He took 39 back-ripping lashes– five times. Three times he was beaten with rods. Once he was stoned and left for dead. Three times he was shipwrecked. Then, as if all of this wasn’t enough, he had to live with the awareness that the Devil was oppressing him with a physical problem that God wouldn’t take away (2 Corinthians 11:24-28; 12:7-10).
Yet, Paul is still quoted today as a follower of Christ who, in spite of all that he endured, wrote as if nothing could separate him from the love of God (Rom 8:22-23, 38-39).
So here’s a question:
Since Paul could have assumed that his many problems were evidence that the Father didn’t care about him, what enabled him to remain so confident of the love of God?
In an attempt to answer this, my thoughts go to something he wrote in a letter to the Ephesians. There he seems to signal that to see how much we are loved– God needs to open the eyes of our hearts.
Writing from prison, Paul was concerned that his readers not be discouraged by his troubles. So he wrote, “For this reason I bow my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, from whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named, that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with might through His Spirit in the inner man, that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the width and length and depth and height — to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge; that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to Him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us, to Him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever” (Eph 3:13-21).
By writing that he asks the Father in heaven to help his readers see the depth and breadth of God’s love, Paul was telling the Ephesians, and us in the process, that sensing the wonder of how much God cares about us requires the work of the Spirit in our hearts (3:16-19).
At this point, Paul’s expression of dependence on what God alone can do in us raises another question:
Should we conclude then that prayer, and the Bible which assures us of the need for God’s work in our heart, are the only means God uses to show his love? Or does this same father use the timely words and works of his people to help those who are struggling to see what someday will be so apparent to us?
Seems to me that the Bible is clear: Our father also uses (among countless other things) acts of advocacy (Job 29:12-17), gifts of food, clothing, and shelter to those in need (James 2:15-16), words of encouragement (1Thess 5:14), the wise counsel of proverbs and riddles (Prov 1:1-7), and the use of medicinal helps (1Tim 5:23), to evoke a sense of his wonderful care and provision– through all of the means at his disposal.
So, here’s where I’m landing– If, like Paul, we feel as though our back is being ripped open by the whips of circumstance; if we feel we have been stoned and left to die; there is still hope in the God who raised Christ from the dead.
The Spirit of God has unlimited resources to help our troubled and struggling hearts believe what the Bible says in so many ways– that there is a Father who loves us– far more than we ever thought possible.