Suffering: Friend Or Enemy To Christian Joy?

2Corinthians 4:6-18

Rev. Bryn MacPhail

Preparing and delivering a sermon on suffering is an agonizing thing. It is agonizing because I am aware that many of you have experienced tremendous suffering in your lifetime. I will be the first to admit that I have not suffered to the extent that some of you have suffered. It would be easier, perhaps, to listen to what I have to say this morning if you felt that I knew first hand what it was like to suffer.

Well known American pastor, David Jeremiah, on the other hand, is very familiar with suffering. He has been battling leukemia for a few years now, and when he spoke at the Pastor's Conference in Chicago, he had recently recovered from a stem cell transfer. David Jeremiah spoke to us that evening on the value--yes, the value--of suffering. One of the humourous things Pastor Jeremiah shared with us that evening was how many individuals had approached him since his operation and commented on how much his preaching had improved since he had been sick. What was humourous about these comments was that these individuals were commenting on sermons from David Jeremiah's radio ministry--sermons that were recorded before he was sick. Pastor Jeremiah wasn't preaching any differently, the people were listening differently.

Friends, I urge you this morning to listen to what God is saying in His Word. I am no expert on suffering, but God is. The Bible says a great deal about suffering.

This tells me, first of all, that suffering is a normal part of life . Every human being who has ever lived has experienced suffering. The prophet Isaiah describes even our Lord as "a man of sorrows " and as one "acquainted with grief "(Isa. 53:3). It should comfort us to know that Christ is genuinely able to sympathize with our pain(Heb. 4:15). The prophet Isaiah, talking about the people of Israel, says that "in all their affliction, (God) was afflicted "(Isa. 63:9). God, in a very real way, shares your suffering.

What is unfortunate is that most discussions on suffering have revolved around the question 'Why?'--'Why would God allow this to happen to me?'. David Jeremiah rightly points out, however, that asking 'Why?' is not a helpful question. Seldom do we ever get a clear answer to the question 'Why?'. The question we should be asking is 'What?' --'Lord, what do you want me to learn in the midst of this suffering?'. To that question, the Bible gives many answers.

The apostle Paul, in 2Corinthians, chapter 12, describes how he prayed three times for the Lord to remove a "thorn in (his) flesh "(2Cor. 12:8). Do you remember the Lord's answer? "My grace is sufficient for you "(2Cor. 12:9). In this instance, it was unhelpful for Paul to pray for the removal of the "thorn ". God did not want it removed. Asking 'Why?', asking for healing, wasn't what this suffering was all about. When Paul finally asked, 'Lord, what do you want me to learn in the midst of this suffering?', the Lord answered: "(Paul, I want you to learn that) My grace is sufficient for you, My power is perfected in weakness ".

Suffering has a lesson to teach us. The lesson suffering teaches us is that God is enough . And if God is not enough, where do we go? Suffering will either teach us that God is sufficient or it will crush our faith in His goodness. If suffering threatens our faith in the goodness of God, then it also threatens our ability to enjoy God. And if suffering threatens our ability to enjoy God, then it also threatens our ability to glorify God.

Because the chief end of man is to 'glorify' and 'enjoy' God, we must confront anything and everything that threatens this pursuit. Suffering can indeed be the enemy to Christian joy, but it doesn't have to be. It is not that suffering can be equated with joy--it can't--but suffering can lead us to greater faith and dependence on God . And when our faith and dependence on God increases, our joy increases .

This is the message found throughout Scripture. Job, who likely suffered more than any other human being in history, said of God, "Though He slay me, I will hope in Him "(Job 13:15). King David, who also suffered a great deal, said in his most famous Psalm, "Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for Thou art with me; Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me "(Ps. 23:4). In Psalm 73, the psalmist writes, "My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever . . . the nearness of God is my good "(Ps. 73:26, 28).

For Job, for David, and for the Psalmist--God was enough. When they were stripped bare of everything of earthly value they could still say, "the nearness of my God is my good ". Could we say that? This question, quite frankly, scares me. I have a loving wife; I am in excellent health; by most standards, I enjoy a comfortable life. The question is, if I lost one or more of these things--if you lost one or more of these things--could we say with the Psalmist, "the nearness of God is my good "? The clear biblical truth is that God is enough. God is all we need.

