by David M. FreemanIt is a sobering truth: no one can know for certain what they will experience tomorrow, or if they will even live to see tomorrow. While our decisions and plans certainly influence the course of our lives, in the end we have absolutely no control over what a given day will bring. We may expect happiness but meet with sudden sadness. We may expect pain but be surprised by pleasure. Such uncertainty can make life hard to live. Even if we are not given to outright fear of the future, the uncertainty of life may prompt nagging anxiety or subtle feelings of futility.
What is the Christian response to the uncertainties of life? We find an answer in 2 Corinthians 1:7-10.
In this passage, Paul teaches that we must learn to trust in God instead of ourselves. It is true that tomorrow may bring unknown trials, but the same God that delivered us yesterday and is delivering us today will deliver us tomorrow from whatever difficulties we face. Even if the pain we endure claims our lives, the God in whom we trust is able to raise the dead.
The Reality of Pain
Paul begins this passage by asserting his confidence that the saints at Corinth will experience consolation from God in proportion to the pain they experience for the sake of Christ. In other words, if they had greatly suffered, they would be greatly comforted (cf. verse 5). This principle alone ought to inspire great hope as we attempt to live by faith. The more we suffer, the more we will be comforted! We cannot lose - we are more than conquerors! As Paul states later in this letter, “Our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory” (2 Corinthians 4:17).
Paul continues by emphasizing that we do not escape anxiety about the future by denying the reality of pain.
He does not want the Corinthians to be ignorant of the fact that he had suffered greatly while serving Jesus in Asia. Not only does he want them to know that he suffered, but he wants them to know that he suffered greatly. He was in such distress that he despaired of life; he was sure he was going to die. The word “despaired” literally implies the idea of “no exit.” Paul saw no way of escape from the trial he was experiencing. He was pressed under a burden that he could not bear in his own strength.Jesus also warns us against ignoring or minimizing the reality and severity of pain in the Christian life. In Luke 14:26-33, Jesus drives home his point that “whosoever doth not bear his cross, and come after me, cannot be my disciple.” In other words, if we are not willing to suffer and die for Christ, we cannot follow Christ. We must not naively shut our eyes to this fact. Denying the reality of trials will do little to prepare us for trials when they come. Yet acknowledging the prospect of pain can be difficult. It can raise questions that are difficult to answer. “Will I be ostracized by my co-workers if they find out that I am a Christian?” “Will I be called narrow-minded or hateful if I defend the Bible as God’s word?” “What if I lose my job and go to jail because I attend a church that is not sanctioned by the government?” “What if I am killed and my wife and children are excluded from society because I refuse to stop loving Jesus and proclaiming his Gospel?”We may try to dismiss such questions and ignore them as irrelevant to our lives, but these scenarios are being realized in the lives of believers around the world. They may be realized in ours. Indeed, “all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution” (2 Timothy 3:12). This is why Jesus told us to “count the cost” before committing ourselves to his service.
Amidst the many uncertainties of life, the servant of Jesus must ready himself for the trials that are certain to come.
Some trials may bring only temporary discomfort. Others may fundamentally alter or even end our lives.
The Purpose of Pain
After bringing the reality of Christian suffering to the forefront of our minds, Paul proceeds to reveal God’s purpose in allowing his people to experience such pain.
God allowed Paul to pass through severe affliction in order to teach Paul how to trust in God rather than in himself.
Paul says, “We had the sentence of death in ourselves.” The word “sentence” appears nowhere else in the New Testament, and describes an official legal decision. Paul had come to the settled conviction that he was facing death. He did not expect to emerge alive from the trial he was facing. He fully expected to be crushed under the burden he was carrying. This extreme experience opened Paul’s heart to a truth of fundamental importance: we must trust in God rather than in ourselves.Apart from the softening effects of suffering our hearts often remain hardened against this truth. We much prefer to rely on our own strength and live life by our own means. We resemble King Nebuchadnezzar, who looked out on Babylon and proclaimed, “Is not this great Babylon, that I have built for the house of the kingdom by the might of my power, and for the honor of my majesty?” (Daniel 4:30). We want to accomplish impressive feats by our own power, and ultimately for our own honor and majesty.
