A growing realisation of our need for God’s grace
James Knight offers an explanation as to why the apostle Paul is often so self-deprecating when describing his own sinfulness.
Recently I made a profound discovery about St. Paul that I thought worth sharing. Unless we carefully consider the dates in his timeline, it’s a profound observation that could be easily missed.
But before we get to that, a more general observation is that the usual way to think of progression in our walk with Christ is to presume we start at a certain point in our life and get better as our journey progresses. In one sense this is true, and it should always be strived for. But there's something paradoxical about progress in that the better and wiser we become, the more we understand how short we fall and how much further we have to go.
It's a bit like when we acquire knowledge; the more we learn, the more we realise how much more there is to learn. The man who doesn't know much is more likely to think he knows a lot than the man who already knows a lot, because the latter knows that acquired knowledge opens more and more epistemological vistas and horizons with every new thing learned.
I think St. Paul gives us an indication in his letters that this is true when it comes to how we should see ourselves in relation to God, and that the more we progress on our Christian journey, the more humble we should be about ourselves.
The Christian life seems to show this profound paradox at the heart of the human condition: the better we become, the worse we should see ourselves. Being under grace is like gaining the height to see the tips of the toes of the angelic giants above us.
Now for the profound discovery. If we look at how St. Paul views himself in relation to his sin, he concedes in Corinthians that: "I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God” (1 Corinthians 15:9). Here St. Paul is equating his own sinfulness with a particular action of regret.
Then in Ephesians he goes a bit further: "Although I am less than the least of all God's people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ” (Ephesians 3:7-8). Here the humility has increased, he now considered himself 'less than the least of all God's people'.
But in 1 Timothy St Paul goes even further and calls himself: “The worst of all sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15).
Now the really interesting thing to note is the chronology of Paul's views on his own sin, and how the expressions change over time: 1 Corinthians was written around 55 AD, Ephesians around 60-61 AD, and 1 Timothy sometime between 64-65 AD. In other words, the older and more mature St. Paul gets, the harder he is on himself regarding his own sin.
In about 10 years Paul goes from "I'm a sinner because I persecuted the church' to 'I'm the least of all God's people' to the utterly comprehensive 'I'm the worst of all sinners'.
We could be forgiven for thinking that one of the closest people to God in all of Christendom, on whom the biggest responsibility fell in terms of spreading the gospel, might have observed some personal progression in terms of feeling he was making some headway in becoming less of a sinner with every year on his walk with Christ. But he seemed to be thinking in the opposite direction; the wiser he became, and the deeper his relationship with Christ grew, the more aware he became of his own sin.
I think that's why the subjection to humility works so effectively - in seeing the plank in our own eye instead of the speck in everyone else's we become more humble, and therefore wiser and more blessed.
This formula seems to follow a Pareto principle (the 80/20 rule) in that the better we become, the harder we have to work to keep improving. If you want to become an expert tennis player, you'll probably spend disproportionately little of your time getting good and disproportionately lots of your time going from good to expert. It's not that hard to hoover a house to a decent standard, but it's more likely you'd spend 80% of your hoovering time getting it from decent to spotless compared to 20% getting it from unclean to decent.
Similarly, presuming you're inspired to do so, getting from a good person to an excellent person is probably a more demanding spiritual progression than going from an utter wretch to a decent person. If you are determined to get on the right path, it's fairly easy not to be a murderer, a rapist, a thief, or a violent thug - most people are not those things. But once you've got to the stage where you're behaving like a good person, you'd see how hard it is to be an excellent person, because it is a lot easier to commit the sins that fall between good and excellent (rudeness, bad temperedness, selfishness) than it is all the worst ones like murder, rape, and theft.
Similarly, this is probably why St Paul's sin paradox occurred - I'm sure through human eyes he became a better person and more Christ-like as he matured on his journey - something we are all encouraged to do (Romans 12:2, James 2:14-26, Philippians 4:13, 2 Timothy 3:16) - but the better he became, the more he understood how much harder it is to be better still, and the wiser he became about his own sin in relation to God.
He may not have literally been 'The worst of all sinners' by human standards, but he may have understood more than anyone that the wiser we become the more we see ourselves in relation to our reliance on God's grace, and the worse we probably seem without it.
After all, if all our good qualities are God's gift to us in the first place, it's surely possible to feel somewhat naked in front of Him, even if outwardly we appear fully clothed.
Image by Briam Cute from Pixabay.com
James Knight is a local government officer based in Norwich, and is a regular columnist for Christian community websites Network Norfolk and Network Ipswich. He also blogs regularly as ‘The Philosophical Muser’, and contributes articles to UK think tanks The Adam Smith Institute and The Institute of Economic Affairs, as well as the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity (LICC).
The views carried here are those of the author, not necessarily those of Network Norfolk, and are intended to stimulate constructive debate between website users.
We welcome your thoughts and comments, posted below, upon the ideas expressed here.
Click here to read our forum and comment posting guidelines
You can also contact the author direct at firstname.lastname@example.org