Beyond Our Strength
No one wants to suffer pain and hardship. Yet many are immersed in suffering, but not because they wanted it to be that way or planned for it. Yet because of circumstances beyond their control, they face difficulties that can seem unbearable. We naturally wonder why. Scripture gives us some important things to think about with respect to afflictions in life.
Paul spoke about what became more than he could handle: “For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself” (2 Cor 1:8). Note that the particular burden, for Paul, was “beyond our strength.” He was humble enough to admit his weakness in dealing with these burdens, but then expressed why it would be that way: “Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again” (vv. 9-10).
Burdens can be beyond our strength so that we learn to trust God who raises the dead. We cannot just rely on self. Paul learned that lesson well. By the end of 2 Corinthians, he speaks to a similar issue and received the Lord’s answer: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9).
Paul had an undisclosed weakness, a “thorn in the flesh” that he thought was keeping him from being as productive as he could have been without it. He prayed to the Lord three times to have it removed, but the Lord would let it remain, telling Paul that His grace was sufficient. This may not have been what Paul had wanted, but he still concludes, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (vv. 9-10). Paul knew his true strength would now come through his weakness. We may never know the strength God may supply until faced with weaknesses we never desired.
This is difficult. We feel hampered by various walls and stumbling blocks that appear in life, from physical and emotional health to barriers erected by others. We want the freedom to act without the barriers and think that is what will benefit the kingdom the most. It makes sense to pray that these be removed from our lives so we can do our best in serving the Lord. Our intentions are to do the most with our time and opportunities, and the thorns get in the way.
But what if these thorns are actually what put us in a position to have a greater effect for God’s kingdom? What if the way we handle our thorns serves to help others more, spread the gospel more, and glorify God more? Are we willing to endure the thorns for the sake of more glory to God? Are we willing to consider that the thorns do more than we might at first think? This is a matter of perspective. For Paul, the afflictions for the sake of Christ did indeed help others: “For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus' sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you” (2 Cor 4:11-12).
Perhaps we think, “I do want to glorify God, but can it be without these thorns, please?” Paul thought so. But isn’t that for God to determine? To one He may grant a life without severe difficulties; to another He may ask to endure great hardships. Both lives can bring glory to God, and He knows the situations that will work to His glory provided that we respond appropriately.
Instead of asking what we think is fair or even what we may prefer, let us ask what will work to the benefit of the kingdom and the glory of God. As Jesus prayed in the garden, “Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42). If we must endure difficulties so that the work of God is magnified through us, then let our response be like Paul’s: “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” Paul knew that in the end, God would deliver him.
Will people see Christ in us when our lives are met with trials, hardships, and calamities? Are we trusting God, especially in the times that we know are beyond our strength? God, who raises the dead, will deliver us eternally.