A Willingness to ‘Suffer’

Since late August, I have been immersed in learning more about the Apostle Paul. As a latecomer to Christ – and someone who previously took great pleasure in mocking “weak-willed” and “crutch-needing” Christians – the life and ministry of Paul intersects with my own in more than a few uncomfortable places.

Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set FreeBoth of us once stood as enemies to God on the vertical axis and sworn enemies to His people on the horizontal. Where Paul gave himself entirely over to scrupulosity and the zeal that accompanied his Pharisaical studies at the feet of Gamaliel (Acts 22:3), I had given myself entirely over to Jack Daniels, among other distillers. As different in character as our sins may have appeared to the casual onlooker, Paul’s religion-fueled hatred and murder (Acts 7:54-8:3; 22:4) are no more or less horrible before the throne of God than my entrenched, self-serving paganism. Sure, we may differ on the method for pursuing our own agendas outside the will of God, but we were both as damnable. Where Paul took the path of legalism and self-justification (Acts 23:6; Philippians 3:5), I took the path of selfish pleasure and “bored intellectualism” that Paul found so prevalent among the Stoics and Epicureans at Mars Hill (Acts 17:16-21).

Both paths lead away from God and toward eternal death; who cares which bus you board if both of them are headed toward a fiery abyss?

One of my favorite passages of Scripture – perhaps because it is so puzzling as well as challenging – appears in 2 Corinthians 11:22-28 (ESV), Paul’s second letter to the church at Corinth, wherein he documents some – though not all – of the sufferings that were part and parcel of Christ’s call on him to be a witness to the Gentiles:

Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they offspring of Abraham? So am I. Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one – I am talking like a madman – 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. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.

If you have seen the 2004 film The Passion of the Christ, then there is no further need to argue the truth that even one lash or strike of the rod had to be incredibly painful, let alone 39. Let alone 39 times 5. Plus more. Paul’s physical body had to be absolutely covered with scars and other damage wrought by Jew and Gentile alike; his back alone must have been shredded beyond what most people could bear to look at.

Until very recently, however, it had never dawned on me that many of the beatings Paul received were not from Gentiles at all; instead, Paul was physically beaten by the Jews, his own people, as a direct result of his love for them and deep ache for his people to know Christ (Romans 9:1-5). Had Paul not loved his Jewish brethren so deeply, I suppose he could easily have taken his Gentile commission from Jesus (Acts 13:46-48) literally, and only preached to “safer” Gentile audiences, rather than making the local synagogue his first stop upon arriving at every town (Acts 17:1-3). In other words, much of Paul’s suffering came about precisely because he loved his Jewish brethren and cared more for them than his own well-being.

Currently, I am part of a team that facilitates¬†a small group for men struggling with various forms of persistent sin. When the group started a few years ago, however, I was the only leader, so my presence every week was critical. There were often times during those early months when I began to wish I “had my Monday evening back.” I was getting tired of leaving my house for 14-hour stretches as I rather like seeing my family. During that particular period, my “needs” wrestled for primacy over the needs of other men who faithfully showed up week after week. Admittedly, there were times when it was an act of sheer obedience to leave work at the end of the day and drive straight to church.

Paul On Trial Before Agrippa (Acts 26) by Nikolai Bodarevsky, 1875.

Conclusion? In contrast to Paul, I do a terrible job of loving people.

Happily, those days seem to be behind me. My body is aging, but my spirit grows in grace, and my heart for my brethren seems to be outpacing my own “needs” – at least more often. Nowadays, with just a few other leaders in our group, I could take a night off with some regularity. But I don’t. I find that both my wife and I genuinely love those guys, and we genuinely want them to know the freedom Christ can bring to their lives. So, we both willingly give up that night together for the sake of others. Hardly to be compared with the sufferings of Paul, to be sure, but nonetheless a small testament to the biblical truth that we only ever really find our lives when we gladly pour them out (Mark 8:35, 2 Corinthians 9:7).

Paul’s love for his people is amazing, a standard not easily reached, and one that is reminiscent of Christ’s sacrificial love for us. But this is the call on each of us, to love others in a way that costs us something, whether that’s time, money, emotional energy, or even blood.

F.F. Bruce can in no sense of the word be considered “light reading,” but the payoff has been huge. Studying the life of Paul through his letters and the history of his ministry has been immensely edifying; Paul challenges me to continue giving “till it hurts” to those around me. Including – or maybe especially – the guys in my small group. So far, no one has pulled out a bullwhip in response to my affirming Christ as the fulfillment of all the law and prophets, but if ever they do, I hope that I will be given the grace to endure it and the presence of mind to remember Jesus’ hand-picked messenger to the Gentiles.

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