2 Cor. 1:8-11 “We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about the hardships we suffered in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us.”
When tragedy strikes, there is one question that plagues our minds: Why? What purpose is this serving? Often we ask “why?” not so much because we genuinely want an answer. We simply can’t believe any good can come of this.
God doesn’t feel obliged to share all the specifics with us. “Why?” is often the one question he doesn’t answer. But in these words to the Corinthians, Paul does provide a general answer to the question “Why?” It’s one we can apply to our hardships, too.
Paul spent nearly three years in Ephesus, a leading city of the Roman province of Asia. They weren’t easy years. In his earlier letter to the Corinthians he talks about fighting wild beasts in Ephesus, and the many men who were opposing him. Preaching about God’s love in Jesus made him many enemies and created many hardships.
The year 2020 has been a year dominated by hardship. Hundreds of thousands of Americans have died of COVID 19, and millions sickened. Tens of millions face unemployment and financial ruin. Now the unnecessary and unjust death of a black man at the hands of a white policeman in Minneapolis has opened up old, deep wounds of prejudice and racial division. Fear and frustration grip minority communities. Riots and looting exacerbate their suffering. Attempts to maintain order by those charged with keeping the peace sometimes pour fuel on the fire. No one knows quite what to do to achieve justice and heal the divide. We find ourselves at wits end.
Perhaps we can relate to Paul’s sense of despair. Paul doesn’t say, “It was almost more than I could bear.” He states that it was too much, “far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life.”
It’s not necessarily a sin to despair of life. But despair becomes a sin if we despair of faith as well. If I suffer hardship, so much so that it exceeds my human ability to endure it, then I might start to think that something is wrong with God. Has he lost control? Has he stopped caring? Has he been just an illusion all this time?
Actually, not only does he still have control. He is probably getting some of his best work done. Paul explains, “But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves, but on God, who raises the dead.” Why? Why does God let our hardships exceed our ability to endure them? One reason is that he is stripping us of the illusion of self-sufficiency. He is constantly letting hardships into our lives to strip us of the idea that our gifts, our abilities, our hard-work are going to rescue us or enable us to get by.
The destruction of trust in ourselves leaves only one viable option. “But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us.”
Why shouldn’t Paul have confidence in God to deliver him? This was the God “who raises the dead.” Jesus’ raised the widow of Nain’s son, Jairus’s daughter, his friend Lazarus. You don’t get much more hopeless than already dead.
Jesus died and rose as well. If ever there was a hardship that begged for someone to ask the question “Why?” it was his death. The answer doesn’t come back with some defense of its fairness. The answer is, “This is how much I love you.” “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son…” “This is how much you mean to me.” In Jesus, God has delivered us. He did so by becoming one of us, and letting our sins kill him instead. All the guilt, all the consequence, all the danger, all the hell for our sins went with Jesus to the cross.
Now Jesus lives again—more than lives, he reigns. Above I recounted the hardships this year has brought. But you are alive and reading these words. God has delivered you. If you are alive, then God has a purpose for keeping you here. So long as God has a purpose for you, it is our hope (in the Biblical sense of a future certainty, not just a wishful possibility) that he will continue to deliver you. You are going to make it. Rather than worry about dangers, we can focus our attention on finding and fulfilling his purpose.
Maybe you don’t have the cure for a deadly disease. Maybe you don’t have the power to erase the pain, the fear, the suspicion, or the resentment caused by centuries of oppression and inequality. But you and I can continue to be a voice for Jesus. We can live lives marked by unconditional love. We can show mercy to someone who needs it. We can answer hate with grace.
Through it all, we can rely on the God who raises the dead, even as we struggle with the question, “Why?”