We may even claim to be serving God, but we cannot be self-reliant if we want our service to be acceptable to God.
“Without faith it is impossible to please him” (Hebrews 11:6). Apart from faith in Jesus we cannot acceptably serve God. Therefore, if our focus is not the glory of God through faith in Jesus Christ, then our focus is our own glory through faith in ourselves. While pain is certainly unpleasant, temporary distress is worthwhile if it leads us to a deeper trust in God. He is the only true God, the only source of true and eternal life. Any trial that teaches us to trust in the sufficiency of his grace (2 Corinthians 12:9) is worth enduring. “It is good for me that I have been afflicted; that I might learn thy statutes” (Psalm 119:71). Note that Paul says he learned to trust in God “which raiseth the dead.” This indicates that Paul was not merely looking for physical deliverance from harm. Paul knew that even if his physical body was destroyed, God could and would eventually raise it from the dead. Such death-defying trust in God will have a liberating effect in our lives. We will no longer be in bondage to the fear of man as we lay hold of Christ’s instruction to “fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28). We will be able to patiently endure betrayal, hatred, and even death, knowing that in the final reckoning “there shall not an hair of [our] head perish” (Luke 21:16-18). God is able to resurrect and restore anything and everything that we seem to lose as we serve him through faith in Jesus. The Triumph of HopeAlthough Paul was sure he would die, God defied Paul’s expectations and delivered him from mortal danger. In doing so, God taught Paul that he was able to do the impossible. God taught Paul that God was able to do what Paul could not. Can you look back on an experience that taught you a similar lesson? Have you been driven beyond the limits of your own strength only to see that God’s strength has been more perfectly displayed amidst your weakness? As Paul looked back on God’s amazing deliverance in his recent past, he gained confidence that God would again bring deliverance in the present and future. This thought process can be very helpful any time we are facing a difficult challenge or trial. We see it at work in the lives of saints down through biblical history. Consider the promise made to Joshua, the successor to Moses who led Israel into the Promised Land. God himself assured Joshua, “As I was with Moses, so I will be with thee: I will not fail thee, nor forsake thee” (Joshua 1:5). The same God that had been with Moses in the past would be with Joshua in the present and future.Consider the reasoning of David as he was preparing to fight Goliath. He explained to King Saul, “The LORD that delivered me out of the paw of the lion, and out of the paw of the bear, he will deliver me out of the hand of this Philistine” (1 Samuel 17:37). As God had been faithful in the past, so David trusted that God would be faithful in the present and future. Consider the challenge faced by Zerubbabel and Joshua, the governor and high priest in Jerusalem after returning from 70 years of Babylonian captivity. They faced many dangers and uncertainties, and were struggling to rebuild the temple. God sent the prophet Haggai to encourage their efforts by proclaiming, “According to the word that I covenanted with you when ye came out of Egypt, so my spirit remaineth among you: fear ye not” (Haggai 2:5). Just as God had brought safe deliverance from Egypt so many years prior, he would also keep them safe and prosper them amidst their present distress.These examples suffice to demonstrate the fact that contemplating past experiences of God’s grace inspires hope in God’s present and future grace. We ought to take careful note of such experiences, especially when God delivers us from particularly painful circumstances (from “so great a death”).
The more we acquire and learn from experiences of God’s grace amidst affliction, the more reasons we have to hope in God today and tomorrow (Romans 5:3-4).
How does faith respond to the uncertainty of life? By faith in Jesus, we strive to remain consistent in obedience even amidst our inconsistent circumstances. We find the strength to obey by trusting in the strength of God. In particular, we learn to stop trusting in ourselves. We trust in God to resurrect and restore anything that we appear to lose in his service. If he calls on us to give even our lives, he can and will give them back. When our hearts begin to fail, we can renew our hope in God by remembering past experiences of his grace. The same God who delivered us yesterday will deliver us today and tomorrow. Despite the difficulty of life, we have every reason to confidently rejoice in God through faith in Jesus Christ!