One of the most appealing Bible promises is abundant life for the followers of Jesus (John 10:10). Yet many Christians would readily admit that their lives are too rarely experiences of abundance. On the Christian road many find themselves experiencing one blowout” after another. The journey of faith seems to be proceeding smoothly, and then “BAM!” Perhaps there’s an obstacle or temptation that they can’t seem to handle; and suddenly, they’ve had a “spiritual blowout”—AGAIN!!
Often they cannot even identify what went wrong. Yet somehow, whether through a “slow leak,” a “blowout” or a collision with something they couldn’t handle, they find themselves with a spiritual “flat tire,” unable to proceed until they do some repairs. They “pump up” their spiritual lives and start moving again, often still plagued with a nagging conviction that the next “blowout” is not far ahead.
What can be done to overcome this cycle of despair—this long road to disillusionment? As with all spiritual problems, the solution is found in the Word of God. In 2 Corinthians, chapter 1, the Apostle Paul speaks of five dimensions of the Christian life. If we heed them as road signs on our Christian road, they can help us build spiritual momentum and keep us from getting detoured by the blowouts, leaks and obstacles that beset us.
ROAD SIGN #1: Danger Steep Hill Ahead
The Christian road is a stressful road. The first chapter of Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians is replete with terms that indicate this. No less than nine such terms are found in verses 4 through 10: Troubles—verse 4; Sufferings—verse 5; Distress and endurance—verse 6; Hardship, pressure and despair—verse 8; Feelings of having received a death sentence—verse 9; Deadly peril—verse 10.
What a litany of emotionally loaded terms! Yet for the sake of our growth as Christians, we dare not ignore the clear story from the Apostle that the Christian life is, indeed, one of stress. Throughout the Bible, suffering is seen to be the normal and expected lot of the believer. In 2 Corinthians alone, the following references underscore the point:
2:1-4, 12-13; 4:7-11, 16-17; 5:1-5; 6:3-10; 7:8-9; 8:1-2; 11:22-32; 12:5-10.
In chapter 1, Paul uses two key words to refer to the afflictions, troubles and pressures of the Christian way: thlipsis and pascho. Thlipsis is variously translated as “trouble,” “affliction,” “pressure” and “distress.” It is related to a verb meaning to “press, squeeze or crush.” That term is used in the Gospel of Mark to describe the multitudes pressing in upon Jesus so that he had to speak to them from a boat in the water lest they should crush him. It seems to bear the connotation of being trapped in a position of peril. In fact later in 2 Corinthians 1, the Apostle, speaking of his despair, uses the word exaporethenai, which means “no exit.”
The second term, pascho, is used to refer to stress and suffering due to events and factors that act upon an individual. The verb is most often used in combination with some prefix that colors its meaning. Thus, pascho means suffering or enduring; kakopatheo means to suffer evil or to endure hardship; sunkakopatheo means to endure hardship with someone; and sumpatheo means to have compassion for, or to sympathize with, someone.
We can expect a variety of stresses, afflictions, pressures and troubles in the Christian life:
Suffering for the Lord’s sake or for the gospel’s sake (Persecution and hardship due to being identified as belonging to Christ): Paul probably was referring to this kind of trouble in 2 Corinthians 1:8 when he described being “pressed out of measure, above strength, insomuch that we despaired even of life.”
Sufferings for the sake of ministering to Christ’s Body: Paul spoke of this when he wrote, “in weariness and painfulness…in hunger and thirst…fastings…cold and nakedness. Beside those things…the care of all the churches” (2 Corinthians 11:27-28).
Pressures due to Satan: “Lest Satan should get an advantage of us; for we are not ignorant of his devices” (2 Corinthians 2:11, cf. 1 Peter 5:8-9).
Pressures resulting from the frailties of the human condition since the Fall: work as toil; pain, disease and death (Gen. 3:17-19).
Pressures within human relationships: “But I determined…that I would not come again to you in heaviness. For if I make you sorry, who is he, then, that maketh me glad, but the same who is made sorry by me?” (2 Corinthians 2:1-2).
Pressures resulting from the conflict between the flesh and the spirit (daily internal pressures): The Scriptures speak of this as “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life” (1 John 2:16). The New International Version reads, “the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes, and the boasting of what he has and does.”
Pressures due to the disparity between the world as it is and how we feel it ought to be: This is “the problem of pain” or “the problem of evil,” which asks, “If the world is governed by an all-wise, all-loving, all-powerful God, why is there so much suffering and evil?”
