Paul of Tarsus: A journey from anger to compassion
Hespeler, 5 February, 2017 © Scott McAndless
Galatians 1:13-24, 2:11-14, Philippians 3:4b-11, Psalm 37:1-13
aul of Tarsus was a very angry young man. When he first blasts onto the scene of the early Christian church in the Book of Acts he is described as “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord.” (Acts 9:1) His persecution of the church, which, by all the accounts, was ruthless and brutal, is probably the clearest example of what could happen when he allowed his anger to run away from him. But his anger was not, as we often assume, just connected to his rejection of what he saw as the new and heretical Christian faith.
Even after Saul encountered the risen Jesus for himself, embraced the Christian faith and even changed his name and started to be known as Paul, his anger could still burn very hot and could be destructive even though his passion was now directed towards the positive message of the Christian gospel.
We read this morning, in Paul’s own words, the account of the time that he got very, very angry with a man who may have been the most important person in the early church. Paul calls him, in his letter to the Galatians, Cephas. But that is just the Aramaic form of a nam
e that you might be much more familiar with in Greek: Peter. Paul was
arguing with none other than Simon Peter, one of the most revered leaders that
Christianity ever had but Paul didn’t care. Peter had done something wrong and
Paul didn’t hesitate to blow up at him in front of the church.
There was another incident, reported later in the Book of Acts, when Paul got so mad at Barnabas, his very oldest Christian friend and separated from him over a disagreement. (Acts 15:39) These are just three examples and I could find more in Paul’s letters and in the stories about him, but I think that they do suggest an overall pattern of someone who had issues with anger.
Now anger is something that all of have to deal with in our lives. We all get angry sometimes. And, I’m sure we’ve all said things or done things when we were angry that we’ve regretted later. But, for most of us, I’d even say for the majority of us, that is only an occasional problem. We may have other issues we struggle with in our lives, but anger is not at the top of the list.
But there are some people for whom anger is the big issue in their life. It just always seems to keep coming up, messing things up and even influencing things like major decisions and the course of their life. For these people, anger isn’t just a sin; it is the sin – the sin that lies at the root of their life.
Chances are you know or have known someone who has this kind of powerful anger in their life. Maybe, especially if their anger has brought a lot of destruction into their life, you have not been able to maintain a relationship with that person, but you have probably known one. Not everyone who struggles with this kind of anger necessarily sees it destroy their relationships. It is possible to find conversion and develop the fruit of cheerfulness and tranquility as did, I believe, the Apostle Paul, but the temptation to give into anger may yet persist.
But you also need to understand that, when someone has anger like that, it doesn’t come from nowhere. People who really struggle with anger generally have certain things in common. For one thing, they tend to be perfectionists. They live with this really strong sense that the world ought to be a certain way – ought to be perfect – and the anger is often provoked by the world’s failure to live up to those, frankly unrealistic expectations.
But, again, where does that need for perfection come from? Not all of us have that need or expectation. Well, often it begins with the expectations that were put upon such people from very early in their life. Maybe as children they were held to unrealistic standards of performance or behaviour. Maybe their parents or other key people in their life told them (either in words or in other ways) that their love for them was conditional on their performance which had to be perfect. Over time, that need for perfection becomes internalized and they begin to demand perfection from themselves and the world and get very angry at both when it is not found.
So, generally speaking, there is a link between this root sin of anger and an internal drive towards perfection. If Paul is, as I have suggested, someone who had anger issues, can we see evidence of that perfectionism in his life? Absolutely! Paul himself admits as much in some of his letters. He writes this about his early life in his Letter to the Galatians: “I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors.” What is he saying? Not simply that he was a good Jew or even an excellent Jew. He is saying that he was like the best Jew that had ever been. That is the voice of a perfectionist.
And that perfectionism wasn’t only present in Paul’s life, it was something that caused him endless trouble and even threatened to drive him mad sometimes. He speaks often about how, though he kept the Jewish law with excellence, he felt it as this great burden that overshadowed his whole life. He says that, if you are going to keep any part of the law then you have to keep all of it even down to the most insignificant regulation and that, if you even fail in keeping one small part of it, you are condemned and in a worse situation than if you had never tried at all. That is, in my mind, borderline crazy. But it is the kind of thinking that makes sense to a perfectionist.
So Paul really does seem like a perfect example of someone for whom anger is the root sin in their life. And that is, I believe, good news for anyone who struggles with anger or who has someone that they love who struggles with anger. Sometimes we assume that there is no hope for such people – that their relationship with their anger brings too much destruction. Unless they basically stop being who they are, there is no hope. But here we have Paul, a saint, someone whom God clearly used to do much good and someone without whom the church would have been very different.
