2 Cor. 6.4-5
There is hardly a time when I’m more keenly aware of my sinful and selfish orientation than when my personal comfort and convenience are threatened or interrupted. When I miss a meal, I’m grumpy. When the air conditioner breaks, I’m irritable. When I’m in pain, I complain. It grieves me to see how often I act as if I deserved physical security and emotional peace and a full stomach. I’m stunned by how much time, energy, and money I devote to avoid what makes for turmoil and discomfort.
Now, I’m not at all suggesting that a person should actively seek those things that breed distress or anguish or deprivation. People who do are either masochistic or suffer from a perverted martyr complex. There’s nothing inherently good in pain. In fact, it is part of our calling as Christians to help alleviate the suffering and hardship of others. But in doing so, it may well require that we ourselves willingly embrace danger, the loss of freedom and property, as well as the disruption of our cherished routines and schedules.
No one knew this better than Paul, a man who personally suffered almost indescribable agony for the sake of Christ and the welfare of his people. It’s hard for me to read Paul’s description of his life and not see in it a standing rebuke and counter-argument to the health and wealth “gospel” of the 21st century. Today, sadly, we are often told that if you are among God’s “anointed” and “gifted” and “favored” servants you can expect (even claim) exemption from suffering, loss, and deprivation. You’re a “child of the King” and thus deserve “first class” treatment! This was similar to the argument of Paul’s opponents in Corinth, who insisted that a true “apostle” of Christ would never endure the things he did. It was precisely this alleged lack of so-called apostolic credentials that was used to undermine his authority and authenticity in that church.
Paul was evidently asked on numerous occasions to substantiate his claim to apostolic authority. Although he detested speaking of himself, the situation at Corinth required that he identify his qualifications. He does so on several occasions (see especially 11:16-33), one of the more explicit being here in 6:4-10. “Do you want me to commend myself for your approval,” he asked? “So be it. I’m happy to present myself to you as a minister of God, and on the following grounds”:
“by great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, the Holy Spirit, genuine love; by truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; through honor and dishonor, through slander and praise. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold, we live; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything” (2 Cor. 6:4-10).
Our focus in this meditation is on vv. 4-5 in which we find three sets of three words that describe Paul’s outward circumstances, all of which, it should be noted, are in the plural, indicating multiple instances or occasions on which he suffered.
In the first set of three he mentions “afflictions, hardships, calamities”. “Afflictions” is a general and all-encompassing term appearing numerous times in 2 Corinthians, the most severe of which was the life-threatening experience described in 1:8-9. “Hardships” carries the thought of being under pressure, perhaps an allusion to the constant stress to which he was subjected. The word translated “calamities” literally means “in constraints” or in a confined and narrow place from which there can be no escape. It points to Paul’s feeling of being trapped by circumstances seemingly beyond his control.
The second set of three points more to the direct and extremely physical persecution to which he was subjected. He often endured “beatings” (cf. 11:23-25), whether by rods, lashes, or fists. We know specifically of only one “imprisonment” (cf. 2 Cor. 11:23) before 2 Corinthians was written, which occurred in Philippi (Acts 16). This indicates that Luke’s history in Acts is obviously selective and does not purport to give us an exhaustive record of Paul’s missionary experiences.
The “riots” or uprisings against Paul in the cities where he preached are numerous: at Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13:50), Iconium (Acts 14:5), Lystra (Acts 14:19), Philippi (Acts 16:22), Thessalonica (Acts 17:5-7), Berea (Acts 17:13), Corinth (Acts 18:12-17), and Ephesus (Acts 19:23-20:1).
Finally, he endured “labors, sleepless nights, [and] hunger.” Unlike the first six words that describe what was done to him by others, these all refer to self-imposed hardships Paul embraced in the fulfillment of his ministry.
The word “labors” is either a reference to his work as a tent-maker (Acts 18:3), or could also refer to his extended and demanding seasons of work as a missionary, pastor and evangelist.
By “sleeplessness” he doesn’t mean that he suffered from insomnia, but that he voluntarily went without sleep to serve and minister to others (Paul often refers to working “night and day”; see 1 Thess. 2:9; 2 Thess. 3:8). Whether he lost sleep from working late hours to support himself, or because he was engaged in ministry late into the night, it was a choice he joyfully embraced.
Finally, he often suffered from “hunger”. There’s little agreement on any single cause for this. It certainly could be a reference to his frequent fasting. Others see a self-imposed asceticism designed to alleviate any burden from those to whom he ministered. Or it could simply be a reference to his lack of food due to the hardships of travel or even the lack of money.
As you know, I travel extensively throughout the U.S. and occasionally overseas, speaking at churches and conferences. Typically, either at some point while I’m away or immediately upon my return, my wife lovingly asks such questions as: “Did the ministry go well? Did they respond positively to what you had to say? Did you sleep well in the hotel? At what restaurants did you eat? Are you feeling o.k.?”
She’s never yet heard me say in reply: “They threw stones at me during my first sermon. One caught me square in the forehead. I felt my life was in jeopardy on a few occasions and I honestly didn’t know if I’d escape. Two leaders in the church beat me with rods and the local sheriff threw me in jail on the second night. I didn’t sleep a wink in that stinking cell and the food was so repulsive I couldn’t eat a thing. Other than that, the ministry was great!”
No one in the Christian west anticipates such treatment. If we ever encountered anything remotely similar to what Paul faced, we’d wipe the dust from our shoes and never return. Surely “ministers of God” (v. 4a) who are dedicated to the gospel ought to expect the best of everything. How dare anyone deprive us of our comforts!
So what would motivate a man to willingly pursue a life characterized by the sort of hardships Paul endured? What could possibly sustain a man through such sufferings?
One answer is found in Hebrews 10:32-34. There we read of Christians who “endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to reproach and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated” (vv. 32-33). Beyond this, they “joyfully accepted the plundering” of their “property” (v. 34)! Here’s why. Here’s how. They “knew” they “had a better possession and an abiding one” (v. 34).
The degree to which we find suffering intolerable is the degree to which we lack confidence in the glory of our inheritance in Christ. To the extent that we are embittered by oppression and persecution, we reveal our lack of satisfaction in him.
Paul was in the grip of the glory to come (cf. 2 Cor. 4:16-18), and found strength to endure. Like those believers in Hebrews 10, he feasted on the promise of a future with Christ and held fast.
– Sam Storms