Christianity in a Plain Brown Wrapper

moralsBut we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord. (2Co 3:18)

Among the many losses within modern Christianity has been the place of transformation. Nineteenth century revival movements and theology emphasized a single experience that was associated with salvation. Those who concerned themselves with what came later, described growth in the Christian life as “sanctification,” and tended to imply that it was optional. Contemporary Christians have settled for a spiritual life in a plain brown wrapper ever since.

Though the word sanctification occurs in the New Testament, it is nowhere treated as subsequent to salvation itself. Being saved, in the pages of the New Testament, means the whole of our life with God. And the purpose of the whole of our life with God is to be transformed into the image of Christ from glory to glory. Anything else is simply not the Christian faith.

Many Christians recognize that a transformation is supposed to occur within a believer, but have adopted a model that postpones that change until after death. Thus we live in this world as one-time, once-and-for-all conversionists, and hope to simply wake up as saints in the life to come. And even this model is often weakened to a matter of heaven-as-paradise (imagined in starkly material forms).

The fullness of the Christian gospel, as found within Scripture and the Orthodox tradition, is radically committed to the transformation in this life of the believer.

Psychology Is Not Enough

In a self-help culture, saying that people need to change is merely an endorsement of what everyone already knows. But the movement sought within the culture needs no God. To become a better person (more fit, more affable, more kind, more considerate, etc.) is simply a description of a moral program. Morality has nothing particularly Christian about it. Morality is constituted by whatever agreed upon rules of behavior are desired at any given time. The psychological component of morality is no more than the interior adjustment to a desired behavior: behaving well and enjoying it.

The transformation wrought by Christ is the manifestation in this world of the Kingdom of God. In its fullness, it looks like the resurrected Christ Himself. It is the union of heaven and earth, the created and the uncreated. It is a transcendental reality.

That, of course, describes some few saints in some measure. But admittedly, it does not describe many, nor does it appear to describe Christians in general.

But this is a false judgment. In a psychological culture, morality and psychology are the only human realities we acknowledge. We do not see nor understand the nature of spiritual things. We are locked in a world of cause and effect and presume that everything works in such a manner. The landscape of psychological causes (and effects) is the world as we choose to see it. But it does not see the landscape of the Kingdom of God – that which is birthed in believers in their Baptism.

One of the great challenges in living an Orthodox Christian life is making the transition from psychology to true spirituality. Some teachers suggest that many will fail to do so – and will thus fail to realize the reality of their birthright in Christ.

To speak of this movement is difficult because we leave the world of cause and effect and step into the world of grace (though even the world of cause and effect is moment by moment sustained by grace). But grace works with faith and freedom – thus there is not cause and effect (else it would be forced upon us). It is this life of faith and freedom that are often so strange to us. We cling to what we know and reduce our understanding to a virtually mechanical world. There we engage in various therapies and moralities, which have the ability to change appearances but never the substance of reality.

I will use the Apostle Paul as an example in this article. He was an upright, moral man prior to becoming a Christian. He kept the Jewish law in the strictest possible manner as a member of the Pharisees. He was not a hypocrite. But neither did he know the true and living God. When he was converted on the road to Damascus, he did not suddenly take up a new moral code. He abandoned his moral ways and set himself on the road of grace. That path was one he described as “weakness.” He humbled himself. He emptied himself. He submitted to beatings and scourgings. He endured shipwrecks and the false accusations of his enemies.

But he is not a moral hero, or an example of great human achievement. What we see in his outward Christian life, is also the shape of his inmost heart. There, too, he strained towards what was impossible and beyond human reach. He pushed beyond what could be known in cause and effect. What he found was the very mystery of the Kingdom – union with God.

The result of this inward emptying can be seen in the fullness of grace God bestowed upon him. Miracles were worked even by cloths that had simply had contact with him. He raised the dead and cast out demons. He became so closely united to Christ that he could tell others to live as he lived.

