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Stronger at the Broken Places   7 comments

Related imageSome people seem to think suffering is detrimental, and they cannot fathom why a God who is both good and great could allow anyone to suffer. You may remember the book written by a Jewish rabbi, entitled Why Bad Things Happen to Good People.5 The rabbi concluded that God could not possibly be both good and great at the same time. Suffering could be explained if God were great, but not good. A great God is able to do anything He wants, and thus He must enjoy watching people suffer. If so, God cannot be good; He can only be great. The other alternative is that God is good but not great. God wants the best for everyone and does not desire for anyone to suffer. But since men do suffer, God must be good but not great. God then must not be able to keep men from suffering. This latter conclusion is the solution reached by the rabbi.6

Some Christians handle the problem of suffering in yet a different way. Knowing better than to lay fault at God’s feet for human suffering, they place the blame at the feet of the one suffering. Like Job’s “friends,” they reason that sin is the only reason why men suffer. If a Christian is suffering, then it must be due to unconfessed sin. And so there are many today who assure us that God does not want us to suffer and that we need not suffer—if we but have the faith to be delivered from our suffering to the success, health, and wealth God wants to give us.

Neither of these two examples understands the God of the Bible in the least.

In 2 Corinthians, Paul’s first words to the Corinthians address the matter of suffering in a way which corrects our thinking about the problem of pain. Why do bad things happen to God’s people? The apostle Paul explained why a good God uses suffering in the lives of His people.

We must first face the fact that Paul had more than his share of suffering. Blinded on the road to Damascus, homeless and helpless, hated and feared by Christians, rejected by the Pharisees, stoned more than once, jailed, shipwrecked, snake-bitten …. Yeah, Paul hadn’t had the easiest missionary journey. Corinth appeared to be in full revolt against him. Galatia was falling away to another gospel. He had narrowly escaped from the enraged populace of Ephesus with whom he had long been fighting, and at whose mercy he had left his flock in that turbulent city. Under this continued strain of excitement and anxiety, his strength succumbed; he was seized with an attack of sickness which threatened to terminate his life. “[P]ressed out of measure, above strength, insomuch that we despaired even of life. … We had the sentence of death in ourselves” (I. 8, 9). In chapter 4. he tells of “bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus” and of “the outward man perishing” (verses 10, 16). These and other expressions leave no doubt as to the mental distress and physical prostration of the apostle. He had been at death’s door, his life and work apparently coming to an end, and under circumstances of the most ominous nature. Not just his life, the fate of his mission and of Gentile Christianity hung in the balance. He felt helpless while he lay upon his sick-bed (perhaps at Philippi), not knowing whether Titus or the messenger of death would reach him first.

Paul suffers the entire gamut of afflictions. Many of the afflictions to which Paul referred in 2 Corinthians are not described in the book of Acts. Those recorded by Luke were probably just the “tip of the iceberg” of Paul’s afflictions. He suffered from hunger, thirst, from heat and cold, from physical attacks, from illnesses, from constant threats on his life, and from betrayal and false accusations. His intelligence (or at least his wisdom), his homiletical skills, and his apostolic authority were challenged and sometimes mocked. He was accused of being fickle and failing to fulfill his promises. He was said to be strong in his written words but a wimp in person. And if suffering at the hands of men and nature was not enough, Paul suffered at the hand of Satan (12:7-10). No epistle describes the afflictions of this great apostle more clearly than 2 Corinthians. When Paul spoke about suffering, he spoke from experience.

Paul Praised God for His Suffering

From Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of Godand Timothy our brotherto the church of God that is in Corinth, with all the saints who are all in Achaia. Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ! 2 Corinthians 1:1-2

In verses 1 and 2, Paul greeted his readers, reminding them of his apostleship which is by the will of God. He greeted them on his behalf and also on behalf of Timothy who was with him. In 1 Corinthians, Sosthenes was with Paul at the time of his writing. Paul wrote to the Corinthians as well as all those in Achaia, the Roman province in which Corinth was located. In 1 Corinthians, Paul addressed his epistle to the Corinthians and to all other saints in every place (1 Corinthians 1:2). Paul was not limiting his second epistle but rather seems to be instructing the Corinthians indirectly to see to it that this epistle was distributed throughout Achaia. In 1 Corinthians, Paul greeted the Corinthians and whomever else might read the epistle. In 2 Corinthians, Paul greeted the Corinthians in such a way that they will see to it that all the saints in Achaia read his second epistle.

