An Exegesis of 2Corintians 1:3-11 on Suffering and God’s Mercy
I wrote my master’s thesis with the intent to argue against the new wave of public support for Physician Assisted Suicide (PAS). This raised the question in my mind about suffering in general. Why do we suffer? How are we to suffer? What helps us endure suffering? How do our emotions play in the dealing with suffering? Many more questions were presented, and all remain unanswered in my work thus far. My effort in this essay is to discuss the thoughts of the Apostle Paul in his second letter to the community in Corinth as a step towards answering any or all the questions already posed as well as others that have yet to present themselves, and how these thoughts may affect my approach to arguing against PAS.
Four times in the past year have I been referred to 2Cor 1:1-11 in my scripture prayer. Three of those times occurred while I was in some way suffering myself. First, my father-in-law passed. I was tending to my wife and her grief. There was my own suffering at loss of a friend and mentor. Dad’s lessons were a continuous course in my life for forty-two years. How my wife and I grieved together was a lesson for our children, who grew up with him. Similar lessons passed to our grandchildren as they observed us. They were fortunate to spend summers knowing their great-grandfather through the weeks they spent in our home at ‘camp’, with him as a counselor. They would know grief of such loss for perhaps the first time. The second visit to this scripture occurred at a time when I was struggling personally and professionally with a question of credibility, confused by a lack of background and understanding of the problem-at-hand. A third day noted in the margins of my bible is Thanksgiving Day, a read likely prompted by my scripture study routine. Finally, the same scripture study routine, through a different writer, prompted another return to these verses. The scripture has multiple notes and highlights from my pondering, which leads me belief I ought to write this essay as an expansion of the broader study concerning PAS.
The format of this essay is typical of my scholastic training. I break down the scripture into noted sections and provide my own insight. The insight of other commentators is shared after my own as a guide for myself and you the reader to support or dispute my own opinions and keep focused on established Christian Tradition. A standard summary closes out the essay. Note, I did not write ‘finish’ as I consider this a life-long learning project, for myself as well as for you the reader, an on-going part of our human experience.
I subdivide the scripture in the following manner for discussion;
- Vs 3 and 4 the Father’s encouragement
- Vs 5 Christ’s suffering to the Father’s
- Vs 6 Paul’s suffering and his offering of the suffering
- Vs 7 Paul acknowledging the Corinthians’ suffering
- Vs 8 – 10 the core lesson on suffering
- Vs 11 mutual support in suffering
The scripture source is “The Catholic Study Bible.”, Third Edition NABRE, Senior, Collins, Getty Eds; New York, Oxford UP. 2010. Print. The reader is likely to find differences between this translation and their own treasured scripture translation.
The Father’s Encouragement Vs 3,4
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and God of all encouragement, who encourages us in our every affliction, so that we may be able to encourage those who are in any affliction with the encouragement with which we ourselves are encouraged by God” (vs 3, 4)
We have a two-fold passing of love and grace as coined by the word ‘encouragement’. We do not create encouragement in this form, God does. This is in the fashion of the creation story. God speaks and the world is created. God speaks to make adam (mankind) in God’s image. This continues for each person in his/her own being. We are of a physical body, a mental thinking capacity (an awareness that is conscious mental activity of the mind as opposed to instinctual action) and working Conscience guiding the process and actions of the mind and physical body. God provides the gifts we need to build the spirit of Conscience (virtues) and we are to pass these gifts along in the image and likeness of God.
We break down the word being spoken, encouragement/encourage in English we find the prefix ‘en’ and the root ‘courage’. The prefix means “to cause to be in”, and “to confine in or place on”1 a being or nature. It is a making of something within another or covering another. It is preparatory in nature. ‘En’ is the drawing of the breath creating space for the essence of the word to come. ‘Courage’ being the root is that which is created by the pouring out of the breath. Courage is synonymous with Fortitude2 and is a Cardinal virtue which strengthens the resolve of persons. Cardinal virtues are grace from God.
