“I worked harder than all of them.”
So said Paul the apostle as he compared himself to the other apostles—those who saw the resurrected Jesus with their own two eyes. Paul did not have their perspective. He was not present when Jesus walked through the locked door and told Thomas to put his finger in his pierced side. He did not share the breakfast of broiled fish by the sea.
Paul was the apostle “untimely born” (1 Cor. 15:8). In fact, while the first apostles were risking their lives to spread the message about Jesus throughout the world, Paul was doing everything he could to stop them. He was a violent persecutor of the church until the resurrected Jesus encountered him on a road to Damascus and made him a believer, too.
In Paul’s mind, his false start made him the least of all the apostles. In fact, he believed he was “unworthy” of the very name “apostle” (1 Cor. 15:9). He was not like the others. He didn’t spend three years with Jesus like they did. He didn’t witness the miracles or hear firsthand the sermons. And yet, Paul is the apostle most associated with the spread of the gospel to the ends of the earth and the explosive growth of the early church. How? “I worked harder than any of them.”
To be clear, Paul worked harder than any of them “by the grace of God” (1 Cor. 15:10a), so much so that he refused to take credit for his work. Paul understood that if Christ would not have saved him, he would not have wanted to labor. He realized that without God’s Spirit indwelling him, he would have lacked the courage to press on. He knew that he was dependent upon God’s people, the church, for daily sustenance. By grace, Paul worked harder than all of them.
We often associate “the Protestant work ethic” with the American Puritans of the 17th century, but I think it began right here with Paul. Consider the way he described his life in Colossians 1:28-29: “Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.”
For Paul grace and hard work were never in conflict. He worked harder because of grace. Grace produced his energy to toil. When he was critiqued by those who boasted in intellectual gifts and rhetorical skills, Paul responded by sarcastically boasting in his labors and sufferings (2 Cor. 11:23-29). He would rather boast in the things that showed his weakness (2 Cor. 11:30) because those things reminded him and everyone around him that he needed the grace of God.
Paul valued hard work, not because it exalted his pride, but because it showed his weakness. The hard worker is the one who realizes that he or she does not have it all together. Paul had no natural talents in which to boast. He could not get by on his spiritual experiences. He did not even have the resume of the other apostles. He had to rely on the grace of God as he worked harder than any of them.
We are in danger of losing this emphasis today. On one side, many Christians are fearful that emphasizing hard work may interfere with grace, but the example of the apostle Paul should put that concern to rest. On the other side, prophets of self-esteem teach us that what our children need more than anything else is to be told how great they are. Ours’ is the generation of participation trophies.
If by “self-esteem” we mean that all people need to live with a sense of dignity and self-worth, then I’m all for it. However, we must reject the usage of the term that leads us to praise mediocre accomplishments and bestow greatness, intelligence, and talent on normal human actions. When we tell our kids they are great, their focus will become maintaining that reputation, and they will not want to work hard.
Don’t tell your kids they are smart, talented, and athletic. Instead, have conversations with them about the value of hard work. There’s always someone smarter, more talented, and more athletic. But you can be like Paul. You can work harder than any of them. You can’t control the level of your natural ability. You can, however, control your work output. Work harder, by the grace of God, and then give him the glory.