Blessed is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christthe Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles so that we may be able to comfort those experiencing any trouble with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. 2 Corinthians 1:3-4

Verse 3 begins with the words, “Blessed be …” These words should sound familiar to us, because Paul employs them elsewhere in his epistles. This is a common way for Old Testament believers commensed their worship and praise of God (see Genesis 9:26; 14:20; 24:271 Samuel 25:322 Samuel 22:471 Chronicles 29:10Psalm 41:13; 72:18). While these words may sound strange to us and may be foreign to our worship, they shouldn’t be. The New Testament Christians found the Old Testament expressions of worship appropriate to express their worship. Sometimes we may work so hard at making worship contemporary that we neglect those long-established expressions of worship found in the Bible.

Paul’s praise flows out of his growing love for God, as enhanced by his suffering. How can Paul praise God because of his suffering? The answer to our question can be found in several statements which sum up several reasons God’s people suffer at the hand of a God who is both good and great.

To suffer is divine

You have probably heard it said, “To err is human, to forgive divine.” I believe the Apostle Paul indicated to suffer is both human and divine. Suffering is human because it comes with our humanity. We are fallen creatures living in a fallen world. As a result, there is, and will be, sin and suffering until the kingdom of God is established at the second coming of our Lord (see Romans 8:18-25). Suffering is divine because ultimately it comes to us from the hand of God. We suffer because God has willed us to suffer. Even Joseph’s seemingly innocent suffering at the hands of his jealous brothers was a part of God’s plan, which was for the good of Joseph and his family (see Genesis 50:20). The first step we must take for our suffering to produce blessing (for us and others) is to acknowledge that our suffering has come to us from God (see 1 Peter 4:19). Suffering is divine when it is the suffering of the saints for living righteous lives. (1 Peter 4:14-16).

There are many reasons for suffering, and most of them are not noble. The suffering which pleases God is that suffering which results from living a righteous life in an unrighteous world. God may use all forms of suffering for His glory and for our good, but the kind of suffering for which Christians are commended is righteous suffering (1 Peter 2:12)

Paul specifically identified the suffering of which he spoke as “righteous suffering” because he called it “the sufferings of Christ” (2 Corinthians 1:5). He even informs us that such sufferings will be experienced “in abundance” (verse 5). The suffering and affliction which come to us because we belong to Christ are those sufferings which are righteous, for which we can expect abundant comfort (verse 5).

Since righteous suffering is experiencing “the sufferings of Christ,” we should remind ourselves that, since our Lord was “without sin,” His sufferings were innocent and undeserved (see 1 Peter 2:18-25). His sufferings were also those which the Father willed (see Matthew 26:39) and were thus prophesied in the Old Testament (see Isaiah 52:13–53:12). We must remember that these innocent sufferings of our Lord were the means by which our sins have been forgiven forever (see 1 Peter 2:22-25).

Suffering, even unto death, presents an opportunity for each of us to express and expand our faith in the God who not only ordained our suffering, but who raises the dead.

The kind of suffering Paul described as his personal experience is that which seems certain to lead to death. No one can know for certain what situation Paul faced, but he does inform us that he is certain he will die. One such situation is seen in Acts 14, where Paul was stoned at Lystra (14:8-20). As the crowd began to stone Paul, I very much doubt Paul was thinking to himself, “Oh, well, God will no doubt keep me from dying.” I am sure he thought he would will die. Whatever Paul was describing in our text must have been similar in its certainty of death. Paul’s suffering was not just “unto death”; it was a suffering he believed would lead to a horrible death.

When we watch television, we know when a writer is setting us up so that we not only hope to see the villain die, we hope he or she will die a horrible death. Of the many ways to die, some are much more agonizing than others for the one dying. Paul tells us he is sure he will die, and he believes his death will be one of great torment.