From the outside, this manner of life can easily be mistaken for some version of moral psychology. But it is nothing of the sort. It is the impossible become reality, by the utter dependence upon the God of grace. As God told St. Paul, “My grace is enough.”

Moving from the psychological life to the spiritual life is often counter-intuitive. It sounds like it won’t work. To a certain degree it involves quitting. We quit trying to be good, and seek only to empty ourselves to God. The goodness of our lives thus becomes God’s goodness, and not our own.

The moral/psychological life is often one that cycles between effort, failure, shame and remorse only to begin again with renewed effort and promises of a better outcome. Some Christian lives never leave this cycle. It can be sheer misery. Most often it leads to disappointment and a quiet resignation to something less.

At first, embracing a spiritual life can feel like embracing failure. Indeed, it is embracing failure and weakness. The Elder Sophrony taught, “The way down is the way up.” It is, strangely, the only spiritual path that would actually be open to all believers. The worst of us can fail. Some of us learn to be very good at it!

Prayer as the emptying of self in the presence of God is a very different thing than great athletic efforts of well-kept rules. I have often advised people to keep a fast during Great Lent that is somewhat out of reach – for without some measure of failure during the fast we are in danger of reaching Pascha with a sense of satisfaction instead of true self-emptying gratitude.

Taken to an extreme, it is easy to ask (as was asked of St. Paul), “Should we continue in sin so that grace might abound?” St. Paul said “Of course not!” But the logic of the question flowed from his teaching and is more sound than the moral/psychological substitutes that others have put in its place.

But weakness is not sin. Failure is often not sin. Our emptiness is not sinful in the presence of God. True repentance (humility, brokenness, emptiness) is not a result of sin, but the return to our proper state before God.

Consider two kinds of prayer: in the first, we have a sense of the prayers that we plan to pray (say a morning service) and the psalms and readings for the day and we struggle through. It is quite possible to do this without reference to God. We are present to our prayers, but our prayers are not present to God. The heart can be completely untouched. We speak but we don’t weep.

In the second, we struggle for words. We are aware of just how unaware we are of God.  We do not flee our emptiness or our brokenness, but we embrace them. And there in that place where we can do nothing of ourselves, we call on God who can do all things. And this is the restoration of our true relationship with God and our proper existence as human beings.

To enter into a true spiritual life we must leave behind cause and effect and abandon ourselves to the Ground where God causelessly causes. And having embraced such weakness, we stand without defense before those who would slander our way of life.

And this is the ground on which the saints stand. We cannot explain their existence. The transcendent goodness of their lives and deeds, the wonders worked at their hands – all appear to have come into existence “out of nothing.” But like the whole universe that surrounds us (which was itself causelessly caused) – they nevertheless exist.

And this is the change of Most High. Glory to His name!

37 comments:

  1. I would love for you to write more on sanctification and Saints, Father. I discussed Saints with my mother some time back; her reply was, “I am a saint. I just have not yet been sanctified, of course.” I find this a common, clearly faulty, understanding of many Protestants but it can be dangerous to correct as many an argument begins in that manner.

  2. As always, your blog entries get me thinking and this one especially. Thank you for sharing your insights with the rest of us. It is truly appreciated.

    Are you familiar with the writings of Judge Thomas Troward and the ideas behind New Thought/Mental Science? His writings (and others like them) are very concerned with cause and effect but from the spiritual side of things. Neville Goddard is another author that has recently come to my attention.

  3. Father, until recently I had great difficulty with Romans 7: 19-25. “For the good that I would, I do not…”

    By grace, I have come to a certain acceptance of it.

    Is St. Paul’s lament not what you are describing?

    BTW, the similarity of my priest’s homily yesterday and what you write here is remarkable.

  4. Father,
    Thank you for reiterating this approach to our Christian walk. It can be very difficult to make the transition from a psychological to a spritual way of living. It can be even more difficult to explain it to my wife, and how I am trying to view our walk with Christ. After thirty years of the ”effort, failure, shame, remorse” cycle, I’m glad to throw in the towel.

