By David Feddes
On St. Patrick’s Day Chicago turns green. Thousands of people wear green clothes and drink green beer. Even the Chicago River turns green, thanks to gallons of green food coloring. People of Irish ancestry love St. Patrick’s Day, and even many non-Irish people become Irish for a little while. In the Chicago area where I live, St. Patrick’s Day sets off quite a celebration, and it’s a big deal in many other places too. As people in various parts of the world march in parades and crowd into pubs on St. Patrick’s Day, they may have fun, but how many know anything about St. Patrick except that he’s a good excuse for a party? Maybe you’re thinking, “Just enjoy the fun! Why bother with boring history?” Well, Patrick’s life was anything but boring, and if you discover the secret of Patrick’s power, your life may never be the same.
St. Patrick wasn’t always a saint, he wasn’t always Patrick, and he wasn’t always Irish. Patrick was born in Britain, not Ireland. His name was Maewyn Succat; only later in life was he called Patricius, or Patrick. As a teenager, he was no saint; he wasn’t at all devoted to Jesus Christ.
His grandfather was a Christian pastor, and young Maewyn Succat—well, let’s just call him Patrick for convenience, even though that wasn’t his name at the time—young Patrick knew some Christian teachings. But he didn’t have much interest in Christ. He lived a comfortable life on his family’s country estate, eager to enjoy and himself and not interested in the Lord.
But Patrick’s pampered life changed the day he was kidnapped. What started as an ordinary day turned into panic when a gang of pirates stormed ashore. The pirates grabbed him and some others and sailed away. When they got to Ireland, the pirates sold Patrick to a warrior chieftain. He wasn’t a fun guy to work for. His taste in decorating included putting his enemies’ heads on poles around his living quarters. He bought Patrick as a slave and made him take care of pigs and sheep out in the hills. Patrick had little to eat and little to wear. Often cold and hungry, he also felt isolated and alone. He didn’t expect to see his home and family again. He found himself in a place where he couldn’t understand the language and where he was treated like an animal.
But in that awful situation, young Patrick met God. He had no Bible, but he remembered some of the things he had heard growing up. He began to feel guilt for his sins and to feel sorry ignoring the Lord Jesus. He cried out for God’s help. As he prayed and prayed, Patrick began to sense God’s love and the touch of the Holy Spirit. “I turned with all my heart to the Lord, my God,” he later wrote. “He guarded me before I knew Him and comforted me as a father comforts his son… I would pray constantly during the daylight hours,” Patrick said. “The love of God and the fear of him surrounded me more and more, and my faith was strengthened.”
Patrick would never have chosen to be kidnapped and enslaved, but he saw God’s hand in it. “It was for my good,” he later wrote, “for that is how God cleansed me, so that I, who at one time didn’t even care about my own salvation, would now care and work for the salvation of others.” Patrick agreed with the biblical writer who said, “Before I was afflicted, I went astray, but now I obey your word… It was good for me to be afflicted” (Psalm 119:67,71).
Patrick slaved away year after year, working hard and praying hard. During that time he came to understand the Gaelic language, and he found out more about the people living in Ireland. Their lives were dominated by druids, who were believed to have great knowledge and magical powers. This was about 400 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, but few Christians had ventured to Ireland, and most people living on that beautiful island knew nothing about Jesus or about the Christian way of life. Druids decorated themselves with bird skins and feathers, performed blood sacrifices, predicted the future, and served as advisers to Irish chiefs. At first Patrick hated the people who held him captive, but after he turned to the Lord Jesus, Patrick started praying for them.
After six years as a slave, Patrick had a dream in which he heard a voice saying, “Soon you will return to your homeland.” A bit later the voice declared, “See, you ship is ready.” Patrick took that as a sign that God would help him escape from slavery back to his home in Britain. He sneaked away and journeyed 200 miles on foot, making his way over rough hills and through soggy bogs, till he at last made it to a harbor. He asked for permission to board a ship, but the captain answered the runaway slave harshly: “It’s no use asking to go with us!” As Patrick turned away, he prayed urgently. Before his prayer ended, one of the sailors called, “Come, hurry, we’ll take you.” So Patrick sailed with them, helping with the work and talking about Jesus.
