Today we conclude our tour of Bible characters who suffered by looking briefly at the life of the Apostle Paul. His journey with struggle and suffering has been more widely taught, so hopefully today’s episode will be a little shorter than the last few days. No, that isn’t a promise.
Paul’s journey begins under a different name: Saul. We learn of his involvement in persecuting the church when the first martyr, Stephen was stoned to death. Those who participated in the stoning laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. What’s going on here?
Well, it may not be much, but there is something to learn. When they stoned someone, they were to take the person to a place that was at least twice their height, throw them from it and then drop stones on the person until they died. Stoning someone was a physically demanding task, as it involved carrying large stones up to a roof or a cliff. So, the reason for them taking off their garments could have been as simple as the men were going to be hot and took off their sweatshirt. What’s significant about them laying their garments at the feet of Paul is that, at the very least, this shows they trusted Paul enough to leave their valuable outer garments in his care. It could even been a way of honoring him as the leader of the persecution.
We learn later that Paul was in fact responsible for persecuting the church. In Acts 8:3, we see that “Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison.” And in Acts 9 we learn that Jesus himself “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
One of Paul’s first experiences of struggle was blindness. Before coming to Christ, Christ blinded him. Paul had such a reputation for persecuting Christians that when God told Ananias to go minister to Paul, he says, “I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your holy people in Jerusalem. He has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name.” So, Paul had the blessing of the leaders in Jerusalem to persecute the church.
Ananias goes and shares with Saul, “Brother Saul, the Lord – Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here- has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit. Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized.” We learn that he immediately started to preach in the Synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God.
The story drifts to the Apostle Peter for a while, who eventually shows that he still has some room for growth because Paul had to confront him for being a hypocrite because he stopped eating with the gentiles when some friends of James showed up. But, eventually, Paul takes on an increasingly serious role in taking the Gospel to the gentiles as he had been called. He goes on missionary journeys with people like Barnabas which is short-lived. In Acts 15, we see that Barnabas wanted to bring John Mark on the journey with them, but Paul didn’t agree because Mark had deserted them. “They had such a sharp disagreement,” Luke reports in Acts 15:39, “that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and left.”
It would be Paul and Silas who get thrown in prison, sing hymns to the Lord at midnight which is followed by an earthquake that sets all the prisoners free. When the guard is about to kill himself because he assumed all the prisoners had escaped, Paul urges him “Don’t harm yourself! We’re all here!” and then gets to lead the guard to Christ.
In 2 Cor 11:24-28, Paul gives a great summary of all the things that he suffered in the name of Christ:
“Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches.”
If you were talking to someone nowadays and they rattled off a list like this, you’d probably, “Man, you’ve got some really bad luck” and offer to get them a rabbits foot, a four leaf clover or their own personal leprechaun to follow them around for the rest of their life. (Leprechauns are lucky right? Oh yeah, Lucky Charms.) It sounds like Paul spent the majority of his ministry as a missionary and church planter in trouble with the law.
Interestingly, this list of Paul’s sufferings comes in the midst of an argument about boasting. He’s making his case as one of Jesus’s apostles in contrast to the so-called “Super-apostles” who were luring people away from the true Jesus to a different idea of Jesus all together. Part of his reason for sharing his list of struggles is proof of his apostleship.
But, then Paul’s argument takes a turn that is incredibly helpful for us in the context of suffering. At first he says, “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.” Then he either boasts about himself in the third person or is talking about someone who had an out of body experience. And finally we come to these verses in 12:8-10.
“Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from 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 about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
Paul’s death is not recorded in the New Testament, but tradition holds that he was beheaded in Rome where he was on trial for his faith, becoming the very thing he had created as a persecutor – a martyr.
What can we learn about suffering from the life of Paul?
1.) Though you may be forgiven of your past and though, there still may be consequences that cause struggle in your present, it is still something God can redeem.
We learn in Acts 9 that God had planned for Paul to be his chosen instrument to bring the gospel to the gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel. But, Paul’s ability to reach the Israelites was limited because of his past and his conversion. Paul may have even desired to stay among the Israelites and spend his life rescuing them. That’s a big part of his early ministry. But in Acts 13, we learn that they are just as unreceptive to Paul as they were to Peter and Jesus. So they decided to take the gospel to the gentiles, to which the Jews responded by stirring up the religious leaders and inciting a mob against Paul and Barnabas, causing them to shake the dust off their feet and leave town.
