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How St Paul Responded to Intense Hardships, Pressure, and Suffering
The following quotations are from Charles R. Swindoll’s book, “Paul---A Man of Grace and Grit,” published in 2002.
Few individuals have experienced the degree of suffering that comes near to the magnitude Paul endured. The pressure he lived with was borderline unbearable. He writes about that in his second letter to the Christians at Corinth. He weaves through that letter what amounts to a litany of hardships he endured during his ministry experience and missionary journeys: “For we do not want you to be unaware, brethren, of our affliction which came to us in Asia, that we were burdened excessively, beyond our strength so that we despaired even of life; indeed, we had the sentence of death within ourselves . . .“ (2 Corinthians 1:8—9 NASB).
The word translated here “affliction” is the Greek term for “pressure.” Pressure from opposition. Pressure from rejection. Pressure from physical and emotional strain. Paul writes that he was “burdened excessively,” to the point he despaired of life. The full load of intense pressure weighed so heavily upon him, he felt he had reached the end. Maybe you’ve been there. On a very few occasions, I’ve been there. For Paul the pressure felt like a death sentence. Given enough time it would eventually finish him off.
If we’re going to study the life of Paul and learn lessons from his life and ministry, a major lesson to be learned is how to respond to pressure. I use pressure and hardship interchangeably. The way he responded to hardship is the way I want to respond. Rarely does any of us face adversity with such determined resolve. We view hardship as an unpleasant interruption. It’s an unfair circumstance brought upon us by difficult people or oppressive situations.
Paul responded differently. His secret of endurance lay in his “divine perspective.” Let’s explore that idea.
He Trusted God Alone
Paul allowed the affliction to strengthen his trust in God alone. He writes, “Indeed, we had the sentence of death within ourselves in order that we should not trust in ourselves, but in God who raises the dead; who delivered us from so great a peril of death, and will deliver us, He on whom we have set our hope. And He will yet deliver us” (1:9—10).
He has delivered us, He is delivering us, He will deliver us. Get the picture? He focused on God’s ability to handle the circumstances from start to finish. That freed him to lean on and tap into God’s power alone.
I think the apostle reached the place where he realized he wasn’t capable of altering anything. He wasn’t competent enough to fix the problem or smart enough to solve the mystery. His confidence drained away to the point he despaired of life itself. At that critical juncture he found supernatural strength by looking up. He said, “Lord, right now I am unable to go on. I’m not capable. I’m not competent. I’m not confident in anything in myself to relieve this pressure. I trust You and You alone.” That’s what I call “divine perspective.” Grit under pressure.
An Old Testament story flashes across my mind. There is a similar episode in David’s life recorded in 1 Samuel 30, when the pressure could have wiped him out. David is not yet king. Yet he’s in the midst of the wilderness battling the enemies of Israel. The Scriptures transport us to the scene: “Then it happened when David and his men came to Zildag on the third day, that the Amalekites had made a raid on the Negev and on Ziklag, and had overthrown Ziklag and burned it with fire; and they took captive the women and all who were in it, both small and great, without killing anyone, and carried them off and went their way” (1 Samuel 30:1—2).
David and his men lived at Ziklag. They had left home to go fight a battle. On their return, after scaling the final ridge, they stared in disbelief: The smoldering remains of what was once their home lay before them. It would be like driving home after a long day at the office, and as you turn the final corner you notice fire trucks parked all over your neighborhood, and fire personnel scrambling all around the houses, including yours. You then notice black smoke billowing from the roof of your residence. Your home and several of your neighbors’ homes are engulfed in flames. To your horror when the smoke clears there’s nothing left but a pile of charred rubble.
That’s the scene David and his men happened upon, only it was worse. The entire village was gone and all of the homes burned. In addition, to their horror, the entire area was desolate. The women and children had been taken. For all they knew, they had been slaughtered, and they would never see them again.
The Scripture continues, “And when David and his men came to the city; behold, it was burned with fire, and their wives and their sons and their daughters had been taken captive. Then David and the people who were with him lifted their voices and wept until there was no strength in them to weep. Now David’s two wives had been taken captive, Ahinoam the Jezreelite and Abigail the widow of Nabal the Carmelite. Moreover David was greatly distressed because the people spoke of stoning him, for all the people were embittered, each one because of his sons, and his daughters” (1 Samuel 30:3—6a).
Welcome to leadership. I’m sure some on their mounts looked over in David’s direction and sneered, “You’re the one who took us on this fight. If we had not gone we could have stayed here and defended our families. We left because you urged us to leave. You’re responsible for what happened here.” On top of the loss of his own family and children, David faced mutiny. I call that pressure at maximum level.
Notice the next eight words. They represent the man’s response: “David strengthened himself in the Lord his God.”
Been there? Nothing around you provides strength. Not even your closest friends seem reliable. Your situation is bleak. Your future is threatened. You’re all alone. You’re at a loss for wisdom. At that time of crisis all you can do is look up. That’s how David responded.
