Let’s travel back to Rome in July AD 64. There, we find the apostle Paul bound in a Roman prison. He is awaiting trial on trumped-up charges from Emperor Nero that Paul and other Christians had started a fire that devastated the city.
It was in the midst of this situation that Paul wrote his Second Letter to Timothy. Paul knew that the end of his life was near (2 Timothy 4:6), and so this letter stands out from his others. It doesn’t have any new theological insights or doctrinal teachings. There are no new nuggets of wisdom here for a whole church—just a heartfelt farewell and some final advice to one of his most loyal disciples.
Timothy had probably heard some of Paul’s advice many, many times: “Stir into flame the gift of God” (2 Timothy 1:6). “Do not be ashamed of your testimony to our Lord” (1:8). “Bear your share of hardship . . . like a good soldier of Christ” (2:3). “Remain faithful to what you have learned and believed” (3:14).
But Paul also takes time to share about how he is doing in prison and the tension he has experienced with some other Christians (2 Timothy 4:8-11). He talks about people who have hurt him in the past (1:15). He recounts some of the sufferings and persecutions he has endured (3:11-12). In short, Paul pours out his heart to Timothy as to a son or a beloved younger brother.
In this issue, we want to look at this final letter of Paul’s and focus on what it tells us about his relationships. We want to see how Paul dealt with his own loneliness in prison, personal attacks against his reputation, and the call to pass on the torch to a younger generation—and to ask the Spirit what he wants to teach us through Paul’s witness. We want to see how, like Paul, we can continue to live in love, even when our relationships are tested. And we want to see how, like Paul, we can “be persistent” in following the Lord and building up his Church, “whether it is convenient or inconvenient” (2 Timothy 4:2).
A Painful Separation. We all know that St. Paul was one of the great heroes of the early Church. He had a dramatic conversion to Christ, he traveled far and wide preaching the gospel, and he wrote nearly one-quarter of the New Testament. But for all his heroic actions and for all his holiness, Paul was still a human being just like the rest of us. He had his own imperfections, weaknesses, and sins, just like the rest of us. And, just like the rest of us, his imperfections are most evident in the way he related to some of the people in his life. Two names in particular show up in 2 Timothy: Demas and Alexander (4:10, 14-15).
Demas was a coworker in the Lord with Paul and Luke and Mark (Philemon 24). But at some point, Demas became “enamored of the present world” and left the missionary life (2 Timothy 4:10). Scholars aren’t sure exactly why Demas left. It’s possible that he had become discouraged or overwhelmed by the hardships of life on the road. It’s also possible that Demas gave up his faith altogether, choosing “the present world” over the kingdom of God. Whatever the case, Demas’ decision to abandon the work of the Lord stung Paul. He “deserted me,” Paul wrote, showing how personally he took Demas’ action (4:10).
Many of us can relate to the way Paul felt. It hurts when a loved one leaves the Church. Recent polls tell us that a large percentage of Catholics don’t attend Mass every week. There are, of course, many reasons why a person might stop practicing: a crisis of faith, news of a scandal, or the allure of the world. But no matter what the reason, those of us who remain faithful miss our brothers and sisters in the Lord and long for their return.
Paul’s Detractors. Alexander the coppersmith caused Paul a different kind of pain. Unlike Demas, who seems to have just walked away, Alexander “strongly resisted” Paul and his preaching (2 Timothy 4:15). He must have caused a lot of damage because Paul felt he needed to warn Timothy to “be on guard against him” (4:15) and told him that Alexander had done Paul “a great deal of harm” (4:14). Many believe this is the same Alexander who had “made a shipwreck” of his faith and who began to “blaspheme” the name of the Lord earlier on (1 Timothy 1:19, 20).
It seems that Alexander had teamed up with two other men, Hymenaeus and Philetus, to try to convince people that Paul’s preaching about the promise of resurrection was false. According to them, believers didn’t need to worry about obeying the commandments or avoiding “evil” (2 Timothy 2:19). They taught that since baptized Christians already share in Jesus’ resurrection, they are free from all condemnation and can do whatever they wish.
Paul’s words about Alexander, Hymenaeus, and Philetus don’t always sound the most loving. That may be because these men were spreading false teaching, which jeopardized the truth of the good news. But these words also hint at the sense of anger or resentment Paul might have felt toward them. At one point, he hands two of them “over to Satan” (1 Timothy 1:20). At another time, he asks the Lord to “repay” Alexander for the harm he did—instead of forgiving him (2 Timothy 4:14).
Harsh statements like these shouldn’t surprise us too much. For Paul, the idea of turning the other cheek didn’t always mean walking away and letting go of any bitterness. We have only to recall the way he and the apostle Barnabas had such a “sharp . . . disagreement” that they could no longer travel together as missionaries (Acts 15:39). But despite his blunt or fiery reactions, Paul must have yearned for these brothers to return to the Lord.
Theory and Practice. More than a few Scripture passages tell us about wounded relationships. The Book of Proverbs tells us to return good for evil (Proverbs 25:21). Jesus told us to “be reconciled” with anyone who has something against us (Matthew 5:23-24). Even Paul told us to pray for the grace to live in harmony with each other (Romans 15:5-6).
But passages like these are grounded in theory more than in practice. They present the ideal we should aim for, even as they recognize that we sometimes miss the mark. When we are in a peaceful state of mind, we tend to agree with these commands to love, and we don’t have much difficulty following them. But the experience of being wounded by someone we care about can tempt us to become bitter or to ruminate over past wrongs. In fact, studies tell us that it takes five positive and upbuilding statements to offset one negative or divisive statement. So when we dwell on our hurts or resentments, it’s hard to live out the scriptural call to live in peace with each other.
I can imagine how Paul must have regretted the way he contributed to divisions with Peter and Barnabas. I’m certain that he loved Demas. I expect he even wanted to mend his relationships with Alexander, Hymenaeus, and Philetus—whether they wanted to or not.
The Lord Is Close to the Brokenhearted. We have all experienced the pain, the anger, and the resentments that come from wounded relationships. I am not talking about the minor wounds that we can usually overcome. I am talking about the really painful ones: being unjustly fired from a job; going through a bitter divorce; or being rejected, attacked, or undermined by a former friend. These hurts can have a serious effect on our other relationships. They can make us less trusting, more suspicious, and less willing to open our hearts to other people.
St. Paul once wrote, “Conquer evil with good” (Romans 12:21). It’s a fine sentiment, but when he felt betrayed by Demas, Alexander, and others, it hurt. The man who once told the Corinthians to “put up with injustice” and “let yourselves be cheated” could himself have a hard time living this out (1 Corinthians 6:7). Likewise, it can be hard for us to be content or to overcome evil with good when we have been hurt by someone close to us.
Jesus knew that Paul found it hard to get past some of his hurts, anger, and resentments. In the same way, Jesus knows how hard it can be for us to recover when we are hurt. He understands that we might not be able to let go of our wounds right away. And so he stays close to us. He assures us that he still loves us. He reminds us that he is “close to the brokenhearted” (Psalm 34:19). And he promises to help us find a way forward so that we can work through our pain.
So even if you’re feeling hurt or rejected by someone close to you, know that Jesus has not rejected you. He doesn’t want you to be hurt. He is still close to you in your broken-heartedness, and he will never leave you. You can always look to him, no matter what.