With the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, we witnessed the most horrible, painful, and destructive attack on our nation ever, but we have also seen and heard marvelous stories of bravery, heroism, loving concern, with some events bordering on the miraculous. The other evening I was watching an interview between Bryan Williams of MSNBC and four or five firemen who were miraculously delivered from what they were all sure would result in their death. They were coming down the stairs of the first World Trade Tower that had been hit, and they were helping an older lady descend the stairs. Though I am not sure, I believe her name was Josephine. She had come all the way from about the 74th flour and was exhausted when she met up with these brave and caring firemen. They began to help her continue down the steps. When they reached the fourth floor, the tower began to collapse. They had been forced to stop on the fourth floor because Josephine had reached her limit and could go no further. But this fact was the means God used to save them, because being on the fourth floor turned out to be the one place that became a place of refuge. While there, the tower began to rumble, and they realized it was all collapsing. It was at that point that the firemen thought they would surely die. Several of the firemen mentioned in the interview that they were thinking, “Well, this is it; we are going to die.” Some of them mentioned the fact that they offered a short prayer, and one even prayed that death would be quick. They were in a situation that, from all appearances, was a sentence to death, but in that situation, knowing that there was no possible human solution regardless of their expertise as firemen, some prayed and committed themselves into God’s hand. Now, I do not know what they believed or if any of them were believers in the New Testament sense, but this story gives us a graphic illustration of how any of us can find ourselves in a situation that, from all appearances humanly speaking, is a sentence to death.
In July of this year, 2001, I began to have asthmatic symptoms. At first my doctor thought I had pneumonia, but after more tests, I was diagnosed with stage four non-small cell lung cancer. It was in both lungs and there was a large tumor in the medial sternum area of my chest that was malignant with squamous cell carcinoma. One oncologist told me that with no treatment I had maybe a year to live, and with treatment, perhaps from a year to five years. If I made it to five, then I would probably be in permanent remission, but even that, of course, was far from certain. My father, who had smoked all his life, died of lung cancer when he was in his early seventies, but I had never smoked. Regardless, apart from God’s divine intervention, being diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer appeared to me to be nothing less than a sentence to death. There is a sense, of course, in which we are all terminal, for it is appointed for people to die once, unless the Lord returns in their lifetime (1 Thess. 4:13-18), and after that, to face the judgment (Heb. 9:27). Though he gives us no details, the apostle Paul writes of just such an experience in his own life in 2 Corinthians 1:8-9a:
“For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, regarding the affliction that happened to us in Asia, that we were burdened excessively, beyond our strength, so that we despaired even of living. Indeed we felt as if the sentence of death had been passed against us”
Through this passage from the apostle Paul, the Lord gives us a crucial message faced with such an apparently hopeless situation, a message that can help us rest in God’s provision and care. It is a passage that the Lord has used to bring comfort and strength to my own heart since diagnosed with lung cancer. But before looking at verses 8-11, let’s look at the context that forms the backdrop for the message of verses 8-11.
In verses 3-7, Paul sets forth the basic biblical perspective that all Christians need whenever faced with one or more of the varied afflictions that are a part of life in this fallen, sinful, and pain-ridden world. And this perspective is true regardless of the source, nature, or size of the affliction. The opening paragraph of 2 Corinthians 1 focuses the reader on one of the chief emphases of chapters 1-7, namely “God’s comfort in the midst of affliction.” The message of God’s comfort is seen in three key terms that dot the landscape of chapter 1:1-7. First, the noun (paraklesis, “comfort, encouragement”) occurs six times and the verb form (parakaleo, “to cheer, comfort, encourage”) four times. Then, there is the noun thlipsis (“trouble,” “affliction”), which occurs three times and the noun pathema (“suffering”), which occurs four times. Obviously, the troubles of life are a key item in these verses.
But more important and central to the issue of suffering and affliction are the ways the apostle focuses us on God. In these opening verses of this epistle, He is described as:
1. “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (vs. 3a),
2. “the Father of mercies and God of all comfort” (vs. 3b),
3. “who comforts us in all our troubles” (vs. 4),
4. and as the “God who raises the dead” (vs. 9b).
These descriptions of God with the terms for affliction and comfort remind us that this life is not a bed of roses (even a rose bed is loaded with thorns). We must simply learn to live with the reality that we are not in the Garden of Eden nor are we yet in the future and glorious millennial reign of Christ. Rather, we live in a fallen world where afflictions of various sorts and sizes abound. For instance, in another passage, Paul speaks of our suffering in this life in terms of groaning while we wait for our final redemption (Rom. 8:18-23). But even though such sufferings abound, Christians, those who have a personal relationship with God through faith in the Lord Jesus, never face their afflictions alone. But as the sufferings abound, so also does God’s comfort. Thus, we must learn, like Paul, to seek our comfort in a Sovereign Savior and in the purposes He has for our suffering. One of the many paradoxes of the Christian life is that the grace of God is often most keenly experienced in what seems to be the worst of times, rather than the best of times. Naturally, we should long for our final exaltation or redemption in the glorious reign of Christ (cf. 1 Cor. 4:8), but the fact is that it is most often in the humbling circumstances of affliction that we can find God’s grace and peace in more abundant ways (cf. 2 Cor. 12:9; 1 Pet. 5:6-7).