And that’s exactly what Paul did. When the whole world seemed set against him, he looked up and God came through. He learned that God was trustworthy. Later he exclaims, “We have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing greatness of the power may be of God and not from ourselves” (2 Corinthians 4:7).
We don’t have the power we need to face life’s worst blasts. Left to ourselves we cave in. The kind of power we need comes from God only, regardless of our circumstances. To describe his life of ministry, he used words like afflicted, perplexed, persecuted, and struck down. That was Paul’s life as an ambassador for Christ. More often than not, he was like a sheep ready for slaughter. Any takers?
Again, it’s not his affliction we admire, but how he handled it. That’s the greatness we appreciate. “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in our body the dying of Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. For we who live are constantly being delivered over to death for Jesus’ sake, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh” (2 Corinthians 4:8—11).
In my more-than-thirty-year study of Paul, I’ve discovered he never once blamed God for his affliction. He never shook his fist at the heavens in frustration. I find that absolutely incredible. He received it all as part of his commitment to Christ and trusted God to handle those moments when he came to the breaking point. He confidently relied on his Lord. What a wonderful response. But there was another dimension to Paul’s perspective.
His Focus Remained on Things Unseen
Paul viewed whatever happened to him through the eyes of faith. That remarkable trait allows him to be numbered among giants of the faith like Moses, who according to Hebrews 11, “left Egypt, not fearing the wrath of the king; for he endured, as seeing Him who is unseen” (11:27). Like Moses, Paul endured the hard times by focusing on the eternal. He used his trials as reminders to focus on things not seen. When your heart is right you can do that.
Not long ago Cynthia and I traveled to Houston for an Insight for Living event. While there we enjoyed a brief visit to the home of some good friends. Being down in the city in which I was reared reminded me of a home she and I had been in many years before. The place had a huge stone fireplace, big enough to crawl into. I relish those rare occasions when I can sit by a roaring fire and read or listen to classical music. I’m a fireplace guy!
Anyway, etched into the massive piece of timber that formed the mantle of that magnificent fireplace were these words:
“IF YOUR HEART IS COLD, MY FIRE CANNOT WARM IT.”
Cynthia and I will never forget those words above that great stone hearth. There’s no fire in the world that can warm a cold heart. A cold heart stays riveted on the hardship and refuses to see beyond the present. Paul’s heart blazed with the fire of faith, allowing him to see the unseen. That’s what kept him together under pressure. His heart stayed warm.
Nothing of what touched Paul externally would cool him deep within. Rather, it fueled his inner flame. The longer the persecution continued, the hotter his fire for God. He focused on the One who works His eternal purposes in the unseen realm when all around him gave way. Adversity strengthens our faith, consuming the dross of fear and unbelief as it melts away doubts.
By the way, focusing on the unseen is a learned trait. Some years ago I heard my friend, Jim Dobson, tell a very moving story about a lovely, large African-American lady, picturesque and strong-hearted. Every day without fail she came to the hospital to be with her five-year-old son, who was dying of lung cancer.
Before she arrived one morning, the nurse heard the little boy’s voice coming from his room, “I hear the bells. I can hear the bells. They’re ringing.” Again and again the same words could be heard by the nurses and the staff on the floor where the little boy’s room was located.
When his mother arrived later that same morning, she asked one of the nurses how her son had been doing. The nurse sighed and replied with a shrug, “Oh, he’s been hallucinating all morning; it’s probably the medication. He’s not making any sense. He says he’s hearing bells.”
That beautiful mother’s face beamed with understanding. She waved her finger in the face of that nurse and said, “You listen to me. My boy is not hallucinating, and he’s not out of his head because of the medication. I told him weeks ago that when the pain in his chest got so bad that it was hard to breath, it meant he was going to leave us. It meant he was going to go up to heaven, and when his pain got really bad, I told him to look up into the corner of his room toward his new home in heaven, and listen for the bells because they’d be ringing for him.”
With that she turned and marched down the hall and swept her little boy into her big, soft arms and rocked him until the sounds of the ringing bells were only quiet echoes and he was gone.
Focusing on the unseen helps us endure what would otherwise be unbearable. That’s what Paul did, and it kept him strong in troubled times. And in all of that he learned the greatest lesson of all. He discovered for himself. . .
THE POWER OF WEAKNESS
Paul pressed ahead through a mind-boggling series of intense hardships, which he lists later in the same letter (2 Corinthians 11:22-28).
Are they Hebrews? So am I.
Are they Israelites? So am I.
Are they descendants of Abraham? So am I.
Are they ministers of Christ? I have more claim to this title than they. This is a silly game but look at this list:
I have worked harder than any of them.
I have served more prison sentences!
I have been beaten times without number.
I have faced death again and again.
I have been beaten the regulation thirty-nine stripes by the Jews five times.
I have been beaten with rods three times.
I have been stoned once.
I have been shipwrecked three times.
I have been twenty-four hours in the open sea.
In my travels I have been in constant danger from rivers and floods, from bandits, from my own countrymen, and from pagans. I have faced danger in city streets, danger in the desert, danger on the high seas, danger among false Christians. I have known exhaustion, pain, long vigils, hunger and thirst, doing without meals, cold and lack of clothing.
