The Power of Unlearning
We first encounter Saul in Acts 7:58. Stephen is being executed for his appearance before the Sanhedrin. His defense of the gospel is so impassioned, so eloquent, that he has been condemned to death. We are told, “And the witnesses [those who were stoning Stephen] laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul.” A few verses later (Acts 8:1) we read, “And Saul approved of his [Stephen’s] execution.”
Following this episode, Saul becomes an outspoken persecutor of Christians, entering people’s houses, dragging them out, and putting them in prison. If we skip ahead to Acts 9:1 we find Saul “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord,” so enraged by this new religion that he obtains permission from the high priest to pursue Christians all the way to Damascus.
What a progression! Saul begins by watching over the coats of the men who stone one Christian—a passive role. Next we find him approving of Stephen’s murder. From there he becomes a persecutor of the church to the extent that he is willing to leave Jerusalem and go in search of those he hates while “breathing threats and murder.”
John Seely Brown had something to say about Saul’s attitude:
Learning is important for both people and organizations. But the real challenge today is unlearning, which is much harder. Each of us has a “mental model” that we’ve used over the years to make sense of the world. But the new world…behaves differently from the world in which we grew up.
Before any of us can learn new things, we have to make our current assumptions explicit and find ways to challenge them. This is no academic exercise, and it doesn’t come naturally.
In fact, the harder you fight to hold on to specific assumptions, the more likely there is gold in letting go of them.
It almost sounds as if Brown had Saul in mind when he wrote this, doesn’t it? Saul began as a noncombatant in the war against Christianity. Instead of challenging his assumptions about the new world he found himself living in, he fought harder to hold on to them. From (somewhat) innocent bystander he grew to be an active persecutor of the new faith, eager to imprison Jews for believing that Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah whom God had promised.
Saul wouldn’t challenge his assumptions, but there was One waiting to challenge them for him. We know what happens in Acts 9. Saul is traveling the road to Damascus. We can almost see the steam rising from him as he continues to breathe “threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord.” He is quite possibly drawing up in his mind a list of the things he will do to them before he turns them over to the high priest in Jerusalem. He will show no mercy. Torture—even death—are too good for these heretics.
And then the light dawns—a light so bright that it obscures even the fire of his white-hot anger. His assumptions and prejudices melt under the power of this light. He becomes physically blind as he receives spiritual sight. The old world order dims as the new one dawns.
What happens after this turning point? Most of the rest of Acts is the story of Paul’s missionary journeys throughout the Middle East. He becomes a combatant for Christ. Gone are the thoughts of persecuting the church. Instead, he becomes its most ardent defender, putting on the whole armor of God as he encouraged others to do.
What assumptions and prejudices do we need to challenge? Is God trying to shine a light on the darkness of our old world order so we can become more ardent supporters of Jesus Christ? How hard are we fighting to hold onto old ways of thinking and old habits when we could find gold in giving them up?