They sailed for three days, and then traveled on land for almost a month. Their food supplies ran out, and the ship’s crewmen were famished and weak. The captain said to Patrick, “Now what do you say for yourself, Christian? You brag that your God is great and all-powerful, so why don’t you pray for us? We are starving and won’t live to see another human.”
Patrick replied confidently, “Be truly converted with all your heart to the Lord my God, because nothing is impossible with him. This day he will send enough food to satisfy everyone, for he has abundance everywhere.” Suddenly a herd of pigs appeared right in their path. Soon the men were feasting on roast pork and storing away more for their journey.
Eventually Patrick made it back to his family in Britain. His loved ones were delighted to see him, of course, and begged him never to leave them again. But while he was there, Patrick learned that he would have to leave. Patrick wrote, “I had a dream of a man who seemed to come from Ireland… and he carried countless letters, one of which he handed over to me. I read aloud where it began, ‘The Voice of the Irish.’” In Patrick’s dream, as he read “Voice of the Irish” on the page, he also heard voices like men from the Irish forest where he had been. The voices were saying in unison, “We appeal to you, boy, come and walk among us once more.”
Four centuries earlier the apostle Paul had a dream of a man from Macedonia pleading, “Come over to Macedonia and help us” (Acts 16:9). Paul responded to that dream by taking the gospel of Christ into Macedonia. Patrick had a similar dream, and he responded in a similar way. After study of Scripture and preparation for ministry, Patrick went to Ireland to lead people to Jesus Christ.
God says in the Bible, “I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions” (Joel 2:28). Patrick loved that verse, and he loved Jesus’ promise: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses … to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). The Holy Spirit made Patrick a Christian and a man of prayer; the Holy Spirit gave Patrick a dream of being a witness for Christ among the very people who enslaved him; and the Holy Spirit gave Patrick power to deal with opposition and to keep doing the Lord’s work.
Some people celebrate St. Patrick’s Day by drinking alcohol—distilled spirits—but Patrick himself drank from the well of God’s Holy Spirit. The best way to honor St. Patrick’s Day would be to ask God to give us a rich measure of Patrick’s power by pouring the Holy Spirit of Christ into our own lives.
The Armor of God
When Patrick returned to Ireland, he faced physical dangers from people who wanted to kill him. His life was in serious danger at least twelve different times, not counting various plots that fizzled before actual attempts were made on his life.
As Patrick faced physical attacks, he also faced spiritual attacks from druid wizards, witches, and others who directed curses and magic spells against him. Patrick didn’t deny that the druids had certain powers or that spirits dreaded by the people really existed. Patrick treated these powers as real. But Patrick declared that they were demonic powers which could be subdued by the power of Christ through the Holy Spirit.
Patrick put into practice the words of Ephesians 6, “Be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but … against the powers of the dark world and the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God” (Ephesians 6:10-13). Whether threatened by physical death or demonic curses, Patrick counted on the armor of God. There’s an ancient prayer called St. Patrick’s Breastplate. It can’t be proven whether or not Patrick himself is the source of the prayer. The exact wording has changed from the language of Patrick’s time, but the substance of it fits with what we know about Patrick. He believed firmly in the Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit united as one God. He trusted that God’s power to help him would be the same power that enabled Jesus to accomplish all his wonders, the same power all angels and holy people have depended on, the same power that upholds all the forces of nature. Putting on this vast power as his defense, with Christ inside him and all around him, Patrick could face anything. St. Patrick’s Breastplate says,
I rise today
through a mighty power, invoking the Trinity
believing in threeness,
confessing the oneness,
of creation’s Creator.
I rise today
in the power of Christ’s birth and baptism,
in the power of his crucifixion and burial,
in the power of his rising and ascending,
in the power of his descending and judging.
I rise today
in the power of the love of cherubim,
in the obedience of angels
and service of archangels,
in hope of rising to receive the reward,
in the prayers of patriarchs,
in the predictions of the prophets,
in the preaching of apostles,
in the faith of confessors,
in the innocence of holy virgins,
in the deeds of the righteous.
I rise today
in heaven’s might,
in sun’s brightness,
in moon’s radiance,
in fire’s glory,
in lightning’s quickness,
in wind’s swiftness,
in sea’s depth,
in earth’s stability,
in rock’s firmness.
