Paul mentions a second thing he never got over: his amazement at the weakness of his own person. Notice his language here: “Yes, to me, less than the least of all Christians, has God given this grace . . .” I know some people think Paul is merely polite here, deprecating himself as we might. But I am sure that he felt deeply in his heart what he put into words. He wasn’t looking back to when he was a Pharisee. Rather, it was a present assessment of his worth: “the least of all Christians .” This is what Paul thought of himself.
I have heard people say, as they have read some of Paul’s writings, “This man is an egoist. He talks about his holiness and his faithfulness and his tenderness and compassion. He says, ‘Copy me, my brothers, as I copy Christ himself,’” (I Corinthians 11:1). “Wow! How prideful he is!” They are amazed at what they think to be his conceit. But if you want to know what he thought of himself, this is it! In fact, you can detect a gradual change of his idea of himself.
In the first Corinthian letter, written earlier than the letter we are studying, he says, “I am the least of the messengers, and indeed I do not deserve that title at all because I persecuted the Church of God” (I Corinthians 15:9). That is only last in a list of thirteen. Here he says, “I am the least of all the saints.” In fact, he invents a word here, puts the comparative and the superlative together: “I am less than the least of all the saints.” Hmm. That estimation is quite a bit lower. But when he wrote Second Timothy, his last letter, he said, “Christ Jesus entered the world to rescue sinners. I realize that I was the worst of them all!” (I Timothy 1:15). Now that is progress!
Paul’s attitude is right in line with what our Lord said would happen: You remember that he said, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me,” (Matthew 11:29). What are you supposed to learn about him? Well, “I am meek and lowly of heart,” (Matthew 11:29 ). Here we are face to face with the phenomenon frequently seen in the great leaders and saints of the past. It is that the older they grow, the more acute they become in their own sense of sin and of weakness in themselves. They see that what they once thought to be natural strengths are in truth, weaknesses. So if this is beginning to happen to you, congratulations! You are growing to be a disciple of your Lord Jesus!
When I began my Christian life, I was only 21 years old and thought I was bad but not that bad. I hadn’t murdered anyone, so that was okay, right? Sure, there were a few areas I knew that needed work, but I thought that if God straightened those out, everything would be okay. But He gradually opened my eyes to see that, in those areas where I thought I was doing well, in His eyes, I was utterly repugnant and rejected by him. My strengths were my weaknesses. Through the years I had to learn to see myself more correctly. I ran across a quotation from Carl Jung, which says this very well:
In the second half of life the necessity is imposed of recognizing no longer the validity of our former ideals, but of their contrary, of perceiving the error in what were previously our convictions, of sensing the untruth in what was our truth, and of weighing the degree of opposition and even of hostility in what we once took to be love.
That is an accurate statement of those who begin to see themselves accurately. As Paul began to understand the full revelation of the mystery which is in Jesus Christ, the clarity of his knowledge made him able to see himself as he was. And the more he saw himself the more he said,
“I am utterly dependent upon the grace of God. There is no strength in me.” Some of us are beginning to say with Paul, “In me, that is, in my flesh, there dwells no good thing. Only that in me which is of God is worthwhile” (Romans 7:17)
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