Suffering is something every person experiences. There are no exceptions. Some, admittedly, suffer more than others, yet, the fact remains, that every human being experiences suffering.
I suspect that we would all agree that suffering is bad. If I knew of someone who actually enjoyed suffering, I would want to inquire about their mental stability. Now, when I say that, I recognize that we are challenged by a text like James chapter 1, verse 2; "Consider it pure joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials".
Is James telling us to rejoice in our trials? No he is not. If we look closely, and if we read on, we see that the basis of our joy is in what our suffering produces. "Consider it pure joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance"(Jas. 1:2,3).
James begins his letter by telling us that when the Christian faces trials it "produces endurance". That is to say that, suffering is intended by God to strengthen our faith. This is why I have entitled today's sermon: Purposeful Suffering.
Our Heavenly Father, who is all-powerful, all wise, and all loving, has a plan when He allows His children to suffer. Admittedly, the plan is sometimes difficult to see and, in some cases, we do not see the reasoning behind God's plan while on this side of heaven. What you need to know this morning is this: God does not waste suffering.
We know God does not waste suffering when we read in James that "the testing of (our) faith produces endurance"(Jas. 1:3). We know God does not waste suffering when we read in Romans 8:28 that, "God causes all things to work together for good to those who love (Him)". We know God does not waste suffering when we examine the life of the apostle Paul.
Last Sunday, the apostle John taught us to pray according to the will of God, promising that all such prayers would be answered (1Jn. 5:14). We recognize, however, that not all of our prayers get answered. Even some of our noblest prayers are not answered if they are not in the best interests of the kingdom of heaven. In today's text, 2Corinthians 12, we read about such a prayer. In today's text, we read that the great, and faithful, apostle Paul had unanswered prayer.
Paul writes, "7Because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me-to keep me from exalting myself! 8Concerning this I implored the Lord three times that it might leave me."
Paul was suffering. It is uncertain what the "thorn" in Paul's flesh actually was. Some commentators say that Paul was suffering spiritually. Others say he was suffering with a physical sickness. And still, others say Paul was experiencing persecution from his enemies. Regardless of the exact nature of Paul's suffering, we can be certain that it was extremely unpleasant. So unpleasant was Paul's suffering, that he had three significant occasions where he "implored the Lord" to remove his thorn (2Cor. 12:8).
But Paul's prayers were not answered. Paul's prayer for the removal of his thorn was not according to kingdom purposes. God had a reason for allowing Paul to suffer, God had a purpose for this suffering, and so the thorn was allowed to remain.
If it seems strange to you that God would allow suffering, we must not so soon forget the nature of God. God is good. And what God does defines what is good. Though we might be tempted to say that Paul's suffering was bad, Scripture forces us to infer that what God intended to produce through Paul's suffering was of greater value than the removal of his affliction.
Those who subscribe to a health-prosperity gospel usually do so based on the logic that God wants what is best for His children. And while this is true, we must not forget who decides "what is best". God does--not us. Only an all-powerful, and all wise, God is in the position to judge which is of greater value--what is produced through suffering or the removal of the affliction.
In Paul's case, the affliction was not removed. What was given instead? In response to Paul's prayers, this was God's reply, "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness"(v.9). God's reply to Paul is that His grace is, both, sufficient and of more value than the mere removal of his affliction. What was "best" for Paul, in this case, was not freedom from his affliction, but grace from God.
I know this to be true in my own life. I have a particular struggle that some of you are aware of. And if I had the ability to correct this difficulty, I would in an instant. Yet, when I consider this struggle of mine, I am often reminded of this verse: "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness." This is how the hymn I wrote came about. As desperately as I want this difficulty of mine remedied, I am not certain that the remedy is of greater value than what God is presently doing in my life. I am not certain that the remedy is more valuable than God's sufficient grace.
When God calls His grace "sufficient", He is saying that grace is enough. He is saying that grace is all we need. Everything else is gravy. The fact that I am blessed with a lovely wife, the fact that I have very few burdens--health, financial, or otherwise--is all gravy. God is not my debtor. He does not owe me, or anyone for that matter, anything. Even still, He gives us grace. He gives us saving grace and He gives us sustaining grace.
We have already said that suffering is bad. We all agree here. It's painful, it's unpleasant, it's disheartening. Yet, we have also said that there is something good about suffering. What is good is what God produces in us through suffering. And, as many Christians have recognized, what God does in us through suffering is usually more profound than what He does through prosperity.
Have you ever heard anyone say, "The most satisfying joys of my life have come in times of extended ease and earthly comfort"? Nobody says that. It isn't true.
What is true is what Samuel Rutherford said when he was put in the cellars of affliction: "The Great King keeps his wine there". What's true is what Charles Spurgeon said: "They who dive in the sea of affliction bring up rare pearls."
Charles Spurgeon, a man who suffered quite extensively in his life, wrote: "I am afraid that all the grace that I have got of my comfortable and easy times and happy hours, might almost lie on a penny. But the good that I have received from my sorrows, and pains, and griefs, is altogether incalculable . . . We never have such close dealings with God, as when we are in tribulation . . . There is no cry so good as that which comes from the bottom of the mountains; no prayer half so hearty as that which comes up from the depths of the soul, through deep trials and afflictions. Hence they bring us to God, and we are happier; for that is the way to be happy--to live near God. So that while troubles abound, they drive us to God, and then consolations abound."
Believing that God wants the best for His children we need to turn to the Scriptures to find what God's "best" actually is. Is God's "best" for us that we be successful in our career? Is God's "best" for us that we be free from illness? Is God's "best" for us that would be wealthy?
We know from Scripture, and from experience, that God may give us some or all of these things, but this is not God's "best" for us. God's "best", as the apostle John explains, is that "(we) may believe that Jesus is the Christ; and that in believing (we) may have (eternal) life"(Jn. 20:31).
If eternal life, through Christ, is God's "best", is there anything else? Yes there is. Jesus explains to His disciples in John 15 that when we abide in Him, and when we bear spiritual fruit, we glorify the Father and we complete our joy (Jn. 15:1-11). This forms the basis of our Confession--that our chief aim is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.
So when Paul promises that "God causes all things (including suffering) to work together for (our) good", he is saying that God intends to draw us to Himself through suffering.
What matters most to God then, is whether we are abiding in Him. And Scripture demonstrates, time and time again, that God will go to great lengths in order to keep us in fellowship with Him.
A gentleman once asked a friend, concerning a beautiful horse of his, feeding about in the pasture with a clog on its foot, "Why do you clog such a noble animal?" "Sir," said he, "I would a great deal sooner clog the horse than lose him, for he is prone to leap hedges." That is why God clogs His people. He would rather clog us than lose us; for if He did not clog us, we would leap the hedges and be gone.
I pray that you might find comfort in the knowledge that God can work great things through times of tremendous suffering.
I pray that you might find comfort in the knowledge that God is not capricious in allowing you to suffer.
As Charles Spurgeon recognized, "It would be a very sharp and trying experience to me to think that I have an affliction which God never sent me, that the bitter cup was never filled by his hand, that my trials were never measured out by him, nor sent to me by his arrangement of their weight and quantity."
When I examine the trials in my life--past and present--I, too, take great comfort in knowing that these trials are measured out by an all knowing, and all loving, Heavenly Father. I take great comfort in the fact that even if my trial never goes away, God has given me His grace--grace that is indeed sufficient.
I pray that you might taste the goodness of this grace.
I pray that you might experience the sufficiency of God's grace.
I pray that God might grant us all the ability to sing with Horatio Spafford, "When sorrows like sea billows roll; whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say, it is well, it is well with my soul". Amen.