St. Paul was probably the greatest evangelist in the history of the church. He took the gospel from Jerusalem and spread it far and wide. Paul was a master builder, for he not only evangelized people: He challenged them to grow in holiness, and he formed churches wherever he went.
Did Paul learn all of this through revelation by the Spirit? Did he learn it as the churches faced normal growing pains, persecutions, and internal divisions? Or did he learn it as he worked through his own personal struggles with his fallen nature? Most likely, it was a combination of these elements, along with a few others we may never know about. But whatever the process, we can be sure of this: Paul himself needed to be formed more and more by the Holy Spirit if he was going to help others in their formation. So let's look into a few episodes in the life of Paul to see what we can learn about his formation—and about the way God wants to form us.
The Old Paul. On a few occasions, Paul gives us glimpses into his life before he met Jesus on the road to Damascus. And one element that comes up more than once is how self-confident he was. "If anyone else thinks he can be confident in flesh, all the more can I" (Philippians 3:4). Describing his determination and his zeal, he told the Galatians: "You heard of my former way of life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God beyond measure and tried to destroy it . . . since I was even more a zealot for my ancestral traditions" (Galatians 1:13-14). Paul even said he was a "blasphemer and a persecutor and an arrogant man" who acted in "ignorance" and "unbelief" (1 Timothy 1:13).
With personal descriptions like these, it's not difficult to see that the old Paul was a determined, principled, proud, self-righteous, and even violent person. He loved his faith, and he felt he had to do whatever was necessary to defend it and protect it—even to the point of killing people. Paul possessed unlimited skills and many outstanding virtues. He was a brilliant and well-schooled man. His mind was supple and well organized. But his self-confidence, his self-righteousness, and his pride undoubtedly got the best of him on more than a few occasions. This was the old Saul, the man that the Holy Spirit wanted to transform.
The New Paul. We all know about Paul's conversion on the road to Damascus. Most of us probably know also how after his conversion, he began to preach in the synagogues about Jesus. People were astonished. "Isn't this the fellow who was causing havoc among the believers in Jerusalem?" they would ask. Imagine how difficult it must have been for Paul. Here he was, trying to follow Jesus, yet he had to deal with his old reputation and with the tension and suspicion that it caused. The first Christians were afraid of him on the one hand, and on the other hand, the Jewish zealots whom he used to support considered him a traitor—and most likely a target for their violence.
But even though Paul was caught between a rock and a hard place, he didn't give up. Instead, he "grew all the stronger and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus, proving that this is the Messiah" (Acts 9:22). And it's good that he did, because his growth and determination were instrumental in the rapid growth of the church of the time.
We face a similar issue. Some people at work, in our neighborhood, or even in our family may question our motives or the authenticity of our commitment to Jesus. They may take jabs at us, accusing us of being hypocrites. They may even try to provoke us to fight. Like Paul, we may face tension over our past weaknesses or over some labels that have been given to us, whether accurately or inaccurately. We may face conflict because we stand up against abortion or because we walk away from immoral conversations. And we all have a fallen nature that is opposed to God.
Clearly, the obstacles are many. But God is greater than any obstacle that may stand in our way. We simply need to follow Paul's example and keep pressing on to the goal of our faith. We simply need to make sure that the flaws and trappings of our old ways don't drag us down and that the attitudes or actions of our detractors don't discourage us.
Paul once wrote: "I know that good does not dwell in me, that is, in my flesh" (Romans 7:18). While some take this literally, meaning that Paul thought that everything in him—his very nature—was evil and sinful, this is not what he meant. Throughout his Christian life, Paul applied his talents and skills to the work of evangelization. He relied heavily upon his foundation in understanding the Old Testament and in the faith he had learned as a young man. He knew that there were many good elements in his life, and he made good use of them for the sake of Jesus and his church.
At the same time, however, the Holy Spirit was at work, moving Paul from a self-centered approach to a Christ-centered approach. The Holy Spirit was also giving Paul new insights and showing him that every sin of anger, pride, and self-righteousness had to go. This is how Paul was transformed, and it is how we must be transformed. Transformation means living for God, not for ourselves. It means trying to put on a holy disposition. It means trying our best and asking the Spirit to help us say no to temptation and sin.
The Division with Barnabas. It's one thing to say Paul was being transformed, but it's another thing to say that he was completely transformed. One good example is his relationship with his fellow apostle, Barnabas. Barnabas had treated Paul like gold. He supported Paul when everyone else was suspicious. He invited him to come to Antioch and reintroduced him to the church. Yet Scripture tells us that these two men got into a heated argument that forced them to go their separate ways. What happened?
On their first missionary journey, Paul and Barnabas took a young man named Mark, but this fellow left them early in the trip and went home. Later, as they planned their next journey, Barnabas suggested taking Mark again, but Paul rejected the idea. He thought that Mark was weak and not trustworthy. The argument got so heated that the two split over it. Doesn't it seem so petty, so unbecoming for two of Christianity's greatest saints and apostles? Why couldn't Paul give Mark a second chance? Why couldn't he work it out with Barnabas? For that matter, why do we let little things divide us?
The good news is that Barnabas and Paul did ultimately reconcile their differences (Galatians 2:1). Paul and Mark were reconciled as well (Colossians 4:10; 2 Timothy 4:11). This episode shows us that we all get into disagreements and arguments—many of which should be easy to reconcile. It shows us that Jesus is always calling us to mend our differences, no matter how long it takes, and that he is always at work, helping us to come back together.
From Hate to Love. When we reflect on the way Paul established all those churches, we can get very idealistic. We can forget the struggles from opposition, the conflicts within the churches, the impossible odds of bringing a new faith to an unbelieving world, the beatings and punishments, and even the dangers of travel two thousand years ago. These challenges gave Paul every reason to resent those who gave him trouble and to give up pursuing God's call for him. But just the opposite happened. Paul was transformed into a man of love.
Prior to his conversion, the violent, blaspheming, zealous, and persecuting Paul may have loved those who were good to him, but he also had a streak of hatred for those whom he opposed—he was even willing to see them put to death. His own writings show, however, that he learned how to treat everyone with compassionate love and, at times, with tough love.
Paul once asked the Corinthians: "Shall I come to you with a rod, or with love and a gentle spirit?" (1 Corinthians 4:21). He also confronted the "stupid Galatians" (Galatians 3:1); publicly chastised Peter (2:11); called the Corinthians "worldly" because of their divisions (1 Corinthians 3:3); and demanded reverence for the community's eucharistic celebration (11:27). Yet his tough love was far overshadowed by his supportive love for God's people.
Paul repeatedly talked about God's merciful love (Romans 5:8; Ephesians 2:4), Jesus' passionate love (Romans 8:35; 2 Corinthians 5:14; Ephesians 5:2), and hsis own faithful love (Romans 16:8; 1 Corinthians 4:17; 16:24; Philippians 4:1). In one of the most moving chapters in all of Scripture, Paul described what it means to be a loving person (1 Corinthians 13). He also taught people how to love each other (Romans 12:10; Galatians 5:14).
This transformation from a man who could hate and kill to a man of love is the greatest witness Paul has left us. It far surpasses his abundant gifts for preaching and building the church. So as we admire Paul—both his missionary work and his personal transformation—during this year of celebration, let's be sure to put into practice this most admirable virtue. God wants to show us the depth and breadth and height of his love so that we can drink it in and then give it away to others—just as Paul did.