What makes “all our affliction” a sharing in Christ’s sufferings is that when they befall us, we turn in faith to “him [on whom] we have set our hope” for the deliverance he intends to provide for us (2 Corinthians 1:10). That’s actually one of the most important outcomes that God intends for “all our affliction” to produce: “to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead” (2 Corinthians 1:9).
Paul wrote the letter we know as 2 Corinthians right on the tail end of an experience of severe suffering. Here’s how he described it:
We do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. (2 Corinthians 1:8–9)
Paul doesn’t specify what his affliction was. He didn’t need to, since the letter’s carrier would have briefed the Corinthian believers on the painful details. From the surrounding context (2 Corinthians 1:3–11), it sounds like he suffered persecution nearly to the point of execution. But in the merciful wisdom of the Holy Spirit, we don’t know for sure. And this is a mercy because it encourages us to apply what Paul says in this section to “any affliction” (2 Corinthians 1:4).
But it’s important that we note the degree of Paul’s suffering. This great saint, who seems to have had a much higher-than-average capacity to endure affliction, felt “so utterly burdened beyond [his] strength.” He thought this affliction would kill him.
It didn’t kill him (his lethal affliction was still eight to ten years in the future). But it did accomplish something else:
Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. (2 Corinthians 1:9)
Paul’s suffering brought him to the end of himself: not just to the end of his bodily strength, but to the end of his earthly hopes and plans. He was staring death in the face. What could he trust at the end that would give him hope? The God who raises the dead.