“For we do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, of the affliction we experienced in Asia; for we were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself. “Why, we felt that we had received the sentence of death …”
So said St Paul in his Second Letter to the Corinthians, but he didn’t stop there. “… but that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead; he delivered us from so deadly a peril, and he will deliver us; on him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again.”
Time and time again, we hear about St Paul’s terrible suffering in this letter: “Three times I have been beaten by rods; once I was stoned. Three times I have been shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brethren; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure of my anxiety for all the churches.”
There’s something quite reassuring about the fact that even St Paul felt anxiety for others. And yet anxiety was not the dominant feeling: more than once in his letter, we also hear these resounding words, “So we do not lose heart.”
“For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, because we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen; for the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” How about that for a message for his time, for our time, and, indeed, for all times?
St Paul certainly did not deny the extent of the difficulties that he faced but he knew that God is so much greater than any affliction the world could fling at him. And he wasn’t alone. Having the same faith, hope and love, the churches in Macedonia responded to their troubles with an abundance of joy and generosity to others:
“We want you to know, brethren, about the grace of God which has been shown in the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of liberality on their part. For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own free will, begging us earnestly for the favour of taking part in the relief of the saints”.
We live in difficult times, so maybe it’s time to focus our reading. Maybe it’s time to turn to those who knew what it was to suffer and, through suffering, to rejoice. St Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians isn’t a bad place to start.