To further explain this post’s title: this is to be the first of six to seven blog posts concerning St. Paul’s theme of justification in his letters, which will be done as a class project (“Paul’s Pastoral Letters for Catechesis and Teaching”) for Fr. William Mills’s SAS 471: Letters of St. Paul course at Holy Apostles College & Seminary. Hopefully whoever reads them will enjoy and learn from them!
I recall a priest once mentioning to me that priests tend to preach on topics they find challenging. This makes sense—for anyone, not just priests; it seems to be a fairly common understanding that trials/challenges make people stronger in the areas that they’ve been challenged, which means that a preacher would be most knowledgeable in areas in which they’d been challenged; and what greater good could they do than in preaching something they know about so well?
St. Paul writes multiple times on the topic of justification (see such passages as Rom 3:20, 24; Gal 2:15-17; Eph 3:8-10, NABRE). Could this have been a topic he found challenging? Before blogging about the meat of his teaching on justification, I will examine why he might have chosen to teach on it at all.
St. Paul started out as a Pharisee—and a very zealous one (see Acts 26:5; Gal 1:13-14; Phil 3:5). Pharisees were very adamant about the necessity of observing the Mosaic Law, both the Law itself and the Pharisaic interpretations of and additions to that Law (which were themselves quite strict). Paul’s strong devotion as a Pharisee should be fairly evident by his strong devotion to destroying Christianity, a group considered by the Pharisees to be blasphemers.
The Pharisees believed that it was obedience to God’s Law that justified a person. What a shock it must have been, then, for Paul to learn that it was faith in God’s Son that came first in justifying a person.
Stop and consider the impact that such a revelation would have on a man’s life. Imagine it happening to you: basically, imagine having gone through your entire life zealously adhering to one belief, to find out in the end that you were radically incorrect. To offer some form of an analogy, imagine that you had spent years building a full-sized jet aircraft from scratch, only to find out after you were halfway through it that it needed to be built with metal, screws, and bolts rather than Legos.
Wouldn’t these sorts of things (pretending the analogy is a commonplace occurrence) compel you to tell others about your experiences, so that they could learn from you and avoid the mistakes that you yourself had made? They ought to; love for others ought to drive you to try and save them from falling into whatever traps and difficulties you yourself had been ensnared by. On top of that, who would be better to speak of the given subject? Who would have greater knowledge and experience than yourself, presuming you learned anything from your mistakes or trials? It’s as Pope St. John Paul II said to repentant women who had obtained abortions: “as a result of your own painful experience, you can be among the most eloquent defenders of everyone’s right to life” (Evangelium Vitae, #99). Talk about bringing good even from evil (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 311-312)!
This basic concept may have been what motivated St. Paul to return to the topic of justification in various letters to different communities. Think about it: in order for Paul himself to grasp it, he had to be blinded by divine light. In our own age, this might seem extreme, but we have to remember that we owe a lot to Paul (and the other apostles, especially those others who wrote on the subject) in our understanding of justification starting with faith; St. Paul helped to ensure that we wouldn’t first wind up doing something terrible on account of our grave misunderstanding (as he did by killing Christians) before we were able to be brought to our senses.
Of course, I don’t know for certain that Paul’s inspiration for writing about justification was that he wrestled with it—or that Paul had to wrestle with the idea at all—but it seems a plausible hypothesis. Something made him think it was a topic worth returning to; perhaps it was the desire to save others from what he believed (from personal experience) to be a potential stumbling block.
This is something we should all strive for: to save others from the mistakes or misunderstandings we ourselves have made or had. Why? Because we know the hardships we’re saving them from, and we can draw from our own experience in overcoming such hardships (especially if we’ve overcome them, but perhaps even when we’re in the process of overcoming them). We know what it took for us to overcome them, so perhaps the same strategies or arguments would also work for someone else.
Take, for instance, the person who has overcome doubting their faith:
“There lives more faith in honest doubt,
Believe me, than in half the creeds.
He fought his doubts and gather’d strength,
He would not make his judgment blind,
He faced the spectres of the mind
And laid them: thus he came at length
To find a stronger faith his own;
And Power was with him in the night” (Alfred Tennyson, In Memoriam A.H.H., 96—qtd. at http://www.poetryfoundation.org).
There is little to no better apologist than the ex-doubter; if logic holds, then, there is little to no one who could better erase doubt about the faith or about God from another’s mind—because that person knows personally what it takes to overcome doubt.
When possible, do not run from discussions of your trials—past or present; they are gifts, even if they are hidden in the ugliest of wrapping. Harvest what might appear to be weeds, and you may turn up the most bountiful wheat—both in yourself and others. “[A]ffliction produces endurance, and endurance, proven character, and proven character, hope” (Rom 5:3-4). Share your own hope with others; help others to have a smooth understanding of concepts you found difficult, rather than allowing them to wrestle and struggle as you yourself did.
I remember I once wrote a paper in which I discussed how we could learn from fictional characters; I noted how “[fictitious] characters function as crash test dummies … the dummy can be put in a car and sent over a cliff, its fate documented without anyone actually getting hurt.” The difference between fictional people and real people, is that real people know how much the car crash hurt, and can speak from real experience rather than from just fictional stories. So the moral of this post is: be the crash test dummy. If you’ve gone over the cliff, put up warning signs so that others won’t follow.