Despaired Even of Life
BY Harold E. Brunson, Jr.
II Corinthians 1:1-10
THE BIBLE has recorded for us at least two saints who were particularly conscious of God's providence in the midst of their deep trials. David was one. There was a time in his life when King Saul, jealous of his popularity, sought persistently to kill him. Later on, David's own son Absalom usurped his throne and also tried to kill him.
Yet, moved by the Holy Spirit, David was able to write: "If I say, Surely the darkness shall cover me; even the night shall be light about me. Yea, the darkness hideth not from thee; but the night shineth as the day: the darkness and the light are both alike to thee" (Psalm 139:11,12).
Another saint who knew well the darkness of adversity in his life was the Apostle Paul. In fact, labeling at least one occasion in his life as a moment of great despair, he wrote in II Corinthians 1:8: "For we would not, brethren, have you ignorant of our trouble which came to us in Asia, that we were pressed out of measure, above strength, insomuch that we despaired even of life."
With the first ten verses of that chapter as our text, I would like to talk with you about five truths relating to the subject of believers' despair.
I. The historiology1 of despairThat the Apostle Paul knows much about despair is revealed in this profound catalog of his suffering beginning in II Corinthians 11:23:Are they ministers of Christ? (I speak as a fool) I am more; in labours more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequent, in deaths oft. Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one. Thrice was I beaten with rods, once was I stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day I have been in the deepYes, the Apostle Paul suffered much persecution throughout his ministry. However, the specific historical moment to which Paul refers is probably that which is recorded in Acts 19 and 20. Preaching in Ephesus, Paul challenges the idolatry of the Greeks, thereby threatening not only the religions of the city but also the economic well-being of idol makers. A silversmith named Demetrius then leads an attack against Paul. From that time forward, everywhere the Apostle Paul goes, trouble nips at his heels.
We don't know specifically why Paul says he despaired even of life. But we do know that at some point in his experience, he was so shut in on every side that he actually thought he was going to die.
II. The etymology2 of despairTo heighten our sensitivity to the immediacy of this moment in Paul's life, notice the key terms he uses in verse 8. First, he said, "We were pressed out of measure." In the Greek language, the word for pressed denotes the presence of a burden that is exceptionally thick and heavy. Probably the most
1. The study of historical background.
2. The study of the root origin of words.devastating human experience, I've found in my ministry, is the death of a loved one.
But all kinds of circumstances can bear in on us so that we are devastated not by death, but even by life. I think often of these words in Job 14:1, "Man that is born of a woman is of few days, and full of trouble." Or in Philippians 1:29, "For unto you it is given in the behalf of Christ, not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for his sake." Or the words of Christ, "In the world ye shall have tribulation" (John 16:33).
Not only were they pressed, but the pressure is beyond measure. The imagery in the Greek language is particularly pictorial. It pictures something thrown with such force and velocity that it is beyond one's capability to see how far it goes. So also it is with life. Tribulation comes into our life at times that we cannot comprehend the force and fury that it throws at us.
Paul then says, "we despaired even of life." We think about despairs in lifefinancial despair, emotional despair, physical despair, marital despair, and so on. But here, Paul says that there was a circumstance in which he despaired even of life.
The word Paul uses for despair is rooted in two Greek terms which mean "no path." It is closely related to the word the Lord Jesus uses in Luke 21 when He speaks of the end of time. He says in verse 25, "And there shall be signs in the sun, and in the moon, and in the stars; and upon the earth distress of nations, with perplexity;" The Greek word for perplexity there conveys the same ideano way out.
Have you ever been in a situation where you felt completely shut in with no way out? Well, Paul felt that way, and he now communicates that to these Corinthian saints and to all of us.
III. The theology of despairThere is a theology relative to despair. Earlier in verse 3 Paul says, "Blessed be God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies, and the God of all comfort."
The very word "Father" should bring endearment to us because in a right relationship even a human father is very dear to his children. And here, we are talking about our heavenly Father. Psalm 103:13 says, "Like as a father pitieth his children, so the Lord pitieth them that fear him."
The term "the Father of mercies" has an additional two-fold implication. First, it reveals that God is the source, the only source, of true mercy. Lamentations 3:22 says, "It is of the Lord's mercies that we are not consumed." Mercy is that act of God where His arm of righteous judgment is graciously stayed by the passionate heart of love exercised towards His children like a Father. Paul was shut in, but recognized that mercy comes from above.
Second, that term implies that God's children are in need of mercy.Certainly, we need judicial mercy. In the face of God's law, we stand guilty. The Bible says, "There is none righteous, no, not one: There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God" Without God's mercy, every human being that has ever lived would end up spending eternity in hell.
