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Being Real

Being Real

FEBRUARY 3, 2024

/ Articles / Being Real

by Philip Plyming

I had been invited along to a Bible study run by the Christian Union. I had sung in the local church choir since I was a boy, but this was the first time I had ever gone along to a group like this. I was unsure what to expect.

I took along the only Bible I had, which was a King James Bible I had been given by my grandparents. I found out we were looking at Philippians (or as I called it at one point, the Gospel of Philip!), and I offered to read the first chapter. It all went well until I came to verse 8: ‘for God is my record, how greatly

I long after you all in the bowels of Jesus Christ.’

I wasn’t asked to read again.

I came to a living faith in my first year at university and went on to read Paul in a more accessible translation. And over the years I have studied Paul in some depth, preached through many of his letters and taught classes on him to people training for church leadership. I even led a pilgrimage in the steps of St Paul, spending ten days touring round Greece in the spring – it was a tough job, but someone had to do it.

And I know that people have very different views on Paul. I’ve talked to people who really struggle with Paul because of some of the things he wrote that they find difficult to accept. Some have had a few verses of Paul quoted at them to prove that they were wrong. For them he is a figure to read grudgingly,

if at all. Others love Paul as a great theologian, a man who modelled clear teaching and good doctrine. They also admire his extraordinary missionary energy and church planting ministry. They devour Paul’s writings (sometimes over and above the gospels), keen to learn lessons for Christian life today.

I recognize the bits in Paul’s writings that are tough and, if 2 Peter 3.16 is anything to go by, I am not the only one! However, I have come to admire Paul greatly over the years, not because he is a great theologian or an outstanding missionary, although his contribution as both is remarkable. I admire Paul because in his writings I encounter a real person.

One of the things that marks Paul out is his willingness to be honest about the things that have gone well and the things that haven’t. He does not hide the challenges that he has experienced in his walk with Jesus Christ. He is fully able to express joy and thankfulness and praise, but he is also willing to voice

his own challenges and the impact they have had on him. In Philippians (back to that letter again!), he is able to start in joyful vein – ‘I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you’ (Phil. 1.3–4) – but also to be honest about his own imprisonment and his sharing in the sufferings of Christ (Phil. 1.12–14; 3.10).

In 1 Thessalonians, Paul opens himself up when he writes, ‘So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us’ (1 Thess. 2.8). But he also refers to his own distress and persecutions a number of

times (1 Thess. 2.2, 9; 3.4, 7).

And in what is perhaps Paul’s final letter, 2 Timothy, he uses the intimate phrase ‘my beloved child’ to refer to Timothy (2 Tim. 1.2) and declares himself an open book when he writes, ‘Now you have observed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness, my persecutions, and my suffering the things that happened to me in Antioch, Iconium, and Lystra. What persecutions I endured!’(2 Tim. 3.10–11).

Paul is capable of being thankful for things that have gone well, and honest about when life has been a real challenge. In fact, he is a lot more honest and vulnerable about his experience of the Christian life than he is often given credit for. And nowhere is this vulnerability more on display than in

the letters we call 1 and 2 Corinthians. These letters, probably written in the mid to late 50s ad, contain some of the most intimate disclosures in all of Paul’s writings. Although he starts with giving thanks (1 Cor. 1.4–9), he then, on no fewer than six occasions, goes out of his way to tell his Corinthian

readers how tough his life has been. He talks about beatings he has received, despair he has felt, failures he has experienced, criticism he has been given. At one point he says, ‘We were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself’ (2 Cor. 1.8). Wow. Paul is holding nothing back when it comes to telling his Corinthian audience what his life is really like.

As I have read these passages in 1 and 2 Corinthians over the years, I have really appreciated Paul’s honesty and openness. However, I have never been satisfied with simply admiring Paul for his honesty and appreciating his vulnerability. Yes, I have loved reading these moving passages from 1 and 2 Corinthians, but I have wanted to go deeper and address the important questions.

Why did Paul choose to spend so much time describing and reflecting on his own personal hardship?

What was it about Corinth and the Corinthian church that led Paul to open up about his own sufferings in such a vulnerable way? He doesn’t seem to do it in other letters (or, at least, not to the same extent), so why to this Christian community? What relevance do these stories have for us today? Are we simply to admire Paul for his honesty, or are we called to emulate him? And if so, why – and how?

I devoted most of my spare time over five years to researching these questions, and I wrote them up for my PhD. But I always felt that I wanted to share my findings in an accessible way to help Christians think about their own lives and how they talk about them – including the really tough stuff.

Being Real is about what I’ve discovered from studying these wonderful but too easily overlooked passages. I’ve learned that it was because of specific values within the Corinthian church that Paul chose to foreground his own hardship in the way he did. The Corinthian church had a culture problem – and it is a problem still around in the Church today. I’ve learned that Paul wanted to bring the cross of Christ into the heart of the Corinthian church’s life. However, he saw the cross not simply as something that happened to Jesus but also the pattern for how God continues to work in his world.

I’ve learned that Paul’s stories of his own hardship are not indulgent accounts to make his readers feel sorry for him. Rather, they are modelling how God continues to choose the pattern of the cross to work in our lives today. I’ve learned that for Paul, God is at work in so many more places than we think. He is at work in the cross-shaped places and not just the places where everything is going well. I’ve learned that when we go against the cultural flow and open up about our tough stuff, we are actually telling the story of the cross in our generation, and offering encouragement and hope.

Very Revd Dr Philip Plyming is Dean of Durham, overseeing the life and mission of Durham Cathedral. He was previously Warden of Cranmer Hall, Durham where he taught leadership and New Testament and hosted the Talking Theology podcast. 

Adapted from Being Real: The Apostle Paul’s Hardship Narratives and The Stories We Tell Today by Philip Plyming © Philip Plyming 2023 Published by SCM Press. Used by Permission.

Listen to our interview with Philip Plyming on SBE here!

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