A threadbare jacket, fastened to the top, concealed the absence of a shirt to protect him from the London chill. Homelessness tends to limit one’s sartorial options. Despite his talents, his résumé listed only failures: kicked out of seminary, three medical school exam failures, rejected by the military and by Oxford University. For a time he stayed with a prostitute. Broke, addicted to opium, and too proud to return home, he pondered suicide.
He did only two things well. He could write. And he could run from God.
But he couldn’t run fast enough or far enough. Choosing to live, he sent a sample of his writings to Wilfrid Meynell, a London publisher. Now he prepared to meet Meynell in the only place where this literary vagrant could consistently be found—a chemist’s shop—the pharmacy where he obtained the Laudanum (opium) to which he was addicted.
In the end, God won His race with that young addict, and Francis Thompson would make good on his second chance in life. He wrote an autobiographical poem about it, “The Hound of Heaven.” It begins:
I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him down the arches of the years;
I fled Him down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind . . . .
The poem recounts the relentless pursuit Thompson sensed in a God who would not leave him alone:
Still with unhurrying chase,
And unperturbéd pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
Came on the following Feet.
This is the same methodical pursuit that C. S. Lewis felt. Lewis, a former atheist turned Christian apologist, said he sensed “the steady unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet.”
In the end, both Thompson and Lewis found God not to be a mere possibility but an inevitability, and they gave in to their “enemy.” In the conclusion of his poem, Thompson imagines God speaking these tender words over him:
“Ah, fondest, blindest, weakest,
I am He Whom thou seekest!”
To us, the words are dated. No matter. Language changes; the human condition does not. Thompson’s struggles are ours. We merely have more distractions and amusements to help us avoid the possibility of a Supreme Being. As Thompson, Lewis, and many others have learned, the One we reflexively run from is the only One in whom we can find our true identity.
The apostle Paul’s story is dramatically different from Thompson’s and Lewis’s, yet he was every bit as far from God. Jesus had harsh words for the devoutly religious Pharisees who held power in ancient Judea, saying of them, “They crush people with unbearable religious demands and never lift a finger to ease the burden.”1 Paul was one of those Pharisees. In fact, he describes himself as among the strictest of them, and said, “I was so zealous that I persecuted the church.”2
As Paul (then called Saul) was on his way to arrest followers of Jesus, he literally heard from heaven. A supernatural light surrounded him, and he heard this pointed question: “Saul! Saul! Why are you persecuting me?”3
This miraculous intervention caused a dramatic reversal in Paul’s behavior, and he talked about it often. “For his [Jesus] sake I have discarded everything else,” he wrote, “counting it all as garbage, so that I could gain Christ and become one with him.”4
Paul’s dedication to a higher purpose is a longing we all share. Most of us, however, refuse to recognize it or we pursue it in the wrong places. Paul observed, “There are many whose conduct shows they are really enemies of the cross of Christ. They are headed for destruction. Their god is their appetite, they brag about shameful things, and they think only about this life here on earth.”5
Paul insisted on a different way. He wrote of Jesus, “He died for everyone so that those who receive his new life will no longer live for themselves. Instead, they will live for Christ, who died and was raised for them.”6
We can do this because “Anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun! And all this is a gift from God!”7
What does that mean for us? If we are “in Christ,” we must acknowledge that we too are the beneficiaries of a divine intervention. It’s a magnificent privilege, and it brings a responsibility that might intimidate us if we focus on ourselves. But true children of God don’t focus on themselves. They focus on Christ.
Those who are in Christ have a higher calling, an irrepressible purpose. Nobody describes it better than Paul. “God has given us this task of reconciling people to him. For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. And he gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation. So we are Christ’s ambassadors; God is making his appeal through us. We speak for Christ when we plead, ‘Come back to God!’”8
Francis Thompson knew he was running from God. C. S. Lewis didn’t believe he existed. Paul thought he was serving him. In actuality, all three were enemies of God. Yet God pursued them.
Thompson lived the rest of his life in community with fellow believers, writing first-rate poetry and prose that looked reflectively at God’s creatures. Lewis left us some of the most imaginative stories and rational defenses of Christianity in the English language. The apostle Paul? Well, despite calling himself “the worst of them all,”9 he left us with more than a dozen letters contained in the Bible, as well as an example of total commitment to his heavenly Father.
God created us. He loves us and pursues us. And he welcomes us into his family. “See how very much our Father loves us, for he calls us his children, and that is what we are!”10 That happy fact should infuse everything we do with joy and purpose. It’s who we are.