Another lesson taught in verses 3-7 is that God gives comfort not just that we might be comforted (experience inner peace and strength), but that we might become comforters of others. The comfort that God gives becomes a gift that He wants us to pass along to others who are experiencing pain (vs. 4). Nine months ago, after her long battle with a form of cancer called multiple myeloma, the Lord called home my precious wife Kathie, my helpmate and sweetheart of 42 years. As a pastor for nearly thirty years, I performed numerous funerals and memorial services, many of which involved the loss of a spouse. I always tried to imagine their pain and sought to bring God’s comfort through God’s Word, but until now, I simply had no clue of the pain these dear people were going through. A few months ago I visited Chuck Swindoll’s church in North Dallas. Since we had been in Dallas Seminary at the same time, I went down to say hello. I told him about Kathie’s home going, and, undoubtedly thinking about what life would be like without his dear wife, he said, “I just can’t imagine, I just can’t imagine.” He was so right. After and even before I lost my Kathie, many Christian friends came alongside and offered their support and told me that they were regularly praying for me, and they still do. But you know, those who were able to help me the most were those who had been through what I was facing. The very fact they had walked through the same valley and had found God’s strength to continue on with His peace and joy in the midst of their grief was tremendously encouraging or comforting to me.
Finding strength to go on focuses our attention on another truth we can glean from verses 3-7. In verse 6, the apostle speaks of endurance as one of the effective results of experiencing God’s comfort. He wrote, “…it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer” (NIV). Oh, how we need to understand that another objective of experiencing God’s comfort is the spiritual fruit of endurance. God’s design in our suffering goes beyond just our comfort or even our ability to comfort others. The goal is that the Corinthians (and we too) might experience patient endurance (2 Cor. 1:6). Naturally, to experience godly endurance or patience, we do need the strength that only God can give, but let’s not lose sight of the fact this strength is for an endurance that is tied in with a joyful and thankful heart for all that God has done for us in Christ, and for what He is continuing to do in and through us with a view to an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison to temporal things (cf. Col. 1:11-12 and 2 Cor. 4:16-18).
“Patient endurance,” as translated by the NET Bible, is hupomone, “endurance, fortitude, steadfastness, perseverance.” This noun comes from hupo, “under,” and meno, “to abide, remain.” It speaks of remaining under a trial without giving in, of an ability to endure or remain or be steadfast regardless of the intensity and length of the testing. Hupomone is used in relation to the variegated kinds of trials that we all face in life as human beings: sickness, pain, financial loss, death of loved ones, warfare, physical and spiritual weaknesses, satanic attack, persecution, and on the list can go. It’s the perfect word for the kinds of trials faced by Job, or by Joseph in Genesis, or by the hall of faith characters listed in Hebrews 11. It’s interesting that in classical Greek this word is “used of a plant’s ability to live under hard and unfavorable conditions,”1 a fact that should remind us of Psalm 1:3 and especially Jeremiah 17:8. Speaking for the Lord and of those who trust in the Lord and put their confidence in Him, the prophet wrote:
They will be like a tree planted near a stream whose roots spread out toward the water. It has nothing to fear when the heat comes. Its leaves are always green. It has no need to be concerned in a year of drought. It does not stop bearing fruit (Jer. 17:8).
Finally, one last thought on these opening verses of 3-7. We can find God’s comfort in “all our affliction.” (emphasis mine) Notice that this excludes nothing. As the God of all comfort, He is there for us no matter what we face. We somehow tend to think that our troubles are unique to us or that they are worse than what others are going through. But not only are our trials common to man (1 Cor. 10:13), but none are bigger than our God and beyond His power and wisdom, His grace and mercy, and His steadfast love and goodness.
This leads us to the main focus of this study—the deadly peril Paul faced as described in verses 8-11. Here the apostle turns to a specific illustration of God’s comfort in his own experience, one that adds a vital dimension to the issue of affliction, of finding God’s comfort and strength, and of being a good comforter of others. I have divided these verses into four key points:
1. the Verdict Paul Experienced,
2. the Viewpoint We All Need,
3. the Vanguard of Prayer, and
4. the Virtue of Praise,
for we do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, regarding the affliction that happened to us in Asia, that we were burdened excessively, beyond our strength, so that we despaired even of living. Indeed we felt as if the sentence of death had been passed against us,
First, the plural “we” used in verses 3-7 is clearly inclusive, first of Paul and Timothy, and then of all members of the body of Christ. As previously mentioned, the God of all comfort seeks to comfort all believers that they in turn may be able to comfort other Christians. But some have raised the question about the “we” in verses 8-11. While it is obviously not certain, the “we” in these verses may be an illustration of the editorial or literary “we” where the apostle is really referring to his own experience, but uses “we” to perhaps avoid repetition of references to himself (cf. 2 Cor. 10:10-12) though he does do that in some contexts (cf. 2 Cor. 11:1-12). However, it does seem that he is speaking about his own experience.
