When I was younger, the apostle Paul and I didn’t get along; I didn’t understand him, and I certainly didn’t think he understood me. So, what did I do? What do many of us do when in uncomfortable, awkward, and challenging situations?
We avoid them.
Yep, that’s what I did. Avoided Paul. You know, like at the grocery store when you see someone at the end of the cereal aisle, and you suddenly decide you don’t need those honey loops anymore, and you duck into the chip aisle and plop the tortillas in your buggy even though there’s an unopened bag in the pantry at home. Maybe I’m the only one who’s ever done that? Well, anyway.
I skimmed right past Romans, Corinthians, and Galatians (shew). I’d read through Philippians because Paul seemed to be on his best behavior while writing that letter. Sometimes, I’d visit Colossians and Ephesians, but the pastoral letters—Timothy and Titus, oh no, let’s just move along.
Then, someone offered me a well-written and researched book that helped me identify, acknowledge, and examine my Paul-avoidance issues. I have another friend who loves Paul and his letters, and they have been a part of her daily bread for decades. Through the early years of our friendship, she didn’t try to convince or correct my Pauline-pushback; she just kept allowing the word of God to speak. Paul’s words repeatedly made their way into our conversations, and my heart softened. I began to visit Paul regularly. At last, I saw Paul and who God had called him to be in the kingdom.
Now, if Paul and I ever have lunch together, I’ll have several questions. And because I am trying to be candidly honest here, most likely, I’d need to refrain from smacking him in the back of the head because I still struggle with his personality and approach. Sometimes my resistance is honest push-back, and sometimes it’s just plain old stubbornness. I think Paul would welcome the former and be patient with the latter.
And I’m so grateful for him. I don’t duck into the chip aisle anymore to avoid him. No, somehow, we run into each other in the bread aisle. Occasionally, I cock my head funny or raise my eyebrow at him. And that’s okay.
Here’s why. Grace abounds.
In every letter, Paul reminds us that he was a flesh and blood man, and he wasn’t sinless or perfect. We tend to do that, don’t we? Make bigger-than-life caricatures (celebrities, superheroes) out of the flawed men and women God called to do His work.
I thought about Paul and his frank, call-it-what-it-is words tonight. I remembered his gut-wrenchingly raw description of himself—
For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do
not want is what I keep doing…Romans 7:15, 18-19 ESV.
Now, I understand Paul, and obviously, he understands me.