I believe God redeems everything in the life of a believer. Even the nastiest, worst parts of our past are his to redeem if we will let Him. Paul was essentially the head man of the mob who was responsible for the deaths of many Christians. And yet, God used that for his higher purpose of taking the Gospel to the gentiles. Because God redeems everything in the life of a believer if we let Him. And when we do, we often discover he has a purpose for us that redeems the pain. Whether it was pain we caused or pain that was caused to us, the baggage of a repentant believer’s past can become a foundation for ministry in the future.
2.) The cause of the gospel is more important than my situation.
I’m drawn to Paul and Silas in prison, having the opportunity to escape but choosing to stay behind. I’m not quite sure what compelled them to stay instead of run, but it had to at least partly be because of a prompting of the Holy Spirit for the salvation of the guard and his household.
In the same scenario, I might be tempted to run for my life. But, look at the testimony they had for staying! I have had the joy of leading people to Christ in my life, and I can tell you one more life coming to Christ would be worth a lot to me. Just because the prison doors have been opened doesn’t mean we’re supposed to flea. Maybe sometimes, but the important thing is the gospel in every situation.
3.) When I am weak, then I am strong.
Remember Paul talking about the thorn in his flesh, whatever that was? (What if it was just an actual thorn that would never come out?) He said: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
This is where we finish our tour of Bible characters who struggled. And it’s because I can see it as a theme of every story we have told. “My power is made perfect in weakness.” You can see it in Joseph. It wasn’t his ability to interpret dreams that got him before the Pharaoh, it was something God gave him. It wasn’t Elijah’s ability to call down fire from heaven and defeat the prophets of Baal and Asherah, it was God’s. It wasn’t Job’s ability to endure the struggle that made him significant, it was that he turned to God. It wasn’t John the Baptist’s strength that made him the greatest man that was ever born, it was that he had been given authority and power from God to prepare the way.
I’ll be the first to admit that I hate struggle and suffering. I wish everything was easy. I wish being a good husband and father or a good pastor and teacher had an easy button, but it doesn’t. I wish sharing the gospel, bringing in the lost sheep and making disciples were easy tasks, they’re not. I wish I could go through the rest of my life without any kind of pain or heartache, I won’t.
But, could it be, that suffering is different for the believer? Could it be that, apart from Christ we ask questions about suffering, and how could a good God allow these things to happen? And without God, we are literally without hope in this world. The suffering is just suffering and then you die. But for a believer, yes there is still suffering and no we may not fully understand why it all happens, but in it all and through it all we know that our redeemer lives and that in the end he will stand on the earth. and that we will see him with our own eyes. (Job 19:25-27)
My mom shared a verse with me today as I write this that has helped her the unknowns: Deut 29:29 – “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.”
Maybe we should stop asking so many why questions. I ask it too often. And maybe, like Job learned, we just need to trust that God is good in it all and that God works everything for the good for those who love Him and have been called according to his purpose. And maybe, the point isn’t for the world to see how great and awesome our faith is, how we are the next patriarchs of Christianity and that we are the ones the world was not worthy of (Hebrews 11:38), but that in it all and through it all God’s power has been on display in our lives.
God will not compete for control of our lives. He wants our total surrender to His higher ways. If you take a 9 volt battery (Please don’t do this), connect a lead to each terminal and then connect those leads to an outlet, something bad happens. The battery gets fried, maybe explodes and legend has it that the battery may even shoot across the room. The power coming from he outlet is so much greater than the battery and a different kind of power (AC versus DC) that isn’t compatible with the current. You might even trip the breaker.
This is our power compared to God’s. Sure, we do have some strength, but God is not impressed by it. He’s running an 5,000 volts times infinity. And we come along with our little 9 volt batter and attempt to prove that we can do this Jesus thing on our own. But every time we keep trying to run on our own power, we disrupt what God wants to do with his infinite power. God wants us to surrender, to detach ourselves from our own 9 volt power supply and be totally powered and dependent on his infinite, continuous power.
Maybe the point in it all is that it is God’s power that is made perfect in our weakness, and we, like Paul, boast in our weakness so that more and more of Christ’s power may rest on us. Because when we are weak, when we stop trying to do things by our own limited power and finite understanding…when we stop looking for opportunities to prove that our way of thinking, our way of living and our way of following Jesus is the right way, when we admit that were it not for Christ, we would still be separated from Christ, longing to be grafted into the tree…Maybe, we will start to understand that our strength is not even a sand on the seashore compared to God’s infinite, limitless strength and being emptied of our power and any ability we might have to try to do things in our own way is exactly what we need so that His power, His strength, His grace, His hope and His love might be able to be perfected in our weakness. When I am weak is the only time I’m really ever strong.