Problems in Perspective - 2 Corinthians 1:1-11
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Who am I? When I was 7 years old my family was forced out of their home on a legal technicality, and I had to work to help support them. At age 9 my mother died. At 22 I lost my job as a store clerk. I wanted to go to law school, but my education wasn’t good enough. At 23 I went into debt to become a partner in a small store. At 26 my business partner died, leaving me a huge debt that took years to repay. At 28, after courting a girl for four years I asked her to marry me. She said no. At 37, on my third try, I was elected to the US Congress, but two years later I failed to be re-elected. At 41 my four year old son died. At 45 I ran for the Senate and lost. At 47 I failed as the vice-presidential candidate. Now I guess at this point most of us would have written this person off. He’s a failure, he’s suffered too much. He’ll never be a success. But at the age of 51, Abraham Lincoln was elected President of the United States.
How do you define success? In the world’s eyes success is seen in terms of power, money, influence, large numbers of followers. We want our leaders to be strong, courageous, eloquent, unflinching, fearless, untouchable. And the danger is those criteria are brought into the Christian church to define our understanding of success. We want churches with hundreds of people. We want our children’s work to be flourishing, our Christianity Explored courses to be thriving, our missions to be seen to have many people becoming Christians, all of which may spring from good motivations. We want our Christian leaders to be intelligent, brilliant speakers, funny yet serious, tough yet gentle, hardworking yet relaxed, giving up their time completely but having perfect families, always cheerful, never ill or depressed, always on a level and never seeming to struggle. That’s success isn’t it? But consider a statement like this, and then ask yourself whether you’d want this man to be your next vicar: "I am the subject of depressions of spirit so fearful that I hope none of you ever gets to such extremes of wretchedness as I go to." Surely we wouldn’t want this chap in charge of our church would we? He’s clearly unstable, he’s weak, he needs help. But if you were to reject him, you’d be rejecting one of the greatest preachers England has ever seen, C H Spurgeon. Because in the Bible’s understanding, true success, true strength is seen in weakness. It’s only as we are weak that we are truly strong.
Now that may seem like a contradiction, but it gets right to the heart of Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. It was something Paul was having to explain at length to the Corinthians. Because in recent times their assumptions about the Christian faith and Christian leadership had become warped and badly distorted. Now Paul had actually founded the church in Corinth some years before, but his relationship with the church had been rocky to say the least. And it was all because the church was being taken off course by new leaders who had come in and won over the majority of the congregation. These new leaders were very impressive. They spoke well, they came with excellent credentials, and they were far more pleasing to the eye than Paul. Paul by his own admission wasn’t a great speaker, he didn’t have great credentials, and he seemed to spend far too much of his time in prison. Hardly a good CV for your vicar is it, these new leaders would say. And the Corinthians were taken in. The sharp suits, white teeth and silver tongues won the day. But they were not authentic Christian ministers. They were frauds peddling a different message. So Paul visits Corinth for a second time to sort out the mess but the visit is a disaster. Paul is rejected and his ministry called into question. And it is deeply painful for him. So he writes a letter, which no longer exists, which rebukes the church very sharply. It was a tough letter for Paul to write. He says in 2 Corinthians 2 that that previous letter was written with many tears. But it did the trick. Most of the church saw the error of their ways. They came back to Paul’s leadership and 2 Corinthians is the response to the news that the church is now largely back on side. But Paul still feels the need to talk to them seriously about the real nature of Christian faith and ministry. It is hard. It’s tough. But in human weakness then God works in his strength to bring about his purposes. And if there was a verse which captures the heart of the letter then it’s 12 vv 9-10: "But God said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong."
