The Language of Suffering: Paul’s Suffering (3)

2 Corinthians 6:3-10

6 3We put no stumbling block in anyone’s path, so that our ministry will not be discredited. 4Rather, as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses; 5in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger; 6in purity, understanding, patience and kindness; in the Holy Spirit and in sincere love; 7in truthful speech and in the power of God; with weapons of righteousness in the right hand and in the left; 8through glory and dishonor, bad report and good report; genuine, yet regarded as impostors; 9known, yet regarded as unknown; dying, and yet we live on; beaten, and yet not killed; 10sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything.

The Apostle Paul’s writing can be extremely difficult to parse.  The above passage is a case in point.  There we have two sentences, the second of which contains 111 words.  I sometimes imagine grammar teachers wincing as they read sections of Paul’s Epistles.  Yet, the Apostle is dealing with ideas relating to the most complex and important subject possible – our right relationship to God.  Even more challenging, he is explaining these concepts within the context of a new and extraordinary revelation that is only a few decades old, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Lastly, he is explaining these ideas to people (i.e., Gentiles) who often have little to no familiarity with the tradition from which Christ emerged (i.e., Judaism).  Given all this, we can forgive Paul his long sentences.

With regard to the issue at hand, Paul’s suffering, the striking feature is how inseparable it is from all of the other attributes of his ministry.  Suffering for Paul is not an isolated event that pushes aside all other experience.  Rather, it is only one of the many and interrelated aspects of serving Christ. It comes along with the purity, understanding, patience and kindness in the Holy Spirit. It comes along with the sincere love and truthful speech in the power of God.  It comes along with glory, good report, genuineness, rejoicing, making many rich and possessing everything.

Yes, if we were to compile all of the words of suffering they too would make quite an impressive list. But is there any doubt as to where the Apostle has placed the emphasis?  This passage doesn’t contain so much as a comma of self-pity.  It’s closer to the excited letter home from a young person on a journey of discovery.  This comparison is not meant in the least to minimize the import of Paul’s mission or the seriousness of his suffering.  Rather, it seeks to draw out the amazing power of Christ that allowed him to live in blessed joy, peace and hope in spite of these burdens.

Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

(2 Corinthians 4:16-18)

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