    I know it’s not very reliable to evaluate ”how we’re doing” spiritually, but can you describe how the timbre of your walk has changed since retiring? As a priest, I imagine you would find yourself in many circumstances where you have to rely on God. I also imagine (hopefully, not too fanifully) my own retirement to be one with more stillness and focus on God. But I also know the suffering and neediness I explerience in my job are used by God to draw me closer to Him and rely on Him more.

    Jeff

  5. The longer I am an Orthodox Christian, the more I recognize my brokenness and the more I realize that God’s grace is the only thing that will ever heal me.

  6. With respect for the orthodox view that salvation is a process and that justification can only mean being made truly righteous, is it not something of a caricature to depict protestant Christians as downplaying the need for holiness in this life? Protestants seem to emphasize living a holy life without the “fuss” that would come with canonization and such things: “better to focus on Christ, no matter how much this or that person may imitate him.” Part of the reason they don’t venerate saints (according to the orthodox understanding of veneration) is, I think, because they can’t imagine any true saint caring or wanting to be venerated. Protestants have trouble with the glorification of anyone apart from God. Even if they acknowledge it, they always avert their gaze, as in this hymn:

    “The bride eyes not her garment
    But her dear bridegroom’s face.
    I will not gaze at glory
    But on my King of Grace.”

    I love the Saints, and I want to honor them properly, but I struggle with this question. Also, what about the saints that never draw attention to themselves and live a quiet holy life? How are we to honor them?

  7. Father, I’m currently reading Hymn of Entry by Archimandrite Vasileios, and the section I just read corresponds so well to your post, and shows that it’s all contained right there in our Liturgy every Sunday, I hope you don’t mind me sharing. Throughout the entire book so far, I’m often left speechless and in awe – there’s nothing psychological to Fr. Vasileios’ way of thinking. So often, what he writes is too much for me to “grasp” at an intellectual level – it just leaves me hungering for the reality he’s trying to describe.

    In commenting on the Anaphora, he writes:

    He is offered to us, broken and poured out. We do not know what to do. We can find nothing of our own to give Him as an offering of thanks, “for we have done nothing good on earth.” That is why we take everything that is His own and offer it with gratitude: “Bringing before Thee Thine of Thine own, in all and for all.” This total liturgical offering given in return to the Lord who is eternally slaughtered – an act of thanksgiving and freedom – forms the center of the mystery, the source of the sanctification of man and of the precious gifts. This offering strips us of everything: we are lost (Matt. 16:25). We cease to exist. We die. At the same time, this is the moment when we are born into life; we partake in divine life through offering everything, through becoming an offering of thanksgiving. So the loss of our life is at the same time the emergence of our existence into a world “new and uncompounded”: and when we have reached that world, we are truly human beings.

  8. SAM,
    With due respect, I did not generalize about all Protestants, but spoke about 19th century currents. Today, it would be impossible to generalize about Protestantism in that it runs everywhere from pure heresy to deep, pious devotion, depending on what group you pick. Protestantism is many, many things. However in the 19th century, there were various movements that were all over the place, viz. sanctification, including some who held that it was a single experience, after which one no longer sinned. There are also Protestants who have a fairly Orthodox take on the matter.

    As to the saints. Orthodoxy is not in competition with Protestantism nor need we contrast ourselves to it. We existed for 1500 years without there even being Protestantism. The saints have been there from the beginning – clearly referenced in the Scriptures, honored there as the great cloud of witnesses, and seen beneath the throne of God in heaven from where their prayers ascend day and night.

    In no way does our veneration of the saints distract from God. Indeed, “God is wonderful in His saints” (Ps 68:36 LXX). It’s quite similar to noting the beauty of God’s creation. God is Beauty itself, but the many lesser examples of beauty teach us to love Him and know Him better. He is the “Lord of Hosts,” no where in Scripture is there a recorded vision of Him in which He is unaccompanied.

