Daily Office Readings – New Testament ( Acts 26:1-23 )

In today’s reading, Paul is defending himself against the accusations made against him in the court of King Agrippa. During his defense, he recounts the story of his conversion. A great light, brighter than the sun, shone around him and his companions and they all fell to the ground. Then a voice said to Paul, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It hurts you to kick against the goads.”

I’ve read this phrase multiple times, and each time I see a slightly different meaning in those words. This phrase pushed me to get a degree in theology because I knew at the time that that was what I needed to do, despite my own desires. I have often said that I went to seminary, kicking and screaming, and so I understand how Paul may have felt when confronted by God on the road to Damascus. At other times in my life, I’ve seen myself reflected in this phrase as I remained in a situation for far longer than I should have simply because I kept holding out hope for a better future, despite knowing that God was prompting me in a new direction.

This phrase – kicking against the goads – draws out the image of a head-strong animal. There is an animal being prodded with a sharp stick to get it to do what the person in charge wants. The animal does not like what is happening, and sometimes, the animal kicks against the goad, which in turn just means that it is stuck even deeper with the sharp end of the stick. In other words, it hurt the animal to go against the prodding of the one in charge. It hurt them more than if they had just followed the promptings. Their pain was increased by ignoring the prompting of the Divine.

And this was Paul. As a Pharisee, under the authority of the Chief Priest, he pursued the followers of the Way to foreign countries and cities, with a relentless perseverance because he was “so furiously enraged” at them. And then when he became a follower of Christ, Paul pursued the conversion of people in foreign countries and cities with the same relentless perseverance that he showed in persecuting Christians before this moment beneath the bright light on the road to Damascus.

Since hope is a key component of perseverance, I have to wonder what kept Paul moving forward in his furious purging of Christians from the world. This story of Paul’s conversion suggests to me that God had already been goading Paul in several ways. What exactly was Paul hoping for that he would choose to overlook the ways in which God was goading him? God had to show up in a mighty way to finally make it impossible for Paul to follow his own plan. Blinded, Paul would listen, he would hear the truth. Without God showing up with this incredible display of power, Paul would have continued on the path of destruction, killing more and more of those that followed Christ. He would have continued rounding up people with that unrelenting perseverance he is known for.

In the Shawshank Redemption, Andy and Ellis are having a conversation over lunch. Andy has just gotten out of solitary confinement, and Andy mentions that he survived it by having hope. Ellis responds with, “Let me tell you something, my friend. Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane.”

One of the curious things about this conversation is that both Andy and Ellis are right about hope.

Hope can keep you moving forward in a difficult situation, when the deck seems stacked against you. It can make an unbearable situation bearable, or at the very least, survivable. That is the hope that Andy was talking about. He held on to the idea that things could become better, that there was a glimmer of hope, even in the darkest cell. He was describing perseverance.

But hope can also keep you moving forward in a difficult situation, when the deck seems stacked against you, when the odds are never in your favor. It can make an unbearable situation bearable by constantly providing new straws to grasp at that provide just enough strength for one more day. This is the hope that Ellis was talking about. Holding on to the futile idea of greener pastures when reality showed no hope of ever seeing those pastures is enough to warp one’s sense of reality. Ellis was describing insanity, the cyclical futility of grasping at new straws, simply to maintain a fantasy.

Today again, this phrase jumped out at me. It reminds me again to take a long, hard look at my own desires, my own situation. It reminds me again to discern my current situation, and see if I am firmly in the camp of those who persevere, or have pitched a tent in the fields of insanity.

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