For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, regarding the affliction that happened to us in the province of Asia, that we were burdened excessively, beyond our strength, so that we despaired even of living. Indeed we felt as if the sentence of death had been passed against us, so that we would not trust in ourselves but in God who raises the dead. He delivered us from so great a risk of death, and he will deliver us. We have set our hope on him that he will deliver us yet again, as you also join in helping us by prayer, so that many people may give thanks to God on our behalf for the gracious gift given to us through the help of many. (2 Corinthians 1:8-11 NET)

Life is not lived in a vacuum, in an absence of real circumstances and situations. We may wish we could withdraw to some ideal retreat setting and live out our days there in commune with the Spirit. But that is not how life is to be lived. We may be helped to withdraw from time to time - we each need our special times with God on the mountaintop - but life is lived in the valleys.

In this tremendous letter we call Second Corinthians, Paul does not begin proclaiming the peace of the retreat center, of the mountaintop, of the prayer closet. Instead he teaches us about living in the fullness of God in the midst of overwhelming circumstances.

A common false quoting of scripture today goes something like this: “I know the Bible says that God never gives us more than we can handle.” My question is: where does the Bible say that? I have never found such a verse. I have found Romans 8:28 which states that all things work together for good for those who love God, but that is a very different thing. Paul, in fact, said here that he was overwhelmed, that they were burdened “excessively, beyond our strength.” And in this overwhelming reality he learned to lean upon Jesus.

“We have set our hope on him!” is the triumphant victory cry of the Christian. We learn the meaning of these words - of this spiritual reality - in the midst of frustrations, difficulties, and despairing circumstances. Near the end of this letter, Paul wrote:

But he said to me, “My grace is enough for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” So then, I will boast most gladly about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may reside in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, with insults, with troubles, with persecutions and difficulties for the sake of Christ, for whenever I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Cor. 12:9-10 NT)

The list of things he had learned to rejoice in is exactly opposite of what we would seek out ourselves to promote spiritual growth and nearness to Christ.

  • “weaknesses” - the word in the original was used much as we use our word “weakness” and could mean both physical and mental or emotional weaknesses. In all of his frailties - physical, material, social, emotional, mental, and spiritual - they had driven him closer and closer to God.
  • “insults” - the word means not just to be insulted by social equals, but to be legally chastised by the haughty and petty government officials - the “little emperors” who ran the small places but were filled with self importance and looked down their noses with disdain at Christians.
  • “troubles” - the word means “necessities” or “constraints” or “dire straights.” When he needed to do something but did not have the means to do it, he had to depend on God.
  • “persecutions and difficulties” - these words are clear in themselves - the hardest and worst things imaginable he had also learned could be turned to good in the hands of God.

This does not mean that evil is actually good, but that when evil and hardship had sought to ruin his spiritual life, the end result was life and not death!

At what point is there personal failure here? At what point is Paul talking not merely about attacks from the world but the outworking of some personal failure on his part - the lack of planning, for example? Or the problem of neglect or simply forgetting? I believe they are all included, even his own failures, in the first word above - “weaknesses.” They drove him to the grace of God - it is the man who is convinced he is a great sinner that makes the best Christian.

In your circumstances today, write on a pad of paper the challenges you are currently facing. Whatever feels overwhelming, impossible, extremely hard - give these things to God. Ask Him to show you His face, His grace, and His power in your life through these things. God shows Himself to us when we know we have needs that only He can meet.

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