God comforts us in all our afflictions (2 Cor 1:3-8). This is a truth for all believers for all time. However, the life context from which the apostle originally wrote these timeless words is the suffering of a faithful—though flawed—minister of the gospel. In other words, it was from the crucible of ministry trials that Paul wrote such a comforting promise of God’s never-ending love and care. Understanding that he lived in the midst of an intense spiritual war (Satan hates with a passion all who preach the gospel), may help us better understand how desperately he and his companions needed biblical hope—a need that every gospel-loving believer has at certain times in his life.
While meditating on 2 Corinthians 1:8-11, I found myself asking two questions: What does the apostle mean when he says of his companions and himself, “we despaired even of life?” (v. 8) And what does Paul mean by saying “we had the sentence of death within ourselves?” Before we attempt to answer those questions, read the full passage.
8 For we do not want you to be unaware, brethren, of our affliction which came to us in Asia, that we were burdened excessively, beyond our strength, so that we despaired even of life; 9 indeed, we had the sentence of death within ourselves so that we would not trust in ourselves, but in God who raises the dead; 10 who delivered us from so great a peril of death, and will deliver us, He on whom we have set our hope. And He will yet deliver us, 11 you also joining in helping us through your prayers, so that thanks may be given by many persons on our behalf for the favor bestowed on us through the prayers of many. (2 Cor 1:8-11)
What Does It Mean to Despair Even of Life?
In verse 8, the apostle speaks of their afflictions, which led to being “burdened excessively, beyond [their] strength.” These unbearable burdens led these men to a state of deep despair and, consequently, the need for divine deliverance. Of these afflictions, Kistemaker writes,
“It is not unthinkable that Paul had been dragged into various local synagogues to stand trial before Jewish courts. The punishments he received were the prescribed thirty-nine lashes. He reveals, ‘Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one’ (11:24). These floggings could be perilous when administered harshly, especially if they were repeated in close succession. In addition, Roman authorities three times beat Paul with rods (11:25)….The fierce opposition that Paul had to endure from Jewish adversaries continued to be a persistent threat to his life….The danger Paul incurred was so great that he describes it as an extremely heavy load that he was unable to bear physically. More than that, spiritually he lacked the necessary strength and entered into a state of despair (contrast 4:8). He expected the end of his earthly life unless God himself intervened and, as it were, brought him back from the dead.”
To “despair even of life” means, therefore, to be so utterly burdened and without strength so as to succumb to affliction (the source of which does not matter, ultimately) to the place of accepting death as the only possible outcome. To be in despair means to be without a way out; that is, to be so mentally and emotionally without any hope of help in sight that death seems inevitable.
Though it seems the afflictions the apostle refers to here come from outside, there are other times of suffering to the point of despair in which a finger cannot be so accurately placed upon the source. Despair, a crippling level of discouragement, is less rare than we may realize for those who dedicate their lives to gospel ministry. Biblical characters who battled deep discouragement and despair include David, Hannah, Elijah, and Paul. And before one concludes that all sorrow to the point of death is itself a sin; or is only, ever, always caused by sin should remember that Jesus experienced sorrow to the point of death (Matt. 26:38). His experience alone should slow down the zealous wheels of our mental judgment. Some well-known, post-biblical ministers of the gospel also experienced deep despair; Charles Spurgeon, D. Martyn-Lloyd Jones, and David Brainerd are just a few. We must accept that there are some parts of our fallenness we will never understand. Only the God of providence knows fully what he seeks to accomplish for his glory through mental suffering.
What Is the Purpose of the Sentence of Death?
The burden of the apostle’s suffering was so heavy that he actually felt as though a death sentence had been pronounced against him. But this heavy weight was not without its purpose. The overwhelming sense of impending death was “to make us rely not on ourselves but on God” (v. 9). There it is! God, in his grace, orchestrates suffering for his servants for the purpose of stripping them of self-reliance—the pride that feeds so many other sins and hinders our usefulness. In the case of the apostle, and his friends, physical deliverance from actual death threats was provided by God. But even if they had not been delivered, their hope would have remained. Why? Their testimony remains “On him we have set our hope” (v. 10).
The Only Ground of Hope
Hope delivers us from the afflictions that threaten to take the very life out of us because its roots grip to the only sure foundation: God is for us in Jesus Christ (Romans 8:31). It was the promise of ultimate deliverance in Jesus that breathed life into the suffering apostles so that they could continue to press on without human explanation.
Believing—truly believing—that God is for us, not against us, counsels our troubled and fearful souls. It renews our strength, purpose, and desire to live even when the despair that takes hold may be so deep that it feels like a sentence of death has been pronounced upon us. Setting one’s hope on God alone; not the lessening of pain or the improvement of circumstances is the only ultimate remedy for despair. When we have learned to counsel ourselves with these truths then we will become equipped to counsel others who despair even of life.
[This post was originally published at the Biblical Counseling Coalition website. I encourage you to subscribe to their daily blog.]
*This and other resources have been combined with a walk through a portion of Psalm 119 to create a study guide and workbook, Overcoming Depression: Help for Christians who Struggle. This workbook is designed for personal and small group use, as well as counseling homework.