You see this is a letter that asks us serious questions about what we think authentic Christian faith and leadership looks like. Too often we define success or strength in terms of numbers of people, or the size of our budget, or the slickness of our presentations, whereas for Paul, the measure of success is something very different. It’s about God displaying his strength in human weakness. Now as we will see that is not an excuse for sloppiness or not working hard for growth, but time and again as we work our way through 2 Corinthians, we will find our assumptions challenged as to what defines strength and success. Because the Christian life is not victory and success all the way to heaven. Whilst there is much joy to be had, and indeed an element of victory, yet the reality is the Christian life is a battle. But wonderfully we will see that God uses broken and weak people like you and me to do the most amazing things which brings great glory to God. So Paul launches straight into his main theme in this opening section and he describes the sorts of trials he has been facing. And he teaches us three lessons about Christian suffering which are a great encouragement to us as we battle on:
1) The Relief
in Christian Suffering (Vv 1-4a) 2) The Results of Christian Suffering
(Vv 4b-9) 3) The Resources for Christian Suffering (Vv 10-11) 1)
The Relief in Christian Suffering (Vv 1-4a)
1) The Relief in Christian Suffering (Vv 1-4a)
2) The Results of Christian Suffering (Vv 4b-9)
3) The Resources for Christian Suffering (Vv 10-11)
1) The Relief in Christian Suffering (Vv 1-4a)
So first he shows us the relief in Christian suffering in verses 1-4: "Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, To the church of God in Corinth, together with all the saints throughout Achaia: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles." Now it’s worth noting in passing that as Paul greets this church in Corinth he says that he is an apostle by the will of God. He has a unique authority given by God which these Corinthians need to respect and listen to. The false teachers, for all their skills and slick presentations are frauds. Paul is the real apostle. But contrary to what the false teachers were saying, Christian leadership, indeed all Christian discipleship, does not mean we are exempt from suffering. The false teachers were saying, "If you are on God’s side then bad things don’t happen. It’s glory glory all the way to heaven. Wealth now, health now, wonderful experiences now. No wonder it was attractive. But it’s not authentic Christianity. Because Paul assumes in verse 3, that we will face suffering. The assumption is, along with the rest of the NT, that Christians face all kinds of trials and troubles. For God comforts us in all our troubles. Our allegiance to Christ does not make us immune from trouble. In fact if anything, it increases it!
So what sorts of troubles is Paul talking about here? Well in verse 5 he says that "the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives." Now Paul is talking first and foremost about his own suffering as an apostle. But even so what he says about suffering applies to all of us as Christ’s followers. Now when Paul talks about the sufferings of Christ here he does not mean Jesus’ sufferings on the cross, the things Jesus endured for us. Those sufferings were unique to him so that we would not have to suffer the full horror of experiencing God’s wrath against us. He took God’s wrath for our sin so that we might not have to. And yet, as we walk in the ways of Jesus, so we too will experience rejection and persecution as he experienced it. In that sense the sufferings of Christ overflow into our lives.
And there are two types of suffering that are particular to being a follower of Jesus. One type of suffering happens simply because you are a Christian. That might be anything from rejection in the office, to name calling at school, to being overlooked for a promotion because you apply the principles of Jesus to your working life like honesty and integrity. It might be more serious such as physical persecution for following Jesus. Certainly Paul himself experienced that sort of suffering to a serious degree, with beatings and a number of near death experiences. But the non Christian does not suffer such things. Only Christians suffer in such ways. And that is our lot as Christians as we seek to follow Christ. But there is another form of suffering that is particular to Christians, and that is the grief we experience for friends and family who are not Christians. Again that is particular to Christians. It weighs heavy on us with great sorrow that those we love are not yet Christians. Maybe a spouse who is not a believer, maybe a brother or sister, maybe your best friend, maybe a son or daughter. If you love Christ, and believe his teaching about the reality of hell and judgement, then you will feel that loss very deeply indeed. That’s another form of the sufferings of Jesus. And then of course, if you add to those the reality of living in a sinful world, then there are all sorts of other forms of sufferings, which our non Christian friends experience too. Christians die as well, Christians get ill, Christians get cancer, Christians have accidents, Christians get depression, Christians are bereaved or lose their jobs. Those are the sorts of troubles we experience day in day out.
Now of course at this point, we might well ask what is the point. And if you are not yet a Christian, then you will certainly be asking that question. But you need to know what you are letting yourself in for. Following Christ is not an easy option. Ernest Shakleton was one of the great polar explorers at the turn of the twentieth century. And for one of his polar expeditions he advertised in the London papers for people to join him. And the advert went like this: "Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, complete darkness, constant danger- safe return doubtful." It’s not surprising there were few applicants. And when Christ asks us to follow him, he does not promise a life of ease. He says following a suffering Lord means suffering yourself.
But many of us know that all too well in our experience. And that is why the words of verse 3 are such a tonic to our souls. Because in the midst of the trials, we need to hear these words of immense encouragement. Verse 3: "Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles." You see the wonderful news is that God is a God of compassion and all comfort. He comforts us in all our troubles. When we go through the mill for whatever reason, whether it be persecution, a heavy heart or the reality of life in a sinful world, we can know the comfort of God. For the fact is God walks with us in our suffering. As a God who has experienced all these pains and many more in the person of Jesus, he knows what we are feeling. He knows our hurts, our pain. And that is why he can administer the right comfort as the God of all compassion.