The apostle Paul knew this truth and he lived this truth, and so I would like you to examine with me Paul's attitude towards suffering as seen in 2Corinthians 4, verses 6 through 18.

The first few words in verse 6 give us a foundation for our theology of suffering. Verse 6 begins: "For God, who said ". What God has said in His Word is the foundation of Paul's theology of suffering. Paul quotes Genesis 1:3 to describe what has happened in our hearts--we have been given "the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ ". In our conversion from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of Light we have been given a glimpse of God's glory. We have be given a glimpse of "the face of Christ ". The anticipation of future glory is what gives Paul the strength to endure suffering.

If there was ever an authority of suffering, it was Paul. Paul describes his plight in verses 8 through 10, "we are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body ".

Paul is not simply being dramatic here--in 2Corinthians, chapter 11, he specifically names his afflictions: "Five times I received from the Jews 39 lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked . . . I have been . . . in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my countrymen, dangers from the Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers on the sea, dangers among false brethren; I have been in labour and hardship, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure "(2Cor. 11:24-27). The apostle Paul knew suffering.

What is Paul's outlook toward suffering? Paul approaches suffering with a "spirit of faith ", he says in 2Corinthians 4, verse 13. "Spirit of faith " in what Paul? Faith in yourself? Faith in God's imminent deliverance? Faith in a cloud with silver lining? No. The object of Paul's faith is found in verse 14--Paul's faith in face of suffering is based on his conviction that "He who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus ". Paul is able to endure his present suffering because he is focused on future glory .

"Therefore ", Paul says--because we will one day be raised with Jesus(v.14)--"we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day "(2Cor. 4:16). Paul is not blind to his suffering. This is not some 'mind over matter' trick he is advocating. Paul recognizes that his body is "decaying ". Paul recognizes, as well as anyone, the temptation to lose heart in the midst of hardship. We know, and Paul knows, that suffering is unpleasant. Christians are not expected to pretend that it doesn't hurt. What Paul does expect, however, is that our lives demonstrate the glorious truth that suffering does not get the last word.

In Romans 8:18, Paul says, "the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us ". In the same vein, Paul concludes 2Corinthians, chapter 4 by reminding us that "momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison "(v.17).

The puritan, Thomas Watson, reminds us, 'Affliction may be lasting, but it is not everlasting'. The reality is, however, when we are suffering it seems like forever. I do not wish to minimize the challenges one faces with an unrelenting illness or a broken relationship. My goal today is not to minimize suffering; my goal today is to magnify future glory. I do not want you to pretend that suffering is pleasant, rather, I want you to be able to say with Paul "the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us ".

Paul suffered for many years, yet he refers to his suffering as "momentary " when compared to "the eternal weight of glory ". Paul urges us to focus on the "eternal " rather than the "temporal "(v.18), but this is not easy for us. Whether we suffer for 7 years or 70 years it is a long time. However, when we contemplate the eternal joy that awaits us, 70 years is the blink of an eye.

What is also striking is that Paul describes his suffering as "light ". Come on, Paul, your afflictions were hardly "light ". You have been imprisoned, beaten, stoned, shipwrecked, hungry, exposed--how can you say that your affliction is "light "? To consider suffering "light " one must compare it to the "eternal weight of glory ".

Notice that Paul doesn't simply compare "light affliction " with the "eternal weight of glory ", but he says that "affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory ". Anyone who has suffered knows this to be true. I have never heard anyone say, 'The really deep lessons of life come through times of ease and comfort'. Well known American Pastor, Alistair Begg, has it right when he says that 'more spiritual progress is made through failure and tears than through success and laughter'(Begg, Made For His Pleasure , 106). Samuel Rutherford said that when he was cast into the cellars of affliction, he remembered that the great King always kept his wine there. Charles Spurgeon said that those who dive in the sea of affliction bring up rare pearls.

There is no glory in suffering. Suffering "produces " glory. We do not rejoice in our suffering, but we must rejoice in what our suffering is "producing ". We must look forward to that which is "not seen "(v.18). There is no shame in looking forward to the future. Paul insists on it. Anticipation of future glory is what fuels our joy in the most difficult times . In order to be joyful, you must look forward.

Whatever your struggles may be, I urge you--with Paul--do not lose heart. In the midst of that dark, murky, sea, God will surely uncover some rare pearls for you. Look forward that you may be able to say with the Psalmist, "the nearness of God is my good ". Amen.