“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.” — Galatians 1:17
If you aren’t looking for it you’ll miss it. This is the only place where Paul mentions going to Arabia after his conversion. He was there for three years, tucked away. What was he doing there? No one knows. He gives us hints, if we exegete what he says in Galatians, as to what went on in this place of solitude.
He was careful to note, for instance, what this time in Arabia was going to lead to. He would “preach [Christ] among the Gentiles”. This was something contradictory to the previous course of his life. Never had he entertained such a ridiculous thought before. Never had he given a second to preaching Christ of all things. Before Arabia, he was “breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples” (Acts 9:1). No one who knew Saul of Tarsus could have guessed he would take this turn in life. This is what carried him to Arabia. The great purpose God was leading him to fulfill.
Paul also tells us what preceded his move to Arabia. “But when God was pleased…to reveal His Son in me…” The vision of Christ on the Damascus Road drove a divine wedge into his heart that no man could ever remove. This was his moment of rebirth. Saul became Paul. Threats became praises. Sanhedrin member became apostle. Religious zeal became Christ-like zeal. It would have been natural to move from that life changing event to an extended period of anonymity while God worked out the implications of that vision.
I found myself asking, what was the most fruitful time of Paul’s life? The vision he had on the Damascus Road? The churches he established through the preaching of Christ to the Gentiles? His going to Arabia never crossed my mind. My whole believing life I have wanted to be fruitful. And when I thought of “fruitful” I saw it in terms of the supernatural things like the Damascus Road vision or the public things like preaching to the unknowing masses. That’s what I went to seminary for. I was training for my visions. My preaching. I was not training for times of solitude in Arabia. No one does.
When Paul says “But when God was pleased…to reveal His Son in me…” he is talking more about what happened throughout three years in Arabia than in one day on the Damascus Road. In the way to Damscus, Christ revealed himself to Saul. In Arabia, Christ revealed himself in Paul. There is a world of difference between “to” and “in”. The inward revelation of Christ to Paul was the slow, quiet metamorphosis of who he would become before the world stage. This couldn’t happen in a day or on a road. As painful as it must have been physically to be exposed to “a blinding flash of light” (Acts 9:3 MSG), how much more painful did it feel to be given clear sight for three years into the darkness that Paul had been living in? It must have been excruciating at times.
Yet, Paul chose this. Look at our text again in Galatians. He says, “…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.” He made up his mind to pursue isolation rather than the company of the apostles. He went to the desert instead of the great city. The answer as always is in the text: He didn’t want “to consult any human being”. He wanted to converse with Christ. He wanted to know this One who changed his whole world. He wanted to hear straight from the lips of the One he’d cursed.
Did he have conversations with Jesus during this time in the desert? Did he dictate while Jesus spoke to him? Or, was it mostly what the Spirit revealed to him through unending days of silence and waiting? We know more about what Jesus did for 40 days in the wilderness before his public ministry than we know of what Paul did for three years. If Satan was bold enough to attack Jesus in the desert, daring to offer him the world if only he would bow in worship, then we can guess how he must have assaulted Paul in his desert experience. As powerfully as God used the Scriptures during Jesus’ stay in the wilderness to build a defense for Jesus against Satan, He must also have used the Scriptures to break through Paul’s defenses in Arabia.
I’m beginning to see this time of preparation for the mission field as our Arabia. A period of time where God is tucking our family away and revealing himself in us. He already revealed Himself to us through the call to Go. We love telling our story. Others like to hear it. Our story is a reminder that God not only wants people to join Him in the wild adventure of redeeming the world to Himself, but that He reveals our part to us intimately, and often He does it in an epic way that gets our attention. He certainly got our attention. I enjoy walking people through the God-trail of our calling and maybe igniting a renewed faith in them. A faith that God will do the same in them.
I wonder if the reason Paul gives so little information about his stay in Arabia is because it was so deeply personal. Maybe the work of refinement that took place in him there was at times so painful and the joy of fellowship with Jesus so exquisite that words failed him. He didn’t complain about his stint there. He never wrote about being there and wishing God would put him in the game. Upon every opportunity, Paul would retell the story of his call. He loved telling it because it showed off the glory of God, and perhaps it gave those who heard it hope that God could use them, too. But, he didn’t say a word about what happened in Arabia. I want my time in Arabia to be as rich to me as Paul’s was for him.
“How lovely is the silence of growing things”. Lately I’ve been watching our children a little more closely, and smiling, and finding little joys in what they do. It’s because I didn’t hear them growing while it was going on right in front of me. The silence of growth is astonishing. And I’m hoping God is finding joy in me, too. I can’t hear myself growing but I feel it. I feel our marriage deepening. Our desire to know and please God is becoming so intense. But it’s unnervingly quiet in Arabia.
I know Paul must have wished in his most challenging times that he could somehow teleport back to his hidden time before it all began. The time where he was almost forgotten. The time where the world had almost stopped asking about him. When it was just him and God. When he didn’t move but stayed still in the hand of God. It must have also been in the thoughts that accompanied him in a Roman prison cell before leaving the world.
Give me the strength, the vision, the Grace, to be grateful even now for my time in Arabia. This time before God knows what transpires in Italy. I don’t want to fight against it but let the silence help me grow. What happens during this time could be so precious and transformative if only I will surrender. Help me to surrender.