People often talk about a ‘Damascus Road experience’. There was young Saul of Tarsus, enraged with Christians, so filled with hatred that he was hunting them down, house to house, city to city. On his way to Damascus from Jerusalem to see how many he could round up and drag off for trial and execution, a blinding light, brighter than the noonday sun we’re told, shone around him on the road. He fell to the ground and heard a voice asking him ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’
Saul replied ‘Who are you, Lord?’
And the voice replied ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.’
The rest, as they say, is history: Saul reminds blind for 3 days, and has to be led by the hand. He reaches Damascus where he sits in the house, fasting and praying, utterly stunned. A disciple called Ananias is sent to him by God, to pray for him so that he is healed. Ananias isn’t too keen on this, understandably enough – he knows this guy heads up the Jerusalem Gestapo. But he’s persuaded, and finds a very different Saul from the person he’s expecting. From now on, Saul (to become Paul) is to channel all that energy and drive into preaching the reality of the risen Lord Jesus.
The big thing about Saul’s conversion is that it turned his life around. It was a dramatic volte face. From being the persecutor, he became the persecuted – indeed at one stage he has to be smuggled out of Damascus to evade the unwelcome attention of his previous bosses.
There are so many people with conversion experiences, each very different from the other. C S Lewis was honest enough to admit that he was a very reluctant convert, who’d been fighting God off for a long time. For him it was not a sudden and dramatic experience like Saul’s, but a long and slow process of thinking and reading and talking to friends, feeling the presence of God coming nearer and nearer to him even though he didn’t want it, until one evening
“I gave in, and admitted God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England. …The Prodigal Son at least walked home on his own feet. But who can duly adore that Love which will open the high gates to a prodigal who is brought in kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape? …I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.” (from ‘Surprised by Joy’)
I never understand people who tell me patronisingly that of course I ‘need’ religion because I am inadequate in some way, and religion ‘props me up.’ Certainly there are untold riches in God, but he never makes any pretence about the fact that often, the way is hard and sometimes bewildering. Saul was told how much he was going not only to do for the sake of Jesus, but also how much he was going to suffer. It’s not an open door into an easy life – sometimes it’s quite the reverse.
But somehow, and I struggle sometimes to explain how, looking at things in the light of Jesus gives me a different perspective and outlook. I’ll never be a Saul or Tarsus or a C S Lewis, but I know my life was changed for ever, and many like me.