2 Corinthians 11: 27 I have been in labor and hardship, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure.
Serge Ibaka is a power forward on the surging Toronto Raptors. Watching him play under the glitter of the NBA lights and the thousands of adoring fans, you would miss the humble and challenging beginnings that shaped him into the man he is today. Ibaka, third youngest of 18 children, was born into a basketball family in the Republic of Congo to his father Desire who played professionally in Africa, and his mother Amadou, a former member of the national team. Tragedy struck the family when Serge was only 8 years old when his mother passed away – a loss that Serge was challenged to understand. Then, just shy of his 9th birthday the Second Congo War broke out. With eight African nations involved and more than 5 million deaths, it was the largest conflict since WWII. He and his family fled their home and moved north for four years. Upon their return, Serge’s dad was arrested and imprisoned, so Serge lived with his grandmother until his dad’s release. Through all this, Serge played basketball in conditions that would make most western world athletes cringe. Cracks filled the courts and wooden backboards were made of flimsy wood. Apparently, kids lucky enough to have sneakers, filled the holes in their shoes with cardboard inserts.
Ibaka had every reason not to succeed in life and not become the first Congolese born NBA player. Beyond that, he certainly had every human reason to shake his fist at God and demand: “why me?” Ibaka chose a very different course though, one which brought him athletic success, but more importantly peace. “[Serge] digests a passage from his French bible, closes the book and begins to pray. He is mouthing everything on his heart…. ‘It’s very important,’ Ibaka said of his pre-game prayers, ‘because some people don’t have life. I have free life and so I just give thanks. I have come a long way.’”[i] Serge Ibaka chose thanksgiving!
Spend a little time reading 2 Corinthians 11:23-33. In this portion of his letter to the church in Corinth, Paul spends some time defending his “Apostleship”. False teachers were actively opposing Paul and making false accusations against him. In these ten verses we get a glimpse of what Paul went through to unashamedly preach the gospel and further the growth of the New Testament church. To name just a few of his trials, we read that he was overworked, frequently imprisoned, he was beaten with rods, whipped, stoned, he was shipwrecked three times, he was in constant peril of robbers and the wild, he was falsely accused, suffered in hunger and thirst, and subjected to the cold and nakedness. In other chapters we read that he was given a “thorn in the flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:7); he was abandoned by all his friends while imprisoned (2 Timothy 1:15); and he despaired his life (2 Corinthians 1:8).
Surely this must have turned Paul away from God and from the Christian church, or at least turned him into one of those crusty old Christians. But that could not be further from the truth. Paul went on to write thirteen of the New Testaments books, four of them written while in prison (Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon). And in them he gave thanks for the Christians in Rome (Romans 1:8); he gave thanks for the church in Corinth (1 Cor. 1:4-8); he gave thanks for the church in Ephesus (Ephesians 1: 15-16). The list goes on and on. Having every reason in the world to reject God and to become an embittered man, Paul chose thanksgiving! It is a choice. What do you choose; bitterness or thanksgiving?