But Paul writes in I Timothy 1:16, "I obtained mercy...for a pattern to them which should hereafter believe." What great mercy was that upon the road to Damascus when Saul, yet breathing out threats and slaughters against Christians, was stricken by the sovereign grace of God, irresistibly arrested in his tracks and forced to his knees to cry out, "Lord" to Jesus Christ. God is the source of mercy, and only by His mercy can anyone be saved.
We need God's mercy for salvation, but the mercy of which Paul speaks here is the mercy that attends unto life's difficult circumstances. While we are always in need of God's mercy, our awareness of that need is heightened when we are, as in Paul's language, "shut in on every side". Thankfully, we may be shut in, but are never shut up to the heaven of God from whence comes mercy from the Father of mercies.
Paul, writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, also describes the Father in this verse as "the God of all comfort". The Greek word for comforter, parakletos, gives a glorious picture in which one comes to the aid of a lonely person who is calling for help. Indeed, that is what God does to and for us through the Holy Spirit, our Comforter. And God does that also through brothers and sisters in Christ, who help us bear one another's burdens.
IV. The teleology1 of despair.Why does God let us enter into despair? Well, we read in the first part of verse 4, "Who comforteth us in all our tribulation." Our God works all things after the counsel of His own will. There is a time to every purpose under heaven, whether it is to be born or die, to rejoice or be sad. God sets the day of adversity against the day of prosperity so that in every dimension of our lives, even at the extremes of our experiences, the purposes of God are always specific and exact. Hence, even when we find ourselves in a state of great despair, God's purposes are exact for us .
For one thing, God ordains despair for His disciples to strengthen them. This is a theological irony: in despair one might be made strong. Remember what Paul says in II Corinthians 12:10? "I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ's sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong."
The theology of grace mandates that flesh must be withered in the presence of God. In conversion we know this wellall things human wither under the mighty hand of God, so that it is God's power alone that brings us a new life in Christ. So also it is both occasionally and perpetually in the lives of believers. God withers our flesh, takes away from us those devices and abilities that we have in ourselves to cope with life. God makes us impotent to teach us not to depend upon ourselves but to rest wholly upon Christ. Just when we think God is most distant, He is in fact nearest. He strips us of our armor of self so that we may put on the whole armor of God.
Now, verse 4 continues, "that we may be able to comfort them which are in any trouble, by the comfort wherewith we ourselves are comforted of God." Note that the comfort we receive is not merely for ourselves. God creates moments of despair in our life so that we ultimately can comfort others.
Hence, verse 5 declares, "For as the sufferings of Christ abound in us, so our consolation also aboundeth by Christ." This is very different from the
1. The study of the design or purpose of events.
2. The study of salvation as effected by Jesus Christ.Psychology of self in our society. Suffering in Christianity is vicarious in its ends. The divine purpose of our being in despair is to empower us so that we may be able to succor others and, as it were, be priests of God like unto Christ Himself.
V. The soteriology2 of despair.Going down to verse 9, we read, "But we had the sentence of death in ourselves, that we should not trust in ourselves, but in God which raiseth the dead."
You see, despair is not dangerous; lack of despair is. Lack of self-confidence is not dangerous; self-confidence is. Life is so deceptive that even we believers can sometimes become so self-dependent and self-confident that we either ignore God or make Him sort of a secondary co-Player. Thankfully, He purposes things in our lives so as to knock the trust out of ourselves, so that we trust
instead in the God that raiseth the dead.
Is anything too hard for the God that raises the dead? Nothing in the history of the world is more stupendous than God raising the dead. In fact, it was the essence of the apostolic message, because in the raising of the dead, God triumphs over human adversities. Ultimately, it is the grandest triumph, because it is a triumph over sin, and the wages of sin is death.
Our text concludes in verse 10, "Who delivered us from so great a death, and doth deliver: in whom we trust that he will yet deliver us."
Trust is faith. Hope is faith looking forward. And again, when God creates despair in our lives and shuts us in on every side, there is no where for us to turn but up. Faith and hope are the graces of God which enable us to look forward with certainty to the presence and purpose of God in our life. When for whatever reason things seem hopeless around you, that hopelessness can be transformed into a hopefulness that rests in Christif your heart and mind are anchored in God.
There was despair in Paul's life because he was in a sinful world. Likewise, because we are living in a cursed world, adverse circumstances will come our way.
There was a moment when Paul thought, "This is it, I'm going to die." He despaired even of life. But God delivered him. And that bespeaks hope for us whatever circumstance we may be in. Our God does deliver. And for all of us who trust in Christ, the ultimate destiny is to be delivered from this sin-cursed world into the new earth in which our Heavenly Father will dwell with us forevermore. o
Dr. Harold Elliot Brunson, Jr. is pastor of The First Baptist Church of Parker, 5304
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