St. Paul knew all about stress and he knew how to handle it.
In Corinthians 4:8, Paul describes what his stressful life could be like. He says he was “Pressed” – squeezed like grapes – on every side but not crushed.” The word crushed is interesting. It means caved in, restricted. We get our word stenosis – the narrowing, closing of an artery – from this word. Paul is the only biblical author who uses it, and the only other time he uses it is to picture one’s affection being so restricted that it no longer flows. That is the danger. When we are under pressure, the flow of affection can be shut off – to our spouses and children and friends. Paul knew that it need not be that way. “Pressed . . . but not crushed.”
Then Paul says he is perplexed. A number of other biblical writer use this word. Several times it is translated as “at a loss.” Etymologically it carries the idea of not knowing which way to go. At a loss, Paul says, but not in despair. He had been perplexed enough times to know that, though he was at a loss, he would not lose out. God would make a way; he is the way-making God. He “makes a way in the wilderness,” the prophet says, and the apostle adds that he makes a way out of every temptation (1 Corinthians 10:13). We sometimes find ourselves at a loss, at a seeming dead-in, like the fleeing Israelites when they came to the Red Sea. There is no way to go forward, and no way to go back. Paul had known that experience, and yet God always made a way. Perplexed, but not in despair.
Things got even worse. In verse 9, Paul says that he was persecuted. The word could be translated “hounded.” Everywhere he went, people were following him around, telling him how wrong he was; telling other people how wrong he was. Sometimes he just wanted to scream, “Get off my back.” He hit a low point when his trial was held in Rome and no one was there to support him. (Read 2 Timothy 4 sometime). He felt deserted. Persecuted, he says, but not abandoned. When everyone else left, his awareness that God was with him grew even stronger.
The word translated abandoned in this verse is used elsewhere in Scripture: most notably, in Matthew 27:46, when from the cross Jesus cried, “Eli, Eli! Lama sabachthani?” My God, my God! Why have you – here’s our word – forsaken me?” We know the answer to that question. He was forsaken so that we might be forgiven. “Keep your lives free from the love of money,” the author of Hebrews writes, “and be content with what you have, because God has said, ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you’” (Hebrews 13:5). Paul counted on that.
He says (still verse 9), “Struck down, but not destroyed.” We might paraphrase, “Down, but not out.” The same Greek word, interestingly, is used of laying a foundation – something that gets put down . . . and walked on! Ever feel like people are walking all over you? Paul did but he was not destroyed. (The word has the idea of coming apart at the seams). Maybe you feel as if your seams are fraying. You need to know that God is the universe’s best tailor. He can mend those seams again, stronger than before.
Paul endured relentless pressure, not for a short time but year after year and – here’s the thing – was still joyful. He was often in over his head, but he didn’t drown. What was his secret?
(Look next week for the third and final installment of “How to Handle Pressure.”)