When reading stories in the Bible, it’s easy to forget the humanity of the characters, imagining some kind of heroic calm in the face of every storm. Isn’t that how it should be with spiritual giants like the apostle Paul?
No. True, Paul was a man of fierce determination, deep faith, and a robust hope. But these qualities had to be forged in the fires of adversity, and sometimes, the pains he suffered as an apostle of Jesus seemed too much to bear. Listen to how he describes his troubles, as he writes to the church in Corinth:
We do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, of the affliction we experienced in Asia; for we were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death so that we would rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. (2 Cor 1:8-9, CEB)
Although it’s impossible to know for certain, Paul may be referring to the events described in Acts 19:23-41. Paul’s evangelistic work in Ephesus had been extremely successful, and it had made him enemies. By teaching the one true God, Paul ran afoul of the artisans who made their living from the sale of silver idols. A silversmith named Demetrius whipped the crowds into a frenzy by painting Paul as blaspheming their goddess, Artemis. A city-wide riot broke out; the confusion was so great that some weren’t even sure what was going on.
The mob seized two of Paul’s companions and dragged them into the place of public assembly. Paul himself wanted to go, but his friends prevented him. Eventually, cooler heads prevailed. The town clerk convinced the people to calm down and pursue due legal process, if indeed there were any legitimate charges to bring. Then he simply sent everyone home.
Crisis averted? Perhaps. And some believe that the events of Acts 19 hardly merit the extreme language Paul uses in the passage above. But one can easily imagine the tension building up to this point, and the lingering animosity after. Even at the end of Paul’s earlier letter to the Corinthians, he had written of fighting “wild animals” in Ephesus (1 Cor 15:32), a city in which he had “many adversaries” (1 Cor 16:9, CEB).
Thus, when I read that Paul felt like he had received the sentence of death, I imagine something like a man who knows that the mob has put out a contract on him. Every day could be his last; danger could be waiting around every corner. Paul felt “unbearably crushed” and “despaired of life.”
Until he remembered that he served a God who had the power to raise people from the dead.
Christians sometimes remind each other, “Don’t try to do this on your own power. Trust God. Depend on him.” Here, Paul is saying that he himself needed the lesson: he had to learn not to rely on himself, but on the God of resurrection.
It is that personal lesson, among others, that stands behind Paul’s hope in the God of comfort, a hope he holds out to the Corinthians at the outset of his letter. More on that in Sunday’s post.