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Paul, the depressed apostle?

August 2, 2009

So it would seem quite clearly.  Try to read the following words slowly and vicariously.  They come from no less a Christian than the Apostle Paul:

For we do not want you to be ignorant, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself.  Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. . . .We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus (2 Cor. 1:8-9a; 4:8-10a).

Several years ago I received tremendous help and encouragement from an exposition of these passages by Kent Hughes.  Thus, I am going to reference many of his insights in the following, taking them from his commentary 2 Corinthians: Power in Weakness.  Thus he writes on 1:8,

“With the resounding comfort of God still sounding (1:3-7), Paul now relates a dramatic personal example of God’s care. . . . His despair is framed in memorable terms because the Greek words translated ‘For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength’ were also used to describe an overloaded ship riding low in the water . . . so that it cannot rise.  Paul was so ‘utterly, unbearably crushed’ (RSV) that he couldn’t get up. . . .  Inertia gripped his being so much he ‘despaired of life itself.’  His despair was so deep that he was literally ‘without a way of escape.’  There was no exit” (pp. 30-31, emphasis mine).

When Paul writes “we despaired of life itself,” that word despaired connotes “to be utterly at a loss, that is, despond[ent]:  (in) despair” according to Strong’s Hebrew and Greek Dictionaries.   One Greek lexicon adds this about the term:  “to be utterly at loss, be utterly destitute of measures or resources, to renounce all hope, be in despair (emphasis mine; Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament).

“Think of it,” writes Hughes.  “Paul had had multiple life-threatening experiences:  the stoning, the five beatings that each took him to within an inch of his life, multiplied dangers and shipwrecks.  But this affliction in Asia was the most damaging and debilitating.  An inexorable, paralyzing weight had fallen on him in Asia, and there was no exit” (p. 31, emphasis mine).

Paul speaks here from the depths of his very human heart.  Thankfully, he didn’t just “suck it up” and keep us from ever knowing that he had thoughts such as these.  He did not put on a false air of invincibility as I find so many Christians (and especially my pastoral brethren) do.  How empathetic can the shepherds of God’s sheep be who sneeringly wave the back of their hand at people who struggle with times of despair such as Paul describes here?  Can we really claim to read Paul correctly (and teach others properly) if we say something like “I don’t read the Apostle Paul unhappy or hopeless because of what is happening negative in his life.”

Not hardly.

Yet, the depressed apostle learned much from these experiences and we will explore that topic next.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. David Lee permalink
    August 2, 2009 11:10 PM

    I love the examples I find in the life of Paul. Probably because they relate so well to life in the year 2009. You are exactly correct in stating that Paul doesn’t paint a picture of “sunshine and roses”, actually quite the opposite. Despite the trials, difficulties and the obvious times of “despair”, he encourages the believer to forge on…keep pressing for the mark…but he never downplays the “despair”, he doesn’t put a time frame on how long you may have to endure the “affliction”, nor does he give token solutions. (i.e. “just pray about it” or “you have a sin problem in your life”) that we hear from many Pastors. He says (interpretation mine)…no matter what the conditions are in your life…keep your faith, keep your eyes on Christ.

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