The picture couldn’t have been more bleak for the apostle. Humanly speaking, Paul’s situation was hopeless, which was precisely the way God wanted it to be. In such circumstances, Paul couldn’t trust in himself; he could trust only in God. And since he was certain to die, He must trust in the God who raises the dead. This kind of suffering brought Paul to a point where he and every other Christian must be—the point of trusting not in ourselves but in God who raises the dead.

Suffering as a Christian is God’s means of drawing us into closer communion with Him.

Suffering as Christians enables us to know God as we would not otherwise know Him. If it were not for sin, we could not know the grace of God manifested in the sacrificial death of our Lord Jesus Christ. If it were not for Satan, and for all those who oppose our God, we should not know His omniscience (all-knowing) and omnipotence (all-powerful). If it were not for suffering, we would not know God’s mercy, compassion, and comfort. Suffering is a divinely appointed means of knowing God intimately.

Paul’s language in our text suggests the intimacy with God we may find in the midst of our suffering. Paul spoke of God as “Father.” He was called, “the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,” and also “the Father of mercies” (verse 3). As the loving “Father” of our Lord Jesus Christ, God sent Him to the cross of Calvary to suffer for our sins in ways we cannot even fathom. God is our “Father,” who comforts us in all our affliction. This He made possible through the sufferings of our Lord Jesus Christ. Our comfort comes at the highest cost, a cost paid by the Son of God and by the loving Father who sent HimWhat a comfort to know that both our suffering and our comfort come from a loving Father (see Hebrews 12:3-13)

God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, is now our Father because of the work of His Son (see John 1:121 Peter 1:17). He is the “Father of mercies,” not “the Father of mercy.” He is the source of all kinds of mercies. More than this, He is ultimately the source of every form of comfort, the “God of all comfort.” As “every good thing … and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father…” (James 1:17), so every manifestation of comfort comes from above as well. He is a merciful Father, the Father of mercies.

Suffering is the occasion where mercy and comfort are most evidently needed, and so it is in suffering that we come to know God as the “Father of mercies.” I think of Asaph, the psalmist and author of Psalm 73. This worship leader was greatly distressed because he perceived (wrongly, in part) that the wicked were prospering while the righteous (as Asaph) were suffering. Then he realized the “prosperity” of the wicked is temporary and tentative at best. In times of suffering, the righteous are comforted by their fellowship with God, and this intimacy lasts for all eternity (Psalm 73:16-28)

Those who experience the sufficiency of God in times of suffering don’t resent their affliction but treasure it as God’s appointed means of drawing men close to Him, the “Father of mercies.” Asaph learned this lesson, as did Job. Peter, who bristled at the mere mention of suffering by our Lord, wrote his first epistle on the subject, telling his readers that those who suffered for Christ’s sake were blessed (1 Peter 4). Paul considered his former status and success as an unbelieving Jewish leader “dung,” but his sufferings in Christ were a precious treasure (Philippians 3:1-16). James instructed us to “Consider it all joy, … when you encounter various trials” (James 1:2). Suffering is intended to draw us near to the heart of God. And so it is with Paul, who in the midst of unbelievable suffering, writes these introductory words to his epistle praising God for His mercies and comfort in the midst of his trials and tribulations.

Suffering is God’s means of equipping us to minister to others.

Suffering as a Christian, experiencing the “sufferings of Christ,” is a source of personal blessing and benefit. But it would be wrong for us to view our sufferings in a selfish way. As our Lord’s sufferings were for our benefit and blessing, our sufferings are intended to be a blessing to others. The comfort which we should experience, the comfort which the “Father of mercies”bestows upon us, is not something we are to hoard but something we are to share. Paul assumes that Christians will all share in the sufferings of Christ (see 2 Timothy 3:12). When we experience Christ’s sufferings and share in God’s comfort, we are being equipped to minister to others who will experience similar afflictions.

