Among the numerous lessons for Lent that can be gleaned from reflecting on the conversion of St. Paul, and especially the fruit of that conversion embodied in his teaching, let us focus first on his claim to be the greatest of all sinners, and then, with some assistance from the great tradition of the Church, on the place of suffering in God’s plan of salvation and in Christian life of continual conversion.
Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. (1 Timothy 1:15)
St. Paul does not introduce every assertion of faith that he makes in his letter with the kind of gravitas that precedes the words just quoted: “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Tim 1:15). This is a virtual summary of the mission of Christ and the gospel that St. Paul was commissioned to preach. It echoes Jesus’s own words: “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mk 2:17); “I came … to save the world” (Jn 12:47).
St. Paul claims that he is the greatest, the foremost among sinners, not just once, but twice. And with the second assertion he gives the reason: “But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life” (1 Tim 1:16). Paul perceives the divine wisdom at work in having chosen him, a persecutor of Christ’s Church, to proclaim the Gospel to Israel and to the nations. Knowing how tempting it is to fall into despair of being forgiven, he makes an a fortiori argument: If God can forgive me, then he can forgive everyone.
There is no sin that constitutes an evil so great that it is beyond God’s power to forgive. St. Paul must have known that the act of the confession of sins requires such a great degree of humility that people would rather busy themselves with earthly concerns in order to avoid a moment of truth in the conscience. Or, they convince themselves that they will deal with it later, acting against the wisdom of David: “Today if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts” (Ps 95:7–8).
It would have made for a splendid disputation at one of the great thirteenth century universities, like the University of Paris, to have St. Paul and St. Peter respond to the question: Who is the greatest sinner? Certainly, St. Peter has a case to make. But perhaps in the course of their debate it might have occurred to both that sin is so close to the sinner that anyone who faces it head on, without pretension and prepared excuses, is bound to make the claim that he, or she, is the greatest sinner. We are often disposed to cut our neighbors some slack, imagining any number of mitigating circumstances that might diminish culpability. But, when it comes to ourselves, there is no place to hide. In our consciences, we are transparent to ourselves, naked and exposed to the truth that at a given moment I simply decided to put God and His truth aside. There was something I was determined to think, or to say, or to do that, even knowing it is contrary to God’s law, I moved forward anyway.
This is what Scripture calls disdaining or despising or having contempt for God’s word, as Nathan says to David: “Why have you despised the word of the Lord, to do what is evil in his sight?” (2 Sam 12:9). In every sin, there is such a contempt for God’s word. Since we know the concrete demands of God’s word through the judgment of conscience, in every sin there is an act of violence against the truth in a judgment of conscience. This is why the apostolic Church understands redemption in Christ as the gift of a conscience purified by the blood—that is, the paschal love—of Christ (Heb 9:9, 14). This gift is conferred through the Sacrament of Baptism (Heb 10:20–22; 1 Pet 3:21).
Lent is the season of preparing for Baptism and, for those already baptized, for deepening baptismal graces through examination of conscience, repentance, and conversion. In this way, all the members of the Church bear witness to the surpassing mercy of God and participate in St. Paul’s mission to be an example of the extent of that mercy so that others may be strengthened in hope when they confront their own sins. How meaningful and powerful the Sign of the Cross on the forehead on Ash Wednesday is for a world marked by the loss of the sense of sin and conscience, and thereby captive to hopelessness!
“For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” (Acts 9:16)
God addresses the above words to Ananias, whom the Lord had chosen to baptize Paul. Ananias had balked at the thought, informing the Lord (as if He needed to be informed!) about “how much evil he has done to your saints at Jerusalem” (Acts 9:13). The Lord reassures Ananias that it is all according to His plan: “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name” (Acts 9:15–16).
Indeed, St. Paul is keenly aware of the place of suffering and death in God’s plan. But this awareness comes only following the renewal of his mind (Rom 12:2; Eph 4:23) by faith in Christ, His mission to save sinners, and His resurrection. In his persecution of Christ’s first disciples, Saul, the Pharisee, shows himself violently opposed to any definition of the promised Messiah that entails His mission being fulfilled through suffering and death.
Prior to his conversion, then, Paul is very much like Peter, whom Jesus reprimanded for thinking as a man rather than as God thinks. This came in the context of Peter’s response to Jesus’s first revelation that “he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Mt 16:21). This understanding of the suffering Messiah seems to be one of the chief teachings of the risen Lord (see Lk 24:7, 26, 46) and a principal focus of the faith of the apostolic Church (see Acts 3:18; 17:3; 26:23; 1 Pet 1:11).
