Let me provide a brief sketch of Paul’s experience so that we might have a framework for understanding the profound spiritual lessons that follow.
Sometime between the writing of 1 Corinthians and 2 Corinthians, most likely no earlier than the spring of 55 a.d. and no later than the summer or fall of 56 a.d., Paul had what he considered a singular and altogether unique brush with death that transformed his perspective on life and ministry and, above all, his relationship with God.
Twice in v. 8 he uses a word, best translated “beyond” (huper), that indicates he viewed this experience as unparalleled. When one recalls his statement in Philippians 4:13 (“I can do all things through him who strengthens me”), what he describes in 2 Corinthians must assuredly have been in a category unto itself in terms of its severity and potential for ending Paul’s life.
Paul uses vivid, if not shocking, terms to describe the depths of despair to which he was subjected: the burden was both “beyond measure” (or, “so utterly burdened”, ESV) and “beyond our strength” to endure. The word translated “despaired” is a compound verb, the components of which “point to the total . . . unavailability . . . of an exit . . . from oppressive circumstances, a situation prompting not so much acute embarrassment as unnerving despair” (Harris, 154).
Scholars have long speculated on the nature of this affliction. Was it a literal and quite physical confrontation with “beasts” in the arena at Ephesus (1 Cor. 15:32)? Was it the life-threatening circumstances of the riot at Ephesus, instigated by Demetrius the silversmith (Acts 19:23-41)? Was it exposure to extraordinary persecution and peril from his enemies, or perhaps a sentence of death passed against him by a civil court, or possibly some unidentified hardship like extended hunger or a near-death experience during the course of one of his many imprisonments?
I’m convinced that Paul has in view some recurrent illness, a painful and obviously life-threatening affliction, the burden of which was so severe as to expel all hope of survival. Of course, we’ll never know for sure. What’s most important is how it transformed Paul’s perspective on life and the lessons we should learn from it as well.
One additional factor needs to be noted. The word translated “sentence” (apokrima) of death in v. 9 appears only here in the New Testament and might be rendered “response” or “answer” or something similar. This suggests that while in the throes of this horrific affliction Paul made inquiry, either of himself (according to Margaret Thrall) or of God (according to Murray Harris), to which the reply came: “You will die!” Of course, we don’t know any of this for certain, but one thing is clear: Paul didn’t die at that time and was convinced that God would deliver him yet again in the future (v. 10a) from comparable encounters with death. So Harris is probably right in saying that “the divine verdict must have signified something like, ‘Not death now, but ultimately death from a similar thlipsis” (i.e., “affliction,” 156).
Whether we face physical illness or financial stress or relational disappointments, we find it hard to see in it anything remotely approaching a “purpose” or “reason”. Such disillusioning experiences strike us as random and senseless and lacking all value. Often the best we can do is write it off as an attack of the enemy, never discerning the divine design in our distress.
But as overwhelming, excessive, and burdensome as this brush with death was for Paul, he knew that God was in it! The point of it all, says Paul, “was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead” (v. 9b). For those who regard all such anguish and suffering as pointless, this may come as a considerable shock.
One can almost hear Paul saying to himself before he ever said it to the Corinthians: “I’ve grown too self-reliant. I’ve become accustomed to trusting in my own charisma, my education, my reputation, my depth of theological insight. I’m dangerously close to taking credit for what only God can do. I’m on the brink of blasphemy! This is no small matter. Trusting in oneself is an affront to God, and he won’t have it!”
How far will God go to ensure that Paul doesn’t trust in himself and his own skills and spiritual savvy? How seriously does God regard this tendency in the human heart, whether Paul’s or yours or mine? To what lengths will he go to guarantee that he alone gets the glory? In Paul’s case, God knocked out every man-made prop and reduced him to utter despair. Said God: “Paul, it matters immensely to me that you not look to yourself for strength or rely on your own ingenuity. If there was ever any doubt in your mind concerning this, consider your condition. If I don’t intervene and deliver you, you will most assuredly die!”
“Oh, come on, Sam. It can’t be that big of a deal, can it?” Well, let’s consider what it is that self-reliance says? It goes something like this: “God, I’m more capable than you are of accomplishing this task. God, I’m wiser than you are in figuring out how this should be done. God, I’m more adept than you are at sorting through options and discerning the proper path to follow. God, I’m more deserving than you are of the credit and praise for fulfilling this ministry from which so many stand to profit.”
No one has expressed this more vividly and to the point than James Denney. I take the liberty here of citing him at length. Resist the temptation to skip over this paragraph. It is truly profound:
"It is natural . . . for us to trust in ourselves. It is so natural, and so confirmed by the habits of a lifetime, that no ordinary difficulties or perplexities avail to break us of it. It takes all God can do to root up our self-confidence. He must reduce us to despair; He must bring us to such an extremity that the one voice we have in our hearts, the one voice that cries to us wherever we look round for help, is death, death, death. It is out of this despair that the superhuman hope is born. It is out of this abject helplessness that the soul learns to look up with new trust to God. . . . How do most of us attain to any faith in Providence? Is it not by proving, through numberless experiments, that it is not in man that walketh to direct his steps? Is it not by coming, again and again, to the limit of our resources, and being compelled to feel that unless there is a wisdom and a love at work on our behalf, immeasu rably wiser and more benign than our own, life is a moral chaos? . . . Only desperation opens our eyes to God's love."
The explicit "in order that" of v. 9 (NAS; the ESV renders it “but that was to”) ought forever to silence those who doubt whether God is sovereign over the troubles and afflictions of life. There is always design in our distress. God so values our trust in him alone that he will graciously dismantle everything else in the world that we might be tempted to rely on: even life itself, if necessary. His desire is that we grow deeper and stronger in our confidence that he himself is all we need.
Some are bothered by this, believing that God’s orchestration of Paul’s affliction was a high price the apostle was forced to pay by an insensitive and selfish God whose only concern was to glorify himself. May it never be!
God’s seeking his glory in Paul’s trust was the most loving and tender-hearted thing he could ever have done for the apostle! For in orchestrating these events to undermine Paul’s self-reliance he made it possible for him to find satisfaction in the One who will never fail or falter or prove untrustworthy.
There is incomparable joy for our souls in learning to rest in God, not ourselves, in experiencing divine strength, not human weakness. Paul’s affliction, as severe and unsettling as it initially may have been (or even continued to be), was the most effective way to lead him to drink from a reservoir of rest and delight and sustaining grace that will never run dry. Whatever was done to wean Paul from himself and cultivate confidence in God alone must be regarded as the highest and most heartfelt expression of love imaginable.