Of all the ways that the apostle Paul has been described over the centuries, one word has stood the test of time: "confident."
Some have called him brash, others abrupt, and still others aggressive, but underlying all of these is Paul’s unfailing confidence in the Lord and in his calling. Not only was Paul bold when it came to proclaiming the gospel, he also had great confidence in God’s love and in his care.
In his Letter to the Romans, Paul drew from his own experiences as a missionary when he asked, “What will separate us from the love of Christ? Will anguish, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or the sword?” (8:35). To the Corinthians, he spoke more openly about his life when he explained how his reliance on God sustained him in every situation: “We are afflicted in every way, but not constrained; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Corinthians 4:8-9). To the Thessalonians, he summed up his philosophy by giving them the same advice that he had learned to take for himself: “In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:18). It was this advice that kept his confidence strong and his spirits high.
A Challenge to Human Logic. Because these are familiar passages, they tend to lose their force. But in each of them, Paul is saying something that almost defies human logic. Should we really give thanks to God all the time—even when things are going poorly? Can we really expect that times of affliction and confusion never have to get us down? And even more to the point, do we really believe that no force in heaven or on earth can ever separate us from the love that Jesus has for us?
On one hand, we need to see that these statements of Paul’s are idealistic, written to encourage his readers to hold fast in tough times. Paul knew very well how difficult it can be to maintain a sense of hope or peace during times of trial. Even today, we can see how hard it can be to hold on to Jesus in the midst of tragedies like the death of a loved one, a divorce, or a natural disaster like an earthquake or a flood. God knows how much pain these things bring. He doesn’t expect us to pretend that they don’t hurt us or cause us fear, sadness, or anxiety.
On the other hand, we should be careful not to dismiss Paul’s confidence as being too idealistic. No matter how hard our lives become, God is still our loving Father. He is always with us, ready to give us his comfort and his strength. He is always inviting us to trust him just a little bit more, to take just one more step of faith, so that our confidence will grow as strong as Paul’s and our convictions will come closer and closer to the ideals that Paul described in his letters.
Faith through Prayer. Paul’s statements may seem too hard to practice in our own lives. But that doesn’t mean we can’t keep growing and experiencing more and more of the confidence that Paul exhibited. In the final analysis, it is the kind of unshakable, irrational faith that St. Paul had that will help us know God’s comfort and encouragement—even when it seems that we have lost everything.
The question is, how do we get to this faith? How can we overcome the sense that we are alone in the world, or the fear that God will not take care of us in our time of need? Surely it doesn’t come just from wishful thinking or from trying hard to believe in something that doesn’t make sense to us!
The truth is that this kind of faith comes only as we come in touch with Jesus in prayer and let him convince us that he has us in the palm of his hand. Let’s look at how this can happen for us.
A Melted Heart. One day, a man entered the Temple in Jerusalem with a heavy heart. He was frustrated at his own misfortune and envious of those who had become wealthy through dishonesty and cheating. He had been puzzling over the question of why God allowed the wicked to prosper while the upright, people like himself, encountered nothing but suffering and difficulty. It all seemed so unjust, and he had begun to think that he had been wasting his time trying to stay faithful to the commands of God. “Is it in vain that I have kept my heart pure, washed my hands in innocence?” he thought, "for I am afflicted day after day, chastised every morning" (Psalm 73:13, 14).
“[When] I tried to understand all this, it was too difficult for me, till I entered the sanctuary of God” (Psalm 73:16-17). And that’s when everything changed. In God’s presence, something happened that melted this man’s heart and calmed his anxieties. Left to the devices of his own mind, he found himself in a pit of confusion, self-pity, and worry. But once he set aside his thoughts and lifted his mind up to God in prayer, the knots both in his thinking and in his stomach began to untie.
As he prayed, the question of why the wicked prospered while he did not became secondary to the privilege he had of being with Yahweh and knowing him intimately. Standing in the Temple, enfolded by the presence of the Lord, he confessed: “Yet I am always with you; you take hold of my right hand. . .&bnsp;.Whom else have I in the heavens? None beside you delights me on earth” (Psalm 73:23, 25).
The Beauty of Prayer. What happened to this man? To put it simply, God melted his heart. This man put aside his own limited human reasoning for a short time and let God give him a broader and deeper perspective on his life—a perspective that brought him great comfort and released him from his anxiety. Nothing changed in his outer circumstances, but it didn’t seem to matter. The man himself changed, and that was all that mattered. He realized that God had not forgotten him, and finally at peace, he prayed, “As for me, to be near God is my good, to make the Lord GOD my refuge. I shall declare all your works” (Psalm 73:28).
This is the beauty of prayer. No matter who we are, and no matter what we have done, we can go before the Lord at any time and let his love and his compassion wash over us. We can bring our deepest hurts, fears, and anxieties to him and know that he will answer us with his peace and consolation. We can bring our sins to him and know that he will forgive us and draw us closer to himself. We can bring our needs to him and know that he will give us the wisdom, guidance, and strength we need to move forward in hope.
Three Steps to Freedom. No one wants to go through a personal tragedy or a natural disaster. We all know how painful it can be, and we probably wonder how we will stand up to the test. But it is not for us to determine the full course of our lives. So much is out of our control. At the same time, there are steps we can take—whether we have been praying for years or whether we are just beginning to spend time with the Lord.
The first step is to turn to Jesus and tell him that you need his help and his peace. Don’t be afraid to confess your neediness to him. God loves it when we come to him with honest, trusting hearts.
The second step is to believe that no matter how difficult things look, they will get better. Trust that God is with you, even if you can’t see him or feel him right now. Believe that he knows your suffering and that he has a plan to bring good out of even the worst situation. Do your best to imitate the unshakable, irrational faith of Paul, Peter, and all the other saints.
And the final step is to move forward. God does not want us to become paralyzed by our problems. Even if it is a very small step, take it. Then watch and see how God builds up your confidence and helps you take the next step. The Bible is filled with stories of heroes and heroines who faced some kind of defeat but moved on and ultimately were victorious. Think, for instance, of Peter in prison (Acts 12:1-17), or of Esther in Persia (Esther 2, 8), or of Judas Maccabeus and his companions (1 and 2 Maccabees). All these people encountered great troubles but did not let themselves become overwhelmed. You can, too.
All Things Work for Good. We may never know why certain tragedies come to us. And we may not always deal with them in the most pleasing of ways. But as the fellow in Psalm 73 learned, God will never abandon us. No matter what we are feeling during these times of trial, God will help us. And in the end, when we have gone to be with Jesus, we will look back upon our lives and finally understand how all things really have worked together for good for those who love God (Romans 8:28).