Elaine in my church is the kind of woman Moses might have had in mind when he spoke of:
“The most tender and refined woman among you, who would not venture to set the sole of her foot on the ground because she is so delicate and tender. …”
She is that godly. So I was taken aback when one day she said to me, “I hate Paul.” Elaine was referring to the apostle, and I had never heard this woman say she hated anyone before. She spoke with full consciousness of the irony and daring of such a statement, but in the manner of a person who was finally letting the world know what had been bottled up in her for ages.
Elaine is not the first person I have run into who thinks Paul was a cold fish. I tend to wonder whether this perspective on Paul tells more about us than about him. In this corrupted world of false loves, are we even able to recognize the real McCoy when we see it? Do we mistake romance for love? Do we mistake flattery for love?
I would like to say a word on Paul’s behalf, adducing evidence from his first letter to the Thessalonians:
“We give thanks to God always for you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers.”
Unless we are prepared to say that Paul is lying and exaggerating here, is it not love to thank God for someone all the time, and to constantly mention someone to God throughout the day? If you have even one person in your life who does that for you, then you are blessed indeed. Later in his letter he wrote:
“But since we were torn away from you, brothers, for a short time, in person not in heart, we endeavored the more eagerly and with great desire to see you face to face, because we wanted to come to you—I, Paul, again and again. …”
Is the apostle who preached against fraudulent and man-pleasing speech being disingenuous when he describes his separation from the people of Thessalonica as like being “torn,” and when he speaks of his desire to see their faces?
Tell me if you know anyone who is so for you that he would rather see you succeed, even if in order for that to happen he would have to come off looking bad. That is the way Paul loved:
“But we pray to God that you may not do wrong—not that we may appear to have met the test, but that you may do what is right, though we may seem to have failed.”
One of the encounters in C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce is between a woman who has died and gone to heaven, and a man who is still on earth. In the past they had been husband and wife, and we discern between the lines that theirs had been an emotionally sick relationship of selfish obsession. The woman in heaven is free of all that now and speaks to her erstwhile husband in tones that are peaceful and earnest for his salvation.
But the man is horrified rather than pleased by the change in his former wife. He hates her because she can be happy without him and does not need him. (She returns his cruel criticism with yet more calm pleas that he turn to God.) He does not recognize pure love when he sees it. And even if he did, he wants no part of it, preferring the obsessiveness of miserable craving to living in the truth.
As we experience more of the love of God in our hearts, it looks more like the apostle Paul’s.