Real conversion

Hang around the church long enough, and you’re sure to hear some fairly dramatic conversion stories. People may describe themselves as utterly lost: at the mercy of their impulses, in the grip of an unbeatable addiction, or on an ever-worsening criminal spree. Somehow, they know life is veering toward a collision with fate, but they feel powerless to stop it, and give in to the inevitability of it all.

Then, miraculously, they meet Jesus.

It may come in the form of a still, small voice that whispers to the person in despair. It may come as a dramatic confrontation. Or a sudden rescue from death. But the encounter turns the person’s life around. Whereas before, they served only their own desires, after, they were dedicated to serving God.

These are dramatic stories of the Amazing Grace variety: one is lost and then found; blind to one’s own blindness, then suddenly able to see. 

This makes for rather compelling storytelling. Our own experiences of conversion may seem flat and lifeless by comparison — and when asked to “give our testimony,” we may be tempted to find ways to spice up the narrative, to make the experience more dramatic than it really was.

This may especially be the case where it’s not clear that there was really anything that could properly be called “conversion.” We may buy fire insurance, after all, without believing for a second that fire is anything more than a distant and abstract possibility. The attitude is,  Hey, it doesn’t cost much, and it’s better to be safe than sorry.  Belief in Jesus is simply added to other beliefs without changing them, and life goes on largely as before, albeit with a few more hours devoted to church.

That doesn’t sound much like “conversion.” It sounds more like a religious self-improvement program.

Don’t get me wrong. I have no intention of claiming that one kind of conversion story is valid while another is not. Some believe that conversion should be sudden and dramatic, and point to the experience of Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus.

But Saul’s story is unique. I would guess, for example, that of the thousands who believed after hearing Peter preach, few if any would have shared Saul’s résumé.

Nor is Luke’s intent in the book of Acts to write a “Great Man” biography of Paul. No, the hero of the story is God, who sometimes works in surprising ways — including grabbing Saul by the scruff of his spiritual neck and making him the instrument of the very gospel he hated. But let’s not forget that God also works in rather undramatic ways through very ordinary people. 

Let’s face it. Compared to Saul, most of us live rather pedestrian lives. We’re not running around, breathing fire, trying to eradicate our enemies. Truth be told, we may not be consumed with zeal for much of anything. 

But the drama belongs to God and not us. Conversion may include a dramatic turnaround in our own life stories — or not, at least in the sense that would make for good theater. The ultimate drama is the cosmic one: the defeat of sin, evil, and death; the triumph of justice over injustice; the healing of a broken creation. Our lives are meant to serve those ends, which means a reorientation of our life stories and not necessarily a total reversal.

And as we’ll see, even Saul’s story needs to be read with a bit of nuance.