God, encouraging us in our afflictions, is offering grace to strengthen our resolve to see the situation through. Paul doesn’t write ‘the God who removes our every affliction’. Suffering is a part of being a human person, is a challenge to overcome as any other human challenge. S/he who accepts the suffering is blessed by God, receives grace of perseverance and fortitude, and is better dispositioned to bear the burden of the affliction. Being bearers of affliction and having conquered our own sufferings with this grace, we pass this perseverance and fortitude on to others in solidarity with them in their own suffering. We become the Genesis gift intended by the Creator. We become fruitful, multiplying the grace to bear afflictions, affirming the dignity of each person in their own suffering.
Getty and Osiek give the entirety of these verses to an introduction of the letter altogether. They do point out “encouragement (paraklesis) in noun or verbal form occurs ten times in five verses, 3 through 7.”3 The view is one of setting up some friction between the church in Corinth and Paul’s Christology, friction that Paul addresses throughout the letter. “Transcending all the pain is the certainty of God’s presence with them and Paul’s confidence that God is at work in their lives.”4
Murphy-O’Conner provides the entirety of the verses considered as a blessing, which is different from Paul’s other letters where thanksgiving is used as an opening greeting.5 Murphy translates encouragement as ‘comfort’ and affirms Getty’s and Osiek’s repetition in the letter. He does comment about Paul’s ability to provide comfort to the Corinthian church because of his own suffering being comforted by God.
Paul opens this letter in a different way than his others. He opens this letter with a view on bearing heavy burdens. He tells his readers we do not bear these burdens alone, but that we may receive divine assistance. His telling of his own suffering is an opening to empathy with the Corinthians who are suffering. Paul is reminding them of the presence of God with them as well as with himself in times of suffering.
Christ’s suffering to the Father’s
“For as Christ’s sufferings overflow to us, so through Christ does our encouragement also overflow.” (vs. 5)
Paul takes for granted here that the passion and death suffered by Jesus falls into our lives as well. How can he make this as a supposition unless he experienced it himself in his revelation meeting with Jesus as the risen Christ or was otherwise taught this as a fundamental of Christian faith by Ananias in Damascus. However, Paul came to understand this, he understands it as a matter of truth and therefore joins it with grace received in the form of encouragement to strength and sustainment. Suffering does exist. If the Savior suffered, so must all suffer in this human life. And, as the sufferings occur, so is the grace to endure those suffering flow out to us. The two are a matched pair in the physical/spiritual world in which we move.
Getty and Osiek emphasize the Father’s love is also that of the Son. Beyond this, “the consolation of Israel is Jesus himself”.6 Paul suffers, not as Christ suffers, but suffers “experienced in union with Christ”. 7
Murphy reminds that the church is the Body of Christ. “The sufferings of the community which is “Christ” reflect those of the historical Jesus”.8 Murphy is calling us to remember Paul’s teaching of the relationship between Jesus and the church as the head and the body. One suffers as does the other. Murphy also continues to pair suffering with grace. “God strengthens Paul in proportion to his sufferings, which brought the community into being…”9
There is a connection between us as members of the body of Christ, a connection that allows us to unite our suffering to the saving act of Jesus on the cross. The body feels pain and the head recognizes the pain and works to relieve it. The mind, the head of the body, knows how to endure the sufferings of life and can sustain the body through the same.
Paul’s suffering and his offering of the suffering
“If we are afflicted, it is for your encouragement and salvation; if we are encouraged, it is for your encouragement, which enables you to endure the same sufferings that we suffer.” (vs. 6)
Of course, Paul and Timothy are afflicted, and the point of his telling them this is to build the connection with them of shared sufferings. He follows verse five by substituting himself and Timothy into the pattern. As Christ suffered, so Paul and Timothy suffer, so the Corinthians suffer, so do all Christians in the Body of Christ suffer. As Christ was encouraged in Gethsemane, so Christ encourages Paul and Timothy, so Paul affirms Christ encourages the Corinthians, so may we be affirmed we also receive Christ’s encouraging graces.
