"Thrice was I beaten with rods, once was I stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day I have been in the deep." 2 Corinthians 11:25
If you want to know why I have very little envy in my life, I suggest reading Paul's Second Letter to the Corinthians. You can skip the religious overtones. The message I get from Second Corinthians is not the one you would hear from the pulpit.
Paul was on a mission, literally a mission from God. His first two Letters - Romans and First Corinthians - reflect the optimism of one with God on his side: confident, bossy, out to change the world.
Second Corinthians, written many years later, reflects a different Paul: weary and disenchanted, struggling to keep his faith. What happened? We pick up the story in Acts of the Apostles:
"The Jews from Antioch and Iconium came over on the scene and won over the crowds. They stoned Paul, and dragged him out of the city, thinking him dead."
Lest you read any anti-Semitism into that passage, Acts also reports that Paul and his companions were at the mercy of a mob in Ephesus, city of the Temple of Diana.
Even when Paul succeeded in setting up Christian communities throughout Asia Minor and Greece, his Letters reveal his frustration with the inadequacies of his followers. Indeed, it is clear that some of these communities are in open rebellion against their founder.
And so we come to his extraordinary admission in Second Corinthians. He holds nothing back: the public floggings, the stoning, the shipwrecks, the rigors of travel, the exhaustion and privations, and of being set upon by bandits. But all that pales in comparison to what he experiences as a person with singular responsibilities, with the outcomes of so many weighing on his mind. "I fear," he writes to his Corinthian community, "that when I come I may find you different from what I wish you to be."
All that suffering - for nothing? Is that what life is all about? God, what happened? I thought Paul was your anointed servant. I thought he had Your blessing.
Well, yes, and that's the trouble.
You presume to act in my name, is the unwritten message, well let's see how sincere you are after a mob has tried to crack open your skull. You think you are committed, then let's see how committed you are holding on for dear life to a piece of boat in the open sea. You want it real bad, let's see how bad you want it when your friends turn on you, your followers abandon you, and your love is returned in endless measure with hate. You want to spread light, well let's see how it feels when the darkness closes in.
And there you are, all alone, your life up in smoke.
It's not in God's nature to make things easy. Feel free to use life or fate for God. You want an easy life, then do something easy. You want to accomplish something, well don't expect any breaks. The nature of things is you will be tested.
Buddhists teach the impermanence of all things. I'm sure Paul, arguably the most influential person in history, had his moments where he felt on top of the world, but the last we hear from him in the New Testament is in Rome, under house arrest. "I considered all toil and all achievement," says Ecclesiastes, the most Buddhist Book in the Bible, "and it all comes from rivalry between man and man. This too is emptiness and chasing the wind."
Success? Here today, gone tomorrow. Enjoy life while you can, says Ecclesiastes, but don't stake your happiness on empty pleasures and false pursuits.
So what do I see in someone who is doing much better than me, particularly in my field? I see an individual who has had more than his or her share of Second Corinthians moments, whose time in the sun is fleeting, at best.
What is there to envy? Nothing. What is there to admire? An awful lot.
Published On: August 27, 2007
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