    Sometimes the proof is in the pudding. The Orthodox have practiced this precise faith for 2000 years without falling into heresy or going astray. And yet, Protestantism in its short 400 years or so has been a constant engine not only of schism but of heresy upon heresy. It is marked by deep, good intentions by wonderful people, but has been a tragic failure again and again.

    On the other hand, Orthodox is not without problems. It is not the ideal or perfect Church – it’s just the one that Christ founded. It’s sins can be seen starting in the New Testament itself. And yet, for all that, it abides as itself, consistent with itself for these two millennia. It would likely be impossible to find a single Protestant Church that is consistent with itself over even 50 years.

    When I became Orthodox, I entered with my eyes wide-open on its flaws and the messiness of its history. But, I chose to throw in my lot with the full history of who we are as Christians. This is what Christ has given us – all of it. It is the path of sanctification if we will walk it. We don’t have to argue about its theology – its teachings are clear and unchanged. There are no latest words, no trends, no “new thing.” Just the same thing.

    Everything that I loved within Protestantism is here – even when its cultural forms are different. I have lost nothing and gained everything.

  9. Jeffrey,
    On the whole, the largest change since retiring is the fact that I am not the principle celebrant at services any longer. Generally, I either concelebrate (without preaching), or, occasionally fill in here at the parish or elsewhere. But, day-to-day, I write, I read, I pray, I work around the house. And covid creates its own atmosphere.

    But, to a large extent, I ignore the question of “how am I doing?” When I go to confession, I confess my sins. “How am I doing” is sort of beside-the-point for me. There are things that I pay attention to – I know my own sinful tendencies – but I don’t try to “do the math.” They simply are what they are. I do have more leisure for reflection – and – sometimes – I use it.

  10. I’m fairly certain “effort, failure, shame, remorse” is the invisible bumper sticker on by backside seen by all the Heavenly hosts.

  11. Thank you, Father. I have always been drawn by the beauty of God’s creation. I will try thinking of the Saints as his greatest works—and hope to be made one, Lord willing.

  12. Excellent. I have an American friend (actually a former student) who lives here in Luga. He is Baptist and is working on his dissertation which is a comparison of the Protestant view of sanctification and the Orthodox view of theosis. I will send him this blog entry so that he might understand it at a more pastoral level. Thanks.

  13. Fr. Stephen,

    I appreciated almost all of what you share. One point I feel I could further appreciate, but do not fully understand….could you further explain what you mean by “keeping a fast that is somewhat out of reach”? I’m not sure I understand (somehow I think I almost understand but I want to know more to make sure I’ve not missed it). Thank you for all the above and for considering this question.

    Fr. Nicholas

  14. Fr. Nicholas,
    A fast “almost out of reach,” presumes that some fasts are stricter than others. Monastics not only observe fasting from certain foods, but include as well whether the food is cooked, and fewer number of meals a day, for example. Many observe the Fast in some moderated form (not fasting from dairy, or eating fish far more commonly than the calendar dictates). That, being the case, I am suggest that it is good to fast in a manner that “stretches” in some minor measure our perceived ability. Like an athlete, we grow by extending ourselves.

    In this context, though, I’ve added the observation that we also grow by our failures, if they are received in humility. Simply beating on ourselves because we have failed to meet some self-imposed standard is counter-productive to the spiritual life.

    Essentially, I am saying that there are two great instruments of spiritual growth: humility and the giving of thanks. Both act towards self-emptying and both “draw down grace” from heaven as the saying goes.

    Oddly, it would not be unusual for someone to have difficulty giving thanks for a non-fasting compliant meal, feeling that they were somehow sinning in eating it. Not giving thanks for it would compound the problem. Keep the fast – but, by all means, whatever you eat, eat with thanksgiving. God does not begrudge us our food.

