Some people never seem to change. We want them to change. They need to change. We pray for them to change, to stop hurting others, to believe in God, to repent.
But they stubbornly persist in their ways, and we tire of praying. What’s the point? we wonder. They’re never going to change.
And then, one day, they do.
All else being equal, most of the time, people change only by degrees, if at all. But in a world defined by the biblical story, all is not equal. God is on the scene and may take us by surprise.
In Acts 7, as Luke narrates the story of Stephen’s martyrdom at the hands of the Sanhedrin, we are briefly introduced to a man named Saul — the Pharisee who will soon become Paul, and whose apostolic exploits will dominate the book.
If one were to nominate characters in the book of Acts for the prize of Least Likely to Become a Christian, Saul would surely be a top vote-getter. He held the coats of those who stoned Stephen to death. I imagine him thinking Die, heretic! as Stephen “fell asleep” (such a lovely biblical euphemism for such a violent death). As Luke tells us,
Saul was in full agreement with Stephen’s murder. At that time, the church in Jerusalem began to be subjected to vicious harassment. Everyone except the apostles was scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria. Some pious men buried Stephen and deeply grieved over him. Saul began to wreak havoc against the church. Entering one house after another, he would drag off both men and women and throw them into prison. (Acts 8:1-3, CEB)
We’ll have to wait until the next chapter for the tale of Saul’s conversion. Here, the mention of Saul stands as an example of the persecution of the believers in Jerusalem. The apostles remained in the city, but others fled to outlying areas. Jesus had told his disciples that they would be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria (Acts 1:8) — he just failed to mention that the gospel would spread to Samaria because believers would be scattered by persecution.
But I’m getting ahead of the story.
Again, we’ll hear more about Saul in chapter 9. For the moment, I’d like to suggest that the story of Saul becoming Paul illustrates something important about how people change.
When we’ve prayed for someone to change, and change seems impossible, we may have in mind something like this:
We’re A, they’re B. We’re moving in opposite directions, and there’s a thick dividing wall between us. This is how we tend to see our enemies. We grow further and further apart, and the prospect of change diminishes as the distance increases. Thus, as the gospel spreads and the church grows, Saul becomes more angry and vehement: Someone has to put an end to these heretics! He runs from place to place to find more believers to drag away and throw into prison.
But sometimes, the situation may actually be more like this:
In some ways, we’re not moving in opposite directions, but in the same direction. There’s still a dividing wall between us, but somewhere in that seemingly impenetrable wall, God provides a door.
Saul is not simply an enemy of the church. He sees himself as zealous for the God of his ancestors. That zeal is what makes A and B similar. But there’s a wall between them: Saul simply cannot believe that a man who died as Jesus did could be his Messiah, and sees anyone who believes otherwise as a threat.
What Saul needs is for the Messiah himself to set him straight. That’s the door. Saul will walk through it, and come out on the other side as Paul.
Is there someone you’ve been begging God to change? Take a step back. Stop thinking about what you hate about that person, and start thinking about what God loves about that person.
Then pray for a door.