Paul’s despair and consolation

“…we were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself.”

Saint Paul Writing His Epistles, attributed to Valentin de Boulogne

Paul begins his second letter to the Corinthians by mentioning the trials he’d been suffering. He links a few ideas up by the repeated use of some keywords in 2 Cor 1:3-11:

  • Affliction
  • Suffering
  • Consolation

Paul wasn’t hiding the fact that he’d been suffering; instead he was using his experience to make a point  – God had consoled Paul in his suffering, and because of that Paul was now able to console others in the same position. This is immediately exhortational: Paul wanted to share the consolation he’d received in his affliction. In 2 Cor 1:4 the suffering and consolation seemed quite general. In 2 Cor 1:5 the idea develops and narrows: instead of general suffering and consolation we now read of the consolation abundant through Christ because of the suffering of Christ – we’re now reading about persecution for Christ’s sake, and the consolation that Christ provides. In 2 Cor 1:6 Paul discusses his own suffering and explains that it gave him the means to console the Corinthians when they ended up in the same position, which in 2 Cor 1:7 he said was an inevitability – the Corinthians were undoubtedly going to suffer for Christ’s sake but also share his consolation.

Paul then gave a practical example (2 Cor 1:8-11): He’d been suffering affliction in Asia and wanted the Corinthians to know. The suffering had been so bad that he thought he was going to die. We’re not told what this affliction was, but we know that Paul was forced to depend only on God to get him through this affliction.

The suffering Paul wrote about was the suffering for the sake of Christ. Paul’s life of apostleship and preaching the gospel was evidently very hard. In 2 Cor 4:8-9 he lined up 4 opposing thoughts on the affliction he’d suffered:

  • afflicted in every way, but not crushed
  • perplexed, but not driven to despair
  • persecuted, but not forsaken
  • struck down, but not destroyed

Paul seems to be writing this as something he has learned recently – we can see that when we compare these opposing thoughts with his description of his suffering in 2 Cor 1:8-11 mentioned above:

2 Co 1:8 We do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, of the affliction we experienced in Asia; for we were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself.

Paul was practicing what he preached:

  • He’d suffered affliction, and felt crushed (2 Cor 1:8)
  • He’d despaired of life itself (2 Cor 1:8)
  • He’d learned in that experience that God was the only one he could hope in (2 Cor 1:9)
  • He’d been consoled by God, the “God of all consolation” (2 Cor 1:3)
  • He’d felt such consolation that he wanted to share it with others (2 Cor 1:4)

Having experienced the consolation of God, Paul was able to write the following:

2 Cor 4:8-9 We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed…

This is a fascinating insight into the development in Paul’s character. From despair, to the experience of God’s consolation, to the confidence that he will not despair again because he knew he could depend on God’s consolation.

What’s helpful here is that we can see that we don’t need to beat ourselves up when we despair. Our problems, suffering, and affliction (for the gospel’s sake or not) can feel like they crush us to the point where we despair of life. But we’re not the first to feel this way. Paul, a man chosen by God to preach the gospel to the known world, went through exactly the same feelings. It is comforting for us to have Paul’s example of suffering: a suffering that produces trust grounded in the consolation provided by God in the midst of affliction.

Author: Nat Ritmeyer

Nat lives in London with his wife and son. His main interests are the Ancient Near Eastern background to the bible, the Iron Age I period, and travelling through the Modern Near East. He is also scared of geese.