Periodically as I read the Bible there are verses that pop out at me appearing as though I have never read them before. Reading through Acts 26, I was stopped-short by an amazing statement that never registered in my mind before. Paul said in verses 9-11: “I too was convinced that I ought to do all that was possible to oppose the name of Jesus of Nazareth. And that is just what I did in Jerusalem. On the authority of the chief priests I put many of the Lord’s people in prison, and when they were put to death, I cast my vote against them. Many a time I went from one synagogue to another to have them punished, and I tried to force them to blaspheme. I was so obsessed with persecuting them that I even hunted them down in foreign cities.”
I have always wondered what motivates people to become persecutors. There is probably no single answer, but the Apostle Paul gives us insight into what drove him. He was obsessed with opposing Jesus Christ. There are theological answers to this question. Persecutors possess a carnal mind, darkened and depraved by sin so that good and evil are flipped. When doing evil, Paul thought he was doing good.
Two words intrigue me—“convinced” and “obsessed.” Most of us are convinced we are right, but we are usually convinced of things within the parameters of what is good. Paul was convinced, persuaded, motivated, and compelled to believe and do something he could never accomplish and it was outside the parameters of good. He had a strong aversion to Jesus Christ and he sought with his whole heart to oppose him. Up to this point, this seems rational, although it was wrong and futile. No one opposes Christ and wins and no one ever will—not Boko Haram, al-Qaeda, or ISIS.
The word “obsession” moves to something pathological, into the realm of the irrational. He is driven to extraordinary means and is consumed by his erroneous beliefs. Paul’s bigotry, hatred and prejudice fed his mind and heart, and he could not stop—until God stopped him!
Switching to contemporary times, we find the same irrational passion. To most people the slaughter of innocent people and the persecution of specifically targeted Christians is beyond comprehension. It is beyond reason—at least by what reasonable people do. In the Wall Street Journal (May 26, 2015) is a short essay titled, “The Rational Ayatollah Hypothesis” by Bret Stephens. The argument is, given what the ayatollahs believe, can they make rational decisions? The first line of the article asks: “Can there be a rational, negotiable, relatively reasonable bigot?” Probably not. They are obsessed with their ideology and it can lead to doing irrational things to those who do not agree to their radical beliefs. One world leader said he was “not a particularly ideological person.” I think he meant he was not consumed by his ideology, but it is obvious that he has an ideology. It, in fact, drives him in his work. He, along with most people, does not understand the “compelling power of ideology” (Stephens).
The fact is that leaders can be so obsessed with ideological commitments (including religious commitments) that they may be driven to think and sometimes act irrationally. As Christians, we hate evil and before we know it, we also hate the evil-doers. This is outside of God’s will and the mandate of Christ to love our enemies. Rational faith hates evil but loves the evil-doers and seeks their salvation and restoration to a transforming relationship with God.
Is Paul the last obsessed radical terrorist who could meet God and have his life radically changed? He was so far gone in his obsession to kill Christians that it took an extraordinary act of God to change him. But it happened!
Along with our prayers for God to stop the horrendous evil and injustice we are seeing perpetuated against Christians (and others), we ought to also be audacious intercessors for the transformation of the world’s most wicked, depraved, and obsessed leaders. Radical terrorist ideology should be resisted through radical intercession.
Is there anything impossible with God? Was there anyone more impossible than Paul of Tarsus? No one is beyond the reach of God.
Do you really believe that?
Roy Stults, PhD, is the Online Workshop Coordinator and Educational Services Coordinator for The Voice of the Martyrs. He graduated from Olivet Nazarene University (BA and MA), Nazarene Theological Seminary (M.Div.), Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (Doctor of Missiology), and The University of Manchester (England) with a PhD (theology). A Vietnam veteran, Dr. Stults served as a missionary for 19 years and pastored U.S. churches for eight years. Prior to joining VOM, he was a Professor of Religion at Oklahoma Wesleyan University.