It’s the first sign of pandemic relief. All of the sudden, hospital discharges are greater than the number being admitted. Two states appear to be “reopening”, whatever that may mean. Soon one question will occupy our minds, like a raging hunger that demands satisfaction. What hope can we have to recover from the monumental effects of the pandemic?
I’m not talking about economics or unemployment, though I know those issues are mind-numbingly serious. But true hope can’t be rooted in something so fragile. It must be anchored in the character and purposes of God. Which delivers me to 2 Corinthians 1:8–9,
For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.
This passage describes one of the darkest moments in Paul’s life. Christian mystics talk about the dark night of the soul, but this was something much worse. It’s one thing to be weak, but Paul was “utterly burdened beyond strength.” It’s one thing to be discouraged, but he “despaired of life itself.” It’s one thing to feel like you’re fighting for hope, but the great apostle felt like he had “received the sentence of death”.
Yet Paul’s not looking to elicit sympathy. No, he shares this story to convey a secret about how God produces what we need to persevere. Paul wants us to understand why we can trust God for resilience, even beyond the costliest seasons of suffering. Even when coming out of a tragic pandemic. Paul, in fact, offers two markers along the forward path – a way we walk and then a way God works.
Our way – Facing The Pain
Paul’s words feel pretty raw. In verse 10, he describes his affliction as a “deadly peril.” Was this rejection, persecution, sickness, or maybe pestilence? We don’t know. The precise cause is withheld from the reader. It’s almost like God doesn’t want the specifics of Paul’s situation to mute this passage for us. No one is exempt. We can all map this on to our life.
We don’t know precise cause of Paul’s affliction, but what we do know is pretty shocking. The affliction created a burden so heavy that it was “beyond (Paul’s) strength to bear”—so heavy that he “despaired of life itself”. Paul was crushed—with no strength—and despairing—without hope.
This is where, as readers of scripture, we need to slow down and peer closely at the wreckage Paul is describing. Here he’s actually relaying an experience of incomprehensible weakness. The word-picture Paul uses is one of carrying a heavy burden. But it’s beyond his strength to bear. Just listen to how Paul described his feelings. He despaired of life. This term for “despair” implies the unavailability of an exit or way of escape. Think of a one-way mission where there was no clear hope for survival. Paul felt like he was on an assignment where he “received the sentence of death”.
Let’s talk Downton Abbey, the popular BBC period piece that has afflicted husbands and fathers everywhere. At one point in the series, a stunning plot twist occurs around one of the main characters, the valet John Bates. Bates, though innocent, was convicted of killing his first wife. But there’s this dramatic moment where Bates stands in the dock and the jury returns with a guilty verdict. The judge then pronounces the sentence. “John Bates, you have been found guilty of willful murder. You will be taken from here to a place of execution where you will be hanged by the neck until you are dead.” Everyone gasps. Bates is struck speechless, and his wife cries out in terror. Because the sentence of death seems so final, so desperate, so hopeless, so forboding.
The sentence of death says it all.
That’s how Paul felt in Asia. Like he had received a sentence of death. But you know what’s funny? We only know about this story because Paul honestly shared it. The fears, feelings, and frailty—in all of their naked glory, are on display for one reason: Paul faced it. Courageously. Transparently. Truthfully.
As I thought about the passage, I couldn’t help but think that this is exactly where some of us are right now. A small population contracts the virus, but we’re all touched by it. People sheltering, businesses folding, the market tumbling, fear abounding. When we turn on the TV, the primary message is: This is bad. It has already taken many lives. And many jobs. And your retirement! Like Bates before the judge, many people feel like COVID-19 has delivered a sentence of death on various parts of life.
Is that you right now? Are you in “Asia”—feeling trapped, discouraged, and hopeless? If so, take a moment and reflect on where Paul’s description touches your own emotions during this pandemic. Maybe you’re surprised by Paul’s raw sentiments. Perhaps you never imagined that his afflictions could connect so clearly to your own. Regardless of where you are, follow Paul’s path: Face the pain. It’s where the bounce begins.
God’s work: Filling with Purpose
No, I don’t mean the grand, unifying “aha” meaning behind the whole pandemic. I’m not sure we will ever know that, at least not in this life. But there are explicit reasons for certain seasons of suffering that are made clear in God’s Word. Paul named one from his affliction in Asia. “But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.” (2 Cor. 1:9) Paul is confident that there is One who “makes” something good out of great evil and affliction. His Asia experience triggered a seismic shift in the location of his confidence. God rerouted Paul’s reliance. He went from relying upon himself and his abilities TO relying upon God and what God can do.
When our reliance is rooted in the right place, it helps us run long and strong. To say it more simply, reliance begets resilience.
Now I can just hear what you’re thinking. Wait a minute, are you suggesting God had a purpose in bringing Paul to this place of weakness and despair? Exactly! Why was this intervention so sweeping? Because to God, what we rely upon is serious business!
I don’t think we take reliance as seriously as God does. Sure, we want a reliable car and hope for a reliable job. We seek reliable friends and a reliable church. But God is so serious about reliance that he arranges the worst moments of our lives to produce it. Perhaps we need to think about this a little more. Sometimes we’ll pray, “God, teach me to trust you!” God often answers in unexpected ways, “Okay, get ready for affliction, weaknesses, burdens, despair, or maybe even a pandemic.” He sends those trials in order to cultivate our trust in us. As Sam Storms writes:
There is always design in our distress. God so values our trust in him alone that he will graciously dismantle everything else in the world that we might be tempted to rely on: even life itself, if necessary. His desire is that we grow deeper and stronger in our confidence that he himself is all we need.
And now we come to the nub of it. You can love the Savior and still be “afflicted in Asia”. You can feel sentenced to death, sometimes even despair of life, yet have a Father in heaven. If that’s how your feeling during this pandemic, there is hope. This passage announces a purpose behind our pain. Embedded within the myriad of reasons for suffering, there lies an invitation to trust God, the One who can reach into our darkest moments and supply us with his resurrection power. “God never wastes pain. He always uses it to accomplish His purpose. And His purpose is for His glory and our good.”
Incubating reliance is not just about rescuing us or providing temporary relief. No, our growth in reliance connects us to God’s resurrecting power. “But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. (v. 9b). God is constructing a soul that will faithfully endure because of real reliance upon proven power. Our Savior experienced something worse than a pandemic, then rose triumphant on the third day by the power of God. To persevere beyond this pandemic, we too need a power more potent than pestilence. The kind of power that raises the dead.