Answer: In 2 Corinthians, the apostle Paul defends his ministry from those who would attack him and the gospel he proclaims. Chapter 4 is a key part of Paul’s argument, as he acknowledges the many weaknesses his detractors have highlighted, both physical and mental (2 Corinthians 10:10). However, rather than promote his own strength, Paul points to God’s power, which sustains him through every crisis (2 Corinthians 4:7). In verses 8–9, he lists a series of four problems but contrasts them with God’s protection and provision. Verse 8 contains one of these interesting antitheses, as Paul states that the apostles are “perplexed, but not in despair” (2 Corinthians 4:8).
According to A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, the word for “perplexed” in the original language simply means to be “confused,” “uncertain,” or “in doubt.” A great example of this word is found in Galatians 4:20, where Paul is experiencing “pastoral perplexity” over the Galatians’ inconsistent behavior. One minute, they were excited about the gospel, and the next they were following false teachers (Galatians 4:14–17)! Like many pastors throughout history, Paul experienced doubts and uncertainty about his ministry, his personal strength, and the churches he left behind during his travels (2 Corinthians 11:28–29). These are the doubts he expresses when he describes himself as “perplexed, but not in despair” (2 Corinthians 4:8).
The word translated “despair” reveals a fascinating wordplay: in the original language, it is the same word translated “perplexed,” except with the prefix ex- added. Just like the word extra in English, the prefix ex- in this case emphasizes the original word to its fullest extent. The idea is “beyond perplexed” or “totally perplexed.” Paul is saying that he has experienced doubt and confusion, but not to the point of despair or breaking. He has been confused, but not confounded; doubting, but not despairing; lost, but never losing everything. The main idea is that Paul has experienced confusion and doubt, but God has never allowed that perplexity to overwhelm him.
What about us? Like Paul, we often experience confusion and doubt. We may wonder why God allows something bad to happen to us or whether someone we care about is going to succeed in the Christian faith. These feelings of uncertainty are normal. Like Paul, we can take comfort in the fact that God remains in control of every situation in our lives. We can be “perplexed, but not in despair,” because we “fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:18).