The emotional life of an Apostle

We are familiar with treatments, such as that by B.B. Warfield, on the emotional life of Christ and we very quickly realise why it is vital to our understanding of his Person and work. God, in Holy Scripture has seen fit to include this insight into the incarnate life of his Son, not just to underscore the genuineness of his humanity, but also to encourage us in the realisation that he is able to sympathise with his people in their life struggles. But do we also realise that God has seen fit to include an insight into the emotional life of his prophets and apostles in the Bible?

Whether it be the very personal glimpses we are given into the experiences of Moses, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and, perhaps most strikingly, Hosea in the Old Testament, or their New Testament counterparts in the lives of the apostles, we are allowed to see them ‘warts and all’. Even in the midst of doubts and failures, they are presented as they really were – men who shared the same humanity that is ours.

Why does this matter? Whereas in the glimpses we are given of the emotional life of Christ, there is salvific significance; in the case of his servants the significance lies in how God works out his great salvation in their lives and through their labours. God reveals himself through the ‘clay jars’ of their lives into which he places the ‘treasure’ of the gospel (2Co 4.7-9), driving home the reality of Paul’s assertion that,

God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God (1Co 1.27-29).

Paul was including himself in this statement to show that what was true in a unique sense in the incarnation becomes the template of the way God works out his purpose in salvation generally through the spread of the gospel and in his people’s growth in grace.

It matters also because those who were called to prophetic and apostolic service were meant to function as models for those to whom they ministered God’s word. Hence Paul’s exhortation, ‘Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ’ (1Co 11.1). As we get to know these men whom God set apart for a special role in establishing his church, we actually come to understand ourselves. And, more specifically, to appreciate ways God may be dealing with us that we perhaps struggle to understand.

If we look at Paul for example – the one apostle we are allowed to get to know more intimately than any of his fellow-apostles – we are struck most forcibly by the way he copes under duress. Whether it be through Luke’s biographical glimpses given in the book of Acts, or through Paul’s own self-disclosure in the candour of his epistles, we see a man who was not immune from the entire spectrum of human emotions in his wide-ranging experiences of life and service.

Even though, like any normal human being, his instinct is to recoil from discomfort, pain and suffering, Paul always views these dark experiences of life through the lens of divine providence. He never sees himself as being at the mercy of his circumstances. So, as he writes to the Philippians, even though he is in prison for the gospel, he rejoices in the fact that prison has become a most fruitful pulpit for the gospel, as well as an inspiration to the Christians in Rome to shoulder their responsibility to proclaim the good news more eagerly (Php 1.12-14).

Or, later on in that same letter, as he speaks self-effacingly about the deprivations he has experienced in his gospel labours, he admits that he has had to ‘learn’ the secret contentment, even when he wasn’t always sure when his next meal would come from (Php 4.12). So too as he writes to the church in Thessalonica – which itself was experiencing severe suffering – he gently points them to his father-like involvement with them, not only in bringing the gospel to them in the first place, but to the pastoral gentleness with which he nurtured them through the early stages of growth in their newfound faith. He allows them a glimpse of his own soul in doing so.

It is a fundamental principle in life that people grow and develop towards maturity, not just through what they are taught, but through what they see in their teachers. Whether it be in our parents who raised us, or a friend who mentored us, or perhaps an actual teacher in school or college who impressed us as much by their life as by their lectures. And nowhere is this more important than in the school of Christ in his church.

He, the Chief Shepherd, has seen fit to entrust the lambs of his flock to pastors and teachers who are his under-shepherds. Men who are frail and who fail, are fallible and fragile; but are those ‘clay pots’ that become instruments for God’s glory and for the growth and good of his people. He uses their lives as living lessons of what it looks like, feels like and often sounds like to be a Christian. As John Newton said, ‘I am not what I ought to be, nor am I yet what I will be; but I am not what I used to be.’  In that sense, those of us who are pastors must never hide ourselves behind artificial personas, or give the impression that ministers are a different kind of human being. Like Paul, as he told his flock in Thessalonica, we will be willing to ‘share our own selves’ (1Th 2.8) with our beloved people. We will weep with those who weep, mourn with those who mourn, rejoice with those who rejoice.

Getting a glimpse of the emotional life of apostles gives us a healthy glimpse of ourselves and will direct us ultimately to a fresh appreciation of our incarnate Saviour.


Mark Johnston