42. “Hemmed in With Apparently No Way Out” (2 Corinthians 4:8)

Hardly a page of Paul’s writings goes by without some reference to the suffering or distress that his calling in Christ has brought into his life. Usually his attitude toward these circumstances is positive, because they contribute to the effective spread of the Good News. But sometimes we get a glimpse that Paul finds himself near the end of his ability to cope. Perhaps the account he gives of his prayer asking God to remove the “thorn in his flesh” represents one of these occasions. If Paul is any measure for the experience of Christians, then we probably underestimate significantly the degree to which suffering and distress follow the steps of Jesus’ disciples.

Paul uses a multitude of terms to describe his sufferings. At times we are overwhelmed as he lists[1] the things that he endured to follow Christ (cf. 2 Corinthians 6:3-10; 11:23-33). As he reflects in 2 Corinthians 4 on what it means “to hold the treasure of the Gospel in earthen vessels”, he expresses the reality of this suffering (in every way), but also emphasizes that suffering is not the last word. With impressive rhetorical power and in a climactic fashion he first names one type of hard experience, but then quickly denies that it is sufficient to end his ministry:

afflicted (thlibomenoi)
but not
trapped (stenochoroumenoi)
but not
in despair
but not
but not

He concludes by stating that “always we carry around in our body the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.” Paul understood that the disciple carries with him the cruciform nature of the Gospel as he lives out his calling in the midst of suffering, perhaps even humiliation and death, just as Jesus did. Yet he knows the other side of this truth, namely that every day, in which God gives strength to persevere and live boldly for Jesus, proclaims the power of that eternal life the believer possesses in the Spirit.

The noun stenochoria and its cognate verb only occur in Paul’s writings in the New Testament (2 Corinthians and Romans). The core sense of the term is restriction or confinement in a narrow place with no perceivable way out. The way Paul constructs the sequence in 2 Cor. 4:8, the initial term “afflicted” connotes pressure or oppression, but the second heightens the threat by adding the concept of restriction with no way out or being trapped. So it seems to connote a kind of harassment and distress that is more profound than thlipsis, a more common term for tribulation or affliction.

Paul also uses it in 2 Cor. 6:4. As he defends his ministry among the Corinthian believers, he argues that their genuineness and effectiveness as “God’s assistants

(theou diakonoi) are demonstrated through his sufferings. He lists afflictions (en thlipsesin), hardships (en anagkais), and distresses (stenochoriais), as examples of the endurance that he has experienced in his pursuit of God’s calling. These represent his “apostolic identification card”.

Once more in 2 Cor. 12:10 Paul proclaims his willingness to glory in physical weakness, insults, hardships, persecutions and distresses (stenochoriais). These ‘tight corners’ give God opportunity to demonstrate His power through deliverance. From a human point of view they seem dead ends – stoned to death, ship-wrecked, flogged – but God enables Paul to continue in his apostolic work despite these “distresses”. He confesses these things are all “on behalf of the Messiah”.

A similar usage occurs in Romans 8:35. Paul asks the rhetorical question “who is going to separate us from the love of the Messiah”. He follows this with a long list of hardships. The first two are affliction (thlipsis) and distress (stenochoria). He quotes Psalm 44:22 which declares the constant offering of the righteous person to God as a sacrifice so that God’s purposes might be accomplished.[3] Paul assumes that the answer to the initial question will be “No one!” These “distresses” are merely avenues through which God can accomplish His purposes. As His power for deliverance is expressed, “in all these things we are more than conquerors through the one who loved us.”

There is one other usage of this term (Romans 2:9)[4]. Paul is describing the impartial justice of God as He renders to each person the right response for his way of living. Some ‘patiently do good’ and seek glory and immortality. Paul says God will give eternal life to these (vs. 7). Conversely, for those engaged in wickedness and not obeying the truth, there will be “wrath and fury,… anguish (thlipsis) and distress (stenochoria)”, regardless of their ethnicity. Paul may be borrowing language from the Old Testament that describes the impact of God’s judgment upon the wicked and apostate. God will put them in a place of distress from which there is no escape. For example, in Deuteronomy 28 God warns Israel of the consequences of disobeying Him. The judgment that comes through enemy attacks will put them in ‘desperate straits’ (stenochoria, thlipsis).

When we consider God’s calling in our lives and the ministry that results, we have to realize the ‘distress’, the tight places in which we will find ourselves with no apparent way of escape, that will be our experience. As these situations emerge we will discover that human resources are totally insufficient to deal with them. We can only cast ourselves upon God, offer ourselves as His sacrifice in this situation, and wait to see how God will deliver us and by this means add to His glory. As we see Him acting, we can only respond with praise and awe. Truly then we will be able “to glory in our weakness”.


  • 1.  These are sometimes termed “tribulation lists”.
  • 2.  Corinthians 4:8
  • 3.  Paul may also allude to this Psalm material in 2 Corinthians 4:11.
  • 4.  Paul also uses the term in 2 Corinthians 6:12 to describe the restricted affections of the Corinthian believers towards him.

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