In this season of Easter let’s remind ourselves that faith in the God of resurrection impacts not just the future, but also the present. Easter faith is about believing that God can make all the difference to the here and now.
There is a remarkable passage in 2 Cor 1.8-11 where Paul effectively confesses that there was a stage in his Christian life when his faith in God was more a matter of the mind, rather than of the heart. It was only when life got impossibly tough that he put all his trust in the God of resurrection. Up until that point it would appear that he had believed in God, but had not fully trusted God.
Scholars have had a field day in speculating what the nature of the “affliction” (NRSV) or “trouble” (GNB; REB) which caused Paul so much anguish when he was in “Asia” (2 Cor 1.8). The underlying Greek word (thlipsis) suggests intense pressure; Paul was well and truly ‘going through the mill’. Indeed he says that he felt “utterly, unbearably crushed” so that he even “despaired of life itself”. This however, proved to be the moment when Paul learnt to trust God. “We felt that we had received the sentence of death so that we would rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead” (2 Cor 1.9).
Many people think that the opposite of faith is doubt, whereas in fact doubt can be a staging post on the way to faith. No, the opposite of faith is self-despair, when we no longer put our trust in ourselves, but in God.
At this point the values of the Gospel clash with the values of the world The general wisdom is that self-confidence is the key to getting ahead in life. Samuel Johnson was of the opinion that “self-confidence is the prerequisite to great undertakings”. Similarly Sophia Loren, Italy’s most renowned actress, once said:
Getting ahead in a difficult profession requires avid faith in yourself. You must be able to sustain yourself against staggering blows. There is no code of conduct to help beginners. That is why some people with mediocre talent, but with great inner drive, go so much further than people with vastly superior talent.
There is, of course, a place for healthy self-esteem. But there are times when the bottom of our world falls apart and like Paul we discover that our self-confidence was misplaced. Up until that point Paul may well have had a degree of confidence in his own strength or charisma or education, but when everything went pear-shaped “instead of trusting in our own strength or wits to get out of it, we were forced to trust God totally – not a bad idea since he’s the God who raises the dead!”(Peterson)
The underlying Greek tenses Paul uses are highly significant. In the first place, when Paul is talking about trusting God, he uses a Greek perfect tense, which indicates an action in the past which continues into the present – as a result of these troubles he realised that he needed to continue to rely totally on God.
In the second place, when Paul is talking about God raising the dead, he uses a present participle: a characteristic of God is that he raises the dead. In his past life as a good Jew Paul would have been familiar with the second prayer of the ‘Eighteen Benedictions’, recited each day in synagogue worship, which includes the line “You, O Lord, are mighty for ever, you revive the dead, You are mighty to save”. However, within the distinctively Christian context of this letter Paul is surely alluding to God as the one who raised Jesus from the dead. But, and this is the point, the God who raised Jesus from the dead, is the God who continues to intervene in the lives of his people. Resurrection is not just a future event: in the here and now God comes to our rescue and saves us when we despair of life.
But to experience the saving power of God when trouble comes, we need to need to put our trust in him. Faith is the catalyst for God to work. Or in the words of Murray Harris, a New Zealand New Testament scholar:
In the aftermath of his affliction Paul reposed his trust and hope only in God. He had learned the spiritual lesson that for the Christian self-reliance not only is inadequate to meet the demands of a life that is pleasing to the Lord (see 2 Cor 5.9; Col 1.10) but also constitutes an affront to God on whom we are totally dependent for our physical and spiritual well-being.
Yes, tough times demand Easter Faith. When the bottom falls out of our world, only faith in the God of resurrection will carry us through.