St. Paul in this Epistle, with unusual frequency, uses the plural hemeis when speaking of himself; sometimes this can be explained by the fact that Timothy was associated with him in the writing of the letter (i.1), but in other passages (e.g., vers. 10, v.13, 16, x.7, 11, 15, xi.21) such an explanation will not suit the context, which demands the individual application of the pronoun.2
Undoubtedly because Paul deeply desired the continued prayer support of the Corinthians, and because of the vital lessons he wanted to share as a comforter of others, the apostle did not want his readers to be uninformed about what he experienced in Asia. So, verses 8-9a point us to the experience Paul wanted to share with his readers. One of the interesting things here is that the apostle does not describe any details regarding exactly what he had faced in this particular incident. In other places the apostle mentioned some of the things he suffered (6:1-13; 7:1-16; 11:23-33; 12:1-10), but here he leaves us in the dark. Many suggestions have been made as to the exact nature of the excessive burden—an illness that appeared to be fatal, fighting with wild beast in Ephesus, (cf. 1 Cor. 15:32), the tumult in Ephesus by the guild of the silversmiths, a tumult in which Jewish opposition was also marshaled against him (Acts 19:23-41), the plots against the apostle by the Jews in Asia Minor (Acts 21:27), and the experience of stoning mentioned in Acts 14:19-20. However, any explanation we may consider is really only conjecture because of the lack of hard evidence available. But even though we cannot be certain about the nature and source of the apostle’s affliction, we can be sure about the wonderful lessons he wishes us to draw from it: namely, the importance of prayer for one another, the need of total dependence on God who raises the dead, and praise and glory to God. That he described no details of the experience may indicate that the Corinthians knew what he was referring to. As with Bernard, I am inclined to think that it was some form of severe physical infirmity or affliction.3 This is suggested by the perfect tense, “we had the sentence of death within ourselves.” In this context, the perfect tense would focus on the resultant state, and a grave and terminal kind of illness could certainly lead to that conclusion unless the resurrection power of God precluded it. Again, we can only guess. The fact that Paul does not specifically describe the experience certainly allows for a broader application to our own situations in life regardless of their source or nature.
As I mentioned, after my doctors had reviewed all my x-rays and CAT scans, they informed me that I had non-small cell lung cancer and that, of four possible stages, I was in stage IV. When I heard that news, I knew that without God’s divine intervention as the God of resurrection power, that this was nothing less than a sentence to death. We had gone through the same thing with my beautiful wife when she was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, which is also usually deadly and often very painful. Now just 8 months later, I too was diagnosed with an affliction that is very often terminal, especially at stage IV. As I mentioned previously, the prognosis that the oncologist gave me was not very encouraging. Thus, after such a prognosis, I was truly able to relate to Paul’s next statement, “that we were burdened excessively, beyond our strength.”
These words, “that we were burdened excessively, beyond our strength,” show that Paul’s affliction was so great or heavy that it was beyond anything Paul could possibly handle, at least from his own resources as a human being. “Burdened” is the verb bareo, “to weigh down, to lay a heavy burden upon.” But Paul was not just burdened. He was burdened “excessively.” To stress the extreme heaviness of this burden, the apostle combined a preposition, kata, plus the noun huperbole, “excessive, extraordinary in character or degree.” The preposition is used here with the noun to focus on the nature of the burden as one that was far beyond the ordinary. Paul had been burdened “excessively, to an extraordinary degree, beyond measure.” So what did that mean? I think it meant that from all appearances, the only verdict at which he could arrive was that he was going to die. In fact, as Paul goes on to explain, it was so excessive, it was “beyond his own strength” to be able to bear or handle. Humanly speaking, there was nothing he or anyone else could do.
The result was that he “despaired even of living. Indeed, he felt as if the sentence of death had been passed against him.” “Despaired” is exaporeo, a compound word that means “to be in utter despair,” or “to be at a complete loss.” The idea is that there seemed to be no possible way out. Of the afflictions that Paul suffered, both physical and emotional, he would later say, “We are experiencing trouble on every side, but are not crushed; we are perplexed, but not driven to despair (exaporeo),” but at this point in his life he was at a complete loss. Perhaps it was from the lessons he learned here that he could later say, “we are perplexed, but not driven to despair.” This is because the trials of life are tools that God uses to mature us and give us greater capacity to encourage others.
Thus, the apostle adds an emphatic explanation of just how severe the affliction really was and of what he means by being at a loss. “Indeed” is the emphatic use of the conjunction alla, which gives emphasis to the clause that follows and explains the nature of what he faced. Indeed, it was like a sentence of death. Literally the text reads, “Indeed, we ourselves had within ourselves the sentence of death.” “Had” is another perfect tense. The Greek perfect can either stress the fact of a completed action or it may stress the results that the writer views as continuing. The use of the perfect suggests that the vivid remembrance of Paul’s experience still lingered on, perhaps because he wanted to focus the readers on the results expressed in the next clause, “so that we might not trust in ourselves.” “Sentence” is apokrima, which properly refers to “an official judicial sentence,” and then “an answer, reply.”4 But the apostle literally says, “in ourselves, we had the sentence of death.” This reference to having the sentence of death in ourselves suggests a subjective experience.
It was not so much a verdict pronounced by some external authority, but rather a perception in the heart and mind of the apostle himself. It follows then that apokrima was probably not a sentence of death pronounced by some magistrate. It was more likely either the verdict passed by his own mind perceiving the dire straits in which he found himself, …5
Thus, we turn to the viewpoint we all need, which was God’s design in this entire episode in Paul’s life.
so that we would not trust in ourselves but in God who raises the dead, who delivered us from so great a risk of death and will deliver us. We have set our hope on him that he will deliver us yet again,
The Greek text reads, “who delivered us from so great a death.” “So great” is telikoutos, “so great, so terrible, so large.” Rather than “risk of death” or “peril of death,” Paul simply says, “so great a death.” There are probably two things in mind here: (1) whatever he faced, it may have been of such a nature that he regarded it as a terrible way to die, and (2) he regarded himself as a dead man with no way of escape, humanly speaking, because it was so bad that deliverance required nothing less than an act of God who raises the dead. The effect of this was to drive home the need to never trust in himself, but in God. If God can raise the dead, can He not also deliver us from the gates of death? As with Abraham, may we always remember that God is the one who (1) gives life to the dead and (2) brings the non-existent into existence (cf. Rom. 4:17).