I rise today
with the power of God to pilot me,
God’s strength to sustain me,
God’s wisdom to guide me,
God’s eye to look ahead for me,
God’s ear to hear me,
God’s word to speak for me,
God’s hand to protect me,
God’s way before me,
God’s shield to defend me,
God’s host to deliver me,
from snares of devils,
from evil temptations,
from nature’s failings,
from all who wish to harm me,
far or near,
alone and in a crowd.
Around me I gather today all these powers
against every cruel and merciless force
to attack my body and soul,
against the charms of false prophets,
the black laws of paganism,
the false laws of heretics,
the deceptions of idolatry,
against spells cast by witches, smiths, and druids,
and all unlawful knowledge that harms the body and soul.
May Christ protect me today
against poison and burning,
against drowning and wounding,
so that I may have abundant reward;
Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me;
Christ within me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me;
Christ to the right of me, Christ to the left of me;
Christ in my lying down, Christ in my sitting, Christ in my rising;
Christ in the heart of all who think of me,
Christ on the tongue of all who speak to me,
Christ in the eye of all who see me,
Christ in the ear of all who hear me.
I rise today
through a mighty power, invoking the Trinity,
believing in threeness,
confessing the oneness,
of creation’s Creator.
For to the Lord belongs salvation,
and to the Lord belongs salvation
and to Christ belongs salvation.
May your salvation, Lord, be with us always.
Patrick was not the first person to preach the gospel in Ireland, but he surely made the biggest impact. A few faltering efforts had been made to spread Christianity to Ireland, but when Patrick arrived, things began to happen in a big way. Thousands upon thousands of people came to faith in Christ and were baptized. Many pastors were ordained, and churches were built. People were set free from fear of druids, witches, and demons. Family life improved. Political conflicts and wars still happened, but the conflicts were not as frequent or as savage. As a former slave, Patrick strongly opposed the slave trade, and slavery had nearly vanished from Ireland. There’s an old legend that Patrick drove all snakes out of Ireland. Actually, Ireland never had snakes, but Ireland had spiritual serpents—demons, oppressors, and teachers of false religion—and Patrick surely did a great deal to drive out snakes of that sort.
What made Patrick so powerful? What enabled him to change the course of history and make a huge impact on an entire nation? One factor was that Patrick knew how to connect with the Irish. As a youth Patrick had been a slave in Ireland for six years, so when he returned as a missionary and bishop, he knew the language and understood the people. The Holy Spirit had arranged his life to equip him for his mission.
Another vital aspect of Patrick’s effectiveness was his prayer life. He spent so much time in conversation with God that he sensed where God was guiding him and he had God’s power when he needed it. At important turning points, God sent Patrick dreams to show him the next step to take, and Patrick obeyed the Holy Spirit’s guidance in those dreams.
Another vital key to Patrick’s enormous impact was his knowledge of the Bible and his boldness in proclaiming the biblical gospel. Patrick sometimes felt embarrassed that he wasn’t very sophisticated. His late teens and early twenties weren’t spent with learned professors but in slavery, and Patrick sometimes felt like a hick and a hayseed compared to more polished preachers and scholars. But what Patrick lacked in fancy phrases, the Holy Spirit made up for in spiritual power and knowledge of the Bible. Patrick’s Confession is a short account of his conversion to Christ and his ministry. In that brief document alone, Patrick includes more than 200 references from the Bible. Whatever his limits in education, he knew the Scriptures. When Bible truth is proclaimed in the Spirit’s power, it accomplishes more than clever speeches.
Still another part of Patrick’s power was his God-given courage and determination. He had some scary showdowns with angry kings and powerful wizards. He had many close brushes with death. But no threat could frighten him into silence. No problem could discourage him into giving up. The Bible says, “For the Spirit that God has given us does not make us timid; instead, his Spirit fills us with power, love, and self-control” (2 Timothy 1:7). That was certainly true of Patrick. The Holy Spirit gave him such power, such love for the people of Ireland, and such self-control in the face of trials, that nothing could stop him from spreading the gospel. Patrick wrote, “I am prepared to give even my life without hesitation and most gladly for Jesus’ name… Daily I expect murder, fraud, or captivity, or whatever it may be; but I fear none of these things because of the promises of heaven.”
