The Hope of Suffering

Steve Viars May 3, 2008 2 Corinthians 12:

 

- think about back when you were a kid...[for some that will require longer-term memory than others]...

- when a group of you were together...and you were thinking about doing something you had never done before...what phrase was often spoken?...

- please tell me if this sounds familiar --- “You go first”...

- and I’m not necessarily talking about doing something bad...

- but it’s a lot easier to do something if you know someone else has done in successfully...

- I’ve often wondered that concerning medical procedures...

- open heart surgery is almost routine today – but who was the first person who signed up for that?...and if you were facing that surgery today, doesn’t it make it easier that there are so many other people who have handled it well?...

- or the surgery Rebekkah Stilwelll had on her hand this spring...

- she was showing me last week before they left the other place on her arm where they had to take skin in order to rebuild the place that was damaged in the accident...

- it is amazing the work the doctors and nurses and therapists have done on her hand...but I wonder about the first person who was willing to have that kind of surgery...

- we’re going to do what?...we’re going to take this from here and sew it back on over there?...and you’ve never done this before?...

- it just helps, doesn’t it...if you know that someone else has gone first...

- that’s especially true when it comes to matter of suffering...

- this morning we’re concluding a study we’ve been doing for six weeks of what the Word of God teaches on this subject...Seeking God’s Plan in Suffering...

- one of the challenges that some people face is those who would say...”I’ve never seen anyone suffer well...”...all the people in my life really struggle whenever a trial comes their way...

- that’s when their marriage really falters...

- that’s when they lose their joy...

- that’s when there’s turmoil in the home...

- that’s when they run or quit or head for the bottle, or head for the pills, or head for another unhealthy relationship...

- here’s the good news – one of the benefits of having a Bible in your hand is that it gives you an immediate backlog of stories of people who have gone first...Paul said it this way...

- Romans 15:4 - For whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction, so that through perseverance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.

- and I realize that you might have listened to what we’ve studied about suffering the last 5 weeks and said---but who’s really going to do that?...

- the Bible has quite a few answers to that question – and the one I’d like us to look at this morning is one of NT’s finest servants – the apostle Paul – let’s let him tell his story in II Corinthians chapter 12 [page 145 of the back section of the Bible under the chair in front of you]

- while you’re turning there, let me say a few things about the context...

- II Corinthians is very unique because in this book, the apostle Paul shares many more personal details about his life and his ministry than anywhere else in the NT...

- and there’s a reason for that...after Paul was used of God to plant the church at Corinth...he went on to minister in other places but he received reports that some of the believers there were living in a way that was not pleasing to God...

- so he wrote at least two letters to them...one of which we call the book of I Corinthians...

- but Paul confronted them about their sin and encouraged them to repent and begin growing in personal holiness and corporate unity...

- thankfully, many in the church obeyed Paul’s word but regrettably some did not...so they began stirring up trouble in the church, especially questioning Paul’s credentials and apostleship...

- and that sometimes happens when men and women don’t want to change...they believe if they can discredit the messenger than they won’t have to follow the message...

- some of the attacks Paul was receiving were harsh, and personal...and they hurt...

- so in the book of II Corinthians, Paul opens himself up to these people whom he loves so dearly...

- in fact, Homer Kent, the longtime president of Grace Seminary wrote a commentary on II Corinthians, and that’s what he entitled it...A Heart Opened Wide...based on II Corinthians 6:11 - 2 Corinthians 6:11 - Our mouth has spoken freely to you, O Corinthians, our heart is opened wide.

- so we learn some things about Paul’s struggles and challenges, and the ways he processed them, that we wouldn’t learn anywhere else in Scripture...

- but the good news is – He went first...he demonstrated that the other truths we’ve been studying in this series really can be pit to the test...

- that’s why we’re talking this morning about The Hope of Suffering...

- if Paul could do it...so can you, and so can I...

- last week we read a ton of Scripture...this week we’re going to focus on just a few verses, II Corinthians 12:7-10,,,but I believe we can find here 5 steps Paul took to handling suffering well.

- when we’re done with that, I’d like you to hear from one last family in our church that has been learning a lot through a time of suffering that goes right along with these verses...their story will even add to the hope.

- Read II Corinthians 12:7-10...

- let’s talk about 5 steps Paul took to handling suffering well...

I. He Valued the Humility that Suffering Can Bring.

- Paul starts this discussion in a rather unusual way...

- he gives us one of the reasons for the suffering even before he tells us any details...

- and it’s easy to see because he actually says it twice in the same verse...

- 12:7 – to keep me from exalting myself...

- again, you read that twice in the same verse...it’s sort of like bookends to the report...

- and you could summarize his point like this...

A. Paul knew that God’s blessing and bounty in his life had to be balanced.

- there’s no question about the fact that God had been good to Paul in many ways...

1. His past upbringing and education – Philippians 3:4-6

- he had excellent credentials, he was from a solid family, he had received a first-rate education – that was part of how God blessed him...

2. His marvelous conversion – Acts 9

- the story of how God changed Paul from being Saul of Tarsus, the great persecutor of the church, to being the apostle Paul, the great planter of the church is a story for the ages...

- and then what he’s especially focusing on in II Corinthians 12 is...

3. His unique ministry – 12:7

- that’s the point of that phrase --- 12:7 - “because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations”

- this was written before the Scriptures were complete...

- and God was revealing truth to Paul that was to be written down and passed on to the early church...

- and others recognized his unique ministry as well...

- you may remember that the apostle Peter said about Paul ---2 Peter 3:15-16 - and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation; just as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him, wrote to you, as also in all his letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction.

