A Messy Life for God
by Sarah Phillips
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens opened and the Spirit descending upon him like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, "Thou art my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased." Mark 1:9-11
Have you ever read the biography of a great Christian, a man or woman who dedicated all to the Lord, and felt inferior? I have. It seems I am too normal and too flawed to live such a life. I am not as bold as St. John the Baptist or as eloquent as St. Thomas Aquinas. I don't have a radical story like Mary Magdalene, or a dramatic calling from heaven like St. Paul.
And yet deep down, I yearn to imitate "the greats" – those who loved God so much, it spilled over into every aspect of their beings. So, I was encouraged when I cracked open one of my Christmas presents this past weekend - a book titled The 33 Doctors of the Church by Fr. Christopher Rengers -- to discover that some of the most noteworthy Christians in Church history were quite normal.
The book's title doesn't refer to the kinds of doctors we associate with medicine but profiles those Christians who, over the centuries, proved themselves to be exemplary docere (Latin for "teachers") of Christian doctrine. Familiar names like Augustine and Thomas Aquinas are among this group, but so far one obscure Doctor stands out to me: St. Gregory of Nazianzus.
Born in 4th century Asia Minor to a family of devout believers, Gregory enjoyed blessed beginnings – excellent education, financial comfort, and great Christian friendships. But like St. Nicholas, Gregory faced a Church fraught with controversy and confusion from the Arian heresy. By the time Gregory was ordained a priest in his 30's, so many had fallen away from true faith in the divinity of Christ that an alternative Arian church hierarchy had been established.
The faithful needed bold teachers of the truth to help them understand Christ's real identity and to heal the wounds of division. But "bold" didn't exactly describe this sensitive, reluctant saint. Gregory suffered from great inner turmoil over his vocation as a pastor, feeling his zealous father had pressured him into being ordained. Only after months of solitary prayer following his ordination did he embrace the responsibilities of his ministry.
Even after Gregory accepted his calling, he struggled throughout his life to accept certain leadership roles, often retreating into solitude to study or in some cases, nurse wounded emotions. One of his greatest struggles occurred when his best friend, St. Basil, appointed Gregory bishop of a very undesirable region, leaving Gregory feeling exiled and useless. The damaged friendship between these two great men never fully healed.
In spite of Gregory's weaknesses and relational rifts, God worked through his sensitive and solitary nature to raise up one of the greatest theologians in all of history. St. Gregory played a key role in converting powerful Constantinople from the Arian heresy, risking his life to shepherd the pathetically small community of believers. While other theologians wrote formal, lengthy treatises on Jesus Christ, Gregory was gifted at integrating and articulating truth in a way that reached both the scholarly and the unscholarly. Fr. Renger writes that he made "true doctrine live in the minds of his audience," and the result was a flourishing church where the faith had once almost been lost. Renger goes on to describe Gregory's lasting theological influence on the early Church:
"St. Gregory of Nazianzus was given the title of 'The Theologian' or 'The Divine' (the theologian) because of his skill and eloquence in upholding the truth of the Divinity of Christ. The title did not have the more exclusive meaning it now has, but it attests to his reputation in the early Church… History has given this title only to St. Gregory of Nazianzus and St. John the Evangelist. In the case of St. Gregory, perhaps it is God's way of giving earthly glory to a man who had shunned glory, who hated pomp and display and whose life was marked by recurring flights to the world of solitude, as well as by somewhat pathetic returns to the call of insistent duty."
Gregory's orations and writings inspired and influenced scholars for hundreds of years after his death, and we still use some of his key words when describing the profound relationship of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit today.
Reading about St. Gregory's life has given me much to ponder about living for God. Gregory, like so many other faithful Christian heroes, was a normal man with real emotions. Yet God worked through the messiness of life to accomplish great things through him. While Gregory's sensitive spirit may have been a shortcoming in some arenas, it became one of his greatest strengths in bringing the Gospel to the world.
Gregory's story is also a reminder that there is no utopian Christian community, no perfect pastor or church unaffected by sin. Even the "greats" had relational problems. At the same time, God often works through fellowship with one another to help us reach our full potential.
Intersecting Faith & Life: What are your weaknesses and shortcomings? What ways can they become strengths when submitted to the grace of God? What ways can you show grace and godly love to others who, in their own weaknesses, have failed you?
Romans 12: 6-8