Pressures that seem small and insignificant to everyone except the one who is experiencing them: Edith Schaeffer speaks compellingly of these in her book Affliction: “An affliction can be physical, psychological, material, emotional, intellectual or cultural…having too much or too little, having too many demands…no feeling of being needed…a sudden shock, or a daily constant dragging on with no change. [It] can be planned by some human being who wants to do us harm, or can apparently come with no explanation at all. [It] can be that which turns our whole lives upside down…or it can be seemingly so small and insignificant that we might feel no one else would define it as ‘trouble’ at all.”
Scriptural insights about stress and how to deal with it
1. Stress is a normal part of life. “Man is born unto trouble, as the sparks fly upward” (Job 5:7).
2. Stress and suffering are NOT an indication of God’s disfavor or disinterest (See the Book of Job and John 9).
3. The stress that Christians encounter is not random fate, but something God has allowed for reasons we often cannot understand. For example, the death of Lazarus seemed to his sisters a senseless tragedy, but the Lord had a purpose for it (John 11:4 and following).
4. The suffering and distress that come because of association with Christ and service to him should be seen as a privilege (Acts 5:41).
5. The Christian’s response to a trying circumstance should include patient endurance (2 Corinthians 1:7) and perseverance in the path of duty and faith (See James 1:2-3; 5:7-11).
6. Afflictions should drive the believer TO God and not AWAY from him (1 Peter 5:7-11; 2 Corinthians 1:9b).
7. Afflictions can be an opportunity to strengthen relationships with other believers as comforts and afflictions are shared with one another (2 Corinthians 1:3-7).
8. God uses afflictions to demonstrate and purify the quality of a person’s faith (James 1:2-3; 1 Peter 1:3-7).
9. Stressful situations are your opportunity to glorify God and his opportunity to glorify himself (2 Corinthians 1:8-11).
10. The real test of faith is to endure hardship even though it seems random and senseless. It is not always given to the believer to know why something is the way that it is (Deuteronomy 29:29).
ROAD SIGN #2: Merge
The Christian life is a social life. It is not meant to be lived in isolation. In all of Paul’s writings there is a multiplicity of references to others with whom he ministered and who ministered to him. In 2 Corinthians 1, we read about Silvanus (Silas) and Timothy; in Paul’s earlier letter to the Corinthians we read about Apollos, Cephas, Crispus, Gaius, the household of Stephanas and many others.
In all of his dealings with the churches Paul took pains to remind believers that they were not isolated individuals but members of a Body, interdependent and responsible to and for one another. We must remember that we need the fellowship, gifts, admonition and support of other believers. In writing to another group of saints who faced their own stressful situation, the author of Hebrews put it this way: “Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is, but exhorting one another, and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching” (Hebrews 10:25).
ROAD SIGN #3: Yield
The Christian life is a supernatural life. It is not meant to be lived by our own power, but God’s. Chapter 1 of 2 Corinthians gives many references to God’s activity on behalf of the saints: he sends and chooses the apostle, supplies grace and peace, comforts in all tribulation, raises the dead, delivers and will continue to do so, answers prayer, and enables the believer to endure by providing reason to hope. God establishes us in Christ (verse 21). “But of him are ye in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption; That, according as it is written, he that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:30-31). A believer who forgets the supernatural quality of the Christian life is only courting frustration or pride.
ROAD SIGN #4: One Way
The Christian life is a sanctified life. It is a life meant to be lived in the world but not of it. In 2 Corinthians, chapter 2, Paul alludes to his first letter in which he confronted the Corinthian church about certain sinful attitudes and behavior, chiefly tolerating in their midst someone who was living immorally. Failure to be separated from immorality unto God is like a bombshell aimed at the very core of our spiritual lives. Such a situation is like a primed hand grenade sitting in the middle of one’s living room floor. Immoral situations call for decisive action—urgent flight away from them and toward God.
ROAD SIGN #5: Rest Area
The Christian life is a saved life. All of our stresses and struggles occur within the context of a relationship with God that has already been secured through the death and ministry of his Son. Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 1:21-22: “Now he who establisheth us with you in Christ, and hath anointed us, is God, Who hath also sealed us, and given the earnest of the Spirit in our hearts.” That earnest is God’s guarantee that he will complete the good work he has begun in the lives of his people (Ephesians 1:14).
Let us continue, then, on our Christian journey, watchful for the road signs. Let us press on to the destination that has been assured us by Jesus, who has gone on before.