In 2 Corinthians, Paul finds himself in a unique position of justifying to the Corinthian church why he was qualified to be a leader in the church and an Apostle.
The church, it seems, was fixated with “celebrity preachers” and, in the eyes of many, Paul didn’t make the cut. He seems to have dealt with physical infirmity and, based on what’s written in the letter, was less than spectacular when it came to his public speaking charisma.
So, what would Paul say? What were his credentials for being a minister of the Gospel? Throughout the letter, Paul says, essentially, “because I have suffered more than any of these celebrity preachers.” We learn that Paul was beaten within a half-inch of his life on several occasions. He was shipwrecked, whipped, stoned, imprisoned, and relentlessly persecuted by the Jews.
And beyond suffering, Paul had a past that seems to have haunted him—as a Pharisee he had persecuted and put Christians to death. So include monumental moral failures to the list of “qualifications.” When supposed “super apostles” were boasting about their strengths and gifts, Paul inn contrast talked about his weaknesses, sufferings, and near-death experiences. Why? Because those were the instances that put God’s grace in crystal clear 4K resolution. Not only was Paul commissioned by Christ to write the very words of God, he was also qualified to minister the gospel because he had received God’s grace in the midst of his trials and failures.
There are a few important lessons I want to draw out from Paul’s life and apply to us by way of exhortation and encouragement.
First, suffering, weakness, and failure are the central arenas in which we experience the Father’s gracious comfort (2 Corinthians 1:3-4). In verse 3-4 of chapter 1, Paul says, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction.” The word for comfort here is parakaleo, which shares the same root as the Word for the Spirit or Helper in John’s gospel, or paraclete, and means “a calling to one’s aid, encouragement, comfort.” It means to come “up close and personal,” to get in someone’s personal space in order to encourage or exhort. In our deepest pain, God is not aloof or distant; he comes near, speaks the Word of life, and brings tender mercy in exactly the right way.
Where God loves to display his “up close and personal” help, and to powerfully work in our lives, is when we’re “despairing of life itself.” We feel as if we simply can’t go on another second. We’ve lost hope. We can’t fathom how the disjointed parts of our life can ever be woven into anything resembling a story of redemption. When we feel unworthy, helpless, and weak, God loves to get “up close and personal” with his transformative care.
Divorce, loss of a child, death of a parent, apostate children, earth-shattering institutional failures, betrayals from friends, moral failures of once-trusted religious leaders, financial collapse. These are the situations that bring us to our knees. Our world comes unglued. Life shattered. It’s also where God loves to powerfully interrupt. This is where He does His best work.
Samuel Rutherford knew this to be true, which is why he said, “When I am in the cellar of affliction, I look for the Lord’s choicest wines.”
Second, our darkest, most intense trials will become the conduit by which we minister the grace of God powerfully to others (2 Corinthians 1:5). Your worst failures and deepest pain will often become your greatest opportunities of service to others. Paul says God “comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.” This means that our greatest gifts, our “best work,” will often come from our deepest hurts, pain, or sense of failure.
Third, when we experience personal weakness in our trials, God promises to display his powerful grace in us (2 Corinthians 12:9). In chapter 12, verse 9, Paul is still working out this theme of God displaying His power most clearly in our weakness. He says, “And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Like Paul, we pray and wish our trials would simply go away. Sometimes they do, but often they remain. They are thorns in our flesh. Constant reminders of our fallen humanity.
The word Paul uses for power is dunamis, from which we get our English word, dynamite. It means “power through God’s ability.” When God’s grace is at work in your life, it’s not just “God’s favor,” as we often think. It is also his active power, explosive like dynamite. This power sustains us in every trial and equips us to enrich the lives of others as we employ our spiritual gifts. It brings joy in the face of trials. It comforts the most heinous, soul-warping hurts.
Maybe, like Paul, your present trials—or perhaps those that happened in the past but still keep you up at night now—cause you to say, as he did, in chapter 1 verse 8, “For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself.” Go now to the Father of all mercies and comfort. And be encouraged: these are exactly the situations in which He delights to bring comfort and power. So boldly confess to Him both your deepest failures and hurts. If He raised Christ from the dead, He will also weave the story of redeeming grace into your worst pain. Do not lose heart, but take courage, for God will send His Helper to be with you. Let us confess our sins boldly, knowing that as we do so, we come to the Father of All Mercies and the God of all Comfort.