When Saul arrives at Jerusalem everyone is afraid of him until he meets a man named Barnabas who finally takes him to stay with Peter and meet with James. Freely moving around the city of Jerusalem for the next couple of weeks he was preaching Christ in the local synagogues and, likely, among his old buddies who turn against him, once again, seeking to kill him. It is at that point that two important things happen. First, the Lord tells him he must leave Jerusalem quickly “…because the people here will not accept your testimony about me.’ Paul reacts strongly:
“‘Lord,’ I replied, ‘these people know that I went from one synagogue to another to imprison and beat those who believe in you. And when the blood of your martyr Stephen was shed, I stood there giving my approval and guarding the clothes of those who were killing him.’ (Acts 22).
I believe that Paul was convinced that, surely, after three years he could mend fences, right the wrongs from his previous life, make amends and earn the trust of the Christian community. The reality was that even though the Christians may have been able to forgive their tormenter, the wounds were too fresh for them to trust him. What he had done screamed too loudly for them to accept him even after three years! In addition, he was still too well known among his non-Christian former friends to ever get a hearing. His presence brought turmoil to the whole community!
And so, the second thing that happened to Paul during this visit was that the brothers took him down to Caesarea and sent him off with a one-way ticket back to his birthplace of Tarsus where he would spend the next 10 years in obscurity. We have some hints of what he may have gone through for his faith during those ten years: his family’s rejection (Philippians 3:7-10), synagogue beatings with rods (2 Corinthians 11:24), and more that may have left him scarred and injured.
In 2 Corinthians 12:1-10 we also learn that he was given a glimpse of God’s glory in a heavenly tour that he could not talk about and, finally, he was given a thorn in his flesh to keep him from becoming conceited, a messenger of Satan that troubled him terribly. In fact, this thorn was so debilitating that he asked the Lord to remove it from him at least three times.
We are not told what that thorn was which leaves an open field for suppositions. Again, there are hints that he may have been wrestling with an illness (Galatians 4:12-14) or other physical ailments such as poor eyesight (cf., Galatians 4:15; 6:11). The blessing of his obtuse references to ‘the thorn’ is that in our own struggles, we, also, can identify with those things in our lives that cause us to cry out for God’s mercy, leaving us with new appreciation for the grace of Christ. At the same time, we do so want to fill in the blank!
And so, I have my own theory about Paul’s thorn and it is based upon recent research about victims of violence and their perpetrators of violence towards them over the years. My theory is based upon my understanding of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (i.e., PTSD) of war veterans and others who have experienced traumatic experiences. In fact, a name has been given to studies in something called Perpetrator Trauma: a condition of those who committed violent acts upon innocent others who–for whatever reasons–violated their own moral standards. Many look back in horror at the damage they have done to others and are overwhelmed with grief and remorse. When someone chooses to violate their own resistance to injuring or even killing another human they must justify what they do so that it does not violate their sense of justice and reciprocity. But, when the rationale for justifying what they did shatters and their conscience is assaulted afresh they are left with the damage they have left behind, the desire to reconcile those memories with their new, healthier perspective as their own perceptions of themselves are being adjusted by their new reality.
My theory is that Paul was often reminded of the faces of those he persecuted, tortured and even had killed. He remembered their humble submission, their open prayers of blessing and intercession for him, their attempts to tell him about the love of their Lord; all in sharp contrast to his violent hatred of them. Add to that the screams of children as their parents are dragged away to prison or worse…these things must have echoed in his memory, even after his conversion. How does one erase such painful memories?
Although he knew, intellectually, that he was forgiven he must have wrestled with Satan’s messengers who reminded him of his past actions and offenses against the innocent. Walking by a simple family-owned shop in any given city could suddenly unleash a wave of painful memories of what he had done to both people he had known for years and, even, to total strangers. How could God possibly forgive him for his transgressions?! Would there ever be any relief from the nightmares, flashbacks and sudden twinges of grief and remorse?
Take it away! He pleaded with His Lord.
The answer? “No.”
So that Paul could appreciate the grace that he had received: “My grace is sufficient” the Lord told him (2 Corinthians 12:9).
James Caldemeyer is, today, a champion bass fisherman. But, back when he was 21 years old he was driving home drunk one night. Crossing the double yellow lines he drove head-on, right into an oncoming vehicle in which the woman driver of the other car was killed. Listen as he tells his story:
Just watching him tell his story you can tell how anxious he is as he relives those events in his life. Forgiven, but, not forgotten. Haunted by what he had done he was desperate for a way out of the pain of guilt and regret and loss. His only salvation was found in a Lord who forgives and out of His grace gives James the strength to remember and to appreciate, once again, the grace he has received.
Thorns and Knocks On The Door
Now, 14 years after his conversion experience—10 years since Paul was sent away with a one-way ticket to Tarsus from Jerusalem & Caesarea–Saul is in Syria and Celicia (Gal. 1:21). Meanwhile, the gospel is now exploding past the Jewish communities and making advances into the Gentile world in Antioch. Back in Jerusalem, the Jews become concerned about the massive conversions so they send Barnabas to investigate (Acts 11:19-23). Upon arrival he remembers his friend, Saul, who has been in Tarsus these past 10 years and he goes to Tarsus looking for him (Acts 11:25).