“We have set our hope on him that he will deliver us yet again” sets forth a further result and the positive side of what the apostle learned and experienced. This describes the apostle’s perspective of life, “to live with his hope firmly fixed on God alone as his deliverer.” The words, “have set our hope,” again represent the perfect tense in the Greek, which here looks at the results of a past event. In this context, the perfect looks at the apostle’s present state of mind. This was the result, however, of the past experience he is describing—the so great a death followed by God’s deliverance. Thus, “that he will deliver us yet again as you also join in helping us by prayer” states the apostle’s confidence. As long as the Lord continues to have a purpose for our lives, He will deliver us. In fact, all deliverances come from the Lord whether we realize it or not (Ps. 68:19-20). Our hope, then, must be fixed on Him. Paul’s confidence here is somewhat similar to that expressed in Philippians 1:19-24.
While the Bible reveals a number of purposes for suffering, the apostle highlights three purposes in 2 Corinthians 1:3-11:
1. One purpose for suffering or affliction was expressed in verse 4, “that we might be able to comfort those who are in affliction.”
2. A second is seen in verse 11, “that many will give thanks to God.”
3. Now with verse 9, we see a third—“that we would not trust in ourselves, but in God who raises the dead.”
To trust in God alone is the truth that the Psalmist also applied to his own life and circumstances in Psalm 62:1-2 and 5-8.
For God alone I patiently wait; he is the one who delivers me. He alone is my protector and deliverer. He is my refuge; I will not be upended.
Patiently wait for God alone, my soul! For he is the one who gives me confidence. He alone is my protector and deliverer. He is my refuge; I will not be upended. God delivers me and exalts me; God is my strong protector and my shelter. Trust in him at all times, you people! Pour out your hearts before him! God is our shelter! (Selah)
One of the most natural things people tend to do is to turn to their own resources and solutions. The Bible highlights this tendency through a number of images like (1) leaning on the arm of the flesh (Jer. 17:5), or (2) lighting our own firebrands to find our way (Isa. 50:11a), or (3) digging out cisterns for ourselves (Jer. 2:13). Of course, each of these passages also highlights the negatives of turning to our own resources. “Leaning on the arm of the flesh” results in becoming like an unfruitful shrub in the desert rather than a fruitful tree with its roots spread by a stream (cf. Jer. 17:6 with vs. 8). “Lighting our own firebrands” ultimately leads to stumbling in the dark and lying down in torment (cf. Isa. 50:11b), and “digging our own cisterns” leads to attempting to get water out of broken cisterns that hold no water, which, of course, is futile (Jer. 2:13).
Thus, there is in all of us that constant tendency to trust in our own resources and solutions when looking for an answer to whatever problems we face, but such is not the way we are to live the Christian life. As bondservants of Christ, we need to learn to live in total dependence on Him. Certainly, God intends for us to use our God given abilities and to look for legitimate answers to a problem of suffering. For instance, if you get a in your eye, you naturally try to flush it out with water, but we need to remember that a grain of sand may also be used to make a pearl. If a Mack truck is zooming in on me, I have the responsibility to try to get out of the way while crying out for God’s help. I don’t just stand there and expect God to miraculously move me or zap me to the side of the road. Naturally, He could do that, but that’s not the normal way He works. It is never wrong to go to a physician, or to improve our diet, or use supplements to help our bodies function better. God has designed our bodies to function best when we follow certain principles of good health. But following such principles, though not wrong in themselves, can reveal a sinful mindset if we do them while depending primarily on the medical profession and man’s remedies rather than on the Lord (cf. 2 Chron. 16:12). The Lord must be our first and primary hope. When one digs his own cistern for water, it’s because he has first “left or forsaken the Lord” (cf. Jer. 2:13a). And one leans on the arm of the flesh because his heart has turned away from the Lord (Jer. 17:5b). Likewise, lighting one’s own firebrand to light his path stems from failing to rely on his God (Isa. 50:10). I am presently undergoing chemo and using a very powerful immune system builder with other supplements, but I am convinced that unless the Lord is at work in all of these things, I will not get well no matter what I do.
No one ever prayed for the Lord’s guidance and researched the options for dealing with multiple myeloma (traditional and alternative therapies) better than my dear Kathie. And no one ever rested it all on the Lord, and with that in mind, was as dedicated to doing what we believed was the best approach to her sickness than Kathie. One dear Christian doctor told us that he had never known anyone who followed the therapy for her treatment (mostly alternative solutions) in a more dedicated manner than Kathie. But let me quickly add that her primary trust was in the Lord, not in the therapies. No one ever rested her life in God’s hands more than Kathie. One of her favorite Psalms, and one she had committed to memory, was Psalm 62 quoted above. On a number of occasions we would lie in bed at night, either before or after praying, and she would quote various Psalms out loud for us, and one of these was Psalm 62. However, in God’s eternal and infinite wisdom, He chose to call her home in spite of all that we did, in spite of the prayers of many, and in spite of my pleadings before the throne of grace.
So what should we do when faced with a deadly affliction? With the Lord as the center of our focus and the prime object of our faith, we should prayerfully investigate our options and what our human responsibilities might be, and then, resting everything in God’s hands with our hope fixed on Him, we are to follow through on our responsibilities or our part in the process. In my case, that includes such things as (1) prayerfully and continually committing my condition and life to the Lord as His servant, (2) seeking His guidance regarding treatment, (3) requesting the prayer support of believers, (4) seeing a doctor or doctors to get their recommended treatment, (5) eating right, taking medication and supplements, and (6) doing whatever else I believe God is leading me to do. But regardless, I must always remember that:
Blessed be the Lord, who daily bears our burden, The God who is our salvation. Selah. God is to us a God of deliverances; And to God the Lord belong escapes from death (Ps. 68:19-20, NASB).
