A good story requires a compelling villain – one that is believable and connects with how real life actually works, even if the story is fantasy. It won’t have legs if the villain fails to resemble actual threats we all experience.
This is likely one among many reasons the Joker is widely argued to be the best villain of all time. He has a timeless appeal as the master of chaos. It’s his unpredictability that makes him so terrifying, perhaps seen clearest in Heath Ledger’s Joker asking his victims the rhetorical question: “Do you wanna know how I got these scars?” before proceeding to tell a traumatic story usually resulting in the death of the hearer.
Those scenes were living rent-free in my mind this week while reading the first chapter of 2 Corinthians as the apostle Paul lets us into the backstory of his own scars. Most of his scars can’t be seen with the naked eye, for they don’t live on his body but on his soul.
Referred to as “afflictions,” “troubles,” and “pressing pressures,” Paul’s scars are the direct result of the physical and emotional suffering he experiences in his efforts to share news of comfort to all people, couched in misery and distress.
Our miseries and troubles are wide and varying. We wake up at three in the morning thinking about that thing we shouldn’t have said to our coworker the day before. Our brother’s cancer cells aren’t responding to chemo, despite everything else in his body dying. We get blue in the face retelling the stories of ways we’ve been wronged. Or maybe we join the growing number of individuals who are saying to their financial advisor for the first time, “I don’t feel confident in my ability to make ends meet this month.”
It’s to weary people, like us, who are well acquainted with a sense of insecurity, that Paul is writing about his own experiences in the pressure cooker of life itself:
We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death.
If you think about it, it’s a bit of a strange thing to zero in on, isn’t it? Making others aware of your own uphill struggles. You can quickly get dismissed as a Debbie Downer when you drone on about your hardships, so why is Paul doing so here?
Fortunately for us, he give us his why in the next sentence: these hard things happened so that we would learn to not rely on ourselves but on the God who raises the dead. Contrary to the 21st-century obsession with escaping suffering at any cost, we’re told suffering becomes a doorway to coming to the end of ourselves. Or to say it differently, the door to God’s office is found at the end of our rope.
Learning to rely on the God who raises the dead is a worthwhile teaching to be taken to heart and directly applied to all current pressing pressures we’re experiencing. But the Scriptures are always taking us a step further by showing us the why and how behind the what. In other words, we’re never just given an imperative or an example in a vacuum, it’s always connected to a greater story that’s meant to draw us into Jesus and his cross. See, for example, Ephesians 4:32 where we’re told to forgive others precisely because God in Christ forgave us.
And here in 2 Corinthians Paul himself becomes a picture of Jesus whose scars and troubles are for our comfort. He says “If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation.” Before he becomes an example to us about coming to the end of our rope, he preaches a picture of salvation for us through his own suffering.
The clearest message we have from God is his public death on a cross that in one sentence is the very voice of God saying to you “Here is my distress for your comfort and salvation.” This is the story of the Bible. It’s a story that labels all humanity as equal parts victim and villain. All are afflicted, and all are in bed with the evil of sin which leads to every form of heartbreak, pressure, and affliction.
The resurrected Jesus has been and continues to hunt down sin-sick antagonists like us to tell us how he got his scars. When you hear of it, the death of self-reliance occurs – be it for the first time or the millionth time. His distress is for our comfort, teaching us to no longer rely on ourselves. By his wounds we are healed.