For just as the sufferings of Christ overflow toward us, so also our comfort through  Christ overflows to you. But if we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvationif we are comfortedit is for your comfort that you experience in your patient endurance of the same sufferings that we also suffer. 2 Corinthians 1:5-6

Paul said it as clearly as it can be said. His sufferings were intended for the Corinthians’ comfort. Paul’s comfort (in suffering) was for their comfort. The price Paul and his colleagues (Silvanus and Timothy—1:19) paid, as well as the comfort they received, were for the benefit and blessing of the Corinthians. Suffering for Christ’s sake is sure to bring us comfort from the heavenly Father. This comfort is given from our heavenly Father so that we might share it with others who will endure similar suffering.

If we fail in our suffering, doubting God’s goodness and questioning His infinite wisdom and mercy, then we shall also fail to experience the comfort God has for us. And if we fail to experience God’s comfort, we deprive others of the comfort they should receive through us.

For Asaph to turn away from God would have betrayed those who might follow his example. Just as we may bless others by sharing our comfort with them, so we may harm our brothers by failing to accept God’s hand in our lives and thus fail to gain the comfort He has for us.

A further word must be said concerning the blessing we may be to others by suffering well. I do not understand Paul to say we must suffer exactly the way others suffer in order to share our comfort with them. I believe those who suffer well bless us even more broadly. I notice this in the music we sing. The young contemporary Christian music writer who has never suffered to any degree writes with shallowness compared to someone like Fanny Crosby, who wrote as one who knew suffering through her blindness. Those who suffer well have a depth and maturity beyond their years, which God desires for them to share with others.

Suffering is a bonding experience for believers

And our hope for you is steadfast because we know that as you share in our sufferingsso also you will share in our comfort. For we do not want you to be unawarebrothers and sisters, regarding the affliction that happened to us in the province of Asia, that we were burdened excessivelybeyond our strengthso that we despaired even of living. Indeed we felt as if the sentence of death had been passed against us, so that we would not trust in ourselves but in God who raises the dead. He delivered us from so great a risk of deathand he will deliver us. 2 Corinthians 7-10

We all know of situations where we have shared some adversity with others, and in so doing, a special bond has developed. Suffering together is a bonding experience. Paul made a point of indicating that we should not, and do not, suffer alone. We share the sufferings of Christ, and we experience the comfort and mercies of our Heavenly Father. But in addition, we are drawn into a closer fellowship with our fellow-believers. The word “fellowship” (Greek, koinonia) means, in effect, “to share in common.” Paul’s suffering and the comfort he gained from God he now shared in common with other sufferers.

Fellowship also works in the opposite direction. When a particular believer is suffering, fellow-believers draw near to share the burden. That particular ministry Paul speaks of is the ministry of prayer.

We have set our hope on him that he will deliver us yet again, as you also join in helping us by prayerso that many people may give thanks to God on our behalf for the gracious gift given to us through the help of many. 2 Corinthians 1:10b-11

The same theme occurs in Philippians 1:19. As Christians join together with the sufferer, interceding for him with God, they enter into a special fellowship. And when those prayers are answered as God purposes, those who have petitioned God may now praise Him for the answers to their prayers. The suffering of one member of the body affects all (1 Corinthians 12:26). And God’s mercy shown to the sufferer becomes an opportunity for all to praise God for the answer, according to the will of God, to their prayers.

How sad when saints become self-absorbed by their suffering, turning inward, and shriveling up as a result. Those who respond rightly to their suffering turn upward (Godward) and outward (toward people in need of comfort and encouragement), and they grow and blossom as a result. Menzies sums up this matter well:

“Of the many solutions given in Scripture of the mystery of pain,” Menzies comments, “this is not the least notable; the sufferer who feels that his sufferings equip him as a missionary of comfort to others will feel that they are well-explained.” (RVG Tasker, The Second Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians, p. 41)

Paul’s words to the Corinthians put his sufferings in a whole new light. From 1 Corinthians we know these believers were into success, not suffering. Paul’s suffering was at least two strikes against him. Some no doubt saw his suffering as Job’s friends did—as proof of sin or carnality in Paul’s life (see 2 Corinthians 10:2). They looked down upon Paul for the very things which were a cause of rejoicing for Paul and proof of his apostleship. Paul’s attitude toward suffering should have taken the wind out of the sails of those who pointed to his adversity as proof that his ministry should be disdained and disregarded. Paul’s suffering was his badge of apostleship.