For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, regarding the affliction that happened to us in Asia, . . . We have set our hope on him that he will deliver us yet again, as you also join in helping us by prayer, so that many people may give thanks to God on our behalf for the gracious gift given to us through the help of many. (emphasis mine)
As previously discussed regarding the plural “we,” it is possible that the apostle is speaking about his own experience, or about an experience that he and Timothy experienced together. Regardless, the apostle clearly saw the need for the Corinthian believers to be informed about the gravity of the affliction that he, or he and Timothy experienced in Asia, and to understand the lessons that he learned from this experience. The principle is this: we simply cannot help one another or work with God in His purposes through prayer if we are kept in the dark or if we keep others in the dark regarding needs, lessons learned, and answers to prayer. Keeping others informed is part of the process of learning to comfort one another with the comfort that we ourselves have received from the God of all comfort.
When the apostle wrote, “. . . We have set our hope on him that he will deliver us yet again, as you also join in helping us by prayer,” he chose a very picturesque and expressive verb to portray the nature of their prayers on his behalf. It’s the verb sunupourgeo, “to join in helping, to cooperate by means of something,” or “to work together to support, to undergird someone.” (emphasis mine) The means by which they could and did give the support that would lead to his deliverance was “by prayer.” What an amazing truth that God, the sovereign Creator and Deliverer, has chosen to use our prayers to accomplish His purposes. This is a mystery, but nevertheless a vital truth of the Scripture.
This section is titled, The Vanguard of Prayer: Helping One Another Through Prayer. So what is a vanguard? A vanguard is the foremost position in an army or a fleet as it advances into battle. We might compare it to the solid front or phalanx described by Paul in Col. 2:5. The word that is translated firmness is stereoma, which means a solid bulwark, an immovable phalanx. It describes an army set out in an unbreakable square, solid and immovable against the shock of an enemy’s charge. Within the Church there should be disciplined order and strong steadiness, like the order and steadiness of a trained and disciplined body of troops who step forward like a vanguard or phalanx. It is clear that the apostle strongly believed in the prayer of the saints and shows us in this passage of 2 Corinthians that the prayer of the saints is a vital element in overcoming the forces of Satan and his world system that are marshaled against us. In this we see the tactical genius of God’s truth and provision for us in Christ. Our prayers for one another can be likened to the solid phalanx used by Alexander the Great in ancient times to defeat the forces marshaled against his troops.
Alexander’s conquest of the entire Near and Middle East within three years stands unique in military history and is appropriately portrayed by the lightning speed of this one-horned goat. Despite the immense numerical superiority of the Persian imperial forces and their possession of military equipment like war elephants, the tactical genius of young Alexander, with his disciplined Macedonian phalanx, proved decisive.6
Simply put, in His sovereign plan, God has chosen to use our prayers to accomplish His purposes. He wants us to be undergirding others in prayer: (1) that they might experience God’s comfort and encouragement, (2) that they might endure joyfully with thanksgiving, (3) that they might be delivered, naturally in keeping with His will, and (4) that God might be glorified through praise as it is offered to Him for answered prayer.
In view of this, the apostle does not want the Corinthians to be uninformed about his situation—his need and the way God had answered their prayers. One of the great ministries we can all have as believer-priests is the ministry of intercessory prayer for others, especially for those in the body of Christ, and I so appreciate those faithful believers who prayed for my dear Kathie and who have continued to pray for me. But for this to take place effectively, it is important for us to share our needs with others as well as God’s answers to their prayers and ours. Knowing that God has chosen to use our prayers as part of His means to accomplish His purposes is not only motivational, but this teaches us that we become helpers together with one another and with God in His plans for His people. Paul’s tremendous confidence in the intercessory prayers of believers is also seen in Romans 15:30-31, Philippians 1:19, and Colossians 4:12.
so that many people may give thanks to God on our behalf for the gracious gift given to us through the help of many.
We dare not miss this beautiful virtue that God wants to establish in each of us. Seeing God’s answers to prayer naturally leads to thanksgiving and praise to God for answered prayer, which constitutes another reason for suffering—praising and giving thanks to God, which brings Him glory. Please note that in the Greek text, this element of praise is very vivid in the words, “so that many people may give thanks to God.” The Greek text reads, “in order that from many faces (perhaps portraying many persons with their faces lifted upward to God in prayer) much thanksgiving will be made to God on our behalf for the gracious gift given to us.” In his Word Pictures of the New Testament, A. T. Robertson writes:
Prosopon means face The word is common in all Greek. The papyri used it for face, appearance, person. It occurs twelve times in II Corinthians. It certainly means face in eight of them (3:7, 13, 18; 8:24; 10:1, 7; 11:20). In 5:12 it means outward appearance. It may mean face or person here, 2:10; 4:6. It is more pictorial to take it here as face “that out of many upturned faces” thanks may be given …for the gift to us by means of many.7
The gracious gift is undoubtedly the deliverance or the preservation of Paul’s life with the privilege of continued ministry as God’s servant in the cause of Christ (cf. Phil. 1:21-24). Of course, God does not always answer our prayers as we expect. In His infinite wisdom, sometimes His answer is to deny our request, sometimes it is to delay the answer, and sometimes His answer is disguised in a way that we cannot understand or discern at the present time. God is not only the Sovereign one who sits in the heavens doing what He deems fit (Ps. 103:19; 115:3), but He is also at work in ways beyond our comprehension, and we must, like Daniel’s three friends, entrust our lives to God’s infinite wisdom and purposes regardless of the consequences to us. Remember, we walk by faith, not by sight (2 Cor. 5:87. Our prayers may not lead to the kind of deliverance we might hope and pray for, but, knowing the nature and character of our God, we must learn to rest in God’s infinite wisdom, goodness, and love. In Daniel 3:13ff we have the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego who refused to worship the statue of Nebuchadnezzar. For their refusal, they were thrown into the fiery furnace, but regardless of what they faced, they made no conditions with the Lord. They were totally committed to Him regardless of the outcome. Their response to the earthly monarch’s threat is tremendously instructive. Nebuchadnezzar said to them:
If you don’t worship it (the statue), you will immediately be thrown into the middle of the furnace of blazing fire. Now, who is that god who can rescue you from my power?” (Dan. 3:15b)
But these Godly men of faith replied:
“We do not need to give you a reply concerning this. If our God whom we are serving exists, he is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire, and he will deliver us, O king, from your power as well. But if not, let it be known to you, O king, that we don’t serve your gods, and we will not worship the golden statue that you have erected.” (Dan. 3:16-17).