  15. After sleeping and praying on this post (not necessarily in that order!), I still feel there are a lot of very big pitfalls and wide paths to destruction that could use *much* bigger warnings. Giving of thanks to God for Him and His creation is always good, but there are very easy ways to get that wrong. Most obviously, we could give “thanks” for something that is unreal: sin; this is noted but not really unpacked. We could also give something that has the semblance of thanks but which is not—this one is harder to spot. I think one easier way to identify this false thanksgiving is in shame: the shame shows a dissonance rather than a thanksgiving.

    Yet even that can be delayed: Adam and Eve, for all we can tell, gave thanks for what happened to them…at first. They treated the serpent very naively, perhaps thinking that because he was there, he was sent by God. Maybe the refrain “This must be God’s will”. And this opens up more levels of distortion, if the outcome of that story—the enslavement of every man woman and child to sin, death, and utter destruction—is any indication. There is a world of difference between true thanksgiving *to* God and a blind live-in-the-moment present-ism which requires [in our minds] no God at all. Our life is not so much in the present as it is in Christ.

    To give an example from our own time period, it is remarkably easy to use [false] thanksgiving to redefine sexuality. People use terms like thanksgiving—plus joy, contentment, commitment, and the rest—all divorced from Christ, or at best caricaturing Christ. Yet how can we give thanks for sin? And how many people can disentangle the giving of thanks for things that are really good (the human body, sex, etc) from the misuse of those things? Thanksgiving maybe one of the most important virtues, but it cannot be understood apart from a life including all the other virtues (patience, goodness, self-control, etc) upon which it stands.

    And onto fasting, this also troubled me. I see 2 outcomes here with failure: either the failure is real in an ontological way (ie, sin), or in an imagined way (eg, we made a goal and could not achieve it). I cannot see how setting ourselves up for either of these scenarios is spiritually healthy. The first is obviously a problem. There is some flexibility in fasting, sure, but there are canonical requirements about fasting that, while not demarcating the breaking of the fast as ontological sin, unequivocally set it up [under certain circumstances] as something that will cut someone off from the Eucharist (ie, Thanksgiving Incarnate). So even if not sinful, I feel that fasting is not something to push ourselves to the point of failure on.

    Yet even if we are encouraged to set other goals, unrelated to canons, in order to fail, how does this help us? If a person is inclined to give thanks, they’ll give thanks. If despair, they’ll despair. If have a psychological break, they’ll snap. What is the purpose of putting ourselves in that kind of situation, where we judge the person as in danger “without some measure of failure”? Are there not plenty of failures in our lives—real or imagined—to work with? And is part of our ascesis also to get past the worldly ideas of success and failure and just live in loving faith with God? If so, how does setting a person up specifically to have a crisis (in the original Greek meaning of the word, with all the gnomic willing it entails) do anything but cause further damage? I just cannot understand this. Why do we feel the need to beat people down if they have a [colloquially-called] “sense of satisfaction”? Why not stop trying to violate—with the same violence and deep envy that is behind what is tearing apart Western civilization right now—the “other” and just work to ensure that their sense is rooted in thankfulness and in Christ?

    Your last comment addresses some of these pitfalls and corrects some of the language in the OP, but I’m not sure we live in a healthy enough culture (and I’m talking American Orthodoxy, not America “at large”, at least as far as they are not now the same phenomenon) to be able to push ourselves in this [corrected] way and not be harmed. I think the points about stretching ourselves, giving thanks, and growth through failure are all correct. But we can’t conceive of these things *together* in anything short of a toxic soup that will, at best, only lead to more “beating on ourselves” or even more severe emotional, psychological, and spiritual problems. And very frequently, there’s a subtext of the Protestant trope of tradition vs spontaneity (another problem, in my understanding, with the OP, where these could appear to be opposed). This is an advanced topic.

  16. Joseph,
    Yes to all of your comment, which is to say, a book could be written covering all of the caveats, etc. The article makes some general observations that I think are useful and presumes the context of an active, Orthodox life.

