I take heart in these words from the apostle Paul. Let’s face it, few of us are content with what we are, as persons, but especially, as Christians. We know how high the bar is: “Be perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” We know the holiness to which we are called. The contrast between the ideal and what we are, or what we perceive ourselves to – which is often on the harsh side – can be painful. Paul assesses himself with stinging bluntness: “Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle because I persecuted the Church of God. But by the grace of God…”
Paul’s experience is heartening for us. Paul was an effective persecutor of the Church. But God needed for Saul, the persecutor, to become Paul, the apostle, if His will was to unfold, if the Church was to emerge. And so God’s all-powerful grace was poured out upon this man, to make him become what God needed for him to be. What God needs, God does. Paul doesn’t deny his dark side, but it becomes secondary for him. He is simply happy that God’s grace has triumphed in him, and that he has in fact been, by the grace of God, what God needed for him to be. Nothing else matters, in the end.
I see no reason why we can’t apply Paul’s experience to our own lives as Christians, and believe that God’s grace is active in us, howsoever disappointing we may be in our own eyes. We may not be the Christians we wish we were and that we ask God to become, but it seems eminently reasonable to believe that we are the Christians he needs for us to be. Every higher level of sanctity to which we attain is just extra.
A second important point that we can take from Paul’s experience is that Paul didn’t make the first move. God didn’t wait for a request. Paul wasn’t searching. He was on his way to Antioch to hunt down Christians. He wasn’t longing to discover Christ. That discovery was imposed upon him by the voice which he heard saying to him: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?…I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” The same holds true for us as well. Those who have been Christian long enough know that they didn’t make the first move, that they became Christian by the grace of God. We are chosen, and God is not one to change his mind. So that we are, and we will continue to be, minimally, the Christians God needs us to be.
Is there room for growth? Of course. Should we aspire to be more than we are, as Christians? Certainly. Probably the best we can do in this regard is to place our hope squarely on grace, to develop our receptiveness to it, to ask for it. God is not done with us yet. We are a work in progress. We do not know the fullness of his will for each one of us. But we certainly can and should ask that by his grace, our lives unfold according to his will. So let us carry on.
Yet how nice it is to be able to rest once in a while in this blessed thought, that while I may not be impressed with who and what I am as a Christian, this much I know, that the Christian that I am, disappointing as that may be, I am by the grace of God.