My conversion certainly fits the description of what some call “Damascus Road experiences.” The reference comes from the conversion of the apostle Paul recorded in Acts 9, and it’s used to describe particularly dramatic conversions to Christianity. When Paul (then Saul) began journeying down the road to Damascus, he hated Christ and persecuted the church. On that road, however, he encountered the resurrected Christ, believed the gospel, and immediately began proclaiming Christ to his fellow Jews. Christ changed Paul dramatically and immediately, and many have met Christ in a similar manner.
My own story is comparable. Throughout high school and into college, I brazenly defied God, selfishly choosing to pursue pleasure to the hurt of many innocent people along the way. My choices repeatedly wrought destruction and chaos in my own life and in the lives of people who loved me. I wasn’t just a sinner; I was known as one of the worst, and that reputation was fair.
Unlike Paul, Jesus didn’t strike me blind to get my attention, but he did allow the consequences of my choices to come crashing down upon my head. At the age of twenty, through a series of devastating circumstances, God began to show me the fragility of my “empire of dirt.” He made me realize that my wild pursuit of pleasure and freedom had only won for me misery and bondage. Authentic and lasting pleasure and freedom come through reconciliation with the One who made us. Mercifully, he reminded me that Christ was the only way out of my prison, the only way to be reconciled to God. He paid my debt on the cross. My only hope was his death and resurrection. I was saved, and my life would never be the same.
I used to tell my story as a one-size-fits-all narrative about how God saves people. I’ve since grown more cautious. The drastic change of my story may make for interesting, made-for-TV drama, but it’s not the sole story arc of God’s redeeming grace. God saves exclusively through Christ, but the narrative of how his saving mercy meets an individual person is completely unique every single time. I’ve come to realize that many people know Christ without ever having a “Damascus Road experience,” and no one needs to feel unnecessary pressure to add dramatic detail to an already cosmically riveting story.
Some people grow up in Christian homes and hear the gospel from birth. They believe early in life and never live through the kind of open rebellion I described. I’ve always prayed for my own children to be able to tell this kind of story. Others are more like Jesus’s disciples who seemed to come to faith gradually as their understanding of Christ grew in stages. I’ve talked to many people along the way who can’t point to a specific moment of transition from darkness to light because it seemed to happen progressively. I tell them what I believe with all my heart to be true: All that matters is that you know and trust Christ now. How you got there is a story for the angels in heaven to tell. You’ll have eternity to joyfully outline your own narrative plot.
But there’s another problem I have with our interpretation of “Damascus Road experiences.” We often mistake dramatic conversion experiences with the long hard struggle of genuine growth in Christ. We see others experiencing instantaneous change on the Damascus Road and wrongly conclude that something is wrong with us because we keep running into the same inner struggles and tripping over the same obstacles. I’ve even heard people question the legitimacy of their own faith after comparing their own experience to an account of someone else’s dramatic conversion.
I can speak from my own experience on this matter. The degree of immediate change I experienced at my conversion was surface level compared to the slower heart change I’ve pursued since. When I first followed Jesus, I knew I was choosing him over a variety of lifestyle choices that brought me nothing but misery. The Holy Spirit immediately took old desires away and replaced them with new desires for Christ. The joy of salvation was so real that my old obsessions looked pitiful and paltry in comparison. Why settle for mudpies in the slum when Christ had brought me an eternal holiday at the sea?
But that was only the beginning. Soon thereafter, I began to discern deep levels of undetected selfishness in my heart. It was easy to stop partying. Learning to pray and to love others has been a lifelong struggle. There are no shortcuts when it comes to sanctification. The process of being conformed into the image of Christ will not be completed until we see him face to face (1 Corinthians 13:12). I believe Paul realized this as well. Long after his conversion he continued to see himself as the “chief of sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15). Even for those who meet Jesus on Damascus Road, that’s only the beginning.