They knew that with God all things are possible, or to put it in the negative, there is nothing impossible for God. Thus, their deliverance was no problem for Him, but they also knew that deliverance or death were equally possible in God’s sovereign plan, a plan that always operates according to His infinite wisdom and purpose.
So what can we know and rest in? We can know that God is good, infinitely wise, and all-powerful, and that, in keeping with His wisdom and purposes, the plans He has for us are plans for welfare and not for calamity or evil, but to give us a future and a hope (cf. Jer. 29:11). And this is equally as true in our trials and painful situations of life as it was for Israel when she was facing seventy years of deportation into Babylon. To the nation, deportation to Babylon was terrible, but it was vital to God’s plan for them to remove their idolatrous ways from their hearts. So we also can know that the trials of life have their beneficial purposes and are equally important to our future and growth.
We can also know that until our purpose on earth is done, God will deliver us, but we cannot know when He will be done with us, or when He will be ready to call us home. When my dear wife’s kidney failure reached a certain point, the doctor told us that she had no more than four to six weeks to live, at the most. He was wrong. Before the Lord called her into glory, He gave her a full six months of quality life with her family along with a vital witness to her faith in the Lord Jesus. Her testimony reverberated around the world through her e-mail messages and through the testimony she wrote that is now posted on the Biblical Studies Foundation web site, “Calm Amidst the Storm” (/docs/splife/storm.htm). The hospice nurses that cared for her the last six months stood absolutely amazed at her joy, her continued sense of humor, and peace right down to the last, to the night she went into a coma. One of them, the main nurse who cared for Kathie, told another hospice nurse, a good friend of my daughter, that she had never witnessed anyone face death with the degree of calm and peace like our precious Kathie. She was not only a continual witness on how to live the Christian life in every sphere, but she also taught us how to die.
The apostle Paul was obviously a man of tremendous faith and commitment, and yet, through this experience, even the apostle learned a great lesson that we too must come to embrace with all our hearts. The lesson is simply this:
In the apostle’s estimation, what he faced was nothing less than a sentence unto death from which there was no possible escape, humanly speaking. But from this despairing experience, one that he viewed as a sentence to death, the apostle learned another lesson and developed a perspective that was, in many ways, equivalent to resurrection. It was only God’s intervention that snatched him from the gates of death and brought him back to the realm of the living. The divinely designed effect was to undermine his self-confidence (cf. 2 Cor. 12:9, 10) and bring him to the place of utter dependence and trust in God alone not matter what. Why? Because from God, the sovereign Lord, comes escape from death. He is the God of resurrection, and if He can raise the dead (and He can), then He can rescue the dying from the grip of death. Speaking about his co-worker, Epaphroditus, Paul writes:
Indeed, he greatly missed all of you and was distressed because you heard that he had been ill. In fact he became so ill that he nearly died. But God showed mercy to him—and not to him only, but also to me—so that I would not have grief on top of grief. Therefore I am all the more eager to send him, so that when you see him again you can rejoice and I can be free from anxiety. So welcome him in the Lord with great joy, and honor people like him, since it was because of the work of Christ that he almost died. He risked his life so that he could make up for your inability to serve me (Phil. 2:27-30). (emphasis mine)
But sometimes God does not deliver us from death’s door, as was the case with my dear wife. Indeed, unless the Lord returns in our lifetime, we must all face death eventually. There will come a time when it is His will to call us on home to be with Him, and we will face the journey home, but not alone. Perhaps because of the direct revelation Paul received from the Lord, he seemed to know when he wrote from his Roman imprisonment to the Philippians that his time and ministry on earth was not up, and that he would be released. By contrast, I do not know if the Lord is going to deliver me from this disease, or whether I’ll have another six months or six years, but I can know that He cares, and that vital to my deliverance, as with all of us as Christians, are the prayers of other believers who undergird and help by means of their prayers.
For the Christian, the one who has believed in the person and work of Christ as his or her Savior, death means being ushered directly into the presence of the Lord Jesus. To die is gain; it is to be with Christ, which is far better than life on this earth (Phil. 1:21-23). So it is not death that we fear; it is the process of dying that can cause us fear because of the pain and misery that can accompany the dying process in some forms of terminal disease. But even in this, we must count on the fact that He will never leave us or forsake us. Thus, no matter what we face in the path of life, our Lord is more than adequate to meet our need and give us strength to endure. As with all of life, so we must rest this issue in God’s hands as well. As David prayed to the Lord, “When I am afraid, I will trust in You” (Ps. 56:3). We must remember, we can find God’s comfort and strength in “all our affliction.” (emphasis mine) Again, this excludes nothing. As the God of all comfort, He is there for us in spite of what may we face. None of our trials are uncommon to man (1 Cor. 10:13), and certainly none are bigger than our God and beyond His power and wisdom, His grace and mercy, and His steadfast love and goodness.