    On fasting. We do not have “canons” on how to fast, by and large. I think there is only one canon, from the 6th Council, that gets specific about what not to eat when fasting. Mostly, there are “rules” in the typicon of various monasteries that describe how the fast will be kept in that monastery. The generalized rules that we see embodied in calendars, cook books, or more formally in places such as the “rubrics” book in the OCA, are not “canonical” prescriptions. They are generalized and drawn from monastic practice. The Eucharistic fast (eating nothing from midnight before communion, etc.) is, more or less, canonical.

    I do not think that breaking a fast is a sin, in and of itself. There are plenty of reasons for breaking a fast. The food we’re abstaining from is not “unclean” or sinful in any way. It is a good discipline – a good ascesis – but does not describe a canonically prescribed way of life.

    What might be sinful in breaking a fast would be carelessness, or just disrepecting and having no regard for God, etc. But, the hamburger itself is not going to be a sin or sinful. I think we misunderstand this.

    I find that Orthodox Americans talk a bigger game than they play. I am simply writing honestly. It is better to keep a modest fast, somewhat beyond our ability, than it is to “keep the fast with great rigor, while breaking it repeatedly, or being miserable and angry and judgmental, etc.” My counsel in the parish has been to discuss what you plan to do in the fast with your confessor and let him help “set the fast” for you.

    I sort of felt that your comment was “over-thinking” things. I think if I over-thought things too much, I’d never write anything at all.

  17. Joseph,
    An additional thought. It is always possible to misue anything in this world – to”get something wrong.” Yes, it is even possible to misuse the giving of thanks. But, as in the case of someone misusing thanks with regard to sexual sin, the sin was a problem long before the question of thanksgiving. If such caveats must surround every bit of advice – it becomes so tedious as to be useless.

  18. Hitting rock bottom as spoken of in the Anonymous Programs, leads to communion with God .
    The ironic thing is that so much of the time, rock bottom means to me –its time to tighten the reins and start again. — still quietly trusting in self. What really should be happening is .. surrendered and allowing God to heal. Getting myself out of the way.
    I think a prayer worth praying this lent is “Lord help me to remember!”

  19. Panayiota,
    You last words remind me of Archimandrite Zacharias’ book which references scripture (cf. Rev 2:4-5):

    “Remember Thy First Love”

  20. Dee,
    I will read the book this lent, thank you. I’ve had it for quite sometime. …just the nudge I needed!

  21. This reminds me of the first time I read Mere Christianity. I was left frightened, ashamed and clueless as to how I could possibly live up to what was being asked of me. Then again, that is just a single book written by a human man like myself.

  22. Byron, the trouble with a discussion of saints is multi-faceted. The Protestant has a different premise than the Church. Plus saints are often hidden from our carnal eyes.

    Our saints are a revealed gift. They exist because of the actual reality, spiritual and sacramental, that express the fullness of the Incarnation.

    A great book to begin to understand the Incarnational reality is “On the Incarnation” by St. Athanasius. The edition with the forward by C. S. Lewis.

    And do not forget that St. Gregory Palamas battled for years about his articulation of our ability to know God as the saints. He was conversing with folks far more versed in the faith than we are without many of the distractions and mind set of modernity.

    You are trying to talk of the One Storey universe to people who are firmly in the two storey mode. Then there are the dwellers in the stable ala the dwarves in Lewis’ book The Last Battle, the final Narnia book.

    “Holy things are for the Holy”

  23. Our saints are a revealed gift. They exist because of the actual reality, spiritual and sacramental, that express the fullness of the Incarnation.

    A wonderful quote, Michael! Many thanks for this.

    The conversation is there to be had, I agree. But, at the particular time, it would have just resulted in an argument so I avoided it.

  24. Byron, Michael,
    You know, if there were no saints (in the Orthodox sense of the word), then the proof of the gospel would be wholly lacking. There is a kind of modern paganism in contemporary Christianity – a cult of “where we go when we die.” In this life, we strive to achieve the American Dream, and in the next life to go to heaven. It’s really so lucky to be us.

