Pain of the Past
Acts 9:26 When he had come to Jerusalem, he attempted to join the disciples. And they were all afraid of him, for they did not believe that he was a disciple.
I have an oddly persistent memory of a sucker I stole when I was five or six years old. I took it from the neighbor’s house and though they saw me with it later, I lied about it. There were no direct consequences, but I knew that they knew. Forty years later, I could not tell you their names, but the fact that I stole from them still bothers me.
As an adult, I graduated to significantly more destructive behavior, resulting in much more disastrous results. Though I have been allowed to put life back together, I still have reminders of the consequences of my behavior. I know that I am forgiven by God, but that does not erase Earthly consequences, which, at times, still afflicts my conscience. Some will say I need to forgive myself but even that does not eliminate the very real results of the choices I have made. I still experience tangible effects of my past actions weekly, if not daily.
Paul, in today’s passage, also found that his past behavior had consequences that were not purged when he came to know God. Though he changed his name, everyone still knew him as one who arrested and killed Christians. When he suddenly switched teams, Jesus’s disciples thought he was faking and the Jewish religious leaders felt betrayed and sought to kill him. His former behavior and subsequent conversion made him enemies on both sides. God forgave him when he repented, but the consequences of his former life haunted him like ghosts of the past.
We are not told if this bothered Paul. Paul does not seem to be the type to grovel for forgiveness but he must have met many whom he had formerly persecuted. Whether or not this afflicted Paul’s conscience, we do not know. What we do know is that Paul did not allow the pain of the past to paralyze him. God told him to spread the gospel and he obeyed. Paul must have been aware of those who distrusted and hated him, but he accepted the greater reality of God’s forgiveness. The only way he could earn the trust of those he had hurt was to live differently. So, he accepted God’s grace and lived a radically new life.
As Paul rested comfortably in the grace and mercy shown to him by God, I also find significant comfort in his absolution. It seems that God’s capacity to forgive cannot be outdone by my ability to sin. Paul committed horrible crimes against God and man, yet God wiped his account clean, forgiving him of all he had ever done. As Paul reckoned this to be true, I too, need to accept and live in this reality.
There may continue to be Earthly consequences and reminders of our past (I will never forget the stolen sucker). Through Christ though, we can know that we are forgiven by God. When we repent, we are granted a new spiritual life which will outlast this temporal life by an eternity. Daily, we need to choose to deny self and follow the greater spiritual reality of our lives in Christ.