Consider the work of God: For who can make straight what he has made crooked? In times of prosperity be joyful, but in times of adversity consider this: God has made one as well as the other, so that no one can discover what will happen in the future (Eccl. 7:13-14).
What is suffering? What are these bends in the road that God puts in the path of life that we are to carefully consider? Simply stated, suffering is anything that hurts or irritates. In the design of God, however, it is something that also makes us think. Why? Because, as James 1:2-4 and 1 Peter 1:6-9 teach us, suffering is a necessary tool that God uses to get our attention and to mature us so that He can accomplish His purposes in our lives in a way that would never occur without the trial or cause of suffering.
In this regard, in his study on 2 Corinthians, my good friend Bob Deffinbaugh writes:
Several years ago, I heard J. Oswald Sanders speak on the subject of spiritual leadership. It was an excellent word given by an elder statesman of the faith. He summed up his teaching on the subject with three words, each beginning with an “s.” The first word was “sovereignty”: God sovereignly raises up those whom He has chosen to lead. The second was “servanthood”: Those who would be spiritual leaders are those who understand and practice servanthood. The third “s” was “suffering”: Suffering is the tool which God employs in the life of the Christian to make him a leader.8
People approach the issue of suffering in some very different ways. Some approach the issue of suffering in a way that attacks the character and nature of God. They maintain that either God is too weak to stop our suffering, or that He doesn’t care. This approach attacks God’s essence—His power and goodness. Such an approach completely ignores or rejects the clear teaching of Scripture regarding the sovereignty, omnipotence, and goodness of God. Then there are those who, like Job’s friends, see suffering as caused by some sin or failure in a person’s life. For these people, suffering is always a form of discipline. This belief is often associated with a prosperity kind of gospel that teaches God wants you healthy and wealthy, and if you will just follow this or that formula, you will be prospered. This, of course, flies directly in the face of the many afflictions found in the lives of the saints of the Bible (cf. Heb. 11; 2 Cor. 4:8-11; 6:4-5). “This tragic error brings accusations and guilt upon the sufferer at the very time he or she most needs comfort and compassion.”9 Finally, there is the biblical approach to suffering that corrects our thinking and that recognizes there are a number of reasons for the problem of suffering. Regardless of how some may approach the matter of suffering, the fact remains that the Bible teaches a number of general reasons for suffering.
First, we suffer because we live in a fallen and sinful world that often groans in pain because of Adam’s fall as recorded in Genesis. The fall has affected even creation, is the source of man’s sin and rebellion against God, and is related to the presence and activity of Satan who hates man and seeks his harm.
For I consider that our present sufferings cannot even be compared to the glory that will be revealed to us. For the creation eagerly waits for the revelation of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility—not willingly but because of God23 who subjected it—in hope that the creation itself will also be set free from the bondage of decay into the glorious freedom of God’s children. For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers together until now (Rom. 8:18-22).
Second, it is true that some of our suffering is the product of our own ignorance, lack of self-control, and foolishness. Suffering can be nothing more than self-induced misery. We reap what we sow. When we sow to the flesh, we reap of the flesh (Gal. 6:7-9), but such is not the source of all our suffering.
Third, Christians may sometimes suffer because it is God's discipline to train and mature us in Christ. "For the Lord disciplines the one he loves and chastises every son he accepts but he does so for our benefit, that we may share his holiness. Now all discipline seems painful at the time, not joyful. But later it produces the fruit of peace and righteousness for those trained by it." (Heb. 12:6, 10b-11).
Fourth, Christians and others may suffer because of persecution for their faith. This is especially true when they take a stand on the things they believe when these run contrary to the beliefs of the society or culture. For Christians, it often occurs when they take a stand for biblical principles, i.e., suffering for righteousness sake (2 Tim. 3:12). We have seen this kind of persecution against the saints all over the world, and it is rampant against many Christians in many places today.
But beyond these general reasons, there are a number of specific reasons why Christians suffer.
First, sometimes God allows us to suffer to enhance our testimony or witness. This includes the following areas: (a) we may suffer to glorify God before men and even the angels who are intensely interested in what God is doing in the church, the body of Christ (Job 1-2; 1 Pet. 1:12; 4:16; Eph. 3:10); (b) we may suffer to manifest the power of God to others (2 Cor. 12:9, 10; John 9:3), or to manifest the Character of Christ in the midst of suffering as a testimony to win others to Christ (2 Cor. 4:8-12; 1 Pet. 3:14-17); (c) we may suffer so that praise and thanksgiving may be given to God for the Christ-like character manifested in the life of the sufferer, or for the deliverance God may give as mentioned in 2 Corinthians 1:11.
Second, we may suffer to develop our capacity and sympathy in comforting others (2 Cor. 1:3-5).
Fourth, we may suffer to keep down pride (2 Cor. 12:7). The Apostle saw his thorn in the flesh as an instrument allowed by the Lord to maintain a spirit of humility and dependence on the Lord because of the special revelations he had been given as one who had been caught up to the third heaven.
Fifth, we may experience suffering as a training tool that God lovingly and faithfully uses to develop personal righteousness, maturity, and our walk with the Lord (Heb. 12:5f; 1 Pet. 1:6; Jam. 1:2-4). This includes the following areas. In this sense, suffering may be designed:
(a) As discipline for sin to restore us to fellowship through genuine confession (Ps. 32:3-5; 119:67).