By way of illustration, I came across these words this week of the clothes designer Gianni Versace. He was once asked about his religious opinions: "I believe in God, but I’m not the kind of religious person who goes to church, who believes in the fairy tale of Jesus born in the stable with the donkey. That, no- I’m not stupid. I can’t believe that God, with all the power that he has, had to have himself born in a stable. It wouldn’t have been comfortable." But that is precisely the God of the Bible. Who was willing to do the uncomfortable thing for us. So he knows what pain and loss is. And that is a God I want to know and I need to know. I need a God who is kind enough to feel my hurt and who is powerful enough to do something about it. And that is the God of the Bible. He is a God of all compassion. He brings comfort in all our troubles. Now if you are going through the mill today, then these words are certainly for you. Just because life is hard, and indeed very hard for some, does not mean God has stopped loving you. He loves his children with an everlasting love. He can give peace and comfort even in the most difficult of circumstances. And many of us know the reality of those words. So come to him and fling yourself on his mercy. Trust him with your sorrow. Pray that although the pain might not go, you would know God’s comfort and peace at this time. And do you know the best thing of all? It’s not going to last forever. Suffering now, glory to come. One day no more tears. One day no more pain. And today, a God of all compassion who understands and who comforts. That’s the relief we can experience in Christian suffering.
2) The Results of Christian
Suffering (Vv 4b-9)
2) The Results of Christian Suffering (Vv 4b-9)
But secondly, Paul shows us the results of Christian suffering. Because wonderfully in the providence of God, suffering can be used for good. And that was certainly the case in Paul’s experience. And he tells us that his suffering had two unexpected results.
Suffering helps us comfort others-
a) Suffering helps us comfort others-
First he tells us that suffering helps us comfort others. "Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God." Now really if you think about it, this is quite extraordinary. Surely when we are going through the mill, then the last thing we are thinking about is that this could be used to help someone else. Surely our pain is unique to us, surely our suffering is so personal that it could not possibly help another person. Well of course it is unique and it is personal, but that does not mean it cannot be used by God to bring comfort to someone else. How? Well see how Paul describes his experience. He says that God comforts him in all his troubles so that he can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort he himself has received from God. As God comforts him in his suffering, so then Paul can pass on that comfort and encouragement to others who are suffering. Paul becomes a channel of God’s comfort to others. So verse 5: "For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows. If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of
the same sufferings we suffer." Do you see how it puts a totally new spin on Paul’s suffering. He is saying that he is distressed and suffering for the Corinthians’ comfort. What Paul is suffering enables him to experience the comfort of God which in turn he can then pass on to the Corinthians who are suffering in similar ways as well. And that means verse 7 that Paul has great hope for when his friends go through the mill. Because he can say: "And our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort."
Now let’s just pause a moment to consider what Paul is saying, because quite frankly this is a revolutionary way to think about suffering. It’s all too easy when we’re going through the mill to end up in self pity. Our temptation is to think, "Why me, Lord? What’s the point? I must be the worst sinner in the world to be going through this? Why afflict me again, Lord?" But listen again to what Paul is saying. God comforts us in our troubles so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received. As we receive God’s grace and mercy and comfort in tough times, so he wants us to become conduits of that same grace and mercy and comfort. We can minister to others who are going through tough times. We can share God’s comfort as we put an arm round someone’s shoulder, as we pray for someone, as we cry with someone. We can gently say, "Yes I’ve been there, and God brought me through." Of course we don’t have to experience exactly the same suffering to minister. In fact suffering is personal isn’t it, so we cannot always empathise with the person’s exact suffering. But we can sympathise. The comfort we have receive we can pass on. We can speak of God’s kindness to us, God’s faithfulness. And sometimes there is no need to speak at all. Just to sit with a friend and show love and support. That is often what it means to bring God’s comfort. Because often the comfort of God comes in the form of another Christian. You don’t have to have suffered greatly. You just need to know the comfort of God and be a loving Christian. Do you see your suffering in that way? As an opportunity to share the comfort you yourself have received? Or will self pity take over. God never makes light of our suffering, but wonderfully God can use it for good.