One day, Saul answers a knock on the door to be greeted by a familiar visitor: its his old friend Barnabas, son of encouragement (Acts 11:19-30). “I have work for you to do, Saul. Please come help me in Antioch.” Readily accepting the invitation, Saul and Barnabas work together in Antioch as Barnabas watches Saul, listens to him and observes the changes that the Lord has brought about in him. Barnabas now has an opportunity to further disciple Saul as he teaches and loves this man who has now been humbled by the Lord. His arrogance is under control. And so, as Luke tells it:
So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people. The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.
During this time some prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. One of them, named Agabus, stood up and through the Spirit predicted that a severe famine would spread over the entire Roman world. (This happened during the reign of Claudius.) The disciples, as each one was able, decided to provide help for the brothers and sisters living in Judea. This they did, sending their gift to the elders by Barnabas and Saul. (Acts 11:26-30)
Those fourteen years have humbled Saul and now he has been tested by his brother in Christ, Barnabas. It is now time to bear gifts for the hurting saints in Jerusalem; it is finally time to return to the people of his childhood. So, Saul finally returns to Jerusalem and is welcomed with open arms (Galatians 2:1-10; Acts 12:25).
Before, just Saul’s presence was too painful for the victims of his persecutions of the early church and his non-Christian Jewish friends who felt betrayed by him. The 14 years of wilderness wanderings in Saul’s life were needed for at least two reasons. First, he needed to be humbled. I think a strong case can be made that whatever Saul experienced on his own for the next 10 years one of the consequences was this “thorn in the flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:1-10) that the Lord refused to remove from him for one specific reason: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor. 12:8).
As we learn more about PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) we now know more about those who are victims of traumatic violence. In those instances, there is usually a victim and there is a perpetrator. PTSD studies have generally focused on the trauma upon the victim but have made advances into understanding the perpetrator’s trauma as well. What factors go into a person deciding to go against their natural revulsion to inflicting pain upon others to justifying not only the infliction of pain but torture, imprisonment and even death it in the name of their God? But, what about someone like Saul who would later become Paul?
Now, as a Christian, we can be confident that Saul’s life of inhumane treatment of others was long gone. But, how long would it take his victims before they could trust that it was genuine. Parents tortured and killed. Brothers and sisters imprisoned with everything of value to them…gone. Careers lost, professions abandoned, homes confiscated, people imprisoned, tortured and even killed, people forced to blaspheme under duress…and now Saul tells them he is all better? That he wants to make amends? That he has truly become a follower of Jesus Christ?
The second reason that the 14 years were needed in Saul’s life is reflected in what Jesus had told him after three years. For the time his victims needed to heal, three years was not long enough: “…the people here will not accept your testimony about me.” This was among the first steps in Saul’s humbling to the will of God. I think he resisted until the disciples went to Saul, took him to the docks at Caesarea, and bought him a one-way ticket to Tarsus, his hometown.
From his statements in Philippians 3:7-8 about letting go of everything, some have thought he likely experienced the rejection of his own family who had striven so hard to put him in the best schools in the Jewish faith there in the heart of Jerusalem. For the next 10 years we have precious little information; but, in 2 Corinthians Paul refers to an out-of-body experience that he describes in the third person that many have concluded to have happened during that time. At the conclusion of that incredible description he starts talking about a “thorn in the flesh” that was inflicted upon Paul by ‘a messenger of Satan’ that the Lord insisted that Paul needed in order to keep him from becoming conceited (2 Corinthians 12:7). The thorn is never defined which is both a blessing and a curse. A curse because we really want to know what it was. A blessing because it could be anything. Some think it was a physical problem like poor eyesight or short stature. Others have concluded that it might have been a physical injury that left him crippled.
Why is this significant? Because I think Paul was haunted by what he had done…the faces of those he tortured, harassed and even killed, their voices, their screaming children and family members. No doubt, many of those Christians responded to his violence with prayers of blessing and heavenly visions as he callously inflicted his judgement upon them without mercy. Believing that he was right and that these Christians were a threat to God’s people he actively participated in their persecution with a sense of righteous detachment. Now, looking back, he knows he was wrong and that they were innocent. How could anyone live with such a dissonant reflection upon a life lived in good conscience (Acts 23:1). I think this disparity was so great that it had to trouble him at times; often by surprise.
What better spokesperson for God’s grace?
If God could forgive him for such heinous acts, what could that possibly say about God’s grace? Need an advocate for God’s overflowing grace? Check out Paul as Satan sends his messengers to remind Paul of the pain and injury he has caused and his participation in the persecution of the Lord he now loves more than anyone or anything else.
“Please, Lord, take this away from me!” Paul would say.
“No,” Jesus would reply. “My grace is sufficient for you!”
Wow! What an example for people who are haunted by their own memories! When Christ’s blood flows over the sinner’s life His grace is sufficient to remove the guilt; but, even more than that, His grace is sufficient for the haunting memories reminding us of our our total and complete dependence upon the One who forgives and forgets!
7 But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. 8 What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. 10 I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings,becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.
12 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13 Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.