I read a lot of memoirs these days. Actually, scratch that: I used to read a lot of memoirs, or more accurately, listen to them as audiobooks. My home and my office are over 30 miles apart, and in Southern California traffic, that’s a lot of listening time. But the COVID quarantine has taken away my commute. I’m not complaining about that part, mind you. But my audiobooks are on pause for now.
Memoirs give you the inside story. As psychologist Jerome Bruner once wrote, stories can be told from two perspectives: the landscape of action versus the landscape of consciousness, or what happens to a character from the outside versus what they experience on the inside.
Movies show you the external action. Often, you’re left to infer what’s happening on the inside through facial expressions and snippets of dialogue.
Memoirs are different. The best ones aren’t plot driven. They’re not a mere recital of events, however tragic or exciting those events might be. Rather, the best memoirs are character driven: they don’t just tell you what happened on the outside, but how those events changed the author on the inside.
And that distinction matters to the way we read Scripture.
To use Bruner’s terms, much of what we read in the book of Acts is given to us in the landscape of action. It’s the outside story: Paul went here, and this happened; then Paul went there, and that happened. As I’ve suggested before, that’s appropriate, because Luke’s story is really more about God’s Spirit and the gospel than it is about Paul, or Peter, or any of the human players in the drama.
But that’s not to say that the landscape of consciousness doesn’t matter. If we want the inside story, we have to read Paul’s letters.
Acts 19, as we’ve seen, ends with Luke’s tale of the riot in Ephesus. Two of Paul’s companions, Gaius and Aristarchus, were swept along in the madness. One can easily imagine how frightening this must have been for them, but Luke tells us nothing about their internal experience.
Paul, for his part, was kept out of the fray by his friends. In the end, everything turned out fine. Acts 20, in fact, begins on a rather mild note: “When the riot was over, Paul sent for the disciples, encouraged them, said good-bye, and left for the province of Macedonia” (vs. 1, CEB).
Okay, drama over, time to move on.
Paul, in other words, wasn’t forced to leave in the same way he had fled Thessalonica or Beroea. God had kept the believers in Ephesus safe, and Paul left when he was good and ready.
We might, on that basis, assume that Paul moved confidently through any and all of his trials in that city.
But we would be wrong.
We can’t be sure of the timing, but it was probably not long after Paul left Ephesus that he wrote these words to the church in Corinth:
Brothers and sisters, we don’t want you to be unaware of the troubles that we went through in Asia. We were weighed down with a load of suffering that was so far beyond our strength that we were afraid we might not survive. It certainly seemed to us as if we had gotten the death penalty. This was so that we would have confidence in God, who raises the dead, instead of ourselves. God rescued us from a terrible death, and he will rescue us. (2 Cor 1:8-10)
Paul, the man whom God had miraculously rescued from prison, the man in whom the Spirit of God was working so powerfully that even his sweaty hankies had healing powers, was depressed and fearful for his life. Being rescued in Philippi didn’t keep him from being skittish about Corinth. And having come through a riot in Corinth without a scratch didn’t keep him from being afraid when there was a riot in Ephesus.
Nor is Paul reluctant to share this information with the Corinthians, a church which had only recently been the cause of a tremendous amount of personal pain. (Think about it: would you say such things to someone who had just betrayed you?) But he wanted them to know that a believer’s confidence never lies in his or her own strength, but in the strength of God, who can raise the dead if he wills.
Luke, I think, wants us to know something similar. It’s not that the inside story doesn’t matter; it does. But it’s not the whole story, and the outside story is in the hands of a mighty and gracious God.