What Role Does Humility Play in Obedience? Learning from the Life of Saul/Paul

Written by: Angela O'Neill
Featured image for “What Role Does Humility Play in Obedience? Learning from the Life of Saul/Paul”

I recently had a conversation about how Saul—the persecuting Pharisee depicted in the New Testament—and Paul—the church-planting apostle who wrote most of the New Testament—were literally the same person. Yes, a name change occurred, but he still was the same man with the same bold qualities (leadership, intelligence, zeal, etc.). Known as both Saul and Paul, he had a dynamic impact on the people around him.

The change seen in him rests on the transformative work of Jesus. Paul was humbled to the point of surrender, and when that happens, everything changes. Paul was moved from prideful obedience to humble obedience.

Prideful Obedience

Trust in the Lord with all your heart

   and lean not on your own understanding;

in all your ways submit to him,

   and he will make your paths straight.

Proverbs 3:5–6 NIV

Before his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus, Saul was living a life of prideful obedience. He was obeying what he thought to be God’s will. As a well-educated Pharisee, Saul was (1) a religious leader, (2) well-acquainted with Jewish religious law, and (3) a man of influence. And like many Pharisees at the time, Saul was blind to the new thing God was doing all around him through the Spirit of Jesus.

Scripture does not reveal whether Saul and Jesus ever met before Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, but we find Saul as a major antagonist of the early church, fiercely persecuting the growing population of Christians in Jerusalem and its surrounding areas.

In this, Saul was not viewed as a villain by the vast majority of those who feared God at the time. Instead, those around him thought of Saul as being extremely obedient to God and his will. So when Saul oversaw the stoning of the first martyr, Stephen, as recorded in Acts 7, the crowd thought he was doing what was right in God’s eyes. But in reality, Saul was allowing pride to fuel his obedience.

He was trusting in his own understanding, will, and ideas when it came to obeying God. Saul’s pride made obedience about himself rather than about God. This self-focus resulted in many lives lost and, quite honestly, I have to imagine that Saul lived a miserable and angry existence at that time.

And, though we hopefully have never had anyone killed because of our pride, when following Jesus becomes about us—about our perceptions, our desires, our need to be right—there is so much danger that can come from our “obedience to God.”

So, what does it look like to practice humble obedience to God?

Humble Obedience

Do you see a person who is wise in his own eyes?

There is more hope for a fool than for him.

Proverbs 26:12 CSB

When Saul set out for Damascus, he intended to continue to persecute Christians, but God intended to use his journey as a mighty transformation. Paul encountered a bright light that brought him to the ground and a voice that asked the question,“ Why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4). This provoked an instantaneous shift in Saul’s posture.

It is important to remember here that Saul still had a choice. He could have ignored the voice, ignored the light, and told those with him to take a detour to a doctor because the light had blinded him. In scenarios like this, it is easier than you think to rationalize things away. Even when God is clearly leading us, we can decide that we know better.

But humility recognizes our position in regards to God. Saul recognized the Lord Jesus because Saul was brought low—both externally and internally. Because of this, Saul chose to obey the next command Jesus gave him—to go to Damascus. He was told he would be visited there by a Christian named Ananias. Someone who, just a minute ago, would have suffered under Saul’s quest of persecution was now going to be the one to help the fallen Pharisee.

This was the first step of humble obedience. Saul took on a new journey that would change him forever. Starting with obediently going to Damascus, the man who would become Paul recognized his position, eventually writing, “If anyone else thinks he has grounds for confidence in the flesh, I have more…But everything that was a gain to me, I have considered to be a loss because of Christ” (Philippians 3:4, 7 CSB).

The Comparison

Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.

James 4:10 CSB

In both cases above, Saul/Paul was a bold leader with a focused mission. What changed was Paul’s attitude and perspective towards God and himself. He saw in Jesus a loving God who “humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death—even to death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8. CSB). Refocusing his gifts towards God’s will, Saul recommitted his life to emulating his Lord with this same sort of humble obedience, growing into the influential church leader we now know as the apostle Paul.

His words are still leading us today through his letters, guiding churches and people on their own faith journeys. And while Paul’s life of humble obedience was not easy, he modeled how such a life can lead to powerful friendships, community, purpose, and an unspeakable joy.

He demonstrated how obedience that points to ourselves only leads to pride and death, but obedience that points to Jesus—his strength, his wisdom, his will—leads us to humility, service, and a confident purpose. In this, Paul teaches us that we are no longer the rulers of our own lives but that we should be humbly surrendered to Jesus in all that we do.

So what is Jesus’ will for our lives? To live surrendered to his lordship and committed to his glory, just like we see in Saul/Paul from the road to Damascus on!