Paul points out it is not only encouragement that is rendered. It is for our salvation we are afflicted. It is in Luke’s account that Jesus is recorded saying “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me”(Lk 9:23).10 Salvation requires us to follow Jesus’s example, accept suffering as part of our journey. Each has his/her own cross, his/her own source of suffering to bear. Each also has a responsibility to the others of the body, to be with them and share their sufferings. Empathy, comfort, presence become the graces of virtue to help others through their pains.
Getty’s and Olisek’s, and Murphy’s comments on verse five encompass verse six as well. No other specifics are provided.
Pain and suffering are expected in life. What is different for Christians is sharing that pain with others that we and they will be sustained physically, mentally, and spiritually. We set examples for others in the body by how we suffer, and part of that example is the faith in and expectation of divine support.
Paul acknowledging the Corinthians’ suffering
“Our hope for you is firm, for we know that as you share in the sufferings, you also share in the encouragement.” (vs 7)
This verse appears to follow the theme of the Lucan quote above. Paul continues his line of thought of suffering is a consequence of committing to being part of the Body of Christ. This letter is thought to be written in the fall of 57 A.D. which predates Paul’s letter to the Romans. Here in 2Corintians, it shows early development of the concept of Christian baptism being a commitment to suffer the passion and death of Christ as a prerequisite to resurrection.11 This verse continues the same development toward the end goal of resurrection to new life in Christ. Paul writes here about receiving grace for persistence in suffering. His writing in Romans calls us to live as if we have already received the gift of resurrection.
Getty and Osiek write of an ‘eschatological reversal of suffering and encouragement’ and refer to Mt 5:4, “Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted” and Lk 6:24 “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.”12 Referencing the comments on these two Gospel verses explains the eschatological reversal, where those who are mourning in the present due to their spiritual and physical situations may expect the comfort and encouraging graces from God while those who hold earthly wealth rely on that wealth for their immediate comfort. The latter are blinded to the need for the grace of God and may expect to find their fortunes reversed in the Kingdom of God.
Murphy writes only a short note on this verse. “Those who have shared pain and comfort can face the future confidently despite current problems.”13 While short, Murphy seems to summarize Paul’s intent.
We are not alone in our suffering. There are others who suffer in common and those who serve the suffering. Even one who is isolated yet continues to live in faith is part of the body and may be assured of the prayers, empathy, and strength of grace provided by the Jesus, the head of the body, and Christians elsewhere praying for the sick and suffering.
The core lesson on suffering
“We do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction that came to us in the province of Asia: we were utterly weighted down beyond our strength, so that we despaired even of life. Indeed, we had accepted within ourselves the sentence of death, that we might trust not in ourselves but in God who raised the dead. He rescued us from such great danger of death, and he will continue to rescue us; in him we have put our hope [that] he will also rescue us again,” (vs 8 – 10)
Paul explains the process of suffering in verses (3) through (7). It is a process Christians are baptized into, a process of taking the hurts and sorrows of life in stride with the excitements and joys. Taking up one’s cross and following Jesus is a basic tenant of the new way.14 This is contrary to human instinct. Shying away from pain, avoiding the annoyance of a minor headache or a bruised shin are routine. Blocking psychological pain through pharmaceuticals, legal and illegal, are billion-dollar-a-year efforts. Surgery, or avoiding it, presents necessary financial and physical/psychological considerations that may mean a minor adjustment in lifestyle, or it could mean a complete change in the same. The Christian way taught by Jesus and here by Paul has us embrace these sufferings directly, contrary to human instinct.
