Last night I spent a lot of time thinking about Paul - arguably the greatest apostle of all time. He went from being a murderer of Christians to being one of the most zealous Christ-followers that ever lived. Before his ministry began, Jesus said to his disciple Ananias, "(Paul) 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).
Not exactly the ideal "welcome to Christianity" message.
In Paul's second letter to the Christians in the city of Corinth Paul records his sufferings as a Christian: "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" (2 Corinthians 11:24-29).
How? Even when the suffering was something God could have taken away, something that Paul saw as unnecessary, he endured that, too:
"So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave 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 of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may be upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weakness, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong" (2 Corinthians 12:7-10).
Later in his letter to the Christians in the church in Phillipi, Paul writes from prison: "I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me" (Philippians 4:12-13).
What does this even mean? How could a man so persecuted, so entrenched in suffering persevere with the same unyielding conviction of truth and love? Last night, as I stared at the stars, the bitter cold seemed to freeze time as much as the air. It was the same sky that Paul looked up at as he traversed the desert, fleeing his pursuers at night. How lonely must he have felt?
He traveled from city to city, building up the believers, loving them and investing his heart and knowledge and revelation into them, only to move on and leave them behind. He often left alone, or with one or two at his side on the journey. Even his dearest friend, Barnabas, who spent much of the journey traveling and preaching with him, left him over a disagreement (Acts 15). Paul was betrayed by those he trusted. He was abandoned by those who wanted the world instead of Jesus. Still, Paul never compromised truth.
Last night I realized there's no way Paul's love for Jesus could have been enough to carry him through his suffering. There's no way Paul's devotion or knowledge could have been enough. His fear of God couldn't have been enough. Paul had something else. It was the only thing strong enough to enable him to love in the midst of some of the most terrible suffering.
He knew, in his innermost being, that he was loved. Not that he loved, but that he was loved. He wrote to the church in Ephesus, "I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe," (Ephesians 1:16-19, emphasis mine).
And to the Roman church, "Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, 'For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.' No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 8:35-38, emphasis mine).
Paul knew he was loved. He held to this when Barnabas walked away, when he left a church behind that he loved and missed. He wrapped himself in this love when he was in prison with broken ribs, concussions and torn ligaments from the unjust beatings he received. He sang this truth behind those bars. He clung to this truth when he dragged himself to a pool to wash after 39 lashes from a whip - five times. He knew, he was certain, he was resolute in the truth that the God of all creation loved HIM. That Jesus would have died for him alone if he was the only man left on the planet.
It was only this love from God in Christ that enabled Paul to persevere, to speak when his knees were knocking, to keep quiet when he wanted to shout, to reach out and touch the sick and diseased, to raise the dead, to sing in the midst of persecution, to bless those who cursed him, to leave when he wanted to stay, and to stay when he wanted to leave. It was God's love for him in the person of Christ and his demonstration of that love on the cross that so radically changed Paul's heart from one of stone to one of flesh.
Everything circles back to what we believe about God's love for us. It's not enough to intellectually know He loves us. We have to believe it, to our core, in order to do what the world calls impossible. In order to walk in joy when the world hates us, to rejoice in the midst of suffering, to access delight in the midst of persecution, and laughter in sorrow... only God's love in Christ can transcend it all.
This doesn't mean the hurt and grief go away. It simply means it's not the end. When it is the end, and you're as certain of God's love for you as Paul was of God's love for him, there will be only rejoicing left. I can't say I've attained this, but by God's grace I'm determined to tear down everything that hinders me from it.