Imagine getting an email from a friend saying something like this, “We’ve gone through some incredibly hard times lately. It has been so utterly and unbearably crushing that we despaired of life itself. Sometimes we truly thought death was just around the corner.”
Now imagine this was from your pastor or a pioneering missionary whom you respect. How about the mighty apostle Paul? Have you considered this side of him? Not the daring and brilliant trailblazer but the vulnerable and discouraged man.
If your efforts in ministry or the love and tears you pour out as a parent or grandparent seem to be in vain, you will find company in Paul. The one who spoke of confidence, hope and boldness in Christ also experienced frustration, anxiety and the haunting fear that all his labor would be for nothing. Paul understood his calling to be a great privilege, but at one point the difficulties and setbacks in ministry drove him to despair. What was going on in Paul’s life and ministry when he told the Corinthian church that he had despaired of life itself because of the afflictions he had suffered in Asia (2 Cor. 1:8-9)?
Trouble in Asia
The Spirit had ministered powerfully through Paul in the Asian city of Ephesus, pushing back the forces of darkness through the good news of Jesus. Miraculous healings took place, magicians burned their books and even evil spirits acknowledged Paul (Acts 19:11-20). When he sent his first letter to the church in Corinth, he told them he planned to stay in Ephesus till Pentecost, for he had an open door for ministry, along with many adversaries (1 Corinthians 16:5-9).
Between this letter and the one we know as 2 Corinthians, Paul made a painful visit to Corinth and wrote a distressed and anguished follow-up letter (2 Cor. 1:23-2:4). These were the people he had brought to Christ! With his leadership challenged and evident unrepentant sin in the church, he must have wrestled with the question of where it all went wrong. Adding to this struggle, he also suffered an unbearable affliction in the province of Asia (2 Cor. 1:8).
We don’t know exactly what this crushing affliction was. N.T. Wright, in his recent biography Paul, suggests that Paul entered a dark time as the evil forces that had been challenged rose up against him and the Way. Demetrius, the silversmith, stirred up a riot (Acts 19) that Wright contends led to betrayal and imprisonment in Ephesus. Paul himself does not give us the details, but it may have been an imprisonment like this, a mob attack, a severe flogging, fighting the wild beasts at Ephesus (1 Corinthians 15:32—literal or figurative) or some other persecution.
This physical suffering, combined with the emotional weight of his anxiety for the churches, may have triggered the despair. How did he survive this crisis of faith, and what insight can we gain to keep us going in the face of discouragement?
Paul’s outward reality was difficult, and he faced the same disconcerting emotions that many of us do as we deal with life and ministry. He describes his experience with terms like perplexed, unbearably crushed, despairing of life, distress and anguish, disputes without and fears within, the daily pressure of his anxiety for the churches and his fear of being disappointed by the Corinthians’ sinful immaturity (2 Cor. 1:8-9, 2:4, 4:8-9, 7:5, 11:28, 12:20-21).
However, another thread runs through this letter, speaking of God’s consolation, confidence through Christ, hope, great boldness, not losing heart, great pride in the Corinthians and joyful contentment in weakness (2 Cor. 1:3-4, 3:4, 3:12, 4:1, 7:4, 12:9-10).
Sources of courage
Reading Paul’s letter, we see at least four reasons for the courage that rises from the ash heap of discouragement. First, Paul reflects on the new covenant brought about through the ministry of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. This covenant brings righteousness and a lasting glory, and the certainty of this hope empowers him to act boldly (2 Cor. 3:4-12).
Paul also remembers that God in his mercy has called him to this ministry. If it had been his own idea, he might have concluded that this was a big mistake, but knowing he’s a partner in God’s ministry, he carries on in faith and love (2 Cor. 4:1, 5:14, 18-6:1). When the task before you seems arduous, remember God’s mercy in inviting you into his work. Why carry on? Love and obedience.
With his calling confirmed, Paul resists Satan’s designs. He is aware of the schemer and is determined not to be outwitted. How often do we get discouraged and think we’re just dealing with our human weakness? Are we alert to the enemy’s attempts to disable us? Do we intentionally take every thought captive? Paul knows that the real enemies are not the people who disappoint, discourage or openly oppose us but spiritual forces of evil. Therefore, he takes up weapons for this battle that have divine power to destroy arguments and obstacles raised up against Christ (Eph. 6:12-13; 2 Cor. 2:11, 10:3-5, 11:13-15).
Through it all, Paul relies on God who raises the dead. God’s incomparable power is available to us now, for the resurrected and ascended Lord Jesus exercises authority over all spiritual powers for the sake of the church. Personally, we are assured that God’s transforming work is already underway as we look to the future and an eternal glory that far outweighs any suffering (Eph. 1:19-23; 2 Cor. 1:9-10, 3:18, 4:14-17).
If you’re feeling that all has been in vain, take courage. Reflect on the ministry that brings righteousness and lasting glory, remembering that in God’s mercy, he has invited you to partner with him in this ministry. Rely on the resurrection power of God, resisting the enemy’s attempts to remove you from the game through suffering or discouragement.
Like Paul, we can live in apparent weakness without giving up. Christ’s victory will be worked out in our lives through cross-shaped discipleship. What looks like weakness is the opportunity for God’s power to be perfected in us.
As Paul says, “We have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body” (2 Cor. 4:7-10). The sacrificial love of the crucified and risen Messiah motivates us to selfless, long-suffering love for those we serve (2 Cor. 5:13-15).
When discouragement dogs you, take up a cross-shaped courage and serve on. “Since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart. . . For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ” (2 Cor. 4:1, 5).
This article was first published in The Recorder, the Evangelical Mennonite Mission Conference magazine, and is reprinted with permission.