I’ve heard that only about one-third of Christians can even remember a specific day and say ‘That’s when I was converted’.
That’s still quite a lot of people. But even these apparently sudden conversions don’t often happen completely ‘out of the blue’. There was mine, for example: about forty years ago I woke up one morning with no interest in religion at all, no curiosity about Jesus or about Christianity. And yet just a few hours later I had become a Christian. You can’t get a much more sudden shift than that – yet even so, looking back, there were several occasions during the previous year or two when God had given me a nudge through something I had seen, or heard, or read.
Now was it like that for Paul? When he woke up that morning, if anyone had said to him, ‘Paul, by the end of today you’ll be a Christian,’ he would probably have been horrified! He was the most fanatical opponent of Christianity in the whole world, the man in charge of the official campaign against the followers of Jesus. As far as he was concerned, they were dangerous heretics who needed to be exterminated. For months he had devoted himself to persecuting them, trying to force them back into mainstream Judaism. His hatred had grown into such an obsession that he even wanted to hunt down those who had fled abroad – which was why he was travelling to Damascus in the first place. And yet one of the things that Jesus said to him was, “It is hard for you to kick against the goads.” (Acts 26:14)
So had God had been prodding Paul’s conscience for all that time? Maybe He had… Surely the witness and martyrdom of Stephen must have left a big impression on him. And then there were all those un-named believers who had refused to renounce their faith even when he had threatened them with torture and death. It’s also possible that Paul was being niggled by doubts on the inside: doubts about the value of his ultra-strict observance of the Law. But he had managed to ignore or block out all these things. He had been like a reluctant ox that refuses to pull the plough and needs to be jolted into action! Only an encounter with Jesus Himself could overcome his resistance. But that encounter did not happen in a vacuum, unconnected with what had gone before; I think that we can assume that Christian witness played an essential part in Paul’s conversion.