In 2 Corinthians 6:1-13, Paul says the following to the church of God in Corinth: “We then, as workers together with Him also plead with you not to receive the grace of God in vain. For He says: “In an acceptable time I have heard you, and in the day of salvation I have helped you.” Behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation. We give no offense in anything, that our ministry may not be blamed. But in all things we commend ourselves as ministers of God: in much patience, in tribulations, in needs, in distresses, in stripes, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labors, in sleeplessness, in fastings; by purity, by knowledge, by longsuffering, by kindness, by the Holy Spirit, by sincere love, by the word of truth, by the power of God, by the armor of righteousness on the right hand and on the left, by honor and dishonor, by evil report and good report; as deceivers, and yet true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold we live; as chastened, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing all things. O Corinthians! We have spoken openly to you, our heart is wide open. You are not restricted by us, but you are restricted by your own affections. Now in return for the same (I speak as to children), you also be open.”
This is not an easy passage to read for some of us; it must not have been an easy passage to write. Some of us have the same strong desire not to give offense and to live lives that are honorable and commendable and have to endure all kinds of difficulties, whether one is involved in difficult labor, longuffering, distress, sleepless nights, or even worse difficulties. Yet these difficulties did not stop two important aspects of the behavior of Paul, notably his love for others as well as his openness. Despite the fact that he was caught in a contradictory state between being honored and dishonored, having a good and bad reputation, or being blessed or cursed in one’s life with regards to circumstances. What Paul is saying is that his openness and his love for others is entirely separate of the conditions of his life, whether they are bad or good or (more usually) some mixture between the two. Additionally, Paul also states that his obligation to act uprightly and morally is also unconnected to the conditions of life.
What, then, is the purpose of the disconnect between our moral character and the sort of struggles that we face that makes our lives so full of distress? After all, our lives are full of futility. Our lives are often a shambles of longings that lead us astray, of futile attempts to find love and happiness and success, and not only our own, but that of others as well. We are burdened by our own blunders as well as the effects of time and circumstance. Yet still we persist to live our lives and seek both our own will but that of God, however we best understand it. Paul was no different from us–in his life he was told that he would have to endure much suffering if he continued on to Jerusalem, and yet he persisted anyway, refusing to be turned away from his path by numerous warnings given by God through the prophets. And so he made it to Rome, albeit in chains and after much drama, including a few years in prison. Some of us are particularly willful and have to deal with the consequences of our stubbornness. Yet there are consequences for being too compliant in the wrong situations as well. Having the wisdom to know how to react in a given situation to avoid unnecessary suffering is itself an immensely difficult task, and few of us are good at it. I know for certain that I am not.
Many tears are shed all over our world. Children in abusive households shed tears over humiliations and assaults directed at themselves or other family members. People shed tears of frustration over the many difficulties of life, whether over small matters or large ones. People shed tears over death, trauma, and even (most happily) joy. In every tear there is an ocean of pain, whether pain that is anticipated or pain that has been endured, whether those tears are for the good or not. And yet if we are to help the world around us, we must have gained such wisdom as is possible through our tears. We must be able to look into the tears of others and remember our own, and to look with compassion on the futility that those tears all too often come from. To the extent that we have endured suffering without letting it harden us, we are fit to be gentle and tender in a world that needs a lot of tenderness, especially after it faces the just rewards of its stubborn rebellion. Knowing our own stubbornness ought to make us more compassionate towards others. Let our suffering not go to waste through bitterness or hardness of heart.