The possibility of conversion, or sudden change, is one of the most relevant topics in almost every area of human endeavor. Present-day psychologists, psychiatrists, and psychotherapists believe, contrary to Freud that you can transcend your childhood; you need not be what your parents have made you. That’s good news.
The medical world is examining the possibility of change. Recently, cardiovascular researchers separated all of us into two types, type A and type B. Type As are hard-working, over-achievers who are prone to die of heart attacks. Type Bs go through life smelling the roses, having fun, and enjoying the world, and they tend to live longer. Now instead of concentrating solely on methods of treatment for Type As doctors are asking if there is a chance that Type A can be changed into Type B. Some educators are now suggesting that I.Q. is changeable. That score you achieved in the primary grades may not be fixed at all. There are indications that I.Q. scores can be raised and that radical changes are possible.
Conversion is at the very center of the biblical message. Throughout the Old and New Testaments, the message is that it’s never too late to change. You’re not locked into what you have always been and done. You are not a prisoner of your track record.
History is littered with examples of sudden and surprising conversions. John Wesley—son of an Anglican priest and missionary to America—had one. This great theological giant returned to England discouraged and defeated. One day, sitting in a chapel in Aldersgate, he found “his heart strangely warmed.” John Wesley was converted and became the great fountain of life for the Methodists and for all of England.
St. Augustine had a dramatic conversion. The same monk who had such struggles with the temptations of the flesh, who prayed, “O Lord, make me pure, but not yet,” became the great saint we revere today. William Booth was an unlikely convert. This rough-cut man appalled that the poor and the homeless had nowhere to turn, founded the Salvation Army. One day he prayed, “Lord, I give you everything there is in this man, William Booth. Do with me what you will.” With that one man’s conversion, a movement started that changed hundreds of thousands of lives.
In terms of the conversion experience, the story of Zacchaeus is an important case study. Jesus was coming to visit Jericho, a town far below sea level by the Jordan River. It was then a very important center of commerce, the hub of all the trade routes from Jerusalem. King Herod had a palace there. It was a historic city. Mark Antony once gave Jericho to Cleopatra as a present. Joshua and his trumpeters had brought down its walls.
Jesus was passing through this important city, and crowds had come out to see Him. Zacchaeus, a wealthy tax collector, was a part of that crowd. But, being vertically challenged, he could not see, so what did he do? He climbed a tree.
The parade finally arrives. Jesus passes by, and in spite of the crowd on both sides of the road, He notices Zacchaeus. He summons him to come down and feed His disciples and Himself. I’ve often wondered why, out of the entire city of Jericho, Jesus zeroes in on Zacchaeus. I used to think it was because the conversion of a corrupt tax collector would be such a powerful demonstration of the power of God. But, I think Jesus went through that town looking for the most ready and open person there. Though Zacchaeus seemed the least religious, he was the most hungry for the new life God had for him.
Luke gives us a condensed story of the encounter. They go home; they sit and eat. When it comes to what they discussed, we have no record, but I have a feeling that when you sit in the presence of Ultimate Love, you are the agenda.
Zacchaeus was an immediate convert, and his faith was put into practice instantly. He says, “Guess what? I’m going to pay back everything I’ve defrauded fourfold.” That was not generous. According to Roman law, if you defrauded somebody, you were to repay them fourfold. He met the law’s requirements, but beyond that, he declares he will give away half of his goods. That was entirely voluntary.
Jesus says, “Today, salvation has come to this house.” Zacchaeus went cold turkey, like an addict who gives up drugs or alcohol, with no gradual withdrawal. In an instant, he gave up his money and his old lifestyle, and salvation was pronounced.
This conversion need not be sudden. It can be a long time coming. The physical birth process in its final stages takes just minutes or even seconds, but that baby has been coming for nine months. Sometimes conversion looks sudden, but the struggle may have been going on for a long time. The Hound of Heaven, to use the phrase from Francis Thompson’s wonderful poem, has pursued you down the labyrinth of years. One day you stop running, and He overtakes you.
The good news here and all through Scripture is that it is never too late; you can begin again. Who are the converted, according to the biblical record? Abraham the liar. Jacob the cheat. David the adulterer. Rahab the harlot. Peter the coward. Nicodemus the proud religious leader. All unlikely converts.
As we approach Easter, focusing on our 1’s, I think we all have what we would consider unlikely candidates in our circle of influence. But you never know the seeds planted in someone’s life, you never know where their hearts are in the process. You never know where you fit in their journey. You might be the one to help them reach the moment of salvation; you might simply be a seed planted. Either way, it’s up to us to be the message of salvation to those around us regardless of where we fit in their story.