Have you ever heard someone say, “God will never give you more than you can bear”? Really? Is this what the Bible teaches? Is this what your own experience confirms? Let’s be honest. In those seasons when we are walking through “the valley of the shadow of death,” this platitude not only provides little comfort, but it also piles a lot of guilt on us. The apostle Paul, who was no weakling in the faith, described his feelings of anguish to the Corinthian church:
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. (2 Cor. 1:8; emphasis mine)
Paul doesn’t describe the affliction that caused him to despair even of life, but he does let us know that it was more than he could bear! In 2 Corinthians 1:8–10, Paul gives us a minicourse on affliction—a divine lifeline for those times when we are “burdened beyond our strength.”
The Reality of Affliction
“Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death” (2 Cor. 1:9a).
In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul is intentionally vague about the nature of his suffering. The specifics aren’t important. It is the reality of the pain and hopelessness he felt that Paul seeks to convey to his readers. This means that Christians who face various forms of suffering, affliction, and pain can identify with Paul and be helped in the same way.
This affliction had pushed Paul beyond his limits. His situation was so desperate and utterly beyond his ability to handle, that he thought he was going to die. The very words Paul uses are those of a man on death row. He was in a hopeless situation with no human way of escape.
Does God only give us what we can bear? Not according to Paul! If God only gives us what we can handle, if he only gives us what we can bear, why do we need him? If we have the ability to handle what comes our way in this life, just maybe we have within us the ability to deal with the next life as well.
The Reason for Affliction
“But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead” (2 Cor. 1:9b).
Afflictions have a divinely ordained purpose, namely, to change our perspective regarding ourselves. Paul’s words here literally mean, “to make us stand not relying on our ourselves…” He was pushed beyond the limits of his human ability and was confronted with the complete inadequacy of self-reliance in the face of certain death. This pain brought him to the place of dependence upon the One who not only has power over death but also has defeated it.
This is why afflictions are a divine blessing in disguise. When we are pressed beyond our limits, these hard providences reveal our inability to deal with the ultimate reality: death. If we can’t handle cancer, what makes us think we can handle death? These “unbearable” times are when God draws us closer to himself in simple faith.
The Response to Affliction
He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again (2 Cor. 1:10).
Because we know that our good and gracious God is at work in our pain to bring us to a greater dependence upon him alone, we can respond to these times with hope.
Hope grows in the soil of affliction. In this fertile ground, the Holy Spirit makes us aware of the glorious hope we have in Christ. Our gracious heavenly Father often does deliver us from the many afflictions of this life, but these temporal deliverances cause us to look to the future with hope and anticipation for the great deliverance yet to come. While we cannot be certain that God will remove the crushing burden we face right now, we can be assured of his ultimate deliverance. He is the one who raises the dead, and upon him we have set our hope.
The gospel is not a promise that all our problems in this life will be solved—or that we will never face anything beyond our ability to bear. The gospel is all about Christ. He is everything we need. He is our only hope. Our loving heavenly Father often burdens us beyond our ability in order to deepen our dependence upon Christ, who is our true strength. He may even bring us to despair of life itself, so that we might find the comfort and strength of resting on the One who raises the dead.
Scott E. Churnock (MDiv, ThM) is pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church in St. Louis, Missouri.