And Paul didn’t need to stop being who he was in order for that to happen. Anger was still a part of his life, but now God used it in some positive ways – like in that disagreement with Peter when Paul’s anger at what he saw as Peter’s hypocrisy (for treating the Gentiles in the church one way when alone with them and another way when Christians from Jerusalem were visiting) gave Paul what he needed to forcefully confront Peter and take an important stand for the inclusion of Gentiles in the church. The anger itself wasn’t evil and Paul was learning to use it in constructive ways.
Even more important, Paul didn’t lose that impulse towards perfection. It is something that comes through again and again in his letters to the churches. He doesn’t just ask for a good effort from himself and from the people he is corresponding with. He expects excellence. And, without that drive to perfection and where that drive led him in his conversations with his God, I can’t imagine that Paul would have been able to find the extraordinary insights into God and his relationship with that he did.
Sometimes, when we see this tendency to explosive anger and perfectionism in someone, our reaction is to want to get rid of it. To tell someone (or yourself as the case may be) that anger isn’t allowed, that it must be suppressed or hidden or cast outside of a life. To people driven to perfection, we just tell them that they have to accept that the world isn’t going to be perfect. But I would like us to note that that is not how God did his work in Paul’s life. God didn’t ask Paul to stop being Paul but he did take the man that he was and his tendencies and brought about a conversion.
The conversion of Saul of Tarsus to Christianity is recounted several times in the New Testament. We are told that he had this dramatic encounter with the risen Christ while travelling on the road to Damascus that turned him around from being a persecutor of the church to an enthusiastic supporter. But I am not just talking about that one dramatic day of conversion, I am talking about the work that Christ did in him over time – work that transformed the anger that lay at the root of his life.
First of all, and starting in that Damascus Road encounter, Christ confronted him with grace. Here was Paul, pursuing what he was so sure was right and perfect for the faith of his people, and Christ confronted him with the fact that he was wrong – that he had gotten everything exactly wrong. Do you know what that feels like for a perfectionist? It was like Paul’s whole world fell apart in an instant. Falling short of perfection meant that he was a failure, that he would never be acceptable. Paul felt like a little boy who could never please his father – just like that little boy he had once been.
But Christ didn’t leave Paul there. Christ accepted Paul at the very moment when he was most unacceptable from his perfectionist point of view. And not only that, Christ even called him to be his apostle and take his message to the far edges of the world. That shook the foundations of the assumptions that Paul had built his life on up until that point. If he didn’t have to be perfect in order to be acceptable, then what else was possible? Was it even possible that the most unacceptable kind of people to the Jews – that even the Gentles – could become acceptable too? Was it even possible that they could become acceptable without having to follow all the laws and the rules of the Old Testament – without even having to be circumcised?
Yes, Paul was surprised by a grace so powerful that he dedicated the rest of his life to bringing the Gentiles into the faith. These people, whom he had once seen as outsiders, he now embraced as brothers and sisters. In a way, because of who he was and, especially who he had been, he was able to do more to make a place for them than anyone else ever could have. The anger never really went away from his life, but now it was directed against those who would treat these people as anything less than beloved children of God – even if those people were as important as the Apostle Peter.
Paul didn’t stop being who he was – he became who he had always been meant to be. If you struggle with anger or if you love someone who struggles with anger, you need to understand that there is hope. God wants to do a wonderful work in your life or in the life of your loved one. Such people have the capacity to offer more in the way of grace and compassion and acceptance to outsiders or people who just don’t seem to measure up than anyone else. God uses them for a mighty work.
And the only thing that is required for that to happen is for people to open their hearts up to God’s overwhelming grace – to learn that you are acceptable even though you are not perfect and never will be. You continue by learning to trust in God’s acceptance of you and by practicing accepting those that you meet – especially the ones who are far from perfect.
I look around at the world today and see the power of anger and hatred especially of people who are different. Anger drove a young man into a mosque in Quebec City with a gun a week ago. Anger and fear caused chaos and more fear in airports around the United States. We can’t ignore the power of anger, but we don’t need to fear it because we have a God who, through Christ, can turn even the angriest into advocates of acceptance and inclusion that God can use. Just look at the Apostle Paul. Just look at yourself or the person you love. God needs you as you are, and redeems you as you are and converts even your sin into wonderful potential because God can do amazing things through you. This is the message and the promise that lies at the heart of the Christian gospel.