Some thoughts from my personal Bible study, mainly asking questions of the text and pondering some potential answers.
Paul is not mad
After hearing Paul’s testimony, Festus exclaimed “You are out of your mind, Paul! Too much learning is driving you insane!” I think that’s become one of my favourite verses in Acts! However, humour aside, it’s soon very clear that Paul is not mad at all. Paul takes great pains (again) to explain his upbringing, showing that he is not some radical thinker who has always been a trouble-maker, and that in fact everything that he is doing as a Christian is consistent with his character before his conversion. He has not suddenly become a different person. What has changed is his perspective and understanding.
I have sometimes wondered where I would be without God. I gave my life to Jesus when I was six years old, at a kids’ holiday club during a February half term holiday. Ever since then (and arguably before, too) I have tried to live my life in step with Jesus’ teaching, to love other people even if they don’t love me, to forgive them when they hurt me, to try to follow God’s rules, to go where he leads me, and to tell others about him. Because of my faith I have met certain people, done certain things, got certain jobs, learnt certain lessons, that I might not have done otherwise. If it wasn’t for God I wouldn’t have met my wife, I wouldn’t have got any of the jobs I’ve had, I wouldn’t have the same network of friends. But would I have been a different person? Would my character have been different? Am I persistently positive and peaceful because of God, or would I have had that character anyway?
Paul’s testimony reveals that he always had zeal for God. If it weren’t for his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus he would have been imprisoning Christians left right and centre. What becomes apparent to those listening to his defence is that Paul hasn’t had a mid-life crisis or lost his mind; he’s still as rational as ‘normal’ as he ever was, it’s just pointing in a different direction now. And we, like Paul, are invited by God to change direction. Jesus wants to mold us to his plan, because his plan is better than ours, but that doesn’t mean making us into completely different people. God made us, and knows us, and that was deliberate; even if we don’t follow him, we are who he intended us to be. So it’s likely that even if I hadn’t given my life to Jesus when I was six I would still be peaceful and forgiving, I would still love Lego and cars and computers and music, I would still be me. Following Jesus doesn’t invalidate who I am.
The tricky bit for us is working out which bits of ourselves we can keep and which bits need redirecting. And that’s where knowing the Bible is useful. Like Paul, we do need to read the scriptures (yes, even the boring bits in Deuteronomy), because they are still important. We may not be bound by the Law in the same way as the Jews, because we have a personaly relationship with Jesus which is even more important, but those laws were given for a reason and we need to understand why if we are to understand the God we worship. Through the scriptures, God will show us which parts of our life are exactly the way he wanted them, and which parts we’ve distorted. Being a Christian isn’t about madness, or irrationality; it’s about becoming more and more the person we were originally made to be.