2 Corinthians is purported to be one of Paul’s most personal books and if the first few chapters are any indication, this assessment fits. As I began to read and study the book again recently, I was struck with the depth of Paul’s self-disclosure right away in the first chapter where he admits that he feels “burdened beyond our strength” to the degree that  he was  “despairing even of life” (8). Scholars vary in their interpretations all the way from claiming that Paul was suffering deep discouragement to some even wondering if he was almost suicidal. Whatever the case, I for one, am glad Paul allowed us to see his discouragement for if the apostle Paul can feel this melancholy, it normalizes these feelings for those of us.

Whatever Paul was feeling in chapter one, he seems to shift quite significantly by the beginning of chapter four where he states, “Therefore, since we have this ministry, as we received mercy, we do not lose heart (italics added). Paul goes on in the following chapters to write some of the most profound teaching on the topic of suffering and remaining steadfast in the midst of it. To what can we attribute this change in Paul’s demeanor? Did Paul just decide to snap himself out of it? Was he tired of feeling sad? Did he practice some kind of cognitive reframe to make himself feel better? Maybe. The topics addressed in the early chapters of the book are indeed very encouraging. Reflection on God’s power in ministry, the Holy Spirit’s work and God’s ultimate victory could surely counter feelings of hopelessness. But what brought these topics to the apostle’s mind?

Could it be the occasion for the book itself that sparked the change? Paul had written at least one (probably two) hard letters to the Corinthian church. He had even postponed visits because he did not want to show up only to have to confront them again. Finally, he had sent Titus to see and report on the situation. In the meantime Paul is run out of Ephesus because of the riot over the goddess Diana cult (Acts 20:1). He gets impatient and cannot even wait for Titus to rendezvous at Troas (2 Cor. 2:12-13).  Everything seems to be unwinding for the apostle. Finally, Titus catches up with Paul and is able to share the good news that the church at Corinth was finally turning the corner. It seems like this news perks Paul up and he is suddenly able to remember his theology.

Should Paul have been able to snap himself out of discouragement regardless of the news of Corinth?  Probably. Do we have here a formula that encouraging words are the remedy for despair? Probably not, at least not fully.  It was not the encouraging words themselves (as wonderful as they were) but it was what the encouraging words prompted Paul to reflect on that brought about the change. But the words did play a role.

So in our conversations with one another, do we spark each other to remember what we believe?  

Bryan Maier, Psy. D.  is an Associate Professor of Counseling & Psychology in the Masters of Arts in Counseling Program at Biblical. He maintains a private practice at Diane Langberg & Associates.

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