When we think of the Apostle Paul we think of the missionary journeys, the evangelization of the Empire, writing the bulk of the New Testament, his martyric death, his ability to perform miracles. We think of the Damascus Road experience and how God accomplished such mighty works through him. His calling is truly momentous. Apart from his ministry, many of us, descendents of Europeans, may not ever have come to Christ. The effect of God’s grace on one man . . . it boggles the mind.
We forget, however, that his calling was a calling not simply to carry the name of Christ to Gentiles, kings and the children of Israel. It was also a calling to suffer many things for the sake of the Name.
But the Lord said to [Ananias], “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” (Acts 9:15-16 ESV)
Christ calls Saul, who will become the Apostle, and renamed Paul (“little”). This is Christ’s man. Through Paul’s ministry, Christ is going to spread his Gospel through the Roman Empire. The power of the Holy Spirit is going to be demonstrated through St Paul. One would think all the hosts of heaven are going to be marshaled to ensure this man gets the job done. The spiritual forces of darkness are going to come hard against this man. The early Christians no doubt “prayed a hedge of protection” around their beloved Paul. So what happened to him?
Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. (2 Corinthians 11:24-28)
God’s chosen instrument. I think it was St Teresa of Avila who, having been bucked off a horse into a river as she was going to visit one of her monasteries, once said to God: “If this is how you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few.”
This is the crux of the matter. We have entered into a covenant friendship with God, through his Son. We are indwelt by the Holy Spirit. The seal of God is upon us. We have been brought into the choir of his friends. We are, with Abraham, friends with God. And yet, sometimes we do not feel like there is any advantage to that friendship. Our lives are not immune from trouble and conflict. We lose jobs. We go without food. Our marriages fail. We lose loved ones. We feel cut off and alone. We may rejoice in worship on Sunday. But Monday comes and we still face the foreclosure on our home. The grave does not give back our dead. We receive the sacrament on our foreheads. But the pain of our infirmities does not diminish.
We are more than conquerors. St. Paul himself said so. And yet how weak we are.
Paul was given amazing visions, experiences of God that few of us will ever know. God’s chosen man. Taken up to the third heaven. Surpassing revelations. And yet . . .
So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:7-10)
Paul, whose sweat-soaked leather bands healed the sick through a simple touch, whose single word cast demons out of slave girls, who shook off poison serpents from his hand as though merely bit by a mosquito–this same Paul could not be healed or rid of his thorn in the flesh. A messenger of Satan. “He is my chosen instrument. I must show him how much he must suffer for my name.” And God allowed a Satanic harassment to remain in Paul’s life.
Paul could have asked, as we often do: “Why?” We are creatures seeking meaning. Suffering does not add up with a God of love and mercy. We want to reconcile the dichotomy. We wrestle with the theodicy. Like Job, like the blind man of John 9, Paul, however, reveals to us a different path. His power is displayed in our weaknesses.
It is so easy to become bitter when we suffer pain and heartache. We rush to balance the rational tripod of God’s power, love and goodness. It is an act of desperation. If we try to resolve the perceived imbalance, we will only draw forth from within ourselves all the hurt and resentment bleeding from our hearts. In our weakness we cannot handle the rush of such dark passions. Even if we could resolve it, it would neither comfort nor heal our bruised and battered hearts. We want presence, not philosophy.
Paul, it seems, was chosen not because of his learning, his pedigree or his Roman citizenship. Like King David of old, God bypassed these outward things to look into the heart. Whatever God saw there, it was enough. In the mystery of divine election, Paul was chosen. It seems that it was this singular fact by which Paul was able to grapple, by heart, with the suffering and afflictions which were his. He was able to perceive in them, not the power of Satan to accuse and destroy, but, rather, the power of God to strengthen, to comfort, and to glorify.
Let us admit our weakness. This teaching seems beyond us. We are not “good Christians.” We are certainly not Paul. But that is precisely the point. This wasn’t of Paul. It was Christ. Christ in you, the hope of glory. I do not know how this works. Paul didn’t say. But when we are weak, he is strong. We feel abandoned. We do not see the Shekinah. But he has not forsaken us.
Little ones to him belong. We are weak, but he is strong. Yes! Jesus loves me. Yes! Jesus loves me.