The Apostle Paul may well be the world’s most famous convert. It’s not for nothing that we describe people’s “Damascus road” experiences or having the “scales fall from our eyes.” And as we read the ninth chapter of 1 Corinthians, where Paul declares, “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some” (1 Cor. 9:22), we might wonder whether Paul is a fake, ingratiating himself with all manner of people, in order that they might be enticed into becoming like him.
One of the greatest privileges in life is hearing from people we trust—from our intimates—how God is working in their lives. The single greatest work, that work that is most especially God’s, is the work of faith. It makes a difference to hear of how God is acting in the lives of our friends, of how he has revealed himself in a way that confers faith, because so much of what we hear in the guise of testimony seems to be about something else entirely.
What counts for testimony in the public sphere is so often less an account of encounter with God, even if the genre requires a nod to one, and more a story of a conversion from one culture to another, from one manner of life to a different one. Naturally, there’s truth to that transition, but such accounts get the emphasis perilously wrong.
In relationships of personal trust, stories of conversion can be about God above all, because the better we know people, the more we know our cultures to be outward things – at best, costumes, or at worst, straight jackets. In his encounter with Christ, Paul discovers his freedom from these constraints, and there’s plenty of evidence for how acutely he had felt them.
Remember that Paul was a zealous persecutor of the church. He was a man whose life had been defined by violent struggle to prop up a culture threatened to its core by what God had done in Christ Jesus. But there on the road to Damascus Paul met Christ and in the experience found forgiveness and freedom. He was forgiven for what he had done and freed from the very forces that had dominated and distorted his life.
Thus a man imprisoned by his customs was freed to sympathize with people unlike himself to the point that he became to them as one of them. Paul was a great apostle; in his service of Christ he never became an apologist for a culture, but was a constant preacher of the Gospel. His emphasis was foremost on God.
All too quickly our conversion to Christ can be obscured and supplanted by a conversion to a culture, a costume that imprisons us. That is the devil’s great seduction, because culture has a way of making us the chief players rather than God. When all the world’s a stage, life creeps at a petty pace. There may be sound and fury, but it signifies nothing.
Like the athletes of his day, Paul exhorts us to strip off everything superfluous and run! The forgiveness he experienced transforms his world from a place to strut and fret, to a race course on which to break free, to sprint home to the bosom of our heavenly Father.
It is the contest for which this world was created, that we might enact the story for which we’ve been given life, a story of love and reunion. May we like Paul find in our experience of Jesus the courage, the self-discipline, but above all the faith to streak through this stadium of life too many have mistaken for a theatre – home to our eternal dwelling place in God’s everlasting arms.