I have received a lot of mentoring from the Apostle Paul — from my first real reading of the New Testament as a teenager, I felt a deep kinship with him. My thought was then, and still is, that, “If Paul can do it, so can I.” He is so obviously a real guy, with all his gifts and limitations in action. He has a personality that shows through. And God uses him.
I look at the accounts of Paul in Acts and what he writes in his letters like a story about an action hero. He is such a persuasive teacher and a courageous missionary! He is so dramatic that it is easy to overlook the quieter, interior qualities that are basic to making him so influential.
I have learned a lot from Paul about how to deepen my relationship with God by learning to wait, listening in prayer, and moving with the promptings of the Spirit. I felt like doing this little study to prove that he really was that kind of spiritual guy. It seems that, for most people who read his letters, Paul is all about principles, morality and preaching. He is primarily a great example of an evangelist and church planter. But what about the quiet side? Is he ever silent? How does he get his direction? There are some hints about his personal relationship with God in the New Testament record. I want to list some main ones to encourage us all to move with the “regular guy” Paul as we attempt our own expression of our faith in this era of the world.
Paul was cooling it in his home town after he escaped Jerusalem. It is important to learn how to wait.
Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. Acts 11:25-6
After his conversion Paul spent “many days” with the disciples in Damascus. The “scales” coming off his eyes also had to do with unlearning his passionate Jewish activism, and no doubt had to do with a major interior change. It took time. In Galatians he gives a more complete timeline:
But when God, who set me apart from birth and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not consult any man, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went immediately into Arabia and later returned to Damascus. Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Peter and stayed with him fifteen days. Galatians 1:15-18
The timelines in the Bible are hard to put in order, since that is not the interest of the writers. But this at least implies that Paul spent a significant time in the desert after his conversion. He apparently had a sojourn like Jesus, being confronted and purged by God’s Spirit in preparation for his major role in building the kingdom.
Paul had significant times of waiting throughout his ministry and he used them. Many of them were the times he was in prison. He spent two years awaiting trial, at one point.
As Paul discoursed on righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come, Felix was afraid and said, “That’s enough for now! You may leave. When I find it convenient, I will send for you.” At the same time he was hoping that Paul would offer him a bribe, so he sent for him frequently and talked with him. When two years had passed, Felix was succeeded by Porcius Festus, but because Felix wanted to grant a favor to the Jews, he left Paul in prison. Acts 24:25-27
Martin Luther King did well with his imprisonment, too. We may face that ourselves, one day. Until then, we wait in all sorts of other ways – imprisoned in our jobs, or on the Schuylkill. It is good preparation time, if we use it to be with God.
Paul got direction by receiving it from the body as they received it from the Holy Spirit during times of worship and prayer.
In the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch) and Saul. While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off. Acts 13:1-3
If we have worried about our spiritual development at all, so many of us have spent our days interpreting spiritual material and applying the logic we concoct. As a result we often have little idea of what the writers of the Bible were doing to receive the material we are interpreting! They obviously spent a lot of intense time in prayer getting direction for what they were going to do. From the way Paul writes his letters, it might sound like Christians should all be articulate theorists. But he is obviously a lot more than that. His applications are resting on the foundation of his experience of Christ in his body.
Paul developed the ability, as have so many after him, to listen to the Spirit of God in any number of ways. Somehow the Spirit prevents him from doing one thing and directs him to do another.
Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia. When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to. So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas. During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them. Acts 16:6-10
The boiled-down “science for the masses” we have all learned has made us very suspicious about spiritual promptings and visions. (And Paul tells us to test them well, himself). Combined with the excesses of the Pentecostal movement, so often portrayed in living color on TV, we end up tempted not to listen to the Spirit at all. So our own directability is pretty much nil. Meanwhile Paul is remembering his experiences of revelation as foundational to all he does and says:
I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord. I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows. And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows—was caught up to paradise. He heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell. I will boast about a man like that, but I will not boast about myself, except about my weaknesses. 2 Corinthians 12:1-5
He had a great experience of hearing from God fourteen years before he was writing, but he was still talking about it. He had regular experiences of being directed that his companions wrote about. I think that teaches me to stop and listen.
God still needs deep people. We have a lot of reasons why we are not developing into deep people. And we really have a lot of reasons why we are not going to follow the spiritual promptings we do receive. But one excuse we should never use is that such depth is beyond us. The wild movement of God’s Spirit is for regular people, like the Apostle Paul.
3 thoughts on “Lessons in Spiritual Depth from Paul: Wait, worship, listen”
Now I’m wondering about times the Spirit may have prompted or directed that I might have not received so well; this is a relationship skill worth honing, thanks for these examples from Paul’s life. I’m thankful for the Spirit’s persistence to move us (like to Paul on the Damascus and Bynthia roads), and also I’m thankful that within the body there are others who have ears to hear with and discern and move to the Spirit with.
The New Testament is a boiled down version of the highlights of a movement that was already 50 years old when it was written. I’m sure that if we compiled our journey in a similar way, it might look as heroic as Paul. Paul was intentional about not doing it alone and naming those who helped him (primarily Jesus but many others as well). When we are discouraged this compilation you’ve made that highlights the spaces between can encourage us when we feel in between. I am feeling that way a bit now, I’m trying to listen to God about where he is leading me to plant a congregation of Circle of Hope. I have told a couple of people that West Philly seems good to me but I’m not sure if it seems good to the Holy Spirit (the one-two punch combo of the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15). I’m still carving out time for intense prayer. Pray with me.