Down but not out

We are experiencing all kinds of trouble, but we aren’t crushed. We are confused, but we aren’t depressed. We are harassed, but we aren’t abandoned. We are knocked down, but we aren’t knocked out. — 2 Cor 4:8-9, CEB

There are days when nothing seems to be going right. We’re beset by minor irritations: our hair won’t cooperate; the kids are fussy; the car won’t start. Or we may be suffering more major trials, from broken relationships to shattered dreams of every kind. And to the extent that we think of Christianity as the cure for all our earthly ills, we may be tempted to wonder where God is in all of this, especially when things get serious.

That doesn’t necessarily mean we subscribe to some kind of prosperity gospel, in which we blithely believe that God grants health and wealth to the truly faithful. But it can be difficult to keep sacrificially doing the right thing when we’re not rewarded for it in some way, when we receive back sarcasm instead of gratitude, condescension instead of praise. And worse: those who see us go through such seasons may even accuse us of faithlessness, of bringing calamity on our own heads.

As we’ve seen in previous posts, the things Paul suffered for the gospel gave his opponents cause to question his legitimacy as an apostle. In spite of this, Paul wasn’t the least bit shy of sharing his troubles, even acknowledging feelings of despair (2 Cor 1:8). To do so, of course, was to risk giving his detractors even more ammunition. But he had a higher pastoral purpose: to help them understand what it really meant to be an apostle, the better to appreciate the depth of the gospel they had already received.

So Paul lays out a series of four rich and nearly poetic contrasts to make his point. We are experiencing all kinds of trouble, but we aren’t crushed. The word image of the first part suggests being pressured from all directions (e.g., the NIV’s “hard pressed on every side”); the second suggests being squeezed into a very narrow place (Luke Skywalker comes to mind — “Shut down all the garbage mashers on the detention level!”), as in the English idiom “in dire straits.”

We are confused, but we aren’t depressed. Paul’s first verb means to have no way out or through, and the second verb is a more intense version of the first; other translations render these as perplexity and despair. As noted above, Paul does in fact admit to despair in 1:8, but as a temporary state on the way to learning to trust more completely in God.

We are harassed, but we aren’t abandoned. “Harassed” literally means to be pursued. “Abandoned” is a strengthened form of the verb “to leave”: it suggests being left behind to deal with our troubles alone. It’s the verb used to translate Jesus’ cry of anguish from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt 27:46).

We are knocked down, but we aren’t knocked out. The first verb literally means to be thrown down. The second is an intensified version of the word for “destroy”; it suggests having every shred of our well-being wiped out.

In principle, Paul could keep going, but he’s made his point: The life of apostleship is a life of suffering. Yes, sometimes things get pretty bad. But they’re not impossible. We’re pressed from all sides, but not in deep distress; we’re at a loss, but not completely lost; we’re persecuted by people, but not forsaken by God; we’re down but not destroyed.

And to what end would Paul say all this? Looking backward to verse 7, it’s to show what it means to be a fragile clay pot that demonstrates the undeniable power of God. Looking forward to verse 10, it’s to show that all of this is part of what it means to follow in the footsteps of the crucified and risen one.

More on that in the next post.