Paul was arguably the greatest missionary the Church has known. Interestingly, he had also been its greatest sinner (1 Tim. 1:15-16). How was God able to take a man who had been a hard-hearted oppressor and to convert him into a tender-hearted servant? Once, he had been forcing Christians to renounce Jesus, and now he was pleading with them, by any means, to receive Him:
· To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. (1 Corinthians 9:22; ESV)
What brought about this transformation? This is a question that all of us who want to be Christ-like ask.
The faithful Christian, Ananias, could hardly believe that such a transformation was possible. After God had told him to go to Paul and to lay his hands on him in prayer to receive his sight back, Ananias assumed that God was making a grave mistake. However, He explained:
· “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)
We can do nothing without God (2 Cor. 3:5; John 15:4-5). We must be chosen and equipped, but how does God equip? Paul wouldn’t be able to “carry my name before the Gentiles…” without suffering “for the sake of my name.”
I want to be everything to the Lord, but the extent of Paul’s suffering is mind-boggling. He related:
· You know it was because of a bodily ailment that I preached the gospel to you at first, and though my condition was a trial to you, you did not scorn or despise me… (Galatians 4:13-14)
Whatever his “bodily ailment,” it was a “trial to” the Galatians, something that might have caused them to “scorn or despise” Paul. How humiliating!
We do not know what this horrid ailment was. However, Paul understood that it had mysteriously enabled him to preach the Gospel.
Perplexing? Paul was taught that his work depended on learning to trust in God. This meant that he could no longer trust in Himself – his own abilities and winsomeness:
· For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. (2 Corinthians 1:8-9)
To learn to not trust in ourselves is horribly painful. It means being stripped of our pride and even our confidence that people will like, respect, and receive us. Paul’s ailment had caused him to despair of such confidence.
However, the stripping away of self-confidence and our pleasures took many other forms:
· To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless, and we labor, working with our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we entreat. We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things. (1 Corinthians 4:11-13)
Am I willing to pick up such a Cross? Can I? Certainly not by my own strength! “Lord help me!” And He does. Paul extended to us the promise of Christ-like-ness, one that would come with a price-tag:
· Always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. (2 Corinthians 4:10-11)
How can we endure this? Humanly, we cannot. Why am I relating this? To encourage you that our Lord has a purpose for your suffering. He is preparing you. Use this gift of suffering, knowing that it is not about you but about Him (Gal 2:20)!
The extent of Paul’s suffering was unbelievable:
· With far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. 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. (2 Corinthians 11:23-27)
Through God’s incomprehensible ministrations, instead of breaking Paul, God used suffering to produce in him a heart of compassion, as the next two verses demonstrate:
· And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant?
As if this wasn’t enough suffering, God added a “thorn in the flesh” in order to keep Paul humble and dependent. But He also gave Paul the understanding that His grace was enough to keep him afloat:
· 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 12:9-10)
If only we might learn that weakness is a gift. It forces us to look above to our only source of hope and strength. This is the only way that we can serve Him. “If God is for us, who can be against us” (Romans 8:31-32)!
Consequently, I inform my students that I no longer trust in myself; nor do I want too, lest I be deprived of the power of God.
Our Lord is able to make the least and most unworthy of us to stand for Him:
· Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand. (Romans 14:4)
I trust that the Lord will equip me to serve Him, even in martyrdom, if this is His calling. Therefore, let us take up our Cross.