“Heel realization” is a classic storytelling trope, but it also happens in real life. This is the moment that a character realizes they’re a villain and exclaims something like, “What have I done?” The Bible has such characters in its own text.
While we often think of Jewish and Christian religion as two different things, the first century would have generally thought of Christianity as a Jewish movement, since that was the religion it was founded upon. The essential difference between Judaism and its new offshoot, was that classic Judaism was still waiting for the Messiah, and this new Judaism proclaimed that the Messiah had already come in Jesus.
As you might expect, there were many Jewish religious leaders that were appalled by this new Jewish movement. The Messiah was key to everything, so if you didn’t believe that Jesus was the Messiah, you would adamantly try to stop anyone from saying so. And few religious leaders were more passionately against this new Jewish-Christianity than the man we call “Paul.” He approved of the stoning of the first Christian martyr and he barged into Christian houses and carried the families off to prison. He was on a crusade.
But despite his villainy, Paul truly cared about serving God. Indeed, his great persecution against the church came out of his great zeal for God. In his mind he thought he was doing the right thing by squashing out this new Jewish movement. Even though he was deeply wrong, Jesus knew that Paul authentically wanted to serve God, so he revealed himself directly to Paul, causing his “heel realization.” By attacking the church, Paul had unwittingly become a villain to the very God he loved. With this new realization, Paul took his zeal and gave it 100% to the church, instead of against the church. He continued to serve God, but in a way he never expected he would. And as he did, Jesus began to put all the pieces together for him and he went on to become one of the greatest missionaries, apostles, theologians, and Bible writers we’ve ever had.
Religious zeal is a powerful and effective tool, but misapplied it is the most dangerous of zeals. As C.S. Lewis once said, “If the divine call does not make us better, it will make us very much worse. Of all bad men, religious bad men are the worst.” It’s true. And unfortunately, the church is not immune to raising up the same kind of dangerous people. Within our ranks are people deeply convinced of dangerous un-Jesus-like theologies and conspiracies. But because Christian villains have zeal for the same Jesus, there’s always the possibility that the truth might break in as we pray for them, love them and teach them.
*This devotional was created out of the themes of Acts 8:1-13 found in today’s reading at CommonPrayer.net. C.S. Lewis quote from his book, Reflections on the Psalms.