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The Pressure of Perfection

There he was, just an up-and-coming Pharisee (the religious elite in Jesus’s time). He was advancing beyond his peers in knowledge and personal piety but this level of perfection doesn’t come devoid of stress. This was the life of Saul, soon to be the apostle Paul. Have you spent time wondering what Saul’s life must have been like? Paul often used his life story to make a point to the various churches he wrote to and when it comes to his heated letter to the Galatians, the point was largely about pressure.

 The life of a Pharisee had to be careful balancing act of trying to achieve a level of perfection no human could. Every area of life bowed under the weight of, not only God’s Law, but also a few bonus regulations the Pharisees tossed in for good measure. Jesus was not a fan, “They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them (Matthew 23:4).” Their lives, Saul’s life, sounds exhausting. This misguided pursuit of perfection created in them a belief system that resulted in arrogance, exploitation, and, for Saul, violence against others.

 As Stephen laid slain from the stones of oppression, scripture introduces Saul. “And Saul approved of their killing him. On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison (Acts 8:1-3).” Trying to control his personal perfection simply wasn’t enough. He was attempting to create a perfect church, a perfect people. When humanity failed to achieve his standard, his only answer was violence. The pressure of Saul’s life sent him on a path of destruction.

 Jesus met him on that path and knocked him off of it. Jesus revealed to him the truth of the Gospel. There was nothing Saul could do that would be sufficient to mark him perfect in God’s eyes. However, there was something that Jesus could do. Jesus is perfect and offers that perfection to all that believe. On that path, Jesus gave Saul his perfection, a change marked by a new name, Paul. Paul now knew first hand what freedom looked like. The pressures of the life he led were lifted making him the ideal liberator for those whom he’d been putting violent pressure on.

 Paul’s entire life had changed in just a few days, and change has it’s own pressures. Thankfully, Paul not only tells of his conversion but of his processing change. He had a lot to prove to the other apostles for sure, but he also had a lot to figure out.

“But when God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, my immediate response was not to consult any human being. I did not go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went into Arabia. Later I returned to Damascus. Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days (Galatians 1:15-18).”

I believe Paul needed some time. In his previous life, every minute was dictated by the law. Imagine how much time he spent just trying to remain ceremonially clean. What about maintaining his status in society? How about his quest to cleanse the church of imperfection? In Jesus, Paul lived, worked, slept, ate, and loved differently. That level of change takes time.  

Not only did he have to reorder his entire life, but had to build a whole new level of trust with the people around him. This was Saul, the man who approved of Stephen’s execution. Saul, the man who told Gentiles they didn’t belong in God’s house by imprisoning and killing them. Was this man really changed? Was he really here to free the Gentiles from the law and welcome them into the life of the church? Saying you’re changed is one thing. Living it out is another. Again, this takes time.

Paul took the time and did the work to reorder and rebuild his life. Then he made it his life’s mission to do the same for the Gentiles. This is probably why the actions of the Galatians was so offensive to him. His epistle to them is probably Paul’s most emotional letter. He even says he was writing it in all caps. “See what large letters I use as I write to you with my own hand (Galatians 6:11)!” He also invites them to take circumcision to a painful extreme. “As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves (Galatians 5:12)!”

Armed with the Gospel, Paul freed the Galatians from the chains of the law, the very chains Jesus freed him from, but, swayed by false teaching they were putting the shackles back on. In his own life, Paul watched the stress of the law spill out and attack the people around him. The danger of the pressure was very real. I’d be angry too if I didn’t see the same thing all the time. Sure we’re not mandating circumcision, but we put a Sauline amount of anxiety on ourselves to be perfect, to have it all figured out.

Paul was reminding the Galatians that the Gospel means more than they were thinking. It is for freedom Christ set them free and that freedom extends into every area of life. Recently, we were studying Galatians with some young college students and spent a few weeks talking about how a life following Jesus is filled with more. More purpose, more love, just more. What we saw in return from these young people was crippling pressure.

College students really are making decisions that will affect the rest of their lives. Around that BIble study we had 17, 18, and 19-year-olds trying to decide what area of study/career would help them be financially stable, fulfill their passions and gifts, please their parents, and, hopefully, bring them closer to God. One student, that is currently majoring in “undecided,” shared that she can’t even think about the future without crying. The pressure to have it all figured out at 18 is too much.

Thankfully, Paul showed us a few things to help us relieve the pressure. First of all, he took time. He took time to get to know his relationship with Jesus and what true freedom looks like. He took time to order his life in light of the Gospel. He took time to explore his new calling trying, failing, and growing along the way. Your post-high school years can be an amazing season to figure things out. It took Paul almost long enough to earn a Bachelor’s Degree before he joined the other apostles. You have time, take it.

Second, Jesus didn’t convert Paul then leave him hanging. The Lord sent him Ananias to care for him when he was blind and called Barnabas to mentor him in the ways of apostleship. Paul needed others around him while he figured things out. We need people in our lives who will show us grace, patience, and love like they showed Paul, a known oppressor. You need people that will love you into your calling. 

Lastly, confidence in your calling, your identity, and your future come with trusting the God who created you with those things in mind. You may not know what job you will work or what person you’ll marry or where you’ll live but if you believe Jesus to be the Lord of all of those things then it frees you to give those questions over to him. The more you know about Jesus, the more you will know about yourself. That pressure you feel trying to be perfect, Jesus gladly takes it, and did exactly that on the cross. How would your life be different if you were to study, live, work, sleep, eat, and love without the pressure to be perfect? This is exactly why Christ set you free.

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