The Unexpected God
by Josh Keller
But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord... as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven shone around him. And falling to the ground he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” And he said, “Who are You, Lord?” And He said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.”
Now, if you want to impress people with your erudition, employ Flannery O’Connor as illustration (well, that, and use the word erudition). O’Connor, a Catholic Southern fiction writer, may give you the gold star of competent intellectual Christianity, but she can do much more. She will pepper your thoughts with quirky Southern characters and an overwhelming sense of God’s presence and supernatural intervention in what she called the sacrament of life. In her world, God always interrupts unexpectedly through strange means. The redeeming figures are not, shall we say, the sanitized creatures of Christian romance novels.
Take Manly Pointer from Good Country People. Manly intrudes into the lives of two women—Mrs. Hopewell, who lives life through clichéd optimistic phrases, and her daughter Joy, who lost her leg in a hunting accident. Joy earned a Ph.D. in philosophy and eradicated transcendence, meaning, and God from her life. Joy renamed herself Hulga to spite her mother. Hulga exists to stomp around her mother’s house on her prosthetic limb and comfort herself with her superior intellect.
Manly, a Bible salesman, is mistaken by both women as a “good country person.” That is to say: sincere, simple, and religious. Being a “good country person,” Hulga and Mrs. Hopewell know what to expect from him and how to get what they want from him. And Manly, like all good con men, lets these women turn him into the confirmation of their vain suspicions about themselves.
As you read the story, you can’t help but wonder if we do this with God. We tie together some worn out phrases about God, “God is my co-pilot” and “God never gives you anything you can’t handle,” into little straw men to toss into a box we’ve created—for that’s safe. If He’s in the box, then we know what to expect. As an added benefit, when God doesn’t behave, we have cause to be angry with Him, for getting out of the box is a violation of His nature. It’s an unnerving God who doesn’t fit in our box or confirm our vain thoughts about ourselves.
Here, Saul’s conversion falls. We often forget what actually happens in this story. We know that Saul becomes a Christian hero but tend to ignore that God in this passage blows up Saul’s life. Saul is not some godless bloodthirsty persecutor. He loves God and God’s law, and he knows the Old Testament. From Paul’s perspective, his actions aren’t evil. They are holy. He was zealously proud and proving his righteousness. Then Christ bursts out from behind a cloud and blinds him, and everything changes. Saul must repent of his wrong view of God and also of his very wrong view of himself. What once was a source of pride is now only shame and guilt. Also, Saul’s community, friends, and career path are opposed to Christ. That’s all gone now. God is not at all what Saul expected Him to be. Indeed, it is the reverse. Saul had placed God into a box where Saul came out the winner, but Christ reveals Himself. And the box is a tad tiny for an unfathomable, eternal God.
Back to Manly and Hulga. Hulga decides to seduce Manly because her intellect demands it. She anticipates dealing with his good country morals by telling herself, “True genius can get an idea across even to an inferior mind.” Paradoxically, he seduces her. Manly lures her up a ladder into a hayloft and steals her prosthetic limb. Hulga watches him carry her leg away in his suitcase nestled between two Bibles.
You see, Hulga’s truest self was that leg. It was the symbol for her atheism and hard-won intelligence. It was literally the thing her life stood on. So Saul, breathing threats and murder, found his life and was animated by persecuting Christians. But God breaks in unannounced and unexpected. This wayward charlatan steals Hulga’s leg—that is her life—so that she can become “Joy” again. God’s unexpected grace to her is the offer of new life. Saul is also offered new life. Christ says to him, “Rise,” which is the Greek word for resurrection. Christ steals Saul’s sight so that he can finally see, be raised to new life, and become Paul.
Perhaps God is breaking out of your box right now? Are you finding Him not what you expected? He loves you and knows that He doesn’t fit into your tidy box. Even more, He knows that a god who fits could never satisfy you or offer you life. He comes unexpectedly to let the charlatan in your box, the one who checks off on your agenda and sanctions your desires and opinions, be exposed, so that you can come and meet the true and living God.