The Apostle Paul often seems superhuman. He can be persecuted and thrown in jail, and he is singing songs, surviving earthquakes, and leading the jailer to Jesus Christ. He can be anticipating a life or death verdict from Nero Caesar, but can still be rejoicing in the Lord and excited that the guards from Caesar's elite guards have heard the gospel because of his imprisonment.
But, Paul was not superhuman. Paul had bad days. He cracked under the pressure. He lost hope. In one of his letters he told of one such experience and described how he responded to his emotional avalanche.
Apparently the Christians in Corinth knew about some of the circumstances of Paul’s extreme trial, because Paul doesn’t detail the situation. He does, however, fill them in on the depth of his despair. They knew what happened to Paul on the outside, but not on the inside. Because he didn’t relate the specifics, his hopeless agony is easier to relate to.
The place was Asia, more specifically Asia Minor, which was a Roman province in modern western Turkey, where Ephesus was the capitol. Scholars debate which of Paul’s many trials might be the one to which he is referring. Let’s just pause and reflect on how sobering it is that Paul had had so many difficulties that there are so many options––a citywide riot in Ephesus, relentless persecution from the Jews, or possibly another imprisonment or illness in that region we don’t know about.
He summons an assortment of superlatives to convey the depth of his distress. He states the situation plainly, just the way it was, without reference to God. He claims to have been so utterly burdened that he was beyond his strength.
Imagine moving a very heavy load, like driving a truck hauling a large piano. The trip is fine until you are forced to lift the piano out of the truck’s bed by yourself. There is no ramp. There is no help. For most of us, there is no way.
Paul’s load surpassed his physical limits. It exhausted his emotional limits. The crushing burden felt beyond his spiritual limits. He was like a weighed down ship taking on water. Have you felt like this––overwhelmed and exhausted with no hope of relief? Have you felt like your last resource was spent?
Once our family visited a theme park that included attractions with wild animals. One exhibit featured a tiger trained to do a tug of war with a person. It didn’t matter how strong the person or people were, the tiger grabbed his side of the rope, through a barrier, and always yanked the people right off of their feet. The tiger never loses. Sometimes trials feel like there is a tiger on the other end of the rope.
Paul’s anxiety was so alarming that he declared that he despaired of life itself. That’s like doing the tiger tug of war without the barrier! The root of Paul’s descriptive word means no way out. This time the prison door doesn’t have a key. It is over.
He proceeded to describe the situation as including a death sentence. His life seemed to be hanging by a thread. Although, the Lord Jesus never hopelessly despaired, he experienced some of this drama while praying, dripping drops of blood, in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before he was crucified.
The tenses of the verbs that Paul used convey that these feelings were ongoing as opposed to momentary. How long? We don’t know. But it sounds like it was awful.
Looking back, Paul saw God sovereignly at work during that massive trial. God was teaching Paul not to rely upon himself. What a great reminder it is that God is working through life’s toughest trials. That fact alone provides a measure of hope and encouragement. God was purposefully allowing Paul to stare at the huge piano in the back of the truck and learn that he had no way of accomplishing the task. Really, according to Paul’s honest words, it was far worse than a heavy piano as his life was at risk, with no hope, no internal resources, and no way out.
Instead, positively, Paul was learning to rely upon God, who, as Paul added, raises the dead. You can hope in God even if you have a death sentence on your head. Even death is doable if you serve the God who raises the dead. If Paul was being metaphorical, that is alright. Truly, God can raise you up if you are physically dead, emotionally dead, financially dead, or if you even feel spiritually dead.
God did raise Paul out of the depths of his despair. Paul affirmed that God had come through in the past, and he would come through again in the future. He turned completely around in his report to the Corinthians as he declared that God was the basis of his hope. At this point Paul is not being wishful. Confidence in such a faithful, powerful, wise, and loving God reinvigorated his weakened heart.
He ended his account by expressing thankfulness for the prayers of those to whom he was writing. He said their prayers helped him. Paul was in despair–– but God answers prayer. Now those that prayed can share in the celebration of Paul’s hope being resurrected.
Can you think of someone who is praying for you? It is no small thing that God puts people in your life that pray for you. God made prayer part of the plan. He literally responds to the prayers of his people. When people are praying for you, you have hope.
If Paul’s knees could buckle under an extreme trial, you can be sure you will face mountainous moments that will seem overwhelming. But, even then, God is at work. Don’t focus on your feelings, believe what is true. God is the solid rock, upon which to support yourself. He is your hope and encouragement. If everything about your situation collapses, God can still be trusted. He is the God who raises the dead.
“Our hope for you is unshaken, for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort. For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again. You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many” (2 Corinthians 1:7–11).