...and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. (1 Cor. 15:8-9; NIV)
There are people you can't picture becoming Christians. I was having dinner with a man a number of years ago who was a committed atheist. He believed in natural selection, that only the strong were meant to survive, and that life was purely biological. For him, belief in God was an emotional refuge for the weak. He treated other people in a manner consistent with his beliefs; he either admired them for their strength or had contempt for their weakness. I watched him become exceedingly rude to the server who waited on us. At one point he was so frustrated, after failing to attract her attention, that he threw a fork at her from across the room, and then berated her verbally when she came to our table. She was, to him, only worthy of contempt. I have to say, the man lived consistent to his beliefs.
I often wonder, as I am interacting with people who see the world in such an extreme way, how they could ever find their way to Christ. It seems impossible. I am sitting across the table, listening to this man explain his view on life, and thinking, he will never be a believer. No way.
Then I remembered that I was, at one time, deep in my own sin. That I had failed God and crossed lines which were pretty horrible. It was only because of loss and pain that I turned and put my trust in him. I am an expression of his grace, washed clean by the blood of Christ, and transformed by his love. My values, my desires, the goals of my life—everything is different because of God's love for me and the work of his Spirit in me. Love is not a feeling God has, it is a direct action, both in human history—at the cross of Christ—and active in the hearts of men and women who trust in him. It is grace, a gift. I do not deserve his mercy for what I've done. The man who sat across from me was no different. My calling is not to wonder about what God can accomplish. My calling is share his love with the people he brings into my life, so that they too might know him.
I think about Ananias in Acts 9:10-16. God sent him to heal Paul of his blindness, but Ananias recoiled, knowing that Paul was a deadly threat to Christians.
But the Lord said to Ananias, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.” (Acts 9:15-16; NIV)
To wonder about whether someone can be changed by the power of God is just presumption. He is sovereign and can accomplish his purpose. Paul was an expression of that purpose. I am also, and you are as well, if you have trusted in him. It is not simply what God does, it is who he is. He can do no other. We are the desire of his heart, the expression of his will, from creation to the moment we stand with him in his kingdom. Our father wants to be restored to his children. Nothing is more important to him.
If you read these words and have not yet trusted in him, then you are no different than Paul was, at one point. It matters not at all what things you have done in your life, however horrible you think they may be. Your father is waiting. If you will turn away from the illusion that surrounds you and walk into his arms, a great destiny awaits. And a love so amazing that nothing in this world can compare.
Paul says that God's grace to him was not without effect. By that he means it led him into a life of sacrifice and service, to proclaim God's name before the lost and the mighty. That is the nature of God's grace. It is not just mercy, it is also transformation. The gift we receive changes us forever. As we are restored to our relationship with him, we become like him. His heart becomes ours. As a result, we take on his work, a mission of love to those who may well be enemies of the cross. That includes atheists who view Christians with disdain, like the man sitting across from me that day. But God already achieved the apparently impossible task of reaching us. If he can reach us, wash us clean, and change our hearts, he can reach that man too.
Who would have picked us to serve the most High God? At one point, probably no one. Definitely not me. But by his grace, we are who we are, now. And the people he brings into our lives, they may be next.