Having the strength of your weakness

What a year it’s been. How many have been forced to the brink against their best efforts? How many have been driven beyond the brink into the loss of all things? What losses have we not suffered – life, love, faith, provision, possessions, savings, health, dreams, plans? Earlier this summer I found myself in 2Corinthians thinking through how faith survives the pain and grief of radical loss. Here’s the gist.

1Cor 10.1-10 speaks of Israel’s wilderness ‘testing’, the challenges of wilderness life. Then Paul moves toward an application of Israel’s history to the life of Christians (vv. 11-13):

11 Now these things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come. 12 So the one who thinks he is standing firm should be careful not to fall. 13 No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; He will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, He will also provide an escape, so that you can stand up under it.

Some understand the “temptation” of v. 13 to refer to temptation to sin, perhaps temptation presented by the Devil (cf. Jesus’ wilderness temptations). More commonly, however, we are tempted by our own fallen nature and dispositions. Jam 1.14-15: “Each one is tempted when by his own desires he is lured away and enticed. Then after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin.”

Viewed as ‘temptation to sin’, 1Cor 10 is understood as promising us that God will not permit such temptation to overwhelm us with the force of its lure or enticement. God will always provide a “way of escape,” a kind of exit ramp off the highway, a way to flee from the lure of sin’s enticement.

We are in fact tempted to sin in this sense, obviously. And God’s grace does empower us to say no to such temptation. And usually saying no involves escaping the circumstance or situation which is, for most of us, the occasion of temptation. But I wish to suggest here that 1Cor 10.13 is not primarily referring to ‘temptation’ in this sense, but to ‘trials’ (tests, difficulties, challenges, pressures) that we all inevitably face and which more often than not we cannot run away from or escape.

The Greek word peirosmos can describe either ‘temptation’ (in the ‘enticement to sin’ sense) or ‘trial’ (as an encounter with the challenges and difficulties one generally encounters in life). Take for example Jam 1.3: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, when you encounter peirosmoi [trials] of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance.” But later in the same chapter (v. 14), using the same word, he’s clearly talking about ‘temptation’ when he says “each one is tempted (peirazetai) when his own desires lure him away.”

This raises the interesting question about the relation between the two – ‘temptation to sin’ on the one hand and the ‘trials’ of life on the other. Every ‘test’ or ‘trial’, by virtue of being a ‘test’ at all, is an opportunity to sin (to fail the test). And every allurement of our nature to ‘sin’ is equally a ‘test’. However, here in 1Cor 13 Paul has primarily ‘test’ or ‘trial’ in mind, the inevitable difficulties and challenges of life that press in on us, and this is clear in other statements he makes. The point of v. 13 is better read as saying something like “When you are tried/tested, when life presses in, God will not abandon you, he will provide you ‘the escape’ [literally].” And now look at the final phrase which explains this ‘escape’: “so that you will be able to endure it.”

But wait a second? What kind of ‘escape’ is this? I don’t want to ‘endure’. I want to ‘escape it’. But Paul explicitly says the ‘escape’ God provides (God’s not allowing us to be overwhelmed) is ‘a way to endure’. And this figures in later in Paul’s correspondence with the Corinthians when he talks about God’s having permitted a “messenger of Satan” to remain a “thorn in [his] flesh” so that God’s grace would be all the more manifest in his life. To ‘escape’ here is to ‘endure’.

I’m sharing this because many Christians assume God’s grace will always provide a means of escape or relief from life’s trials/tests, and end to our trial. But in v. 13 the escape doesn’t alleviate the pressure or pain at all. It rather sustains us in/under the pressure. We endure the trial.

This comes out beautifully in 2Cor 4.7-10:

7 We now have this light shining in our hearts, but we ourselves are like fragile clay jars containing this great treasure. This makes it clear that our great power is from God, not from ourselves. 8 We are pressed on every side by troubles, but we are not crushed. We are perplexed, but not driven to despair. 9 We are hunted down, but never abandoned by God. We get knocked down, but we are not destroyed. 10 Through suffering, our bodies continue to share in the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be seen in our bodies.

The thought is anticipated in Pauls’ opening to the same letter, 2Cor 1.8-9:

8 We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. 9 Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead.

Let’s look then at the different perspectives between 1Cor 10 and 2Cor 1.

  • 1Cor 10.13 – God does not allow us to be “tried” (peirosmos) “beyond our ability” (hyper ho dunasthe).
  • 2Cor 1.9 – God does allow Paul and company be tried (peirosmos) “beyond their ability” (hyper ho dunamin).

Harmonize away if you feel compelled. I don’t. In the latter (2Cor) passage God allows Paul and company to be tried beyond their ability precisely because it is when our abilities are exhausted that we are broken open to the grace of God. Compare the two. What is ‘endured’ in 1Cor 10 becomes in 2Cor 1 the ‘despairing of life so God can raise us from the dead’. Something far more radical has provoked Paul’s reflections in 2Cor 1, something not in view in 1Cor.

I suggest that Paul’s experience in Asia (2Cor 1) deeply broke him and took his understanding of grace and human effort to a genuinely new level not reflected in 1Cor. And rather than attempting to harmonize 1Cor 10 and 2Cor 1 as describing the same experience from two different perspectives, I understand Paul as amending his earlier view. The Paul of 2Cor would not express himself in terms of 1Cor 10.13’s “God will not allow you to be overwhelmed.” On the contrary, God will certainly (2Cor 1.9) allow life to overwhelm you.

The “escape in order to endure” of 1Cor 10 comes in 2Cor 1 to involve “despairing of life in order to be raised from the dead.” That’s a fairly radical reassessment. In 1Cor 10 we are assured God won’t let us be overwhelmed while in 2Cor 1 we have God certainly allowing Paul and company to be overwhelmed. Why? Because such suffering is where we end and God begins, where we expire and God inspires. God raises us to living utterly in and from his grace, and only extreme suffering can realize such a perspective in one’s faith and life.

The Paul who wrote 2Cor 1 is a different Paul than the Paul who wrote 1Cor 10. 2Cor doesn’t contradict 1Cor 10 as much as it reflects a deeper experience of grace on Paul’s part, an experience that could not have informed 1Cor but does inform and shape 2Cor 1, as Paul himself confesses. In 2Cor 1 we have a new understanding of the depth of the brokenness required for the full extent of God’s grace to shine in and through us at the very lowest and darkest of circumstances. (See Psalm 46 as well.)