In 2 Corinthians 11:23-27 he writes: “Are they ministers of Christ?—I speak as a fool—I am more: in labors more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequently, in deaths often. From the Jews five times I received forty stripes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been in the deep; in journeys often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; in weariness and toil, in sleeplessness often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in coldness and nakedness...”
That’s enough to make someone’s head spin, yet he tells us in Philippians 4:11, “Not that I speak in regard to need for I have learned in whatever state I am to be content.”
How is that possible? How could he experience such traumas yet maintain inner peace? Today we’ll begin exploring some of the principles that Paul used in order to achieve that inner contentment.
1. Forget the past—move on
We first learn of Paul (his Hebrew name was Saul) in Acts 7:57-58 when Stephen is stoned to death and the witnesses laid down their clothes at the feet of a young man called Saul. In Acts 8:1, Luke states very succinctly, “Now Saul was consenting to his death.” There was a great persecution against the Church at that time and Saul was in the thick of it. Verse 3 tells us: “As for Saul, he made havoc of the church, entering every house, and dragging off men and women, committing them to prison.” Saul was a very zealous young Pharisee and saw the rapidly growing Christian Church—at that time called the Way—as a threat to Judaism. Acts 9:1-2 further elaborates, “Then Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked letters from him to the synagogues of Damascus, so that if he found any who were of the Way, whether men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.”
Saul was like an enraged bull out to destroy as many Christians as possible. Years later, speaking in front of King Agrippa, this is how Paul described his behavior (Acts 26:10-11): “This I also did in Jerusalem, and many of the saints I shut up in prison, having received authority from the chief priests; and when they were put to death, I cast my vote against them. And I punished them often in every synagogue and compelled them to blaspheme; and being exceedingly enraged against them, I persecuted them even to foreign cities.”
In his letter to the Galatians, Paul did not hide his past. He stated, “For you have heard of my former conduct in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God beyond measure and tried to destroy it” (Galatians 1:13).
And in 1 Corinthians 15:9-10 he talks about his unworthiness: “For I am the least of the apostles, who am not worthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me was not in vain; but I labored more abundantly than they all, yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me.”
The apostle Paul freely admitted his abominable murderous past. Obviously, he had asked for his past to be forgiven, had received God’s grace and was giving his all to the work of God. Paul shares a valuable principle with us in his letter to the Philippians: “Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has already laid hold of me. Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:12-14).
I dare say that many of us would have a difficult time forgetting the people we had imprisoned and sentenced to death with our votes, if we behaved like Paul. However, when we truly repent of our past, God promises to remove our sin. From God’s perspective it is as if it had not happened. We read in Hebrews 12:1, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” God gave us a wonderful admonition! We need to lay aside the weight that we tend to carry with us! If we let it go, we can move forward, endure, and press on as we are encouraged to do. Paul wasn’t wracked with guilt and remorse over his sinful past. Forgetting those things which are behind he was aiming for the Kingdom and fully committed to helping others achieve that same goal.
If we let it go, we can move forward, endure, and press on. This is our first principle from the apostle Paul: Forget the past—move on.
No matter how much we have messed up our lives, truly repent, ask for God’s forgiveness, then let go of that past and aim for the Kingdom of God.
2. Reframe negatives
If you don’t like a painting that is hanging on your wall because the colors may not be your favorites, choose a new frame that brings out the beauty that the picture holds. In a similar way, we can choose to reframe our life experiences and trials to bring out the beauty that is contained in the essence of the picture. Paul does this often in his writings, taking a negative then turning it into a positive, like turning a lemon into lemonade.
In 2 Timothy he gives us two examples: “Therefore I endure all things for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory… If we endure, we shall also reign with Him” (2 Timothy 10, 12).
To endure is to undergo a difficulty or hardship, but Paul chose instead to focus on the salvation of those with which he was working. Then he reminds his readers that instead of focusing on life’s difficulties or hardships it is better to focus on the end result—reigning with Christ our Lord.
We read earlier of all the things Paul suffered for the sake of his Christian calling. Notice how he reframed the negative in Romans 8:18, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed to us.”
Paul didn’t get bogged down in suffering because he kept his eye on the eternal glory that would be his in the Kingdom.
We see a more elaborate example of reframing in 2 Corinthians 4:16-18: “Therefore we do not lose heart. Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day. For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, while we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal.”
Here Paul contrasts that which is seen such as our bodies that are temporary and showing the ravages of time, and a potential source of discouragement, with the unseen, the spiritual character that we are developing now that will be with us for all eternity.
In 2 Corinthians 4:8-10, Paul admits what his circumstances are—yet in every instance he is saying, in essence—it could be worse. He always manages to put a positive perspective on things: “We are hard-pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed—always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body.”
Paul says he is hard-pressed, perplexed, persecuted, and struck down. However, it could have been worse: he could have been crushed, in despair, forsaken and destroyed.
These examples illustrate a second strategy the apostle Paul uses to manage his stress. He uses reframing to put a positive spin on his circumstances.
In James 1:2-3 we find an ultimate reframe, “My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience.” When we see life experiences through the lens of eternity, it helps us with perspective and framing! Paul learned to become content no matter what his circumstances.
We have just explored two of the principles he used to achieve that objective. One, Paul learned to let go of the past and focused on attaining his glorious eternal future. Second, he became very efficient at taking a negative situation and turning it into a positive.
If we want less distress and more control over our lives, we can do likewise. Repent of our past sinful deeds, pray for God’s forgiveness, then let go of the past. Don’t continue to beat yourself up over something God no longer chooses to remember. Then learn to lessen the impact of difficult circumstances by reframing to focus on the positive.