I have read and reread 2 Corinthians as I have thought about how to handle the wounds, the blows, and the heartaches that often are associated with ministry. If any letter provides a perspective that prevents ministry wounds from becoming life threatening or chronically debilitating to ministry, it is 2 Corinthians. Paul, who is “loved less the more he loves” (2 Cor. 12:15), has a perspective that enables him to emerge victorious from the most hurtful of battles. His perspective allows him to be struck down but not destroyed. How can that be?
In my last blog I wrote that Paul understood that ministry would involve stress and frustration. Satan battles for men’s souls (2 Cor. 2:11; 4:4) and the battle will often be intense. In addition, Paul did not play it safe by being reserved in his emotions toward those who might hurt him. Paul continued to love the Corinthians even as they often rejected his love. He also ministered with integrity, never having to do battle with his conscience in addition to his enemies.
I believe, however, that the critical perspective that enabled Paul to be hurt without becoming devastated was his understanding of his identity in Christ. A key verse that summarizes what Paul expresses throughout the letter regarding his identity in Christ is 2 Corinthians 5:17: “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold all things have become new.”
We overlook the full meaning of this verse if we think it simply means that someone changes when he or she comes to Christ. The context (2 Cor. 5:12-16) makes clear that a radical change takes place in who we are and how we view ourselves. I am a “new creature” whose entire orientation to Christ, to myself, and to others has changed. I was out of Christ before but now I am “in Christ.” Because I am in Christ, I have died with Him and now live with Him. I live or should live, not for myself, but “for Him who died for them and rose again.”
How well we know this verse and how little we apply it! Note how Paul understands the reality of being in Christ throughout this letter! The sufferings he experiences are not his but are the “sufferings of Christ” (2 Cor. 1:5). God “always leads us in triumph in Christ” and because we are in Christ He “through us diffuses the fragrance of His knowledge in every place” (2 Cor. 2:14). Some react positively to that fragrance (aroma of life) and some negatively (aroma of death) but the reaction is to His fragrance not ours.
When Paul is “hard-pressed”, “perplexed”, “persecuted” “struck down”, Paul is not undone because as he moves from hardship to hardship he carries with him the “dying of Jesus” (2 Cor. 4:8-10). The wrong done to Paul is wrong done to Jesus and is part of Christ’s suffering that extends beyond the cross. Paul responds to the wrong as one having been raised with Christ. The more he does so, the more the life of Jesus manifests itself in him. He does not “lose heart” because any dying he experiences is more than overcome by strengthening in the inner man (2 Cor. 4:16). Christ absorbs the blows of ministry, yet the “light-affliction” produces for us an “eternal weight of glory “(2 Cor.4:17).
Paul confronts those who are in error at the close of this letter. Either they will repent or he will have to deal with them during his third visit. But it will not be Paul but Christ who they will face. He reminds them: “For though He was crucified in weakness, yet He lives by the power of God. For we also are weak in Him, but we shall live with Him by the power of God toward you” (2 Cor. 13:4).
Jesus does not want us to experience those blows, nor as new creatures should we, if we live in the reality of who He has made us to be. He is perfectly willing and able to continue dying and living His resurrection life in us and through us. Somehow, He is able to absorb all the hurtful blows involved in ministry and yet use them for our eternal glory. Knowing this and living this enabled Paul not to ever lose heart. Knowing this and living this will enable us never to lose heart. We may be struck down but we will never be destroyed!