Sometimes opposition arises where you’d least expect it. If God calls you to his service and to a special gospel outreach, you might think church people and leaders would be your biggest supporters, but they can be the people who hurt you most. They may be skeptical of what you’re doing, and they may even attack you. But don’t give up. In Patrick’s case, not everybody back in Britain supported his mission, and not all high-ranking church officials approved of his efforts. “Many tried to prevent my mission,” wrote Patrick. “They would even talk to each other behind my back.” A boyhood friend publicized a sin which Patrick had committed back in his non-Christian youth and which he had confessed to this friend. That betrayal of a confidential confession hurt Patrick deeply, but though it was meant to bring Patrick down, it failed. He pressed on with his mission, and God continued to transform Ireland through him.
Patrick’s greatest desire was God’s approval, not human applause. Patrick saw his work a part of Jesus’ Great Commission to preach the gospel to all nations, baptize, and teach. Patrick loved Jesus’ call to be fishers of men and said, “It was most necessary that a great multitude and throng might be caught for God.” God used Patrick to lead thousands to Christ personally, and he used Patrick’s example to inspire many to become ministers and missionaries, not only to Ireland but also to other places that needed Christ.
God can turn even our weaknesses into strengths. Patrick was embarrassed by what he felt was a lack of learning, but when he brought Irish people to Christ, the came to love learning. When Roman civilization in Europe and North Africa was falling to barbarian invaders, when books were burned and learning was despised, it was Irish Christians, especially monks and pastors, who copied books and preserved the classic writings of civilization. Thomas Cahill tells the story in his popular book How the Irish Saved Civilization. In one of history’s humorous twists, God used Patrick, a man ashamed of not being educated enough, to spread the gospel beyond the boundaries of the old Roman Empire and to play a crucial part in preserving the world’s great books for future generations to read.
What is Patrick’s importance for us today? Is he just an excuse to wear green clothes, drink green beer, and have a party? Or should we go to the opposite extreme and join those who regard Patrick as a patron saint, someone with a special interest in their cause who can get a reluctant God to help them? Patrick is designated as a patron saint of downtrodden people, of engineers, of those who fear snakes, of various cities, and as patron of the nations of Ireland and Nigeria.
There’s no doubt that God blessed Ireland greatly through Patrick’s mission. There’s no doubt that churches in Nigeria have experienced amazing growth in recent decades which is much like the church growth that occurred in Patrick’s time. There’s no doubt that downtrodden people can be encouraged that God’s Holy Spirit would use a former slave like Patrick to convert thousands and improve the life of a nation. But there’s no biblical basis for the idea of having someone as a patron saint. Our faith must not be in Patrick but in God, in the truth and love of Jesus Christ, and in the power of the Holy Spirit. St. Patrick’s Breastplate is a prayer to be shielded and clothed by Christ and the power of the Trinity; it’s not faith in a patron saint. Patrick would be horrified if people asked him for help instead of asking Christ. Patrick wrote, “I owe it all to God who gave me such grace that many people were born again in God through me.” Patrick knew it was God’s doing, not his own.
So don’t trivialize Patrick, and don’t worship him either. Instead, let Patrick point you to the Lord. Thank God for the great things he did through Patrick, and ask the Lord to do great things through you. If life seems to go against you, don’t let it become an excuse for failure and despair. God can use your afflictions to bless you and to prepare you for amazing purposes. Trust the same Lord Jesus whom Patrick trusted for salvation. Be empowered by the same Holy Spirit who empowered Patrick. Be courageous in the divine protection that shielded Patrick. Love others, even enemies, with the God-given love that a former slave like Patrick could have for the people and nation that kidnapped him.
I don’t believe in patron saints, but I do admire heroes of faith. I don’t pray to Patrick, but I’m eager to learn from his example and to be encouraged by God’s work in his life. Patrick was a living demonstration of the Bible’s truth and the Spirit’s power. He served Christ, loved others, and changed history. Now it’s our turn.
Resources about St. Patrick:
Mary Cagney, “Patrick the Saint,” Christian History, Fall 1998 Vol.XVII, No. 4
Richard N. Hanula, “Patrick: Missionary to the Irish,” Trials and Triumph (Moscow, Idaho: Canon Press, 1999), pp. 45-50.
By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.