Patrick, Paul and God’s unlikely choices

A devotional thought on Patrick and Paul on this St Patrick’s Day 2013

Having drawn some parallels between Patrick and Paul, this post is on one major difference.

Paul, on the one hand, was highly educated, a Hebrew of the Hebrews, in regard to the law, a Pharisee and, in terms of righteousness based on the law, faultless. (Phil 3:4-6). In Acts 22:3 Paul tells his listeners that “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city. I studied under Gamaliel and was thoroughly trained in the law of our ancestors.”

Saul/Paul is an insider: well-connected; a Roman citizen; intelligent; educated; of the right blood; zealous; passionate for the glory of God. A stellar ‘career’ lay ahead for this exceptional man: orator, philosopher, expert in language and law, passionate Jew, zealous for Israel, highly respected and feared by his enemies.

Patrick, on the other hand, uses very different language to describe himself. His Confession opens with this line;

My name is Patrick. I am a sinner, a simple country person, and the least of all believers. I am looked down upon by many.

Later he says

Although I am imperfect in many ways, I want my brothers and relations to know what I’m really like, so that they can see what it is that inspires my life.

He knows all too well the gaps in his education, learning and writing. Taken captive early he says

That is why, today, I blush and am afraid to expose my lack of experience, because I can’t express myself with the brief words I would like in my heart and soul.

His identity is that “I am first of all a simple country person, a refugee, and unlearned.”  This is one reason that others thought his mission to Ireland a waste of time.

There were many who forbade this mission. They even told stories among themselves behind my back, and the said: “Why does he put himself in danger among hostile people who do not know God?” It was not that they were malicious – they just did not understand, as I myself can testify, since I was just an unlearned country person.

Patrick is an outsider: a ‘nobody’, an unlikely candidate to do anything remarkable; he lacks the right qualifications and experience. You get the sense he’d be the scrawny guy with poor coordination, the last to be chosen when picking teams at school sports ….

Yet it seems that God tends often to choose unlikely outsiders to accomplish his purposes. David the runt of the litter wasn’t even considered worthy of an invitation to meet Samuel. Esther was one woman in a powerful man’s world. The disciples wouldn’t have made a ‘Leadership’ ‘C’ Team let alone an ‘A’ Team. The nation of Israel herself is a trivial inconvenience to mighty empires like Assyria, Babylon, and  Rome.

Is it possible that a reason God does things this way is that he works with faith, trust, dependence, prayer, humility, repentance, and worship? 

‘Outsiders’, less full of themselves, their own achievements and status, are more open than ‘insiders’ who tend to be ‘self-made’, self-righteous, self-important and self-sufficient and don’t tend to see the need for those sorts of ‘powerless’ qualities?

Patrick didn’t have a high opinion of himself and is more immediately wide-open to the astonishing grace of God.

But this I know for certain, that before I was brought low, I was like a stone lying deep in the mud. Then he who is powerful came and in his mercy pulled me out, and lifted me up and placed me on the very top of the wall. That is why I must shout aloud in return to the Lord for such great good deeds of his, here and now and forever, which the human mind cannot measure.

And is this why Paul’s pride had to be confronted in dramatic terms? He is overcome, blinded and made powerless on the Damascus Road by the risen and living Christ. His certainty in his own rightness, a conviction that could justify bloodshed, is shattered. It is only then it becomes possible for him to hear, serve and begin to love God. It is only then that deep humility, thankfulness, grace, and compassion take root and grow in Paul’s life and subsequent ministry.

Patrick has some fascinating words to the ‘insiders’ to consider the unlikely ways God works:

You well-educated people in authority, listen and examine this carefully. Who was it who called one as foolish as I am from the middle of those who are seen to be wise and experienced in law and powerful in speech and in everything? If I am most looked down upon, yet he inspired me, before others, so that I would faithfully serve the nations with awe and reverence and without blame: the nations to whom the love of Christ brought me. His gift was that I would spend my life, if I were worthy of it, to serving them in truth and with humility to the end.

Some things Patrick’s words say to me. Feel welcome to add your own responses.

– In theological training, ‘assessing’ someone’s spirituality and readiness for ministry involves far far more than mere marks on an academic paper. Character, character, character …..

– Is this one reason, I wonder, why the church in the West is in decline – we are simply too self-sufficient, too secure, too comfortable in our consumer culture and with ourselves? And conversely, why the church in Asia, Latin America and Africa is exploding?

– The cross remains deeply offensive to human pride. Being a Christian involves death to the self.

– That God is consistently surprising in his unlikely choices should remind his people that he is at the centre not us.

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