2 Corinthians 11:16-12:10
“True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.” So said C. S. Lewis, the great English Christian writer and teacher.
I have always had a difficult time with the apostle Paul for several reasons. A major one is what I perceive as his tendency to brag. There are times in his letters where he says things like, “Imitate me. This is how you should behave as a Christian.” That bothers me. I was taught that Christians should be humble. To me this means not talking about yourself, not thinking too much of yourself, not elevating yourself in any way. But here is Paul, seeming to boast about himself as the ideal Christian, one everybody should try to be like. How does this fit in with what I’ve been taught about humility?
At first glance, it doesn’t. This kind of talk does not fit with the way most of us were raised. Paul sounds like a boastful braggart who elevates himself above those to whom he is writing, and—in my opinion—that makes him look bad.
If we look at the early chapters of Acts, where we are first introduced to Paul (Saul), we see he was always a little out there. We first find him guarding the coats of those who stone Stephen. He doesn’t participate, he just looks on—but he’s there. Perhaps he appears to be humble because he’s not important enough to take part in the activity. He’s just the coat check guy—but he’s still part of the process.
Almost immediately we see a different side of him. He is at the head of a group going to Damascus to round up Christians and bring them back to be punished. He’s “breathing fire.” He’s angry. He’s tough. He’s ready (as we might say today) to rock and roll. It sounds as if he asked for this job rather than being assigned to it. He wasn’t told, “Go to Damascus.” He wanted—actively sought out—the assignment.
We know what happened next. He was stopped in his tracks when God caused him to be blinded, and he had to wait (patiently?) for healing until one of the very Christians he had come to arrest visited him.
So—which is the real Paul: the boaster we see starting off for Damascus or the penitent Paul who arrives there? Is the real Paul the one we meet in today’s reading or the humble Paul who gives God all the credit for what he has become?
Of course, the correct answer is, “Both.” Like the rest of us, Paul is humble about some things and not so humble about others. He is a person who knows his worth and his strengths, but also sees, when he looks at God, his worthlessness and his weaknesses. He begins this passage by stating his credentials. He says he is boasting, but he is really only telling the truth. He is all the things he claims to be, and has suffered all the hardships and deprivations he claims to have endured. He’s enthusiastic. He’s passionate. He knows God has called him to a special work, and he knows that, with God’s help, he can do whatever God requires.
Self-assured humility—that’s the mark of a Christian. We know that by ourselves we are weak. By ourselves we have nothing much to offer the world. By ourselves we will fail in the ministries to which we’re called. But with God’s strength we can accomplish miracles. We may never be shipwrecked for Christ, or beaten, or put in jail, or travel the world as missionaries, but we may have to “endure hardship as a good soldier” for God. Those hardships may take more subtle forms than they did for Paul, but they will be there. When they happen, we, like Paul, can say with true humility that we have served God regardless of the consequences.