(Part 4 of a series on God’s comfort in affliction)
For we do not want you to be unaware, brethren, of our affliction which came [to us] in Asia, that we were burdened excessively, beyond our strength, so that we despaired even of life; indeed, we had the sentence of death within ourselves so that we would not trust in ourselves, but in God who raises the dead;
After explaining the relationship between suffering and comfort, Paul had a heartfelt interest that the Corinthians would know what exactly he had been going through in his missionary travels. Paul needs a listening ear here. In other words, “let me tell you how tough things have been lately!”
We do not know from biblical record what Paul refers to here, but we can surmise that it arose in or near Ephesus. He had very likely faced continuing Jewish opposition to the gospel and it made life very difficult.
In these verses, the sense is of a heavy burden, so heavy that Paul repeated in four different ways how hard it was to bear:
- excessively – Here the word for excessively is huperbolē, a very emphatic Greek term that means “superlatively, beyond, measure.” Paul is almost telling us here, “I just couldn’t take it anymore!” You can probably see from the word that we get our English word “hyperbole,” something over the top and extremely magnified.
- beyond our strength – Though we tend to view Paul as the “super apostle,” he was very much human and he had come to the point of not feeling he had the power in and of himself to go on.
- despaired even of life and had the sentence of death – In this sense, Paul’s despair led him to believe he was very likely going to die as a result of this affliction. We would say “at a total loss” and “there’s no way out.”
Photo credit: Adam Howie
Humanly speaking, Paul was exhausted and depleted. He felt despair, no small thing. To feel despair is to feel like giving up, walking away, going and hiding under the bed.When we face difficult times in our lives, we tend to look inward to our own resources, talents, or abilities. Often we reach the point where we feel like we’ve hit a wall and have nothing left.
Paul’s not the only one who has gotten to the point of this kind of despair. David also felt this way: I am reckoned among those who go down to the pit; I have become like a man without strength. [Ps. 88:4 NAS] These two (and many others) are in God’s word for a reason. They’re there for us. Because we get like this, too, in the face of overwhelming situations in life.
Paul stacks up all these descriptive phrases of how he was feeling for a purpose. Even in the midst of his burden, he sees the purpose. I’m not going to say he saw it right away. Maybe he did. Maybe he only got it as he was writing this letter.
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…so that we would not trust in ourselves, but in God who raises the dead;
Paul points out that the horrific struggles – struggles that led him to feel he might literally be at death’s door – are intended to make him depend on God for the strength that he knows surpasses his own. God is looking for a dependent people, not a self-sufficient one.
Second, he trusts God for his resurrection power. Not only does this speak to God’s power in the sense of being able to overcome, but also the literal resurrection. Had the apostle met with his death in Ephesus, he was confident about his future hope.
The knowledge of God’s strength and power brought the apostle great comfort and a right perspective on his difficulties. Whether we understand our own struggles or not, we also can trust God and depend on Him for all things, present and future.