As we serve in mission whether in a local context or a cross cultural context, we often get caught up in the questions of success. We all responded to the call of God, and to each of us the call meant great things for the kingdom of God. We all want to end up in the library filled with biographies of great men and women of God. We want our life to count for something big, and I think we can learn a valuable lesson from the life of Paul. We can learn how God took this guy who was on the fast track to top of the Pharisaical hierarchy before his path suddenly changed one night on the road to Damascus. The paradigm shift seemed fast in our mind, but God worked something out in Paul over a much longer time period. Maybe we can all glean something helpful from those silent years when God worked on him in that space between calling and the grandiose ideas he likely had like many of us do and the actualization of God’s plan in his life.
Paul, a hero to many, should give us all reason to pause. Perhaps in Luke’s account of his role in the spread of the church from Jerusalem to Rome, we see a guy who is bigger than life and in no way can we compare to him. Just read his accounts of suffering in II Corinthians 11, and the bio-pic depicting his story would get nominated for best picture and the actor playing his character would also be up for best actor.
What we miss in Luke’s account of the story are the details. We have to remember that Luke is telling the story of the church in what could be titled the Acts of the Holy Spirit, and Luke takes us on a journey, a journey from Jerusalem to the ends of the Roman Empire as laid out in his thesis in Acts 1:8. We follow Paul who goes from Jerusalem to Damascus where he encounters Jesus and his world is forever changed. He travels on three missionary journeys, each time expanding the geographic boundaries of the church before he is compelled by the spirit to return to Jerusalem in order to get to Rome. Perhaps another post could argue that Paul set out on a fourth missionary journey to Rome and that Luke gave a valuable amount of space to the time in which Paul traveled to Rome. But for now, I want to talk about what Luke left out of the story.
Paul received his calling in Acts 9 while on the road north to persecute the church, Acts 9:5-6. Jesus personally met him on the road and called him to the ministry. I doubt many of us have a similar story when it comes to knowing our calling. Paul clarifies his calling during two different speeches later in Acts; 22:3-10 and 26:12-18. We know Paul’s calling and his accomplishments, but we know little during that space in-between the two.
What do we do in that season of our life between the calling as a youth and the move into fulfilling the calling. I think of people like Hudson Taylor who moved to the poor neighborhood and changed his sleeping routines to prepare for difficult situations in China and learned all about medicine as an assistant to a doctor. I think of Taylor’s faith tests before he left shaping his ability to rely on God while in China.
When we look at the life of Paul, we see Paul as a mighty man of God, raising people from the dead (Acts 20:7-12) , getting people into the kingdom of God to the end (Acts 28:23-31), baptizing people with the Holy Spirit (Acts 19:6), casting out powerful demons (Acts 16:16-18), and even sending his apron around the region of Asia Minor to see people get healed by its touch (Acts 19:11). What we don’t see in Luke’s narrative is that space between the calling Paul received directly from Jesus and the actualization of his calling. According to Paul’s own words in Galatians, he spent 17 basically silent years before he played a major role in the expansion of the church.
Paul met Jesus in a powerful moment on the road to Damascus, and he received a confirmation of the calling in Damascus with an unsung hero named Ananias, Acts 9:11-19. Then Luke uses these words to gloss over a three year period, after many days (Acts 9:23)…
If we look at Galatians 1:17-18, those many days consisted of a time in Arabia. Paul leaves that time ambiguous beyond the bottom line of downloading the message of the gospel from Jesus (Gal 1:11-12). After the mysterious three years in Arabia (I wonder if he found any flying carpets or magical genie lamps), he returns to a most unwelcome audience in Damascus. He sneaks out of town and returns to Jerusalem to be met by a hostile group of apostles still suspicious of his motives. But Barnabas welcomes him with open arms and sponsors him to the apostles (Acts 9:26-27). He then goes back to his home town of Tarsus in Syria and Cilicia. He spent 14 years in relative obscurity (Gal 2:1) before Barnabas needed help in Antioch, an urban church with exploding growth. Barnabas went to recruit a guy he knew to be qualified to help him disciple the new believers in this multi-cultural city (Acts 11:25-26). Paul spent another year in Antioch as basically a support member of the team.
Another post waits to be written here on the subject of calling and sending. Paul was called almost two decades earlier to be a missionary and to take the message to the gentiles, but in Antioch, he was set apart for the work of God by the Holy Spirit. There is a necessary local church element that needs to accompany anyone’s calling. We are never called to go it alone. There needs to be an invitation and a sending in any mission venture.
In our instant culture as westerners, we want results now. Top-notch football coaches are fired one year later if they don’t produce. We want immediate results, and thinking about what Paul went through before he even began to fulfill his calling must go against the grain in our thinking. Our success-oriented thinking (and that is where we need to get a right view of success), drives us to think we gotta start now, or we are going to be behind the eight-ball. We need to live in that tension between striving for all that God has for us and waiting on his timing and preparation in our life. For another curve ball to our view of success look at John the Baptist. He spent his whole life preparing for six-months of ministry in the wilderness, and Jesus says he was the greatest. Six months of ministry before everyone left his teaching to follow Jesus. John replied in John 1, I must decrease so he can increase.
I am not saying don’t do anything for two decades. By no means…I totally think the training that comes in Bible College or a ministry school has great value, internships and staff positions help shape us toward future ministry. Even get out there and pastor a small church in your early twenties. A.W. Tozer pastored small rural churches for many years before he became a significant voice when he pastored in Chicago. Don’t wait to get involved, but work in God’s timing and along with his journey…
The most important process in the space between the calling and the actualization is how God sharpens our character and works on refining the important areas in our life. We need those times to have God work on our heart and spirit. God is always more concerned with who we are than what we do.