If there’s one thing that is reasonably easy to do for the student of God’s Word, it is to assume a false pretense of the man Paul and his ministry. So often, such as in the letter to the Philippians, we find him upbeat and enthused even in dire conditions. It would seem he was nearly inhuman in his approach to the radical suffering and persecution he endured for the sake of the gospel.
But is that entirely true? Did Paul never display discouragement and fear in the face of adversity?
The adversity was surely present during the penning of Paul’s letter to these believers in Philippi. On one hand, he was imprisoned and unable to personally go to them. A large reason for the letter was to give thanks for these people of Philippi who so graciously helped him with gifts to ensure he was able to eat and have the other necessities while in chains. But rather than portraying the fear of punishment, lack of substance, and possible death at the hands of his captors, Paul applauds the intervening ability of God to use a very bad situation to accomplish a major push in the forwarding of the gospel. The Imperial Guard, employed to announce the coming of a new emperor, was spreading the news that this man Paul had been arrested for announcing, as he claimed, that the crucified and risen King of kings was now sitting on His throne (1:13). The irony of this seems to prep Paul for responding to the adversity in Philippi.
Apparently there were those who were desiring leadership roles in the church at Philippi with wrong motives. These saw the gospel as a tool for personal advancement rather than a life in Christ that called them to lay down their lives for Jesus’ body. In unreal optimism, Paul declares, “even though they do it for the wrong reason, the name of Christ is being proclaimed (1:18).” Through adversity, Paul seems unmoved by fear.
Could it be that the seeming fearless statements Paul forwards to them are more so for their benefit than a true reflection of what Paul was enduring mentally and physically?
If this letter is read beside the words of the first chapter of 2 Corinthians, then it’s probably a plausible thought. There, rather than hearing words like “to live is Christ; to die is gain,” we hear of his time in the Asian prison being described with terms like “affliction, burdened, and despair.”
The greater evidence though may be found in a letter from Paul to his good friend Timothy (2 Timothy). The agony in his closing words pours into the reader’s heart, revealing a man who is broken, alone, abused, and staring into the eyes of death as the executioner’s march has begun.
It’s comforting for me to know that Paul was human, and willing to admit it. Mainly because I am too. Sometimes much too human, at least in my fears and failures.
For Paul, he placed his faith in Christ, not in his feelings. He was fully aware that feelings come and go, both the good and the bad, but Jesus promised to never leave him. Through trials, regardless of emotion or feeling, Paul’s belief never wavered. In fact, it appears he was strengthened by his feelings as though they were simply another step in Christian maturity. As he described his abusive treatment from Alexander, and how he stood alone at his sentence of condemnation, he reminded Timothy, “Jesus was with me (4:17).” Maybe there are some times when He is the only one who can be there, our Strong Tower in the face of our fears… and in those times; He is sufficient.