Certainly, you’ve heard about my past, how in Judaism I hunted down the church and tried to annihilate it. I was so dedicated to my ancestral religion that I excelled way beyond my peers. But, God had marked me before birth. So, when God deigned to grant me a vision of God’s son and called me to tell the heathen about him, I didn’t consult with anyone. I didn’t go ask the Apostles in Jerusalem, even though they were Apostles before I was. Instead, I went immediately to Arabia, and then to Damascus.
After three years I went to Jerusalem to see Cephas. I stayed with him 15 days, but aside from James, Jesus’s brother, I didn’t see any of the others. I swear to God, I’m not lying about any of this!
After that I went to Syria and Cilicia. I’d never met any of the Christians in Judea personally. All they knew was what they heard about the guy who’d been hunting us is now promoting the movement he once tried to wipe out. So on my account they thanked God.
While the book of Acts reports in great detail the famous “three missionary journeys of Paul,” we only find out here that between that “Damascus Road” vision and his actual arrival in Damascus (Acts 9:1-9) there was a three-year missionary journey to Arabia. Then, after that first meeting with Peter in Jerusalem (unreported in Acts) another 14 year tour of Syria and Cilicia (Modern Turkey, around the northeast coast of the Mediterranean Sea).
On these two missionary journeys, Paul has very little to say, other than that this was the segue from his “former life” and the rest of the New Testament, nothing at all. Probably because these first two unreported missionary journeys were complete failures. There is, for those 17 years in all, nothing to report, except that everyone else is thankful Paul is no longer trying to hunt them down.
That Paul spent 17 years as a failure may at first come to many as a shock. It may be disappointing to realize that someone so greatly remembered had so many years of nothing to show for his efforts. But success always looks inevitable when it finally happens. The vast majority of the time, the real story is that people who are great successes spent years of not being successful. Some die as failures before the world realizes posthumously the significance of their work. It doesn’t take much to find a pretty long list of superstars and millionaires who spent time in homeless shelters.
There’s no guarantee, of course, that even long years of hard work are going to pay off in the end. Not everybody lives happily ever after. Sometimes, as in Paul’s case, it requires finally changing some things about what you’re doing. What is certain is that overnight successes seldom are really overnight. You have to put in the time, push through the resistance. Like the virtuoso who was asked how to get to Carnegie Hall said, “Practice, practice, practice.” There are no shortcuts.
The rock-bottom truth is that if you believe in something as much as Paul did, you’re not really looking for short and easy. If you believe in something the way Paul does, you’re working hard trying to get it right. That’s the only way it will ever really be great.