March 10, 2008

The Luck of the Irish?

Do you ever ask yourself the really difficult questions? You know, those deep philosophical queries that take you all the way to the core of the meaning of life? Questions like: Why does everybody wear green on St. Patrick’s Day? And why do I get pinched if I don’t? And why are the Irish so lucky, anyway? Well, this little leaflet may not fully answer those questions. But I can say this: there is no such thing as luck! God is orchestrating everything in this universe—from the orbit of the planets (Isaiah 40.22) to the exact time when a sparrow falls out of a tree (Matthew 10.29). He controls it all! And the story of St. Patrick is an example of this truth—a great illustration of God’s loving hand designing our days for good …

Contrary to our childhood imaginations, Patrick of Ireland was not a quirky little Irishman who went around pinching people and searching for four-leafed clovers! It is also highly unlikely that he wore a funny green suit. In fact, Patrick wasn’t even Irish! So who was this man who has a holiday named for him?*

Patrick was a modestly educated boy who lived in late 4th century Britain. Though his father was a deacon, and his grandfather a pastor in the local church, Patrick was unimpressed with Christianity, unconcerned with eternity, and unacquainted with Jesus Christ. That is, until he was sixteen. That was when he was captured by pirates and ferried across the Irish Sea to become a slave of those ‘barbarian’ people called the Irish.

For six years Patrick served as an enslaved farm-hand. But there on the Irish hillsides, desperate and alone, he began to call out to the living Christ whom his grandfather had preached. There, in the midst of harsh slavery in a pagan land, Patrick became a committed follower of Jesus! Gone were the trappings of mere outward religion; and in their place came a genuine trust in the life and death of the historical God-man, Jesus Christ. God allowed this young man to hit rock bottom, so that he might finally turn his eyes heavenward!

Isn’t that a wonderful illustration of how “God causes all things”—even the lowest moments of suffering—“to work together for good to those who love God” and are “called according to His purpose” (Romans 8.28**)?

And God’s goodness did not end with Patrick’s conversion to Christ …

After six years of slavery, Patrick escaped and was eventually reunited with his family in Britain. It must have been a glorious reunion! His parents must surely have thought that neither they nor their son would ever have to think of those pagan, unchristian Irishmen again. But God made them think again! Patrick began to sense that God was summoning him to return to the land of his captivity … this time, not as a slave of the Irish, but as a servant of Jesus Christ—a missionary!

And that is exactly what Patrick did! He went and gave himself to the people who had so demeaned and abused him, and laid out his life in missionary labors among them—just like his Lord had done four centuries before! Within decades, under Patrick’s preaching, Ireland began to glow for Jesus! Thousands of people became followers of Jesus, and little congregations began to be planted here and there among the Irish hills!

To this day, many thousands of Irish believers can trace their history to God’s grace in sending such a man to their island. Talk about ‘the luck of the Irish’!

But what did this ancient saint teach? What message did Patrick bring to Ireland? And has it any relevance for today? Well, quite simply, Patrick taught the Bible! Indeed, his writings are chocked full of Bible quotes! Let me mention just a few of Patrick’s biblical quotations,^  expounding myself on the meaning of each verse as I go along:

  • “There is no other” God (Isaiah 45, v.5) – only one true God … who reveals Himself (as Patrick was eager to point out) in the persons of the Father, the Son (Jesus), and the Holy Spirit.
  • “He who sins is a slave” (John 8, v.34). And I hasten to add that all of us are, by nature, thus enslaved—knowing what we ought to do and so often failing to do so; knowing that there is a God (who made us, owns us, and loves us), and yet failing to honor and obey Him as we know we should.
  • “Those who do evil … are to be damned” (Romans 1, v.32). Simple and sobering. We deserve to die for our dishonoring of God.
  • And yet, Jesus Christ “gave his own soul for [us]” on the cross (1 John, 3, v.16)—taking the death penalty that we deserve, so that we might be rescued from it ourselves; so that we might be forgiven, and granted “everlasting life which is in Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 6, v.23).

Now that last point is really good news, isn’t it? Yes, we have sinned our way out of God’s good graces … but we do not have to earn our way back in! Jesus has done that for us – by “[laying] down His life for us”! And so forgiveness and heaven are a gift! “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6.23). That is the good news young Patrick discovered as he sat enslaved and alone on those ancient Irish hills! That is the good news he preached to the Irish in the fifth century AD. This is the good news that Jesus and the apostles preached in the first century. And this is the same good news that will rescue 21st century men and women, too!

So let me ask you: Have you recognized your Maker? Have you realized that “your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God” (Isaiah 59.2)? And have you turned from those sins and placed your eternal hope squarely into the nail-scarred hands of Jesus? This is what Patrick, all those centuries ago, urged the Irish to do! And this is what I urge you to do today: stop running from God; stop hiding from God; stop ignoring God; stop defying God … and, like young Patrick so long ago, turn to Jesus for mercy. And when you do, He will forgive all your running, hiding, ignoring, and defying!

And (for us religious types), let us lay aside the idea that we must earn our way back to God with all our religious activity (penance, mass, confession, good works, etc.). And let us believe, rather, that salvation really is a “free gift”! And if we will; if we will simply trust that, by His sinless life and sacrificial death, Jesus Christ has earned our way back to God for us – then God will forgive our sins, too! For “whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3.16)!


*My sources for the life of St. Patrick are his own The Confession of Saint Patrick. Translated by John Skinner. (New York, NY: Image Books, 1998); and Philip Freeman’s Patrick of Ireland. (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 2005).

**Aside from those scriptures quoted directly out of Patrick’s own writings (and placed in bold print), all other Scripture quotations are taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE®. Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by the Lockman Foundation. Used by permission. Italicized emphasis within scriptural quotations is inserted by the tract’s author.

^These scripture quotations are drawn from Skinner’s The Confession of Saint Patrick (which includes both Patrick’s actual Confession, as well as a letter of rebuke he wrote to a group of barbarous soldiers).

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