Paul begins here to state directly that his life was endangered earlier. “…we were utterly weighted down beyond our strength…”. He and Timothy were at the point where they simply couldn’t take on additional pain. What change was left to them? Enough was enough. And yet they were asked, in some way, to carry more to the point where “…we despaired even of life…”. Did they ask to be allowed to die? What else could be meant by this phrase except they accepted they would suffer physical death? Later in this same letter, Paul asks to be relieved of his pain. His telling reflects Jesus’s own fervent prayer in Gethsemane, asking three times for relief and receiving the same answer the Master received from the Father. “My grace is sufficient for you.”15 Just as Jesus gave himself over to the Father on the cross, so Paul describes how he and Timothy give themselves over to the will of the Father.
It is not time for them to end their mission, though. Paul describes a rescue from the predicament, grace given to relieve the suffering and restore them back to physical and mental health that they might continue their journey. He recognizes through this effort that God’s grace continues to be with them in continued trials and by this understanding how God will bring them home through the final trial of suffering death, even as Jesus was brought home to heaven through the resurrection.
Getty and Osiek ask a practical question of whether Paul’s and Timothy’s suffering is physical illness or an external threat to life. They present the reason for the explanation as purposed towards “produce(ing) an attitude of faith in God alone”. Full reliance on God in the Person of Christ is required of the Christian. “…rescue is the constant pattern of God’s activity;” and the final rescue is resurrection.16 Paul and Timothy were beaten down by this ordeal to where their only option was full and complete reliance on God.
Murphy links the predicament of the two travelers in contrast to the silversmith revolt in Ephesus. Ephesus saw them running for their lives from the tradesmen. Here, Paul and Timothy are imprisoned and possibly saw “…no way out of the predicament”. The implication is a mental and/or psychological suffering rather than physical illness or torture. Despairing of death is explained as Paul’s expectation of the limitations of his own life, as in “…his days were numbered” being in Paul’s own thoughts rather than a judgement by local authorities with a sentence of death.17
Often in our society we see and hear of those at their wits end. It was the same with Paul and Timothy in their story. Circumstances of faith lead them to trust in God as their final choice, and God raised them from their despair to continue to serve him. It is incumbent on the faithful to follow this example, to allow themselves to be rescued by God. It is necessary to be open to the grace of physical, mental, and spiritual encouragement if one is to fully practice the Christian faith.
Mutual support in suffering
“…as you help us with prayer, so that thanks may be given by many on our behalf for the gift granted us through the prayers of many.” (vs 11)
All Christians are given this mission, to help others with prayer. Our efforts to commune with God are to include petition for others’ relief. The community shares in suffering as it shares in the relief of suffering through the resurrection. It is an essential part of our lives to be Simon of Cyrene for each other, to help carry each other’s burdens. Thankfulness and praise are returned to God when the relief is granted, and the suffering begins to heal. The whole Church rejoices and praises God.
Getty and Osiek write nothing on this verse. That is not to say they are silent on the subject. They comment in Chapter 12 on the sufficiency of God’s grace for relief of Paul’s suffering, and that this suffering is for a specific purpose. Writing the reflection of Gethsemane, Paul allows “…that the power of Christ may dwell within me” (2Cor 12:9). Getty and Osiek write, “Paul pinpoints the ground for the paradoxical strategy he has adopted in his self-defense.”18 It is in the weakness of pain and suffering that the power of Jesus Christ is manifest, through the strength shown in the person bearing it, the strength available to all humans in the fallen condition. This is how the whole of the Church bears witness and is assured of the joys of the resurrection for which the whole of the Church, and in this specific case, the Church in Corinth, may celebrate with praise.
Murphy is less certain. He states that the Greek syntax has not been well determined. Rather than assure the Church towards rejoicing, Murphy writes, “Paul hopes that the Corinthians intercessory prayer… will be transformed into thanksgiving.”19 Murphy’s argument beginning with the matter of translation. Lacking any knowledge of the ancient Greek and how to translate, I leave his statement for the reader’s own contemplation.
