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May 18, 2009

The question that hangs over our inquiries during this Year of St. Paul is why did Paul write these letters. He or other disciples had helped to convert these new Christians. They had repented of their sins, been baptized and believed in the Gospel. What more did they need? Wasn't this good enough?

The short answer is that, no, it was not good enough. It was not good enough to be an OK Christian. It was not good enough to be part Christian and part idolater.

When Paul urged the Ephesians to be "filled with the Holy Spirit" (5.18), he didn't mean half or three-quarters full. He meant full.

He prayed that these Ephesians, when they have the Spirit dwell within and when Christ reigns in their hearts "may have the power to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God" (3.18-19).

To be filled with all the fullness of God is a very high goal indeed. If one is full of God, there is room for nothing else.


Commentators on St. Paul's writings often say that he wrote his letters to deal with problems in local Christian communities. That is true as far as it goes. But Paul was only concerned with "problems" because he sought perfection. He wanted those first Christians to surrender to God, to give themselves totally to God, as Christ gave himself for us.

This represents a strong challenge to Catholics today. The Second Vatican Council underlined it when it said, not that we are called to be good, but that each Christian is called to be holy. Not just bishops, priests and sisters, but each and every one of the faithful is called to be holy, as Jesus was holy.

How often do we settle for second best, for being an OK Christian? For how many years, decades even, do we commit the same sins and make little or no concerted effort to rid ourselves of those sins? How often do we settle for "saying our prayers" instead of striving to have an intimate, ongoing conversation with the Lord?


Throughout Paul's writings, little morsels repeatedly pop up that imply that each Christian must be changed into the likeness of God. Complacency will not do. Second best will not do. We are called "to lead a life worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God" (Colossians 1.10).

Romans 12.9-21 gives a checklist for how to live a life fully pleasing to God. It urges those Roman Christians to "outdo one another in showing honour, . . . be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer." It emphasizes building good relations with precisely those people who treat us the worst, to never repay evil with evil and "to overcome evil with good."

That's the hardest part of being filled with the Spirit – when someone hurts you, not to lash back in kind or bear resentment, but to respond with kindness.

Psychologist Scott Peck says there is a gap between stimulus and response. What he means is that we do not need to give a knee-jerk response to an action that outrages or offends us.

A split second of freedom exists. One can use that split second to choose to act with humility and gentleness or one can choose to let the nasty response tumble out.


A commitment to prayer and critical self-examination heightens one's awareness of that gap and, in effect, widens the gap between stimulus and response.

St. Paul says that the unspiritual person is unaware of the gap, unaware of his freedom. His understanding is darkened and he mocks the spiritual resources that could help him be an instrument of peace and reconciliation (Romans 1.18-32; 1 Corinthians 2.14).

But to the follower of Jesus, Paul implores, "Never flag in zeal, be aglow with the Spirit" (Romans 12.11).

Why did Paul write his letters? He wrote them to encourage the new Christians to grow in zeal, to pray constantly, to persevere and to never lose their horror of sin. If they do that, they will slowly come to live a life that is fully pleasing to God.