In the eyes of many Patrick is the patron saint of excess, a figurehead for beer-fuelled parades and parties. Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth. To read Patrick’s personal writings is to encounter an individual of scrupulous integrity, personal piety, and missionary austerity, a man whose life became solely focussed on the single purpose of proclaiming Christ. As St. Patrick’s day rolls around for another year, this post will outline some of the ministry lessons that this great servant of God can give to us.
Patrick and adversity evangelism
If reading Patrick’s Confession portrays anything about this Christian man’s social background, it is the harshness of the conditions in which he came to Christ and came to minister.
Patrick’s conversion was realised against a backdrop of serious deprivation and pain. At the age of sixteen he was taken captive from an evidently loving home and landed in Ireland, in terrain that must have been terrifying to him as a young person. Far from instilling bitterness, Patrick later owned the blessedness of having his mind opened to an awareness of his sin and unbelief, and testified that ‘he watched over me before I knew him, and before I learned sense or even distinguished between good and evil’. Providence and deprivation were for him synonymous, opening the way for him to trust and serve Christ for the rest of his life.
That emphasis on the power of adversity also characterised his ministry. Patrick recounted the experience of making landfall on his return to Britain, only to wander for 28 days with the crew of the ship without food. The steersman assailed him with questions about God’s goodness,
Why is it, Christian? You say your God is great and powerful; then why can you not pray for us? For we may perish of hunger, it is unlikely indeed that we shall ever see another human being!
Patrick’s response was wise, directing the sailors’ attention away from their immediate condition and pointing them to their eternal concerns – making them think about the soul as well as the body. Their conversion, and the subsequent discovery of food, formed a powerful testimony to God’s grace and goodness.
There are undoubtedly lessons here for us also. Perhaps you are reading this as a non-Christian, and the present crises that grip our planet make you concerned about your self and your society in a way which has been disconcerting and unexpected. This is an opportunity for you not merely to think about your survival but your soul and your eternity. God used national crisis to convert Patrick, and a personal crisis to convert a crew – perhaps he is drawing you to Christ also through adversity?
There are lessons, too, for Christians and their ministers. Adversity is a great place in which to meet our fellow men and women. It is a ripe and fertile field in which to show the ultimate issues that confront the heart. Coronavirus is affording such opportunities. There is a temporary lull in the white noise of consumerism and individualism, and we, like Patrick, might see the fruit of adversity evangelism if we are sensitive to gospel opportunities.
Patrick and affection for place
Patrick’s arrival in Ireland was fraught with pain, and his return as a missionary was marked by personal betrayal and institutional resistance. His ministry saw him incarcerated, impugned, and even ridiculed for his rusticity. He testified that he daily expected to be murdered, or betrayed, or reduced to slavery.
Patrick, however, persevered, and came to so love the island of Ireland that to leave it became unthinkable,
Even if I should wish to separate from them in order to go to Britain, and most willingly was I prepared to go to my homeland and kin folks…I am bound by the Spirit, who witnessed to me that if I did so he would mark me out as guilty, and I fear to waste the labour that I began, and not I, but Christ the Lord, who commanded me to come to be with them for the rest of my life.
This rootedness, this contentment and sense of compulsion to stay at his post and serve his Lord, yielded rich dividends for Patrick’s ministry – establishing gospel works in far flung regions of Ireland which previously had not heard. He was happy to be forgotten by posterity (‘sufficient is the honour that is not seen, but in which the heart has confidence’), if only he might reach the Irish.
There ought to be huge inspiration here to love, and not leave, the field in which God has established us. Patrick believed himself to be comparatively ignorant and unschooled, but saw the benefit of a long obedience in one place for God’s glory. Through the mixed fortunes of his adopted island home he saw God at work, and saw the dignity of giving himself heart and soul for work which was obscure in context, but assured in outcome.
Patrick teaches us, that in an age of shifting gears, and personal reinvention, there is such benefit in being steady and established in the hope that God might use us.