“I know indeed how to live in humble circumstances; I know also how to live with abundance. In every circumstance and in all things I have learned the secret of being well fed and of going hungry, of living in abundance and of being in need” (Philippians 4:12).
“…Are they ministers of Christ? …I am still more, with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, far worse beatings, and numerous brushes with death. Five times… I received forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, …on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my own race, dangers from Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers at sea, dangers among false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many sleepless nights, through hunger and thirst, through frequent fastings, through cold and exposure. And apart from these things, there is the daily pressure upon me of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is led to sin, and I am not indignant? If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. (2 Corinthians 11:22-29)
St. Paul was an extraordinary man and an extraordinary Christian. An Apostle, raised up “out of the ordinary course”, he accomplished great things for the Lord as he eagerly responded to His calling to build the Church and, through her, to help change the world. His influence continues in the letters he wrote to the early Church, his intercession and his example. A man so profoundly close to the Lord he followed that he had mystical experiences arising out of his genuine interior life, his intimate communion with God. He certainly had a “relationship with the Lord” and his prayer life seemed “pretty solid” as they say.
Yet, this Apostle suffered greatly. He was misunderstood, betrayed by brethren, and he experienced intense emotional, economic and physical hardships. He had many reasons to become bitter. He did not. He became better. That is our challenge as we embark, every day, on this journey of faith called the Christian life. No-one will avoid difficulty in life. Anyone who says otherwise is woefully misinformed at best and teaching error at worst.
Because of his close communion with Jesus, the One who had called him in the desert, Paul had the interior strength that only comes from living a fully surrendered life. The Lord who called him had changed him in the encounter. This is reflected, as is often the case in the biblical accounts of vocational callings, with the change of his name from Saul to Paul. But this change, the ongoing conversion, continued as Paul learned to empty himself so that he could be filled with God.
In our own lives, we will suffer, we will be misunderstood, betrayed by friends, “shipwrecked”, at least figuratively, and we will suffer the instability that often accompanies the struggles of daily life. Paul shows us the way to choose the better way, the way of discipleship. When we make that choice we will find the path to contentment and the way of peace. Bitter or better? The choice is ours. Let us choose the way of following Jesus Christ in the footsteps of St. Paul and learn to boast of our weakness and hide in God’s strength.