(b) As a pruning tool to remove dead wood or unsightly areas in one’s life (weaknesses, sins of ignorance, immature attitudes and values, etc.), and, as a result, to increase one’s fruitfulness (John 15:1f). Trials may become mirrors of reproof to reveal blind spots in our lives (Ps. 16:7; 119:67, 71).
(c) As a tool for growth designed to cause us to rely on the Lord and His Word; trials test our faith and cause us to use the promises and principles of the Word (Ps. 119:71, 92; 1 Pet. 1:6; Jam. 1:2-4; Ps. 4:1 [The Hebrew of this passage can mean, "You have enlarged, or made me grow wide by my distress]). Suffering or trials teach us the truth of Psalms 62:1-8, the truth of learning to "wait on the Lord only."
(d) As a means of learning what obedience really means. A trial may become a test of our loyalty, etc. (Heb. 5:8). Illustration: If a father tells his son to eat ice cream, and if he loves ice cream, he has obeyed, but he hasn't really learned anything about obedience. But if his dad tells him to eat squash or mow the lawn, that becomes a greater test which teaches something about the meaning of obedience. Point: Obedience often costs us something and is hard. It requires sacrifices, courage, discipline, and faith in the belief that God is good and has our best interests at heart regardless of how things appear to us.
Sixth, sometimes God uses suffering to manifest the evil nature of evil men and the righteousness of the justice of God when it falls (1 Thess. 2:14-16).
My good friend, Bob Deffinbaugh, was kind enough to read this manuscript for me, and he reminded of two more very important reasons.
Seventh, as Bob pointed out, “suffering makes us discontent with this world, and hungry for heaven (2 Corinthians 4-5; Romans 8:18-25).” I am reminded of the old hymn, “this world is not my home; I’m just a passing through,” but our tendency is to try to make this world our home and our heaven. As Christians, we are to live as aliens and sojourners (1 Pet. 1:17-21; 2:11). As our loving heavenly Father, God will often use suffering to help us keep our bearing.
Regardless of the reason or reasons God allows suffering into one's life, rarely does it not also reveal areas of need, weaknesses, wrong attitudes, and a wrong focus, etc., as it did in the life of Job (cf. Job 38:1-42:6.
Suffering is Painful: it is hard and never easy. Regardless of what we know and how hard we apply the principles of God’s truth, suffering is going to hurt (cf. 1 Pet. 1:6--"distressed" is lupeo, "to cause pain, sorrow, grief").
Suffering is Perplexing and somewhat mysterious: We may know some of the theological reasons about suffering from Scripture, yet when it hits, there is still a certain mystery. Why now? Why me? What is God doing? In this, it is designed to build our trust in the Almighty.
Suffering is Purposeful: it is not without meaning in spite of its mystery. It has as one of its chief purposes the formation of Christian character (Rom. 8:28-29).
Suffering is a Test: "Trials" in James 1:2 is the Greek peirasmos, which refers to that which “examines, tests, and proves the character, or integrity of something.” "Testing" in this verse is dokimion, which has a similar idea. It refers to a test designed to prove or approve. Suffering is that which proves one's character and integrity along with both the object and quality of one's faith (cf. 1 Pet. 1:6-7 where the same Greek words are used along with the verb dokimazo, which means, "put to the test, prove by testing as with gold").
Suffering is a Process: "We know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, proven character; …" (Rom 5:3-4). "Knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, that you may be perfect (mature) and complete, lacking in nothing" (Jam. 1:3-4). As a process, suffering takes time. The result God seeks to accomplish with the trials of life requires time and that requires endurance. As believers, we want the product, changed character, but want to avoid the painful process. As they say, “no pain, no gain.” But because of our make up and spiritual needs as human beings, we can't have one without the other.
Suffering is a Purifier, a Cleanser: No matter what the reason, even if it is not God's discipline for blatant carnality, it is a purifier, for none of us will ever be perfect in this life. There is always room for growth (Phil. 3:12-14).
Suffering Provides Opportunities: It provides opportunities for God's glory, our transformation, testimony, and ministry, etc.
Suffering Requires Our Submission and Cooperation: It requires the right response if it is to be successful in accomplishing God's purposes. It’s easy to want the product, transformed character; but being willing to live through the process, suffering, is another story.
1 Thessalonians 3:3 so that no man may be disturbed by these afflictions; for you yourselves know that we have been destined for this. (NASB)
1 Peter 4:19 Therefore, let those also who suffer according to the will of God entrust their souls to a faithful Creator in doing what is right. (NASB)
The question we must each face is not, "if I am going to have trials in life," but "how am I going to respond to the trials God allows in my life?"
1 Cleon L. Rogers Jr. & Cleon L. Rogers III, The New Linguistic and Exegetical Key to the Greek New Testament (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1998), 392.
2 J. H. Bernard, The Expositor’s Greek Testament, Vol. III, ed. W. Robertson Nicoll (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rabids, Michigan,), 40.
3 Bernard, 40.
4 G. Abbott-Smith, A Manual Greek Lexicon of the New Testament (T. & T. Clark, Edinburgh, 1973), 51.
5 Colin Kruse, The Second Epistle of Paul To The Corinthians, An Introduction and Commentary, ed. Leon Morris, The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, 1987), 65.
6 The Expositor's Bible Commentary, OT, gen. ed. Frank E. Gaebelein (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1976-1992), electronic media.
7 A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, Vol. 4, Epistles of Paul, electronic media.
8 Robert L. Deffinbaugh, Religious Affections: A Study of Paul’s 2 Corinthian Correspondence (Biblical Studies Press, 1998), 2.
9 Deffinbaugh, 3.