|Michaelangelo’s Painting of the Conversion of Paul|
When Roy and I are cross with each other and have to drive places together, we pop a CD of the epistles of Apostle Paul into the car. It’s not safe to argue and drive, trapped in a car with no place to escape, while your adrenalin mounts–and so I don’t!
And sometimes, Paul is sublime, and his words and vision and adulterated brilliance wash over me like a vision of better, quieter, noble lands—lands open to me, lands of which I just have to claim citizenship of, and then behave like a citizen. And I quieten down, and let these lovely words and ideas wash over me, and sometimes drop the bone over which we were contending.
And sometimes, Paul is so combative and sarcastic—oh how biting his sarcasm, how utter his contempt for fools!!—that I just have to laugh. It’s an affectionate laughter. And then Roy says wryly, “He sounds a bit like you!” (On a bad day!)
Paul was a grumpy guy; he did not tolerate fools gladly, or the illogical. I think we would have enjoyed chatting, and I think he would have had very sharp words for me, if we disagreed!
* * *
I recently listened to the whole of Romans on my iPod on one of these days on which I felt a bit discombobulated, and wanted sanity to return swiftly, and I listened to 1 Corinthians today.
Contentious, argumentative, dismissive, inspired, sublime! Loved it.
And then I come to its most famous chapter. If I speak in the tongues[a] of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
And I laugh. There are very few people on the planet so superlatively gifted, but I happened to have been listening to the words of one of them. Who did Paul know who could speak in the tongues and angels? Who had the gift of prophecy, and could understand mysteries and knowledge, and a faith that could begin moving the Roman Empire? Who owned nothing? Who subjected his body to unbelievable hardships?
Who was Paul describing but himself?
* * *
And human nerves can only be stretched so far. Then there is payback and it is painful.
Speaking and writing in the tongues of men and angels, prophesying, divining mysteries, pursuing and penning knowledge, the rigours of faith and asceticism—all these cause a natural reaction, overstrained nerves—and resultant grumpiness.
So I read it and think, “Oh Paul, sweetheart, you’re being too hard on yourself.”
* * *
But then, I wonder. I too have met those who are superlatively gifted, intellectually and spiritually. And if they are arrogant, or “full of themselves,” in that vivid phrase, or pompous or manipulative, or have time only for those they can use—they leave me cold. Utterly unimpressed!!
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, and have not love, I am nothing. Sounds extreme, doesn’t it, but isn’t that how we rate people? Who has time for people who are impatient and unkind, envious, boastful and arrogant, rude and angry? No matter how brilliant they are! There is an instinctive recoil. We might rate their intellect or giftedness highly—but we do not rate them highly.
Patient, kind, not jealous, not boastful, not proud. Not rude, not self-seeking, not easily angered. Forgetting wrongs.
How many of us can read this as a character sketch of ourselves?
What then should we do? We who use words well, and get weary in the penning of them? We who listen in to the spirit of God, and have prophetic insight, and leave our sessions of intense prayer a little exhausted, with our nerves a bit fragile? Who strive to understand spiritual mysteries and spiritual knowledge, and tire in the pursuit? Who pay the price of stepping out in faith, pay the price of our generosity with our time which makes our life more difficult, more challenging, more of a strain, sometimes?
Oh, we’ve got to the heights, the Omega of the spiritual life, and then find ourselves failing in the Alpha Beta of it, in patience and kindness and humility and consideration and keeping our temper—things, come on, which are just good manners!!
What then should we do?
* * *
Yes, there is hope for us.
I love Rolland Baker’s account of his healing from cerebral malaria and advanced dementia. Heidi Baker in her book There is Always Enough recounts her healing from dyslexia and chronic fatigue.
Yes, just as only God can heal the malfunctioning, worn-out cells in our brains or bodies, only He can heal the callouses in our hearts, the atrophied bits, where warm blood does not flow, and which are, consequently, slowly withering.
Only he who brought the dead to life can heal our small, cold and selfish hearts.
So do it, Lord! Create in me a clean heart, oh Lord, and renew a right spirit within me. (Ps 51:10). Take out of my breast the heart of stone, and give me a heart of flesh. (Ez. 11:19).