I've been reading a lot of New Testament Paul, as I mentioned yesterday, but sometimes, it's really hard to read past the martyr motif.
Because I'm living in a culture that has taken the martyr thing way out of context and to an absurd extreme, and I have to admit - I've never met a martyr I liked.
We all know them. The martyrs around us are the people who never neglect to remind you of everything they've been through, everything they've given up, and everything they don't have. Martyrs today really have one of three reasons for this constant oversharing.
A) They want to impress you. They want you to look at their suffering of a life and marvel at the way they've seemed to pull through, at the way they're living now, at the things they are making of themselves and their situation. They usually follow this up with some faux humility, some shrugging of the shoulders and some resigned declaration that "It is what it is" and this is life and this is just how it is...so that it sounds like they're telling you that you shouldn't be impressed while they are obviously trying to impress you.
If they're not trying to impress you, then...
B) They want you to feel bad about some aspect of your life. What they are attempting to do, without saying so much, is to offer you a healthy dose of what they might call perspective. They want to one-up whatever you're going through so that you feel better about your life, by feeling worse about (and more impressed by) theirs or they want to inspire you to quit something you're doing and make a different choice precisely because there are suffering people like them out there and what you're about to do is stupid. You often walk away from these encounters looking at things differently, but you don't have a great deal of respect for the martyr.
If they're not trying to impress you or shame you, they are trying to...
C) Get out of something. There are martyrs who will tell you exactly everything they've been through so that you feel so guilty asking them to do anything else in their entire lives that they end up not doing anything else. Ever. There are people who will tell you that the lazy, bad, or ridiculous choices they are making today are firmly their right, and their earned privilege because they have suffered so tremendously already.
I'm just not impressed with martyrs. The few, very few, true martyrs we have in our day are people who would never take the chance to remind you what they've been through. They're just moving on. They're swallowing their circumstance and pushing forward because better things define them.
Then what are we to make of Paul, who seems to somehow sneak a reference to his arrest, mockery, fines, beatings, and imprisonment into every one of his letters? Who uses his martyrdom to make some point to the churches across the continent?
Paul is a mixed bag, for me. Because I know he can tend to be passive-aggressive. I quoted him as such last week via social media. In the book of Philemon, Paul writes that, "I won't even remind you that you owe me your life." Which, of course, is the very reminder he says he's not writing. It would be easy to read Paul's martyr references with the same grain and think of him as a little passive-aggressive in that, as in having to fall in one of the above three categories.
I don't think that has to be the case. I don't think it is the case.
The way we get past Paul's passive-aggressive tendencies and martyr reminders is to ascribe some nobler intentions to his words, and it's fairly simple to read better things. He doesn't want anyone to be impressed with him. He says as much, and unlike the martyrs of faux humility mentioned before, you kind of sense that he means it. There's authenticity to his words when he says it's not about him.
He doesn't use his martyrdom to get out of anything. I mean, he did write that he'd love to visit, but he's currently in prison. I don't think it was a cop-out; I think he was really in prison and thus, it was a statement of fact more than an excuse. We know he visited churches as frequently as he was able.
There are a few times I feel like it would be hard for the churches not to get a new taste of perspective from Paul's circumstances, times when I feel like he's using his situation to light a fire under them. "I'm in prison, and you've got immoral people in your congregation that you're not doing anything about? Then what is this worth?"
But it boils down to one general concept, and that's why I have to swallow my pride and read Paul's martyr tales with grace. What Paul says, more often than anything (and sometimes you have to read deeper for this) is:
This - this Gospel, this grace, this story of Jesus - is absolutely, 100-percent worth every bit of this. And don't you ever forget it.
He uses everything he's been through and everything he's going through to point to something bigger. (This, too, can be overdone, but I think Paul does it masterfully.) He uses his story to redirect to a greater story. Yes, there is a fine line because he is, in fact, reminding everyone....constantly....of what he's been through, but he's also demonstrating how to move on. He's demonstrating courage. He's swallowing his circumstances in order to declare the bigger thing. The thing that defines him.
The thing that is worth all of this.
Not so you would think of Paul, but so that you would think of Jesus, who martyred Himself for the greatest story. For us. And who also takes every chance to remind us it was absolutely, 100-percent worth every bit of it. Don't you ever forget it.