  25. Byron, Michael,

    I think the trick is to become a saint – and not worry about where they are or aren’t. The more a person has their face turned toward God, the more they are reflecting His light – all other qualifications aside. Those are the ones we should reverence and learn from.

  26. Father, Drewster, the point you make is what I was trying to say– too many words.
    Forgive me.

  27. It’s interesting given my history with Christianity before Orthodoxy, if I had a choice of which skeleton I’d feel comfortable to be around once I’ve reposed, it would probably be the one on the right. I’m just not keen on the vision of the ends of the “good person” that other confessions have, I guess. Equally interesting, I associate Orthodox saints with the one on the right as well– don’t know what that means (if anything), other than it seems to me that the Orthodox saints have a reality to them that makes them seem approachable. One example would be Mary of Egypt. If I (the sinner that I am) asked for her help, particularly for the fast of Holy Lent, I sincerely believe she would hear and intercede for me.

  28. Dee,

    Jesus preferred to be around tax collectors and prostitutes. So you’re in good company. I have thought long about exactly why that’s the case. It has something to do with the fact that they KNEW they were sick and in need of a physician and were forced by life circumstances to acknowledge that fact. But doing so made them much easier to be around. Not only that, it made them more open and ready to accept help.

  29. Perhaps 2 Cor 12:9 “But He said to me, My grace is sufficient for you: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities that the power of Christ may rest upon me.”

  30. He is not a saint and may never be officially recognized as one but my dear friend Fr. Moses Berry has always been a true confessor of Jesus Christ for the whole time I have known him (since 1973). I talked to him today and was instructed once again in humility, grace and fearlessness in the face of hardships now and throughout his life that would have crushed me. If anyone does not know of him they should. He has a Facebook page.

  31. Thanks for re-posting this article, Father! It was good to meditate on it again. It is a good idea for you to repost your older writings occasionally. They repay re-readings.

    However, what I cannot stop thinking about is this: St. Paul might have “abandoned his moral ways and set himself on the road of grace,” but it seems to me he still retained “bragging rights,” so to speak, on his old accomplishments. It seems like they were useful to him as a kind of backup rhetorical weapon when all others seemed not to get the point across to his readers, such as when he uses the tactic of boasting to hammer his point into the minds of the Corinthians.

    When he thought it expedient to do so , did he not list out his pedigree (Jewish ancestry) orthodoxy (being a Pharisee) his industriousness and conscientiousness (his tireless persecution of the Christians) his professional craftsmanship and financial independence (that he supported himself through tentmaking) his academic credentials (studying at the feet of Gamaliel), the glories of his hometown (“Tarsus, ….no mean city…”) the magnitude of his apostolic labours and equality to the other apostles. He even engages in a bit of humourous one-upmanship over his Roman citizenship with the poor tribune who sent him to Felix!

    What are we to make of all this? It seems that accomplishments are a very convenient thing to have, even for St. Paul who wrote of God’s strength being made perfect in our weakness!

    -NSP

  32. NSP,
    St. Paul is a real person, and, as such, is complex. He certainly declares all those accomplishments to be as dung, but he also is able to number and list them when it is of use. On the whole, his post-Pharisee life, would seem to be not one of adding more such accomplishments, but one of pouring himself out for the sake of others. What we see of him today – the greatest missionary and theologian of all time (perhaps), was absolutely not obvious in his own day. And yet – he did it. Consider the passage in which he boasts:

     “Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they the seed of Abraham? So am I. Are they ministers of Christ?—I speak as a fool—I am more: in labors more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequently, in deaths often. From the Jews five times I received forty stripes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been in the deep; in journeys often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; in weariness and toil, in sleeplessness often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness— besides the other things, what comes upon me daily: my deep concern for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to stumble, and I do not burn with indignation? If I must boast, I will boast in the things which concern my weakness.”

    He is pleading with the Corinthians to follow the path of love which he had so profoundly described in his earlier Epistle. His “weakness” makes anything in my daily life look like the finest exaltation.

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