“Do not eat the bread of a miser, nor desire his delicacies; for as he thinks in his heart, so is he.
’Eat and drink!’ he says to you, but his heart is not with you. The morsel you have eaten, you will vomit up,
and waste your pleasant words.”
– Proverbs 23:6-8
No one is ever born a pessimist. That’s a product of nurture, not nature—an odd way to describe an environment and a society that prides itself on fearing, or even anticipating the worst, but nurture it is. Pessimism, doubt, fear, anxiety and fatalism are all qualities of persona that we learn from childhood, and from the people around us that influence us the most.
More often than not, pessimism can begin with our parents. Author Bernard DeVoto called it, “the name that men of weak nerves give to wisdom.” And of course, Mr. DeVoto clearly suffered from it, too—a ‘glass half empty’ kind of guy. That, of course, is a reference to the most legendarily motivational saying in the Western world, about an optimist seeing a half full glass, while a pessimist sees a half empty glass. It’s supposed to be empowering…it is, after all, the same glass of water, just seen differently. But this apparently positive and encouraging bon mot is, in fact, an exhortation to settle for half a glass of water. To paraphrase another famous aphorism, what would Jesus do with that?
Probably go and fill the glass back up again, hand it to you, and turn it to wine as He did so, but then Jesus is that kind of person. And it’s that kind of person we’re encouraged to pattern ourselves after as Christians, and to leave behind the stimulus and behavior that the world has taught us. We are new people in Christ, but one of the most difficult things we can learn to do is to apply that spiritual knowledge in practical areas in our lives, areas that feel as though they are hardwired, that cannot be rewritten—the ROM of our marvelously wrought brains.
In the mind of Christ, however, we can change damaged and damaging perceptions, and think better thoughts. Learned behavior can, and must be unlearned. We’re renewed by the Spirit, and transformation is a fact of life for us now. We may believe that we can change ourselves…that we’re just in a rut, a holding pattern while we adjust to bad circumstances or a failed experiment in life. A relationship has gone awry? Just keep it together and the bad thoughts will fade on their own. An exciting opportunity has publicly crashed and burned? I’m sure once the next one comes along, the memory of the humiliation will have faded.
This is the world’s arrogance speaking to us, the bald assumption that pain and hardship will leave an attractive scar and nothing more, while experience should tell us something entirely different. That scars harden skin, gathering it into puckered lines showing the shape of the wound that caused them. That they’re ugly echoes of pain, constant reminders of our past and the Bad Things that the world is capable of bringing to our doors.
Christ didn’t constantly and consistently use the imagery of renewal and rebirth out of a sense of poetry, and He didn’t go through the appalling suffering of the crucifixion, confront the enemy on his home turf, and then experience resurrection because of a desire to extend the metaphor. This is real life, and the gift that He has given us all is the most real thing in it. Christ has brought us, not a gradual healing, but a paradigm shift, an earth-shattering realignment of our selves. And He knew that we would find it a difficult pill to swallow—after all, the world has spent the time since our births telling us that the very idea of replacing our damaged thinking is a pipe dream. That’s why the story of the second most prominent figure in the New Testament was one of the first stories the Father wanted told.
Saul of Tarsus, also called Paul, a Jew and a highly educated Roman citizen, was a Pharisee’s Pharisee—literally, his father was a Pharisee before him. He was a zealot with an uncompromising focus on eradicating what he considered to be heretical, often violently. He was taught this, as ever, by his environment—the early Christian church’s first martyr was Stephen, one of the early leaders appointed by the apostles following the death and resurrection of Christ, stoned to death for alleged blasphemy by an angry mob, who left their coats with the young Paul. This clearly left an impression.
Paul vengefully pursued this fanaticism against what he considered to be the heresy of the early Christian faith, hunting down all those he considered blasphemers. But upon his famous conversion, when he met the risen Jesus in a literally blinding white light on the road to Damascus, Paul was a changed man, a new man. Now, in the two millennia since then such powerful stories of redemption are not rare things, because God is love, and God is good, and God loves a good story. But this was the first, Christ’s flagship apostle in the early days of his Beloved Church. The man who had grimly described his previous self as prosecuting and persecuting the early Christians “beyond measure” became their greatest evangelist. The focus of his fanaticism shifted and became the pure passion of The Passion, but never lost its power. Indeed, it became stronger still, because the thing that we focus upon is the thing that we allow the most power over us, and Paul was focused upon Christ, the Spirit and the Kingdom.
It’s a common misconception that Saul was renamed Paul upon his conversion, but in fact the style of the time for Roman citizens born outside of Rome was to have a Latin or Greek name as well as their Jewish name, and Paul used both interchangeably during his life. In his writings though, he would always be known as Paul because, as an evangelist and a missionary, his work took him amongst the people of the Empire. Able to speak Koine Greek (the common tongue of the vassal states and protectorates of Rome) fluently since childhood, and possessing citizenship inherited from his father, Paul introduced himself to others in a manner which would set them at ease, a diplomatic and relatable style and tact that typified his approach to his new calling, just as he had been the Pharisees’ unforgiving blunt instrument in his previous line of work. A new man, indeed.
The Father set us, early on, the example of Paul and the exemplar of His new order, and His covenant with us, so that we would have the story of our own path told to us from the beginning of our journeys with Him—a story of victory.
Ask yourselves about your own journey. Where is your focus? Are you distracted by pessimistic thoughts, of past failures and loss? Do you feel as if the past is hardwired, cannot be overwritten? That’s the old you, and that person is gone. Replaced, by something new in the Spirit, a joyful creature waiting to be born.