As St. Paul is coming to the close of his life, he looks back and writes, “I have finished the race” (2 Tim 4:7). Many of us have taken part in races of various sorts. Some of course pulled ahead of the crowd but the rest of us struggled.
The Church gives us saints, those who really gave their whole hearts to running the race, to inspire us. One of these is St. Paul, who wrote “I have finished my course” (1 Cor 9:26). An athletic course is usually obvious but what is a spiritual “course”? St. Thomas explains that “It is called a course or journey to holiness, because they run swiftly in order to run better, being prodded by the goad of charity” (Commentary, 149).
Each one of us also runs the spiritual course, spurred on by the love of Christ, as St. Paul writes “The love of Christ urges us on” (2 Cor 5:14).
Paul uses another symbol when he says that he has fought “a good fight” (2 Tim 4:6). How can a fight be “good”? St. Thomas Aquinas, in his Commentary of the Second Letter to Timothy says that a good fight is when the fight concerns something good, “if it were waged on behalf of faith and justice” (Commentary, 149).
Yet, even though the cause is good, it isn’t necessarily a good fight. Thomas assures us, “a struggle is good if it is conducted well, i.e. carefully…” We may compromise a good cause by our own behavior. Sometimes, people object not so much at a cause itself but at the actions used in promoting the cause.
Paul believes that the struggle starts with ourselves: “I fight not as one beating the air. I chastise my body and bring it to subjection, lest when I have preached to others, I myself become cast away” (1 Cor 9:26).
Thomas points out that we would not speak of a ‘good fight” unless “the struggle is difficult.” We shouldn’t be surprised that there are difficulties in our lives. When we set out to do something good we usually find difficulties. Why are we surprised? Would anyone be interested in a race or any athletic event that didn’t involve a challenge?
Although St. Paul was coming to the end of his life, he would face even greater challenges as he drew closer to his martyrdom. Thomas notes: “The struggle and the journey towards death continued… he was not finished struggling or running…”
Paul could say, “I have kept the faith” (2 Tim 4:7). Keeping the faith isn’t only not losing one’s faith but putting faith into action. St. Thomas says: “He uses God’s gifts for the glory of God and the salvation of our neighbors.”
St. Paul states: “There is laid up for me a merited crown which, on that day, the Lord the just judge will render to me” (2 Tim 4:8). St. Thomas poses the question why Paul expects that he will receive the crown of eternal life when eternal life is a gift of grace not something that we are given because we earned it?
The word for “grace” in the Greek New Testament and in Latin also means “gift.” Grace is a “gift” that is given to us. Perseverance is a gift of grace. At the same time, Paul has chosen, by his will, to cooperate with the grace that he has been given. Thomas concludes: “Grace is involved inasmuch as it is the root of merit, and justice inasmuch as it is an act proceeding from the will” (Commentary, 151).
Thomas explains elsewhere that even our cooperation is the result of God’ grace: “Man obtains from God as a reward of his operation, what God gave him the power of operation for...” (Summa Theologiae, 2a, 2ae, 114, 1).
According to Thomas, the primary “crown” is “nothing less than the joy in the truth,” which according to Thomas means that “God is our crown.” God Himself I our reward. Not only will the soul be crowned but the body will also receive eternal life: “What is sown in corruption, shall rise in incorruption” (1 Cor 15:43).
Paul declares that he is not the only one who will receive the reward “but all who have looked for His coming with eager longing” (2 Tim 4:8). Thomas reflects: “The crown will be given for charity alone, ‘He who loves Me shall be loved by My Father, and I will love him and will manifest Myself to him’ (Jn 14:21).”
Paul speaks of his disappointment that no one stood by him in the day of his trial. Thomas reflects: “Because they did this out of weakness, he prays for them.”
When Paul asserts that God was the one who gave him strength, he is showing how God gives us the grace to cooperate with Him: “The Lord stood by my side and gave me strength” (2 Tim 4:17). Thomas observes: “Where men depart, God offers Himself.” God strengthened Paul not to be intimidated by the authorities: “… giving me strength of soul not to be dazzled by Caesar.”
Following Christ brings its struggles, as it did for Paul. God gives us the grace and strength to run the race and to fight the good fight.
Denis Vincent Wiseman, O.P.
References are to Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Second Letter to Timothy, Vol. 40, The Works of St. Thomas Aquinas, translated by F.R. Larcher, O.P., edited by J. Mortensen and E. Alarcón, (Lander Wyoming: Aquinas Institute, 2012).