Paul Finds God’s Strength In Suffering
Published: May 7, 2009
Paul preached where he was not welcome and he disputed with doubters in public places. To too many, Paul was a pest. This is the first charge we hear his prosecutor from the Sanhedrin, Tertullis, make against him as he is presented to the Roman Governor Felix for trial (Acts 24:5). This was no small charge among Jews of the time.
Today, we think of mosquitoes as pests, which seem to suggest a mere nuisance, but if we were all suffering from malaria we would have a better idea of what it meant in those times to be called a pest.
A pest was one step from becoming a pestilence, the fifth plague Moses brought against Egypt (Exodus 9:1-7).
If the Sanhedrin found Paul to be a pest, an examination of Paul’s life as an apostle would suggest that he himself had endured a plague of sufferings on several occasions.
In his own words, Paul says, “Five times at the hands of the Jews I received 40 lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I passed a night and a day on the deep; 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” (2 Corinthians 11:24- 28).
Paul also frequently found himself in prison. Of the 13 letters in the New Testament where Paul is identified as the author, in five of them we are told he is writing from prison. It is with great difficulty that scholars try to identify where and when some of them may have been written, because Paul, it seems, made a pest of himself everywhere he went. There may well have been periods and places of imprisonment that have never been identified.
It might seem that a life of such turmoil, especially one that ended in a final imprisonment and execution by beheading, could hardly be said to be praiseworthy, let alone successful. And yet it is the turmoil, the suffering and the incarcerations that Paul brags about in his life. When Paul tells the Corinthians of his many ordeals, he quite plainly assures them, he is boasting (2 Corinthians 11:16-21).
For Paul, his sufferings, which he calls weaknesses, are boast-worthy precisely because they leave so much room for God’s strength to be revealed in Paul’s life. Three times he had asked God for release from a particular (but not explicitly named) affliction, only to be told, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
For that reason, Paul goes on to say, “I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong” (12:10).
This, perhaps, more than anything else, encapsulates both St. Paul’s spirituality and his inestimable legacy as Christ’s apostle to the Gentiles. When Paul was weak, God was all the stronger in his life—even in his death.
We see this in almost every aspect of the apostle’s life, but his imprisonments are especially good examples. As an apostle, it was Paul’s mission to travel—unfettered by any of the more typical cares of the world—“to the ends of the earth” (see 1 Corinthians 7:29-31 and Acts 13:46-47). It would seem the greatest defeat to his calling to be chained in prison.
Paul took courage from the fact that it was because of his faithfulness that he had been imprisoned. His letter to Philemon opens with a proud declaration of his identity: “Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus” (verse 1). In Ephesians we read something similar, but with an even more pointed twist: “I, Paul, a prisoner of Christ (Jesus) for you Gentiles” (3:1).
In Second Timothy, Paul’s confidence that his chains have not slowed his purpose in life is once again revealed: “Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David: such is my Gospel, for which I am suffering, even to the point of chains, like a criminal. But the word of God is not chained” (2:9).
Perhaps even because of his chains, the Gospel Paul preached not only went to the ends of the earth, it has spanned the globe for nearly 2,000 years. If the name of Christ is found as praise upon our lips, let us thank the apostle who was not ashamed to be found weak in order that we might know strength in Christ.
This article was originally published in the Arkansas Catholic, April 11, 2009. Copyright Diocese of Little Rock. All rights reserved.
This is the eleventh in a series of 13 columns on St. Paul and his teachings, written by the directors of the Little Rock Scripture Study (Diocese of Little Rock, Ark.) for the Jubilee Year of St. Paul. The Jubilee marks the 2,000-year anniversary of the apostle’s birth.