Many of us as Christians have a tendency to look at our past leaders in the church through rose-colored glasses. We are apt to place them on pedestals and to forget that they too had feet of clay. In saying this, I am not trying to minimize the impact that these leaders have had in our lives and in the world at large. I am only trying to acknowledge that they were human and, as such, that they faced struggles in their lives and lived with weaknesses in themselves that we oftentimes fail to appreciate after the fact. And the more time that has passed, the more we are likely to think in this rose-colored way.
For this reason, I am convinced that when many of us think about the Apostle Paul, we think of someone who was so bold and courageous that the Lord could not help but accomplish great things in and through him. We see Paul through our rose-colored glasses; we are convinced that, while we struggle with boldness in speaking about Christ or in taking a stand for Him, Paul did not. After all, the Bible portrays Paul as one who regularly preached in the face of great opposition (Acts 13:44–46; 14:1–3; 17:22–32), who boldly confronted his adversaries (13:8–11), and who made a practice of telling his listeners exactly what they needed to hear rather than what they wanted to hear (20:20, 27).
But there are passages in the New Testament that suggest that Paul may not, in fact, have been a naturally bold person in and of himself. In 1 Corinthians 2:3, for instance, Paul admits that when he was with the church in Corinth, he was with them in “weakness and in fear and much trembling.” And in 2 Corinthians 10:10, Paul acknowledges that his reputation among the churches was such that his “letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech of no account.” On at least one occasion, Paul directly asks the church to pray for him “at all times” that he might “declare [the gospel] boldly” as he ought to do (Eph. 6:18–20). And on at least two occasions, the Lord encourages Paul not to be afraid in the midst of conflict and opposition (Acts 18:9; 23:11; see also 27:24).
All of these things suggest that Paul may well have had a naturally timid personality or at least that he may not have been as naturally bold as we might think when we look at him through our rose-colored glasses. And if that is true, it would definitely not be the only time in history that God worked through such a person. Many of the people whom God has used most profoundly over the centuries have been naturally timid people. I think especially of John Calvin in this regard. We know from Theodore Beza—Calvin’s successor in Geneva and author of the very first biographical sketch of his life and ministry—that the magisterial Reformer was naturally a timid man and that he did not want the spotlight but instead wanted to pass his days in seclusion, far away from the lights and the action. But God had something different in mind for Calvin. God had a bold and prominent ministry in mind for him, one that was very much like Paul’s insofar as it was characterized by preaching in the face of great opposition, confronting adversaries with boldness, and telling people what they needed to hear rather than what they wanted to hear.
But if Paul had a naturally timid personality, where did his boldness come from? Quite simply, it came from the Lord and from His Word. When Paul rather audaciously confronted Elymas the magician, who was seeking to turn Sergius Paulus away from the faith, we are explicitly told that Paul was “filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 13:9–11). When Paul preached the gospel boldly in Pisidian Antioch and was driven out of town by the Jews and by many of the leading men and women of the city, we are again explicitly told the same thing (vv. 50–52). After moving on to Iconium, Paul began “speaking boldly for the Lord” again in the face of great opposition from both Jews and gentiles, and we are told that the reason was that the Lord granted him the power to do so (14:3). But, perhaps most helpful of all, we read in Acts 20:32 that Paul challenged the elders of the Ephesian church to follow his example of ministering in the face of opposition by relying upon God and “the word of his grace, which is able to build you up.” The fact that Paul encouraged the elders to take up their charge of shepherding the flock of God, come what may, by relying upon God and His Word certainly implies that he himself was drawing his boldness and strength for ministry in precisely the same way.
I think that ought to be an encouraging word for those in the church today who might consider themselves to be naturally timid people or who may struggle with boldly taking a stand for Christ in the public square. My guess is that a lot of Christians will put themselves in this category. Many of us are silent when we have an opportunity to talk about Jesus or to take a stand for what we believe. Many of us give in to the temptation to be liked or accepted rather than run the risk of offending or bringing opposition upon ourselves. And yet, in spite of this, we all want to be mightily used of God. We want our lives to matter and to impact others in an ultimate sense.
We need to remember, in the first place, that Jesus died for all of our sins, even those caused by our lack of boldness. Paul himself reminds us of this great fact in Romans 8:1 when he says, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” We need to remember that. But we also need to remember that Paul—a man who was so obviously used of the Lord—may well have struggled with boldness in a way very similar to how we struggle. We need to remember that the same Holy Spirit who filled Paul has taken up residence within us and is, even now, at work within us. Let us strive to “keep in step with the Spirit” (Gal. 5:25) by putting ourselves in situations in which we are forced to walk by faith and not by sight and to rely on the Lord and His promises rather than on ourselves and our natural abilities. We need to remember that courage is not the absence of fear; it is living by faith in the midst of fear, trusting that the Holy Spirit will give us what we need at the right moment to accomplish all that the Lord intends.
I believe that the “thorn in the flesh” that Paul laments so much in 2 Corinthians 12 may well have been his own natural timidity. That would certainly explain his desire for his fellow Christians to be continually praying for boldness in his ministry. It would explain his comments about the weakness of his physical presence and how that presence differed so markedly from his writing. And it would also explain his own evaluation of his ministry among the Corinthian Christians as being one of weakness, fear, and much trembling. If this was in fact Paul’s thorn, then the rest of 2 Corinthians 12 can help us see that his timidity was not a liability that would keep him from being successful in ministry but instead a gift of God’s grace designed to keep him dependent on the Lord in everything that he did. It was God’s way of preventing Paul from ministering in his own strength and from relying on his own natural abilities and resources, thereby demonstrating to the world that God’s grace really is “sufficient” and that His power really is “made perfect in weakness” (v. 9). We might call it a severe mercy, but it was a mercy nonetheless. The longer I live, the more I am thankful for God’s severe mercies. For in them I am forced to lean on the Lord and not to rely on myself, and the world is allowed to see His power and His strength clearly manifested for themselves.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on November 21, 2018.