call in his life. What if we didn’t?