Reelfoot Lake is a shallow natural lake, not far from Memphis, Tennessee, where I grew up. It is noted for its bald cypress trees and its nesting pairs of bald eagles. But it is perhaps best known as the lake that was formed almost overnight as a result of the New Madrid earthquakes of 1812, when the Mississippi River flowed backward for 24 hours to fill it. Based on the effects of these earthquakes, it can be estimated that they had a magnitude of 8.0 on the Richter scale. The earthquakes were felt strongly over roughly 50,000 square miles. As a result of the quakes, large areas sank into the earth, new lakes were formed, and the Mississippi River changed its course. This is how Reelfoot Lake came into being. Where once there had been dry land, there now was a lake encompassing 25,000 acres and teeming with wildlife.
A Momentous Upheaval
The dictionary defines a cataclysm as “a momentous upheaval that brings about a fundamental change.” And while the formation of Reelfoot Lake certainly qualifies as a cataclysmic event, there are even more significant, more impressive upheavals that have occurred throughout history. One such cataclysm took place one day, around noon, in the heart a man named Paul. It’s recorded for us in Acts chapter 9.
In Acts 8, Paul was ravaging the church, breathing out threats and murder against Christians everywhere. Paul gives his own description of his efforts in Acts 26:10-11:
I not only locked up many of the saints in prison after receiving authority from the chief priests, but when they were put to death I cast my vote against them. And I punished them often in all the synagogues and tried to make them blaspheme, and in raging fury against them I persecuted them even to foreign cities.
Why was Paul so venomously opposed to Christianity? Because the salvation by grace that Jesus Christ taught would have made all of Paul’s own careful, law-abiding, pharisaical deeds useless and unimpressive. According to Jesus, salvation came freely by grace, through faith, not works. Paul would later post his list of legalistic accomplishments in Philippians 3:4-6:
If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.
The idea that anyone—regardless of their ethnic identity, moral record, or religious heritage—who believed on Jesus Christ would have everlasting life was repugnant to Paul. And so he persecuted those of “this Way” (Acts 9:2), even pursuing them to Damascus, about one week’s journey from Jerusalem.
However, as he drew near to Damascus, Jesus met Paul in person on the road. Paul tells us that at midday he saw a light from heaven, brighter than the noonday sun (26:13), and that the others who were with him heard a noise and saw a light, but they heard no voice and saw no man (9:7; 22:9). Paul was struck blind by the light, but his eyes were opened to the reality of Christ. He heard Jesus speak, and Paul asked the wise question, “Who are you, Lord?” The answer—that he was encountering the resurrected Jesus Christ—changed his life fundamentally and forever.
A Delightful Surprise
God delights in surprising his saints; so much so that he tells us to expect to be surprised. Anything less is described as “little faith.”
Why is this? Because little faith forgets to ask the question: “Who are you, Lord?” Conversely, strong faith, right faith understands who God is, what he is capable of, and what he has promised to do. Thus, in Acts 9 we find strong faith in one of the most unlikely and surprising places imaginable—the persecutor Paul. His greatest fear has come true, yet he found it his greatest joy in the end. He shares his delight in Philippians 3:8: “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.”
Paul wasn’t the only one who was surprised: the saints in Damascus, who had heard of and dreaded Paul’s menacing approach to their city, were shocked to find him the newest convert to Christianity. The persecutor had become an apostle! Paul is not alone in history either. John Newton was converted from the life of a slave trader to a hymn writer and preacher; C.S. Lewis was converted from devout atheism to become the foremost Christian apologist of the twentieth century; Chuck Colson was converted from thieving and deception to ministry and evangelism.
C.S. Lewis called this unexpected, irresistible act of grace being “surprised by joy.” He marveled afterward that he had discovered this vital truth: “necessity may not be the opposite of freedom.” In other words, being saved by grace does not mean you lose your freedom; it means you are delivered from inescapable bondage.
A Gracious Pattern
What lessons are we meant to draw from Paul’s miraculous, cataclysmic conversion? Is this just an interesting piece of Paul’s overall biography, or does it have greater implications?
Certainly he experienced a momentous upheaval that brought about a fundamental change. In the formerly dry, legalistic land of Paul’s heart God created a teeming lake of life and faith. But is this Reelfoot-like conversion a reflection of real life, or just Paul’s extraordinary-but-individual experience? Does it only happen once or twice a century, to gifted people like Paul, or Newton, or Lewis, or Colson?
Paul himself applies the lesson for us, telling us that this was a conversion, not just for Paul, but for all. In 1Timothy 1:15-16, Paul writes: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me…Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.” Paul’s conversion was an example of what God is doing in everyone who believes in him. While we will not all have the exact same experience as Paul (some might!), every one of God’s children are saved by the same Spirit that arrested Paul on the road to Damascus. We each encounter Christ, through God’s grace, and we are all called to personal service and ministry.
In recording the cataclysmic conversion of Paul, Luke wants us to see the impossibility of Paul’s conversion, then the ease and completeness of it. The persecutor became, in a moment, the apostle of Jesus Christ. What encouragement this account brings to struggling sinners, who perhaps think their case too hard for God, or to discouraged disciple-makers, who perhaps think the case of others too hard for God!
In Galatians 1:15-16, Paul speaks of his conversion, that “when he who had set me apart before I was born” moved in Paul’s life, God “called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me.” This, we must remember, is a pattern for all who would, after Paul, believe on Jesus Christ for eternal life.
The marvelous truth of the gospel is that cataclysmic conversions are happening every day, around the world, as the Spirit of God moves to make children of God out of those whom he has separated from their mother’s womb. Reelfoot lakes of life and faith are formed in the hearts of awe-struck people as they experience the momentous upheaval of God’s grace in their lives. And by that same grace that caught Paul unexpectedly, we are surprised by joy.
Justin Huffman has pastored in the States for over 15 years, authored the “Daily Devotion” app (iTunes/Android) which now has over half a million downloads, and recently published a book with Day One: Grow: the Command to Ever-Expanding Joy. He has also written articles for For the Church, Servants of Grace, and Fathom Magazine. He blogs at justinhuffman.org.