Many have commented that Paul’s letters to the Corinthians show him at his most human: a man just like us, not an invincible super-apostle like some claimed to be (2 Cor 11:5), but an ordinary man who knew exhaustion, disappointment and despair just as we do and yet who came to see that it was when he was weak that God was strong. (2 Cor 12:9) In his first letter to the Corinthians, he spoke of the topsy-turvy nature of the gospel where God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength (1 Cor 1:18-25); he also spoke of coming to them (as described in Acts 18:1-17) ‘in weakness with great fear and trembling’ (1 Cor 2:3)
In the letters he later wrote to the Corinthians, we see behind the scenes, as it were, into Paul’s heart and into the demands of his daily life. He speaks of ‘troubles, hardships and distresses… beatings, imprisonments and riots… hard work, sleepless nights and hunger’ (2 Cor 6:4-5); he talks of the pressure he was under ‘so that we despaired of life itself’ (2 Cor 1:8) and of ‘deadly peril’ (2 Cor 1:10). It’s in these letters that we get the details of the persecutions he faced (2 Cor 11:24-29) and of the heartache he felt at times when disciplining those in the church, since he loved them as a father. (1 Cor 4:15) We certainly cannot ever get the impression that Paul was aloof and remote from the churches he founded; what pulses through every letter is the passionate care and jealous love he had for them. (2 Cor 11:1-2)
Yet the overall impression we get of Paul is not one of despondency and despair but of a man whose faith was in a God far stronger and wiser than he could ever hope to be. He spoke of God’s compassion and comfort which meant he had these to pass on to others in times of need (2 Cor 1:3-7) and how ‘we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.’ (2 Cor 4:7) Paul captures something of the tension we face on a daily basis when he wrote, ‘We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.’ (2 Cor 4:8-9) The Christian life is not about ignoring life’s difficulties or pretending they don’t exist. It’s about acknowledging them and seeing life from an eternal perspective. (2 Cor 4:16-18) When we are secure in God’s strength, we can deal with our weaknesses so much more effectively. When we realise that His weakness is stronger than our strength, we don’t have to be crushed, in despair or destroyed; we are never forsaken or abandoned and therefore hope pulls us onwards and upwards!