God doesn't promise trouble-free living for His children.
Anyone who says He does doesn't know their Bible, and more importantly, doesn't understand God. Trouble, tests, and trials are normal in the Christian life. God uses them to shape us into the people He wants us to be. Contemporary prosperity preachers will tell you how you can escape these things. They provide a "formula" (typically in a book you can purchase) for living with God's favor - which they subtly assert, is a life without trouble and suffering. Just follow their advice, use their principles, and go with their plan and you will experience your best life now. They imply that trouble, tests, and trials are your fault and if you get with it, you can eliminate them. Reminds me of Job's friends. "Job, it must be something you did!"
I love how the Apostle Paul opens his second letter to the Corinthians. After warmly reminding them in vv. 3-7 that God is "the God of all comfort," he shares an experience from his missionary trip to Asia. It starts in II Corinthians 1:8. In just four verses (8-11) he opens the window of his soul, and shares how difficult it has been to serve the Lord.
8 - 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.
9 - 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.
10 - He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again.
11 - You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many.
As I read these verses late tonight, they resonated deeply with the experience Jan and I have had in the past 15 months. They may resonate with you as well. Paul's testimony is not sugar-coated. One of God's strongest voices for spreading the Gospel in the early church admits that affliction nearly did him in. In this episode, Paul shares a perspective that exposes the depth of his pain to help us know what to expect as we serve God.
- Expect Difficulty
Paul didn't want the Corinthians "unaware" of the extreme difficulty he faced in Asia. It was so heavy he was "burdened beyond his (our) strength." Affliction nearly did him in. Someone has to be thinking, "Why would God allow that? Wouldn't you think God would protect his number one guy?" Paul's affliction isn't quantified but we probably don't need it to be, since most of us can relate. Even been in a place where you think, "I can't take this anymore?" (I think I just heard a chorus of Amens!)
Candidly, during the past 15 months, Jan and I have cried out to God repeatedly - "Please Lord, this is too much!" Just over a week ago when I was in the ER ready to have a heart cardioversion because I was in atrial fibrillation for 15 hours, I silently asked God, "How much more do I have to endure?" Many of you know our story so I will spare all the details. But if you know, you know this - the past year and a half has been filled with affliction. It's not your affliction. It's not the affliction of hurricane or earthquake survivors. It's our affliction and the weight of it has burdened us beyond our strength.
2. Admit Despair
I'm so thankful for Paul's self-disclosure in v. 8b. "We despaired of life itself." Paul admits despair. Many of God's servants reach a place of despair. Both biblical servants and well-known servants in church history. Moses hit bottom. So did David. Elijah is legendary for it. Oswald Chambers describes it as a "dark night of the soul." William Cowper (author of "There is a Fountain Filled with Blood") attempted suicide multiple times. Charles Spurgeon expressed the hope that no one would ever experience the depths of despair he did. Waves of despair and depression are not unusual in those God uses greatly.
Paul figured he was going to die - he says it - "we felt we had received the sentence of death." The despair was smothering. It crept up on them. The same guy who is cheered for singing hymns with Silas while in the Philippian jail (Acts 16), was now depressed and figured his life was over.
I know a bit about despair. My physical battles created all kinds of despair. But at a deeper level, the despair related to the loss of my role as pastor is much tougher. Every Saturday in the past year, I felt the waves of despair lapping on my shore. Saturday was normally my final preparation day to preach on Sunday. On Sundays, the despair is full force. After preaching for 40 years, I don't know how to handle the emptiness of no-preaching Sundays. I listen to sermons on TV, podcasts, and sometimes, in person, and most often that makes it worse. Then, on Mondays, the despair blankets my heart as I search for purpose and meaning in the week ahead. Jan and I have talked enough about this for me to know, she feels pretty much the same way.
3. Make a Decision
In the middle of v. 9, Paul inserts the word, "But," and shifts into some insight he's obviously gained through this affliction. He realized that his affliction and accompanying despair forced him into a decision-making mode. He presents two choices in v. 9b: 1) Rely on ourselves. 2) Rely on God who raises the dead.
When you are hit with affliction and descend into despair, you have a choice to make: 1) You can rely on yourself. I've learned that depending on myself to get through the affliction is an exercise in futility. I can't do it. I falter. I freeze up. I fail. I just get caught up in an endless cycle of trying to understand, to figure things out, to make sense of things. Guess what? None of that works. I imagine some of you are relying on yourself to cope with your affliction and despair, as well. Escapism. Self-medication. Suppression. Self-help books. Nothing lasts. You find yourself right back at square one.
I like Paul's second option - 2 )"rely on God who raises the dead." Please don't miss this. I've been living this for over a year. When I turn things over to the Lord, even though the affliction is still there, something amazing happens. I have peace that I didn't have before. I can engage in praise music and truly worship the God who is allowing me to suffer. I can write in our prayer journal and pray for others who are going through their own afflictions. I can get on YouTube and play music videos of the Gaither Vocal Band (may not work for you, but works for me!) and feel the presence of the Lord gently comforting and soothing my soul. Paul is making a point about God - "he raises the dead!" His power transcends anything else we know or experience in our lives. If anyone can address the affliction and accompanying despair in your life, He can!
But you have to decide. No one else will decide for you. Rely on yourself or rely on God! Make the decision!
4. Wait for Deliverance
In v. 10, Paul repeats the word "deliver" three times. Check it out: 1) He delivered us. 2) He will deliver us. 3) He will deliver us again. One of the most glorious truths of the Bible is that God can and will deliver us from affliction. Paul said he did deliver them. He will deliver them. And he had hope that God would deliver them again. I love the flow of this short text. Paul moves from affliction and despair to confidence in the power of God to deliver. The Corinthians needed this message. So do you. So do I.
An old hymn just popped into my head: "He is Able to Deliver Thee." God is able to deliver you from anything you are facing right now. I don't know the IF or the WHEN. But I know the WHO! God is in the deliverance business.
Jan and I have been praying for deliverance. We feel stuck and sidelined. We ask God every day for life direction and ask for guidance to what is next for us. We don't want to sit around in despair. We'd love to be delivered from despair to purpose and fulfillment. With Paul's words as my inspiration, I affirm that I am waiting for God to deliver me. I know He can.
If you are in an affliction right now, I want to encourage you to wait for deliverance. Let me remind you that God is mysterious and sovereign. It probably won't happen when you want it to happen. You may have to wait longer. And "the deliverance" may not look like you were hoping. But do yourself a favor and choose to rely on God and trust that He has a plan for your deliverance. As it says in v. 11, I'm praying for your deliverance, and trusting that you will pray for ours. I can't wait to hear the stories of deliverance God authors in the year ahead.