By Shawn McMullen
He was fierce, vindictive, and violent. And he didn’t keep his opinions to himself. He brought his own vigilante version of justice to bear on men and women alike. The shattered lives of his victims were inconsequential. The fact that he tore families apart meant nothing. If some of those he persecuted died in the process, so much the better. He was bent on destruction, and nothing would stand in his way.
His name was Saul of Tarsus. Christians were the object of his wrath.
But then Jesus Christ appeared to Saul while he was traveling to the city of Damascus and everything changed—perhaps everything but the memory of his violent past.
As a convert to the faith he once tried to destroy, I wonder how often the apostle Paul awoke in the middle of the night with images of those he had formerly persecuted etched in his mind. I wonder if he ever relived those agonizing moments, hearing once more the screams of terrified children as they watched their parents being dragged away to prison, or the feeble cries for mercy whispered on the lips of the dying.
That kind of guilt can be overwhelming. And although Paul must have wrestled with it, it didn’t keep him from moving forward in his service to God. In fact, Paul seems to have struck a balance between guilt and grace. He openly acknowledged his sin while gratefully embracing his pardon. He wrote to Timothy,
Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life (1 Timothy 1:13-16).
Sometimes it’s hard to move beyond our failures. Our heads tell us we’re forgiven, but our hearts can’t release the guilt we feel. We know we have been cleansed of our sins, but our remorse is so intense, so tangible it taints everything we do.
What can be done to turn this tide? How can Christians who wrestle with past sins find peace, pardon, and joy? It begins with the acceptance of a simple biblical principle. Jesus said, “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36).
Once we grasp this, we can more fully appreciate and accept God’s promise spoken through Isaiah the prophet: “I have swept away your offenses like a cloud, your sins like the morning mist” (Isaiah 44:22). And we can agree with the psalmist who wrote, “As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103:12).
This editorial is adapted from one that first appeared in the August 26, 2007 edition of The Lookout.