Saturday, February 1, 2014
Quicksand of Conscience
"O Father in heaven, thou who probest the souls of men, open a little ray of light for me into the bottomless darkness of the human heart, in order that I may penetrate for an instant into its mysteries; send one swift beam for me into the depths, in order that I may see, as in a flash of lightning, the forces that wage war for the possession of a man's soul. For who can pierce, who can weigh, who can even grasp the dark things which lie, involved like demons in an abyss, in the coils of the mind of man? What were the powers which worked in the young man of Tarshish that he might carry out the work of the Evil One?"
These words, written by Sholem Asch, are in reference to Saul of Tarshish (Tarsus), who later became the Apostle Paul and author of most of the New Testament. Asch was a Jewish scholar / historian who wrote a fictional trilogy made up of the novels The Nazarene, The Apostle, and Mary. In The Apostle, Asch draws on his extensive knowledge of Jewish culture and rituals, and puts the character of Saul right in the middle of the early church and the rise of the "sect" of those who followed the "false Messiah". Interestingly, Asch portrays the conversion of Saul in dramatic fashion, and goes on to highlight the truth of Jesus, "Yeshua of Nazareth", as the true Messiah. In doing this, he offended Jewish sensibilities and led New York's leading Yiddish newspaper to drop him as a writer.
This Apostle that Asch portrayed so vividly, the man who arguably contributed more to the spread of Christianity, save Jesus Christ himself, than anyone else who has ever lived, is for us the most profound example of the wickedness of the human heart. How fitting, and amazing, that this same man would go on to write the words of Romans 1, stopping the mouths of all people who would attempt to justify their suppression of truth and resulting depravity, in front of a holy God. Paul knew this to be the true condition of the human heart, because it was the condition of his heart.
"Saul was shamed in all his depths by the action of this simple man, who had so disarmed him he had been unable to answer and had been driven to rage and bitterness. But who was this whom he had called 'the lord'? Who had he been who was able to implant such love in the hearts of the simple that they were ready to be thrust out of Israel for his sake? Who was the man who had spread such teaching among the broken of spirit that they could stand before the learned and disarm them with the sword of their faith? Who was he who had sent such a light into the dark pits of the poor? Who had given the strength of rocks to the shattered? Who was he whose fall had been interpreted as the supreme victory, whose weakness was seen as unconquerable strength, whose humiliation had been crowned with the glory of the Messiah? Who was he? Who?"
Asch imagines the agony and internal battle within Saul's soul in the days before his experience on the road to Damascus. He portrays Saul as deeply conflicted, replaying in his mind the love and the courage and the grace in the faces of those whom he had personally persecuted. But each time his confusion and pain lead him deeper into the abyss and sharpen his resolve to prove that this Yeshua is not the long-awaited Messiah but a demon. I wonder if this portrayal is accurate to the feelings of Paul before he was confronted with the risen Lord? I imagine it is. I imagine this internal battle, and the reaction of further suppression once light begins to be revealed, is remarkably close to the testimony of all people. We know God, we see him, and we suppress this truth. Then, he reveals himself more to us, through someone or something, and we see him more clearly, but still not to our liking, we suppress deeper. And deeper.
Is this not similar to the attitude of all those outside Christ, as the Spirit begins to move in their heart to shine the light of the glory of the grace of God in the face of Jesus Christ? Until he actually does shine this light, once and for all, revealing himself ultimately in all his glory, we are in the equivalent of a quicksand of conscience. Sinking into an ongoing suppression and destruction, only to be rescued by the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. Do we look at people around us in this way? Do we pray that the Spirit would move in their heart and convict them of sin, and then reveal Himself to them in so dramatic a way that they would see Jesus and believe? Do we see people, not as enjoying the pleasures of life, but as sinking into quicksand? And do we realize that they do not have the strength, or the wits, to help rescue themselves from this condition? Do we truly know that we don't either? Do we see people around us, not as simply drowning in the water waiting for a lifeline, but dead at the bottom of the ocean, needing new life? This is how it happens, and once Jesus reveals himself, his grace is irresistible. O, how we should pray that he would do this in those close to us! Listen to Asch's description of the experience on the Damascus road:
"At the edge of the road lies Saul, as though a mighty hand had flung him down. About him stand his companions, paralyzed with amazement. His face is turned up to the open sky, his eyes are open, foam breaks out on his lips. His companions hear Saul's voice. He is speaking with someone. They catch a few words. They know he is seeing a vision. They are terrified by the dread occasion of which they are the witnesses.
"Before Saul's face stands a man. A man who is spirit and flesh and blood. He is taller than any man Saul has ever seen. Yet he is not a giant; he is an ordinary man; a Rabbi, in prayer-shawl and phylacteries; with great eyes, mournful yet radiant, filled with faith and love, eyes such as Saul has often seen among the disciples. His beard and earlocks are black, interwoven with gray. A man, not an angel; clothed in white, as for the Sabbath. Even in his present condition Saul's thoughts are clear enough for him to recall that God created man in His own image. Therefore he who stands before him in the likeness of a man may be a spirit of the Lord. But he stretches out his hands to Saul, and the sorrow on his face is a human sorrow. His eyes are filled with tears, in the midst of which swim the brown pupils. His lips are distorted in pain, as though all the anguish in the world had passed into him. He stretches out his hands to Saul, and the unhappy voice is that of a simple man who suffers, even as Saul has seen so many suffer:
"'Saul, Saul, why dost thou persecute me?'
"In the voice Saul hears the silent protest of all those whom he has tormented; in the face of the man, in the expression of pain on the thin lips, he sees all the pain of all those who he has caused to suffer.
"The men standing about Saul hear him ask: 'Who art thou, lord?' Saul hears the reply: 'I am Yeshua of Nazareth, whom thou persecutest.'"
As we know from Scripture, Saul next asks what he should do, and the Lord begins to show him. It is from this man whom we have the Book of Romans. It is the Spirit of this Lord, "spirit and flesh and blood", "mournful yet radiant", who speaks to us still today through His word. And it is this question, with which every person is confronted as they sink deeper and deeper into the quicksand of their conscience: "Why dost thou persecute me?" Why do we suppress the truth? The truth that is plain to us, because God has shown it to us? For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, from what has been made. So we are without excuse. For although we know God, who do not honor him as God or give thanks to him, and our thinking has become futile and our foolish hearts are darkened. Claiming to be wise, we have become fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man, and birds and animals, and crawling things. Yes, this we have done. All of us. And Jesus asks us with "lips distorted in pain, as though all the anguish of the world had passed into him" - why do you persecute me? Why do you exchange my eternal glory for temporal idols?
The only coherent response to this question, given our condition, so vividly described in Romans 1, is: what must I do, Lord? We have no reasons to offer as to why we have done this. We have no rebuttal. Our mouth is stopped. Except to say, if we would, "what must I do?"