Paul’s words concerning his suffering should call into question a great deal of popular “Christian” teaching today about health, wealth, and prosperity. Many tell us that God wants us to prosper, to have good health, and to have a trouble-free life. They tell us we can have this prosperity if we but have the faith to believe and claim God’s promises. They rebuke us for our lack of faith and blame us for our suffering if we fail to achieve what they promise.

The simple fact is that God didn’t promise believers prosperity and popularity and good times in this life. He promised us adversity, rejection, and suffering because we have trusted in Jesus Christ. As He suffered, we too will suffer. As He was rejected by men, so we will be rejected and persecuted. Those who deny this simply choose to read the Bible selectively and avoid the many texts which tell us to expect hard times. Suffering is an indispensable part of the Christian life, but it is one of the “all things” for which we should give thanks (1 Thessalonians 5:18), because it is included in the “all things” which God will cause to work together for our good and His glory (Romans 8:28).

Suffering for the sake of Christ is not a curse but a blessing, if we respond as Paul did and as many other saints of old have done. Suffering is a stewardship, which we may misuse and misappropriate, or which we may utilize for our good and God’s glory. Suffering draws us closer to God and closer to our brothers and sisters in Christ. Suffering always comes with the promise of divine comfort and thus provides us with the fuel for worship and praise.

The key to seeing suffering as we should is found in the Person and work of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. From the outset of His ministry, Jesus made it clear that contrary to popular belief and teaching, suffering is indeed not a curse, but a blessing (Matthew 5:2-12). Jesus also made it clear that He had come to suffer for sinners so their sins might be forgiven and they might have eternal life (Mark 10:45) . What a difference Jesus brings about regarding our perspective on suffering. The world abhors the thought of suffering and cannot imagine how a loving God can allow it. God uses suffering to teach us how evil sin is and how devastating its consequences. He used the suffering of our Savior to forgive our sins. He continues to employ suffering to draw us closer to Him and to one another. Suffering for Christ’s sake is not an enemy but a friend. Suffering is not something we need to seek, but it is something we should accept, knowing it comes from God (Philippians 3:8, 10).

One last thing must be said before concluding this lesson. This lesson is directed toward believers in Jesus Christ, just as this passage is written to true believers. God’s people are those who have trusted in Jesus Christ for salvation (Romans 8:28-30). I dare not overlook the very likely possibility that you may be reading this message as an unbeliever. You may know about God. You may even believe in God and pray to Him at times. A true believer goes beyond this. A true believer is one who understands that he is a sinner, who deserves God’s eternal wrath, and whose good works will never be sufficient to gain him or her entrance into the kingdom of God or to obtain God’s favor (Romans 3:9-20; 6:231 John 1:8-10). A true believer understands that while there is no way man can ever earn eternal salvation, there is but one way which God has provided whereby we can be saved, and that is by faith in the sacrificial death, burial, and resurrection of our Lord, by which our sins are punished in Christ, and God’s righteousness in Christ is given to us (John 1:12; 3:16, 36; 14:6Romans 3:21-26; 10:9-102 Corinthians 5:17-211 John 5:11-12). The true believer knows these things and casts his entire trust on Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of his sins and the assurance of eternal life.

While it is not the point of our text in 2 Corinthians, it is nonetheless true that, often by means of suffering, God draws the unbeliever to Himself. If any unbeliever who is suffering asks the question, “Why me?” the answer is simple: “We deserve it.” Human beings deserve none of God’s blessings and the worst punishment we can imagine. But it is also often true that God graciously brings suffering into the life of the non-Christian as a means of drawing him or her to faith in Christ. All through the Gospels, we see the sick and the suffering coming to Christ for healing and deliverance. Many of those whom our Lord healed also came to faith in Him as their Savior. Suffering is a way of reminding us of the reality of sin and its consequences, of pointing out that we live in a world which suffers as a result of sin (see Romans 8:18-25). If your suffering has brought you to the point of acknowledging that you are helpless, and that your only hope is God, you are well on your way. Your sufferings will either harden you toward God, or they will soften you, turning you toward Him.

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