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Second Corinthians

Suffering and Service

2 Corinthians 11:16 - 12:13

There is a danger in being a Sunday School teacher (several, in fact; this is only one): you sometimes become so familiar with the characters of the Bible that you forget how extraordinary some of them are. Paul, in today's passage, is an example. This poor soul details (under pressure) a life of hardship so extreme that it would make Indiana Jones blush. Here he was, boy from the right side of the tracks, shipwrecked, flogged, stoned to the point of near death experience, harassed by "friend" and foe, bandits... you get the idea. We are sometimes tempted to spend the lesson time detailing his sufferings, wondering at them, and end with, "Go, and do likewise." The lesson is clinched when someone walks up and says, "Great lesson, teacher. Boy, are we all glad we're not like St. Paul!"


So I present, for your amusement and enjoyment, The Cynic's Guide to Suffering and Service (abbreviated), in which we will attempt to answer these three questions:



What benefit did St. Paul see in this suffering for himself?


What benefit is there for God and His kingdom in it?


How did he ever get through it all?


These are answered in one key verse:


{9} But he 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.

‑‑ 2 Corinthians 12:9 (NIV)




What benefit did St. Paul see in this suffering for himself?


Kindly remember that Paul was warned. On the road to Damascus Jesus said that Paul would be shown what he would have to suffer for the sake of the name of Jesus. So, knowing that, why did Paul go on? To understand the answer to this, we must remember the key principle of Christian conduct: the imitation of Christ. To see to what end man must suffer for God, we need to look at Christ. Christ's suffering had (at least) three results for him:

Christ: the Suffering Servant


{7} During the days of Jesus' life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. {8} Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered {9} and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him ‑‑ Hebrews 5:79 (NIV)


It is not just that Jesus displayed obedience in His suffering (which of course He did) - but that he learned obedience. We touch on a great mystery: how can Jesus be both wholly God and wholly man? However it is, the man Jesus learned obedience - from what He suffered.



{5} Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: {6} Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, {7} but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. {8} And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death‑‑ even death on a cross! {9} Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, {10} that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, {11} and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

‑‑ Philippians 2:511 (NIV)


Look at the beginning of verse 9: "Therefore..." It is because of Jesus' suffering that He is exalted by God the father - to the point that every knee shall bow, not just on earth, not just the living on the planet, but the dead arisen and all the angels of heaven and demons of hell - including Satan himself. Suffering for God brings exaltation to Jesus.



{2} Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. ‑‑ Hebrews 12:2 (NIV)


Not only is He exalted, He is become our example. As stated before, the principal rule of Christian conduct is the imitation of Christ. On Him we must "fix our eyes."


But, do these same things apply to us? After all, maybe Paul's the exception, here. God never told me what I would suffer for Him (mostly because I'd have been bored with the tale). We need to examine our suffering, and its blessings.


Our suffering for Him


There are a couple of preliminary points. First, we do not choose to suffer. Choosing to suffer is masochism, and is rightly diagnosed as mental illness. We choose, instead, to follow the will of God - knowing that it will lead to suffering. If you choose to be a star athlete, you choose to sweat and strain. How much more so if you choose to follow God in the ultimate trial of life?


Also, there is a sense in which we have no choice in the matter at all. We are not our own; we are bought with a price. We should not complain of suffering but rather rejoice. This is actually a fairly common attitude. Consider these two statements:


"That guy Hendershot is a slave driver! We worked 70-80 hours a week on the Sampson contract, and it was always deadlines, deadlines, deadlines. How we got everything done on time I'll never know."


"I remember working for Hendershot on the Sampson contract. Man, were we good, or what! It didn't matter what deadline they through at us, we met every one on time, even if we had to bust our chops for 70-80 hours a week."


See the difference? The first is a complaint about hours and work; the second, a fond memory of being on the first team doing a tough job - in fact, it's boasting! Yet the hours worked and the things accomplished are the same. Sometimes suffering is just a question of attitude.


So, these aside, let's look at the parallels between Christ's suffering and our own suffering for Him:



{26} See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse‑‑ {27} the blessing if you obey the commands of the LORD your God that I am giving you today; {28} the curse if you disobey the commands of the LORD your God and turn from the way that I command you today by following other gods, which you have not known. ‑‑ Deuteronomy 11:2628 (NIV)


It's tempting to say that this is a "push pull" situation: if you're a good boy, you get blessed; if you don't, you get cursed. That's the early version of it. We need to see these two in New Testament light: that suffering and obedience are intertwined. Sometimes obedience leads to suffering which leads to obedience which leads to ..... you get the idea.



{11} Here is a trustworthy saying: If we died with him, we will also live with him; {12} if we endure, we will also reign with him. If we disown him, he will also disown us; ‑‑ 2 Timothy 2:1112 (NIV)


Did you ever think of yourself as reigning with Jesus? Well, think about it: you are the child of the King of Kings, aren't you? Indeed, the sufferings for the faith we have are evidence of our exaltation to come:

{4} Therefore, among God's churches we boast about your perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and trials you are enduring. {5} All this is evidence that God's judgment is right, and as a result you will be counted worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are suffering.