Apart from all external trials I have the daily burden of responsibility for all the churches. (J B Phillips, The New Testament in Modern English)
On top of all that, the Lord gave him a thorn in the flesh. The Lord answered his desperate prayers to remove the thorn—--whatever it may have been—--in a most unexpected manner. The Lord simply answered, “My grace is sufficient for you, because power is perfected in weakness.”
Surprised? “You mean, I don’t have to be super-strong and endure each trial relying my own resources?” It’s not like that at all. In fact, the only way you qualify to receive His strength is when you admit your weakness, when you admit you’re not capable and strong, when, like Paul, you’re willing to boast in nothing but your weakness and God’s power.
We’d rather admire Paul for his strength in trials. We want to applaud his fierce determination against vicious persecution. If the man were alive today, he would not tolerate our congratulations. “No, no, no. You don’t understand. I’m not strong. The One who pours his power into me is strong. My strength comes from my weakness.” That’s no false modesty. Paul would tell us, “Strength comes from embracing weakness and boasting in that.” It is that kind of response that brings divine strength and allows it to spring into action.
J. Oswald Sanders, in his book Paul, the Leader, writes, “We form part of a generation that worships power—--military; intellectual, economical, scientific. The concept of power is worked into the warp and woof of our daily living. Our entire world is divided into power blocs. Men everywhere are striving for power in various realms, often with questionable motivation.”
The celebrated Scottish preacher, James Stewart, made a statement that is also challenging: “It is always upon human weakness and humiliation, not human strength and confidence, that God chooses to build His Kingdom; and that He can use us not merely in spite of our ordinariness and helplessness and disqualifying infirmities, but precisely because of them.”
That’s a thrilling discovery to make. It transforms our mental attitude toward our circumstances.
Let’s pause long enough here to consider this principle in all seriousness. Your humiliations, your struggles, your battles, your weaknesses, your feelings of inadequacy, your helplessness, even your so-called “disqualifying” infirmities are precisely what make you effective. I would go further and say they represent the stuff of greatness. Once you are convinced of your own weakness and no longer trying to hide it, you embrace the power of Christ. Paul modeled that trait wonderfully, once he grasped the principle. His pride departed and in its place emerged a genuine humility that no amount of hardship could erase.
REFLECTING ON YOUR RESPONSES
So much for Paul. How about you? Fast forward to the twenty-first century. Are you afflicted and burdened excessively? Do you feel as if you’re under such intense pressure these days that you, too, are close to despair? I have some surprising news: You’re exactly where God wants you to be. It took all these years to get you this low, this needy. Now, look up!
Are you feeling crushed and confused, misunderstood and beaten down? Resist the temptation to roll up your sleeves and muster a self-imposed recovery plan. This is your opportunity! Rather than fighting back, surrender. Embrace your weakness. Tell your heavenly Father that you are trusting in the strength of His power. If Paul could do it, so can you. So can I.
At this moment I am facing a few impossible situations. No doubt, so are you. To be honest, I’m too weak to handle any of them. So are you. I’m often near tears. I’m frequently discouraged. There’s hardly a week that passes that I don’t slump into a mild feeling of discouragement. Sound familiar? Admit it! Some nights I don’t sleep well. There are times that I absolutely weep out of disappointment in some individual’s failure. . . or my own. You, too? You and I need to face the fact that we will never be able to handle any of these pressures alone. When we acknowledge this, and not until, His strength will be released in us.
Florence White Willett penned these beautiful words that help me keep life in proper perspective:
I thank God for bitter things;
They’ve been a ‘friend to grace’;
They’ve driven me from paths of ease
To storm the secret place.
I thank Him for the friends who failed
To fill my heart’s deep need;
They’ve driven me to the Savior’s feet,
Upon His love to feed.
I’m grateful too, through all life’s way
No one could satisfy,
And so I’ve found in God alone
My rich, my full supply!
Now that you and I are beginning to grasp what Paul modeled so well, strength in weakness, I suggest we truly embrace it. You and I have slugged our way through life long enough. What do you say we stop that habit? Let’s both come before the Lord and say, “Lord, if You don’t come through, I’m sunk. If you don’t open that door, it isn’t going to open. My situation is in Your hands. I’m tired of pushing and shoving and relying on myself. I surrender.” ‘When we do that, we hear Him say, “My grace is sufficient. My strength is perfected in your weakness.”
Are you ready to face the next battle with a new strategy? Okay, start by surrendering. Instead of returning to your same-old method—--doing a month of mental push-ups, talking yourself into looking strong and acting brave, putting on the gloves and stepping into the ring with swagger, relying on your own strength to win and succeed and impress. Stop and surrender. Drop to your knees and cry out to God. Admit your inadequacies and declare your inability to keep going on your own.
If you’re finally ready to step aside and let Him have His way, say so; then do it. He will honor your admission of weakness by showing Himself strong through you. But if you don’t, He won’t.
It’s your call. (234-243)
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