I gain from this verse the sense of a soothing pool of healing perseverance is available to all the faithful. Somehow, in the spiritual work of God each of us can contribute to this pool and draw from it as needed. Some will draw little; others may draw much. The pool will not go dry by the Creator’s design. “As you help is in prayer” is a point of participation and contribution all persons may make.
Summary 2Cor 1:1-11 notations on suffering
I was struck by the appearance of a lesson on bearing suffering in the opening of the letter to second Corinthians. I have suffered physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually in my life. I have observed the suffering of others. I have not seen in any open dialogue more than simple platitudes comparable to today’s social media memes to explain, encourage, or teach us how to work with or live with pain. Yet, I know people who have and still do suffer some levels of pain continuously in various ways.
This introduction of Paul’s second letter to the Church in Corinth provides one lesson as I read it. I know we all suffer as I observed above. Athletes will even prepare for their lives of competition with a mantra of ‘no pain, no gain’. Here is the crux of Paul’s words, to live our lives accepting the pain as the athletes do, embracing it to find the limit to which they can continue their journey to excellence. Therefore, we Christians should live as the athletes do, with expectation of success, but far beyond what they chose to imagine. The Christian facing pain should be embracing it to the limits, with the sincere internal faith in the success of the resurrection to eternal life.
We do not suffer alone, any more than do we journey alone through life. We are more than a community of like-minded souls. We are the Body of Christ, where the head of the body knows the limits of its parts and works to provide strength to the parts when they are tested. There is no reason to despair for life or limb, for mental sanity or spiritual fire. The kingdom of heaven is at hand as we share in the healing power of Christ.
- www.dictionary.com; Oakland, CA. 2019. On-line. Accessed 5-7-2019.
- www.thesaurus.com; Oakland, CA. 2019. On-line. Accessed 5-7-2019. On the relationship between courage and fortitude, the Catechism of the Catholic Church 1808 discusses Fortitude as one of four Cardinal virtues to be aspired to. The paragraph uses similar words as those defining ‘courage’. The thesaurus confirms the relationship.
- Getty, Mary Ann and Carolyn Osiek. Second Corinthians, Reading Guide. “Catholic Study Bible.” New York; Oxford UP. 2010. Print. p. 506.
- Murphy-O’Connor, J. The Second Letter to the Corinthians. “The New Jerome Biblical Commentary.” Brown, R., J. Fitzmyer, and R. Murphy. Englewood Cliffs; Prentice Hall. 1990. Print. p. p. 816 to 829.
- Getty and Osiek. Footnote on 2Cor1:5. ““The Catholic Study Bible.” 1626
- Murphy. “The New Jerome Commentary.” p. 817.
- ““The Catholic Study Bible.” Senior, Collins, Getty Eds. New York; Oxford UP. 2010. Print.
- See Romans 6:1-5 for baptism into Christ and continue through verse 14 for a spiritual and physical discussion of presenting our bodies as already resurrected. See footnote for Rm 6:1-11 by Getty and Osiek, “The Catholic Study Bible.” 1586.
- Getty and Osiek. Footnote on 2Cor 1:7. “The Catholic Study Bible.”1488.
- “The New Jerome Commentary.” p. 817.
- Mt 10:38 & 16:24, Mk 8:34, and Lk 9:23. Denial of self is linked in each quotation to taking up one’s burdens as represented by the cross. Matthew quotes Jesus as stating anyone who will not take up their cross is not worthy of the kingdom.
- 2Cor 12:9. Paul adds to the Father’s answer the comments of strength being perfected in weakness, the practice of bearing suffering makes the body and soul stronger.
- Getty & Osiek. Footnote on 2Cor 1:9, 10. “The Catholic Study Bible.” 1626
- “The New Jerome Commentary”. p. 818.
- Getty and Osiek. Footnote on 2Cor 12:9b-10a. “The Catholic Study Bible.” 1641.
- “The New Jerome Commentary.” p. 818