“I was beaten with rods three times. I was stoned once. I was shipwrecked three times. I spent a day and a night on the open sea. I’ve been on many journeys. I faced dangers from rivers, robbers, my people, and Gentiles. I faced dangers in the city, in the desert, on the sea, and from false brothers and sisters. I faced these dangers with hard work and heavy labor, many sleepless nights, hunger and thirst, often without food, and in the cold without enough clothes.”
2 Corinthians 11:25-27 (Common English Bible)
Sometimes it appears that the apostle Paul had a hidden charm that both protected him from discouragement and defeat while providing navigation for his ministry. With every possible force at work against him – every possible obstacle to moving forward – Paul was simply unbeatable. His journey seemed impossibly long, and there were lengthy stretches that he had to endure much hardship and loneliness. What’s more, Paul kept a careful journal of each difficulty encountered, every challenge he faced, and deprivation he endured. His purpose for recording each was simply to force the question – can anyone survive experiences such as these, one upon another, by their own strength, their own resources?
Paul’s answer is, “no.” Every difficulty, challenge, and deprivation presented an opportunity for Paul to proclaim available strength that was not Paul’s – the strength of the risen and active work of Jesus Christ. Storms are part of the normal climate and adversity is part of normal life. Paul utterly rejects the false notion that a formula is at work that shields us from the strong winds and turbulence of day-to-day life. Rather, Paul’s desire is to point to his own life and demonstrate a steadying hand that holds us and strengthens us in the storms. Life is full of annoying and costly interruptions and opposing forces that are bent on defeating us. Paul urges that we make the winds of opposition occasions for relying upon God.
That legendary football coach of Notre Dame, Knute Rockne once summoned his players before a game and said, “The team that won’t be beat, can’t be beat.” Rockne was not here proclaiming the strength of Jesus for his players. He was appealing to uncommon courage and strength and persistence that lie within each of us. Many of us engage the game of life without our best effort, settling for something just below our actual capacity. Tremendous effort to overcome life’s difficulties is rare, people often accepting defeat easily, naming what is possible as impossible. These are not the challenges Paul speaks of. Paul lifts his eyes to something higher still, to what is impossible were it not for God’s strength.
Paul continues this discussion beyond the words printed above. He asks, “Does it sound as though I am bragging about all the challenges I have faced?” “I am!” Yet, Paul quickly states that he brags not to showcase his ability. Paul brags to demonstrate the wondrous work of Jesus through him. There are doors that we cannot walk through and storms we cannot endure on our own. That is when we make every difficulty an opportunity to lean into Christ and draw from Christ’s strength. The strength that sustained Paul through every force that sought to stop his ministry is available to every one of us. In our hearts we may ask, “Can I endure?” Paul gives answer, “In Jesus, we are unbeatable.”