St Paul was a difficult man. There are many indications that he was essentially a loner: His competitive zeal, his passionate arguments, his sharp break with more pastoral Barnabas, his focused missionary hunger all point to one who found the compromise of love difficult to comprehend. Paul was deeply competitive. Conversation became a debate; consultation became a dispute; the truth was always at stake and every battle was therefore crucial.
He was defeated more times than is readily apparent. His letters expect immediate obedience but he didn’t always get it. Paul hated these setbacks, seeing them as wearisome obstacles rather than pastoral opportunities. However, two defeats he attributed to God himself – and both of them were life changing.
The first was on the Road to Damascus where his life was turned around by a dramatic meeting with Jesus. Paul was brought to his knees, literally blinded, and faced with the awful truth that his fervent religion was hurting the very God he worshipped. Though smashed with the swiftness of a wrecking ball, Paul was equally quickly recommissioned as apostle to the Gentiles, and soon restored by the courageous ministries of Ananias and Barnabas.
The second defeat came more gradually. On his Third journey, Paul was confined to Ephesus by illness or imprisonment, watching helplessly as his prized Corinthian church spiralled into mayhem. Mocked by detractors, scorned for recent poor results, humiliated without backers, Paul found himself humbled. His anguished wrestling with weakness is documented in 2 Corinthians. He pictures himself a defeated captive in God’s victory procession.
Yet facing failure led beyond breakdown to breakthrough. Paul threw himself on God as never before. His next letter was Romans where he writes with astonishment at the depths of God’s love. Aged about 60 he truly understood grace for the first time.
This article first appeared in Live The Word, Redemptorist Publications