Now it needs to be said that giving such comfort cannot necessarily be done in the midst our suffering. Sometimes it takes a while for God to show us how he can use our experiences, and for us to be ready, but if we are willing he can use us. I came across a most extraordinary example of this just recently in the life of a woman called Helen Roseveare. It’s one of the most moving stories I have read in a long time. Helen Roseveare was for many years a missionary in the Congo. And she stayed when many left during the rebel uprising during the sixties. For a while she and her colleagues were kept safe, but one day they were captured and brutally treated for several weeks. One night Helen herself was horrifically beaten and raped by the leader of the gang. Now for years, Helen had rarely spoken of that event. Understandably it was an horrific ordeal to endure. Could God ever use such an event for his good. Years later, Helen was giving a talk in America. She had spoken briefly about her terrible experiences in the Congo. And at the end of the talk, a girl came up to her in tears. She too had been raped just a few weeks before. And Helen was able to comfort her in a unique way because she’d had a similar experience. Listen to how Helen reflected on that experience. She says: "When God could have saved me from the horror, he actually trusted me to go through the ordeal with him so that he could use the experience later to help others….. Later that evening I thanked God again for letting me know at least in some small measure the why of that long ago night in the Congo. God didn’t have to show me why he allowed the ordeal; I had accepted it all from his hands unquestionably. But now I knew that at least one young girl had been helped to come to terms with the shock because I was enabled to share from my own experience. Thank you God." Now that is a truly staggering perspective on a horrific ordeal. But it’s Biblical one. It doesn’t mean the suffering was good. But it does show how God can use even the most awful circumstance for his glory. Through the comfort he gave Helen, she was able to pass on that comfort to someone else. And I simply ask myself, "Do I have that perspective on my troubles?"
b) Suffering helps us rely on God-
b) Suffering helps us rely on God-
There is though a second result of suffering that Paul highlights. And that comes in verses 8-9: "We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about the hardships we suffered in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead." Now we don’t know what this particular trouble was for Paul. It was certainly very serious. He felt like he was going to die. But notice why he says the event happened: "But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead." God allowed him to go through the ordeal so that he would trust God more. Now that’s not the whole answer to the question of suffering, but it’s certainly one part. God allows us to endure tough times, so that we would fling ourselves more and more on him. Because it’s only when we are weak that we realise we are fallible and frail and needy. And the only one who can bring us through is the living God. Richard Burton the actor once criticised Christianity with these words: "The weak rely on Christ, the strong do not." Actually is exactly right. And the those who think they are strong fall as a result. Instead listen to these words from the preacher of the seventeenth century Richard Gouge during his final fatal illness: "When I look upon myself, I see nothing but emptiness and weakness. When I look upon Christ, I see nothing but fullness and sufficiency." I wonder if that is your perspective on suffering. That it forces you to trust Christ. He’s the only one who can bring us through. Paul knew it. Helen Roseveare knew. And we need to learn it. Because God can use suffering for good.
3) The Resources for Christian Suffering (Vv
3) The Resources for Christian Suffering (Vv 10-11)
But there’s one final thing which we’ll look at briefly and that is the resources for Christian suffering in verses 10-11: "He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us, as you help us by your prayers. Then many will give thanks on our behalf for the gracious favour granted us in answer to the prayers of many." Now here Paul says that God has rescued him and will continue to rescue him. We don’t know exactly what Paul had suffered but it must have been pretty bad. But did you notice why it is that God will rescue Paul. It’s in answer to the prayers of the Corinthians. As the Corinthians pray for Paul, so God uses the prayers of that church to rescue him. Now of course that will not always mean Paul will be spared from death or trouble. But God uses the prayers of his people to sustain Paul and in this case rescue Paul. You see here is a wonderful resource for us in times of trouble. It’s prayer. It’s our prayers and the prayers of our friends. How often have you been tempted to think when you are suffering or when a friend is suffering: "Well all I can do is pray!" It’s as if we think that prayer is the last option. There’s loads of other things we should do, and prayer really is a bit of a duff option, but let’s try anyway as a last resort. Actually Paul says something far more serious about prayer here. That God uses the prayers of his people to directly affect the life of an individual. And we see it many times in the Bible.
Now it may be something that we have heard before, but how often we need to be reminded of it. When we pray on Sunday morning as a church for those in need, they are not empty prayers. God can use those prayers, and he does use them, to sustain those in need. So why is it then that prayer is often the last resort? We should catch ourselves saying "all I can do is pray". Because to pray is a powerful act of faith. Prayer is actually the very first thing we should do because it shows our reliance on God. He is the only one who can help in the deepest sense. So pray. For ourselves and for those in need. God may not always answer how we want. But answer he will. And remarkable to say, he uses the prayers of his people. "Many will give thanks on our behalf for the gracious favour granted us in answer to the prayers of many."
You see being a Christian is not about victory and glory all the way to heaven. The way to heaven is often hard and painful. But this morning Paul has shown us that though it’s hard, it is worth it and we are strengthened in our troubles. Because there is relief from the God of all comfort. There are results as we comfort others and learn to rely on God. And there are resources as we pray. And wonderfully God does promise to sustain us and bring us through all to the glory of his name.
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