‑‑ 2 Thessalonians 1:45 (NIV)



{27} Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then, whether I come and see you or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm in one spirit, contending as one man for the faith of the gospel {28} without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you. This is a sign to them that they will be destroyed, but that you will be saved‑‑and that by God. {29} For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him, ‑‑ Philippians 1:2729 (NIV)


We are to be an example to the world. It must be admitted that Christians in twentieth century America are indeed poor examples. If you need the comparison, here's what a writer (Athanasius) wrote, about AD 310 - fifteen generations from Paul. He was reciting the proofs of the Resurrection of Christ. His argument included what today would be an amazing statement: that Christians laugh at ("despise") death - in essence, with that attitude, they must know something you don't. Here's what he has to say:


A very strong proof of this destruction of death and its conquest by the cross is supplied by a present fact, namely this. All the disciples of Christ despise death, they take the offensive against it and, instead of fearing it, by the sign of the cross and by faith in Christ trample on it as something dead. Before the divine advent of the Savior, even the holiest of men were afraid of death, and mourned the dead as those who perish. But now that the Savior has raised His body, death is no longer terrible, but all those who believe in Christ tread it underfoot as nothing and prefer to die rather than to deny their faith in Christ, knowing full well that when they die they do not perish, but live indeed, and become incorruptible through the resurrection. But that devil who of old wickedly exulted in death, now that the pains of death are loosed, he alone it is who remains truly dead. There is proof of this too; for men who, before they believe in Christ, think death horrible and are afraid of it, once they are converted despise it so completely that they go eagerly to meet it, and themselves become witnesses of the Savior's resurrection from it. Even children hasten thus to die, and not men only, but women train themselves by bodily discipline to meet it. So weak has death become that even women, who used to be taken in by it, mock at it now as a dead thing, robbed of all its strength. Death has become like a tyrant who has been completely conquered by the legitimate monarch; bound hand and foot as he now is, the passers-by jeer at him, hitting him and abusing him, no longer afraid of his cruelty and rage, because of the king who has conquered him. So has death been conquered and branded for what it is by the Savior on the cross. It is bound hand and foot, all who are in Christ trample it as they pass and as witnesses to Him deride it, scoffing and saying, "O Death, where is thy victory? O Grave, where is thy sting?"

(Athanasius, De Incarnatione Verbi Dei, V-27)


C.S. Lewis, commenting on this passage, remarks, "We cannot point to the high virtue of Christian living and the gay, almost mocking courage of Christian martyrdom, as a proof of our doctrines which Athanasius takes as a matter of course. But whoever may be to blame for that it is not Athanasius."


What benefit is there for God and His kingdom in it?


In asking this question there is an implicit assumption: that God, like us, must triumph to win. This seriously underestimates what God can do. Michael Card once wrote a song about "the power of paradox." God's power is made perfect in weakness, Paul assures us. Indeed, so sure is Paul of this that he says:


{30} If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. ‑‑ 2 Corinthians 11:30 (NIV)


Over and again, in Old Testament and in New Testament, God picks the weakness of man in which to perfect His strength. To cite one outstanding example, remember King David? When Samuel came to anoint a king from among Jesse's sons, Jesse - knowing that Samuel would be looking for the best possible candidate - send the runt of the litter out to tend the sheep while Samuel looked over the six brothers. Dad knew that little David was "least likely to succeed." And indeed there is no record of objection from David on that point either! But God saw otherwise.


God is so far above us in His ways that His weakness will suffice for all our strength. Indeed, as Paul told these same Corinthians,

{22} Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, {23} but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, {24} but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. {25} For the foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man's strength. ‑‑ 1 Corinthians 1:2225 (NIV)


We also sometimes forget that God's kingdom is in need of suffering for God's own purposes. If God is to judge the world, is it surprising that He wants His children presentable for the occasion?

{12} Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. {13} But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. {14} If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. {15} If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler. {16} However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name. {17} For it is time for judgment to begin with the family of God; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God? {18} And, "If it is hard for the righteous to be saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?" {19} So then, those who suffer according to God's will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good. ‑‑ 1 Peter 4:1219 (NIV) (italics added)


You see the point? God is well able to make suffering useful


- to display His strength through weakness

- to display His wisdom in what we see as foolishness

- to purge His children of unrighteousness


How did he ever get through it all?


"OK, John, you have me convinced. But how did Paul ever get through all of that. I know what comfort the Lord gives me - and doesn't. And I can tell you that I'd never make it through all that."


Neither would I. Neither would any of us. But God does not pre-package His grace, ladling it out like Thanksgiving gravy, one spoonful to a customer. He tailors grace to the needs of each of us:

{8} And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work. ‑‑ 2 Corinthians 9:8 (NIV)


The words "abound" and "all" just run through that passage, don't they? Sometimes we forget this principle, and not only for ourselves. We sometimes look at those who have suffered greatly and say, "I wish I was a saint who could endure suffering like that." We forget that God provides the grace.

Sometimes we challenge God on why He would allow such suffering in an individual. We think it's unfair. But remember that Christ apportions grace as well as suffering:

{7} But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. ‑‑ Ephesians 4:7 (NIV)


Of most interest to me, however, is the thought that God gives this grace in a very unusual method: He allows my suffering to drive me back to Him. One of the great saints of the Renaissance put it this way:


It is good for us to encounter troubles and adversities from time to time, for trouble often compels a man to search his own heart. It reminds him that he is an exile here, and that he can put his trust in nothing in this world. It is good, too, that we sometimes suffer opposition, and that men think ill of us and misjudge us, even when we do and mean well. Such things are an aid to humility, and preserve us from pride and vainglory. For we more readily turn to God as our inward witness, when men despise us and think no good of us.

A man should therefore place such complete trust in God that he has no need of comfort from men. When a good man is troubled, tempted, or vexed by evil thoughts, he comes more clearly than ever to realize his need of God, without whom he can do nothing good. Then, as he grieves and laments his lot, he turns to prayer amid his misfortunes. He is weary of life, and longs for death to release him, that he may be dissolved, and be with Christ. It is then that he knows with certainty that there can be no complete security nor perfect peace in his life.

(Thomas a Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, I-12)


Paul certainly knew this feeling well. He describes it as his "thorn in the flesh" - though the word "thorn" might as well be translated "stake." He came in time to see it as that which kept him from becoming proud. It is well to remember that Satan fell - through pride.

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