Who can understand this divine necessity of the Messiah’s suffering? Sinners, who “see in the cross an exact reflection of their immeasurable guilt” (Balthasar). One must see, in faith, the cause-effect relation between one’s own sins (cause) and the suffering of the Son of God (effect). This key opens the door to understand the place of suffering in God’s plan, because at this point one is no longer looking at the Cross but from the Cross, that is, from Jesus’s perspective, with the eyes of Jesus, who alone knows the full truth about sin and evil and suffering.
This explains how St. Paul can rejoice over his suffering—because he sees it as a participation in the salvific suffering of Christ (Col 1:24). And St. Peter makes it a principle of Christian life: “Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking …” (1 Pet 4:1); “rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed” (1 Pet 4:13); “if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name” (1 Pet 4:16).
I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh. (Romans 9:1–3)
Certainly, St. Paul experienced great physical suffering, even as Christ did. But he makes it clear that his participation in the suffering of Christ is above all suffering over rejection of God’s love. That is to say, it is suffering by way of taking upon oneself the suffering of sinners, who precisely by sinning, have rejected God’s love. It is consciously to step into the void of non-love as an offering to God, Who is pleased with and glorified by, not suffering pure and simple, but by the way those who know His ways suffer.
The primary form of suffering for sinners is remorse of conscience. Remorse of conscience is the just punishment for sin. Its foundation is a judgment that I have misused my freedom, which is for responsible love in the truth. Out of disordered love of myself, I have despised the truth of God. In St. Augustine’s words: Love of self to the point of contempt of God. It is the very logic of sin to live apart from God’s love, since every sin is an act of disobeying a divine commandment, with this disobedience being rooted in doubt about and rejection of God’s love. This conforms the principle set forth by the wise man: “one is punished by the very things by which he sins” (Wis 11:16). St. Augustine once put it this way: “Inordinate love is its own punishment.”
When this suffering, this remorse of conscience is linked by faith in Christ and His paschal mystery, when it entails awareness of being responsible for His suffering and death, then “we suffer with him” (Rom 8:17). It is our baptismal dignity to participate in the suffering of God Himself over the evil of sin. “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death” (Mt 26:38). God definitively reveals His reaction to sin in the suffering and death of Jesus Christ. “When the Spirit of truth permits the human conscience to share in that suffering, the suffering of the conscience becomes particularly profound, but also particularly salvific.
Then, by means of an act of perfect contrition, the authentic conversion of the heart is accomplished: this is the evangelical ‘metanoia’” (St. John Paul II, Dominum et Vivificantem, 45).
This is the godly suffering of which St. Paul writes: “I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because your grief led to repentance. For you felt a godly grief…. For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation” (2 Cor 7:9–10). This moral grieving of conscience is the central element of the just punishment for sin. It follows from the very nature of sin, and we should strive to accept it as a grace (CCC, 1472–73). To do so is to transform the punishment for sin into an act of atonement for sin. For, when punishment for sin is freely willed, precisely in the knowledge of its place in God’s plan fully revealed in Jesus Christ, then it becomes satisfactory. Faith and charity transform punishment into satisfaction—participation in the satisfaction of Christ Himself.
And with this, we can understand St. Paul’s surprising assertion: “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions” (Col 1:24). To believe that sorrow for sins is a grace and a necessary step in repentance and conversion means that we can see it as a great good. Following St. Augustine, St. Thomas teaches that “a man may be displeased at having sinned, and be pleased at his displeasure together with his hope for pardon, so that his very sorrow is a matter of joy. Hence Augustine says (De poenitentia, Ch. XIII): “The penitent should ever grieve and rejoice at his grief” (ST III, Q. 84, a. 9, ad 2).
In this light, we understand the Catechism when it teaches about the “salutary pain and sadness which the Fathers called animi cruciatus (affliction of spirit) and compunctio cordis (repentance of heart)” (CCC, 1431) that accompany the Christian way of ongoing conversion. Especially during Lent, we embrace what God has revealed in Christ and through St. Paul about godly grief and holy affliction or remorse over sin, as developed especially in Eastern tradition of spirituality:
“Godly sorrow” and its equivalents would be the highest expression of joy here below: karopoion penthos. The evangelical beatitude was to be realized in this world: “Blessed are the penthontes [those who mourn], for they will be comforted.” “Mourning” would now be the equivalent of consolation, even more, of happiness.1
Lent is the season of godly suffering, of participating in the suffering of Christ and also in the joy that lay ahead of Him and for the sake of which He endured the cross (Heb 12:2), thereby fulfilling the mysterious necessity of suffering and death in God’s plan of love for saving the world form sin, satisfying the Father’s love by taking upon Himself the just punishment of the sins of the world.
1 Irénée Hausherr, Penthos. The Doctrine of Compunction in the Christian East (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, Inc., 1982), 23.
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