PAUL: “I Am The Very Least Of All The Saints,” by Eugene H. Peterson

From Practice Resurrection

Paul is characteristically reticent when it comes to talking about himself.  He has a much larger subject to deal with than himself.  He is working through the vast territory of Christian living, the deep and wide realities of God’s action in creation and salvation, the resurrection of Jesus that brings us from death to life, the church in which we are all built “into a dwelling place for God.”  He doesn’t want to distract us from the gospel message, from the Jesus presence, by intruding himself.

But every once in a while the door opens just a crack – a word, a phrase.  We get a glimpse of Paul the man at work, writing, praying.  There is a living person involved behind these sentences: a prisoner, a servant, an allusion to his story, “how the mystery was made known to me by revelation.”  His self-deprecating reference as “the very least of all the saints” catches our attention by creating a novel form of the adjective “least” that doubles its comparative emphasis.  Translated literally it comes out, “I am the leaster or smallester of all the saints.”  In 1 Timothy 1:15 he identified himself as “foremost” of sinners.  Last in the roll call of saints; first in the roll call of sinners.

First-person personal pronouns, “I” and “me” pronouns, start appearing, eleven of them in this paragraph.  Fragments of his story come into view.  Paul lets himself into the story, but as inconspicuously as possible.

It’s enough, just enough to be reminded that the language of mature spirituality cannot be depersonalized into abstract propositional “truths.”  This man is living everything he is saying.  This resurrection life is never disembodied, never abstract, never an objective truth that can be analyzed and argued and defended.

The mature, resurrection life is irreducibly personal; it is about us.  But it is also a life that is mostly not about us.  It is about God.  Paul keeps it personal, but he does it with considerable reticence.  Christian spirituality is not well served by confessional monologues.  Egotistic verbosity diminishes the authenticity of the language of witness.  Paul is unmistakably present.  But he is also unassumingly present.  He doesn’t take over.  Here’s another observation: this unexpectedly relaxed tone interrupts a very intense, packed, single-minded focus on the action of God that has carried us along thus far.  This undeviating intensity is very effective.  Our imaginations are being retrained to think first “God” and “Christ” and “Spirit” and then, as we have a chance to catch our breath, to think “me” and “I.”  But the intensity is also exhausting.  We cannot sustain it for long.  We need time to step back, pause, get our bearings.

The Christian life has a goal, famously put by Paul in an earlier letter: I press on toward the goal for the prize of the Heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.  Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind.  The mature life in Christ does not dillydally.  It doesn’t chase after fads.  But any focus on a goal that dismisses, ignores, and avoids spouse, children, and neighbors who are perceived as impediments to pressing on to the “Heavenly call” simply doesn’t understand the way the goal functions in a mature life.

The Christian life is not a straight run on a track laid out by a vision statement formulated by a committee.  Life meanders much of the time.  Unspiritual interruptions, unanticipated people, uncongenial events cannot be pushed aside in our determination to reach the goal unimpeded, undistracted.  “Goal-setting,” in the context and on the terms intended by a leadership-obsessed and management-programmed business mentality that infiltrates the church far too frequently, is bad spirituality.  Too much gets left out.  Too many people get brushed aside.

Maturity cannot be hurried, programmed, or tinkered with.  There are no steroids for growing up in Christ more quickly.  Impatient shortcuts land us in the dead ends of immaturity.


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