A Night and a Day in the Deep
As we traveled the Mediterranean recently, I found myself periodically looking out at the water and imagining Paul on one of his voyages. During the day when the sun is shining, the Great Sea (as it was called by the ancients) is stunningly beautiful. But at night, especially if there are rough waters, the Sea is daunting, intimidating, and not at all inviting. At one point, I found myself remembering Paul’s words, “three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been in the deep” (2 Corinthians 11:25).
Paul made that statement while enumerating a litany of hardships he encountered throughout his ministry. He spoke of endless labor, whippings, imprisonments, beatings, being stoned, etc. By the way, Paul wrote 2 Corinthians before he had undergone the Acts 27 experience, so he ended up being in at least four literal shipwrecks during the course of his ministry.
The toll all of this took on Paul must have been enormous, and yet the grace of God gave him what can only be described as supernatural resilience. But he didn’t only address external challenges; Paul also described a pressure that those who carry a divine mandate understand. He said, “…besides the other things, what comes upon me daily: my deep concern for all the churches” (2 Corinthians 11:28).
Other translations render this:
- “I have the daily burden of my concern for all the churches” (NLT).
- “…the daily pressures and anxieties of all the churches” (MSG).
- “…the daily [inescapable pressure] of my care and anxiety for all the churches!” (AMP).
- “…the daily pressure on me of my anxious concern for all the churches” (NET).
It seems unusual that the man who wrote, “Be anxious for nothing…” (Philippians 4:6), would acknowledge that he himself struggled daily with anxious care and concern regarding the welfare of others. This in no way undermines Paul’s doctrine; it only goes to show that Paul was human, and that ministers receive no free pass when it comes to the responsibility of acting on the Word of God. Paul himself had to regularly exercise himself in the same disciplines he prescribed for others. Paul had to put on the same armor he told the Ephesians about in order to withstand spiritual attacks against this own person.
If we back up a bit in 2 Corinthians, Paul’s honesty and transparency is clearly on display. There was no pretense in Paul’s life, no image management, no attempt to present himself in the most positive light possible. He shared his scars as well as his victories. Consider these two passages:
2 Corinthians 1:8-10
8 For we do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, of our trouble which came to us in Asia: that we were burdened beyond measure, above strength, so that we despaired even of life. 9 Yes, we had the sentence of death in ourselves, that we should not trust in ourselves but in God who raises the dead, 10 who delivered us from so great a death, and does deliver us; in whom we trust that He will still deliver us…
2 Corinthians 7:5-7
5 For indeed, when we came to Macedonia, our bodies had no rest, but we were troubled on every side. Outside were conflicts, inside were fears. 6 Nevertheless God, who comforts the downcast, comforted us by the coming of Titus, 7 and not only by his coming, but also by the consolation with which he was comforted in you, when he told us of your earnest desire, your mourning, your zeal for me, so that I rejoiced even more.
In no way am I saying that Paul lived a defeated life. Absolutely not. But I am saying that the victorious life he lived was not because he did not face massive challenges, but because he overcame massive challenges. One of the points we note in studying Paul is that much of his pain came from people, and much of his joy also came from people. Consider the contrast Paul makes in his second letter to Timothy.
After mentioning the abandonment he faced from Asian believers, such as Phygellus and Hermogenes (2 Timothy 1:15), Paul describes the great comfort that came to him from a dear friend named Onesiphorus.
2 Timothy 1:15-18
16 The Lord grant mercy to the household of Onesiphorus, for he often refreshed me, and was not ashamed of my chain; 17 but when he arrived in Rome, he sought me out very zealously and found me. 18 The Lord grant to him that he may find mercy from the Lord in that Day—and you know very well how many ways he ministered to me at Ephesus.
Paul never presented himself as someone who was so spiritual that only God could minister to him. He didn’t carry himself as aloof and unreachable by friends. Instead, he was humble enough to acknowledge times of struggle, and grateful enough to receive the help and encouragement of friends. In a passage we mentioned earlier, Paul said that he had been “comforted by the coming of Titus” (2 Corinthians 7:6), and this is consistent with Paul being encouraged when believers came out from Rome to greet him as he traveled to stand trial before Caesar (Acts 28:16). Paul had a pattern of being comforted, being encouraged, and drawing strength from his friends.
We mentioned Paul’s reference to his anxieties concerning the churches, and we see an example of this in 1 Thessalonians 3:5-8 (NLT). Paul had been run out of town when the church was still young, and he knew the new believers there were living in an hostile and dangerous environment. There Paul says: “That is why, when I could bear it no longer, I sent Timothy to find out whether your faith was still strong. I was afraid that the tempter had gotten the best of you and that our work had been useless. But now Timothy has just returned, bringing us good news about your faith and love. He reports that you always remember our visit with joy and that you want to see us as much as we want to see you. So we have been greatly encouraged in the midst of our troubles and suffering, dear brothers and sisters, because you have remained strong in your faith. It gives us new life to know that you are standing firm in the Lord.”
Notice again, it was people—hostile, obstinate, rebellious—who gave Paul his greatest frustrations, and it was people—loving, caring, obedient—who gave Paul his greatest joy. For Paul, ministry was not a mechanical, emotionless set of transactions, but it was the giving of his whole heart. He said to these same people, “So, affectionately longing for you, we were well pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God, but also our own lives, because you had become dear to us” (1 Thessalonians 2:8).
Paul understood that ministry involved risk. Paul could have avoided the betrayals and abandonments he experienced, but then he wouldn’t have had the joys of seeing his friends flourish either. He could have avoided four shipwrecks and spending a day and night in the deep had he not made dangerous journeys, but then he wouldn’t have started churches throughout the Mediterranean world either. If you want to enjoy the pinnacle of success, you have to risk spending some time in the deep. May you be bold, daring, and courageous in your journey, and may you never draw back from the challenges and risks of serving God.