Question: "What does it mean to be persecuted but not forsaken (2 Corinthians 4:9)?"
Answer: Paul defends his apostleship for the sake of the Corinthians so they can be encouraged and built up in the certainty of the gospel (2 Corinthians 12:19). In his letter Paul recounts some of the difficulties and persecutions he and other apostles were facing. In this context he notes that they were “persecuted, but not forsaken” (2 Corinthians 4:9, ESV).
Paul was thankful to be proclaiming a message of grace and freedom rather than law and bondage (2 Corinthians 3), and, because of the importance of that ministry, he and the other apostles would not lose heart. Rather, they would be bold in their proclamation of the truth (2 Corinthians 4:1–2). They had clear consciences as they fulfilled the ministry of proclaiming that truth to everyone, even though there were many who were blinded and would not accept that message (2 Corinthians 4:3–4). They were not proclaiming this message in their own power or by their own wisdom; they were proclaiming Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 4:5–6). They readily recognized their own weakness and limitation—they were merely earthen vessels for a heavenly message of grace (2 Corinthians 4:7)—and the power of the message was not of themselves. Consequently, the Corinthians could have confidence in the apostles’ message because it was true and originated from God.
The apostles were not the source of the power; they were simply ministers of it. Paul underscores their own limitations and weakness when he explains that they are afflicted in every way, but not crushed (2 Corinthians 4:8a)—they had hardship, but that hardship could not defeat them because they were standing in the truth. They were perplexed, but not in despair. They struggled with perhaps even a degree of anxiety but would not fall into depression because of the certainty of their hope (2 Corinthians 4:8b). They were persecuted but not forsaken (2 Corinthians 4:9a)—though many had rejected their message and even did so violently at times, Paul knew they were not alone. God had not left them, no matter how severe the rejection by some. They had even been literally struck down, but they were not destroyed (2 Corinthians 4:9b). No matter the difficulty they faced, the apostles recognized it was nothing as severe as Christ had encountered, and they were simply fulfilling what He had commissioned them to do (2 Corinthians 4:10–11). Even in their weakness and the difficulties they faced, they kept in mind the reason for their ministry: that people could receive Christ by faith and have life (2 Corinthians 4:12).
Everything Paul and the other apostles faced, they did so for the sake of those who would receive their message (2 Corinthians 4:15). So, even in difficult and painful situations, they would not lose heart (2 Corinthians 4:16). They were not focused on the temporal difficulties; instead, they set their minds on the eternal value of the ministry God had given them (2 Corinthians 4:16–18).
In some ways, we also may face persecution and difficulty, but, if we are suffering for that which has eternal value, then we are not forsaken. God never deserts or forsakes those who are His (John 10:27–31; Hebrews 13:5). We can focus on Him—like the apostles did—and not lose heart (see Hebrews 12:1–3).