- Peter had no trouble elevating the writings of the apostle Paul and placing them on par with the rest of the Scripture...

- someone had to be used in this way – and God chose Paul for the task...

- and he now realizes...that could be a pretty heady assignment...

- that could very easily lead to pride and self-exaltation...

- and Paul’s testimony was – to shield me from that, to protect me from that...God blessed me with an opportunity to suffer...

- and if that’s what it took to keep my pride in check...then it was a good thing...

- if you were with us last week, you know...

B. This is consistent with Peter’s message.

- 1 Peter 5:6 - Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you at the proper time,

- Peter could certainly talk about the topic of pride, couldn’t he?...and how devastating that sin could be...[and of course all of us could talk about it as well...]

- the leaders in the early church knew – we can get to the place of valuing suffering because of its potential to keep us humble...

- we know that by experience, don’t we?...

- some of us were experts at raising children...until...we had a few...

- others were experts at handling money...until the job was lost and the income was gone...

- some really looked down their noses at people who messed up...until they or one of their loved ones fell...

- many of us can enumerate all sorts of ways that God has blessed us, and been good to us, and even used us in many, many ways...

- we can certainly point to a long list of ways that’s true as a church...

- but what do we need along with that...to keep from exalting ourselves?...dare we say it?...a measure of suffering...

- here’s another key step...

II. He Did Not Spend Time Focusing on the Wrong Things.

- one theme that has come up throughout this series is the importance of developing a disciplined mind...

- James 1:2 - Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials,

- 1 Peter 1:13 - Therefore, prepare your minds for action, keep sober in spirit, fix your hope completely on the grace to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.

- part of Paul’s discipline here is what he didn’t focus on...our dare I say it, what he didn’t obsess about, or endlessly talk about...for example...

A. The identity of the thorn.

- now there are a few things we know about it...

1. What we know.

a. It was serious.

- because the word thorn literally means stake...

- this isn’t like something that would prick you from a rose bush...

- this was an instrument of torture...there was a very serious issue...

b. It was given by God

- the grammar that is used here is instructive...it also is called...

c. A messenger of Satan

- so there was some sort of satanic involvement

d. It tormented him.

- again, this was a serious issue...

- but all of that is described in an economy of words...and that’s it...

- what’s really amazing is...

2. What we do not know.

a. the specific identity of the thorn.

- what was Paul’s thorn in the flesh?...

- the answer is...we don’t know...he doesn’t say...

- there’s all sorts of speculation...but apparently Paul didn’t think that should be the focus of the discussion...

- now let me just pause and ask you --- are you that disciplined in your mind when it comes to suffering?...

- and please keep this in mind – the word “messenger” in the phrase “messenger of Satan” is the Greek word angelos...from which we get the word angel...

- and normally when it is used it the Bible, it is not talking about a thing, like a disease...

- it is talking about a being...or a person...

- the point is – many people believe that Paul’s thorn in the flesh was not a physical ailment, it was a person who was dogging his ministry and trying to discredit him...

- but Paul doesn’t give a specific description of the suffering the time of day...

- how different than many of us?...

- we can focus on the pain, and talk about the suffering till we’re blue in the face...

- especially when another person is involved...

- let me tell you all the things she said, let me tell you all the things he did, or didn’t do...

- we can be professional thorn describers...and thorn obsessers...

b. the specific place of Satan in the process.

- Paul is honest – Satan is involved...but he is not given, nor should he ever be given center stage

- this passage is a significant problem for the demons and deliverance crowd who say that when you’re suffering, you need to identify the demon that is involved and then have some sort of power encounter...

- if there was ever a time when that would have occurred, this is it...but Satan barely gets a mention (and don’t you know that ticked him off?)

- what’s the bigger lesson here – the reason some of us don’t suffer well is because our attention is focused on the wrong things...

- you only have so much time, you only have so much energy...you can only think so many thoughts, you can only say so many words, you can only do so many deeds...

- the principle is – whenever you’re suffering, you need to go into a “careful expenditure of resources” mode.

- and one of the questions we all have to ask is – is it possible that one of your problems during times of suffering is that you are expending your limited resources on things that shouldn’t be such a focus?...

- now, something else we need to quickly point out...

III. He Did Not Try to Respond Like a Stoic or a Super-Christian.

- you have to appreciate Paul’s honesty here...

- he really is opening his heart wide...

A. He implored the Lord.

- there was nothing casual about the way he prayed to God about this matter...

- he was begging...he was entreating...

- there is absolutely nothing wrong with you bringing your requests before the Lord...

- in fact, that’s one of the blessings of having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ...1 Peter 5:7 - casting all your anxiety on Him, because He cares for you.

- Hebrews 4:15-16 - For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin. Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

B. He implored the Lord repeatedly.

- if you are in a period of significant suffering right now, I would encourage you to meditate on the Psalms in the OT...

- one principle we learn is that God invites us to bring our questions, our concerns, and even our respectful complaints to Him...

- and its not like you get one coupon...Paul implored the Lord repeatedly and there is nothing in this text to suggest that there was anything wrong with that...

C. He implored the Lord repeatedly that it might leave him.

- nobody is suggesting that we should go through life with some goofy plastic smile on our faces as if we like thorns...

- there’s only one thing worse than a guy walking around school with a “kick me” sign taped to his back...and that is, if he’s the one who put it there...

- stoic sufferers are not being honest with themselves, they’re not being authentic with their God, and they’re not going to have an effective ministry to anybody else...

- but it didn’t stop there...not by a long shot...here’s the focus...

IV. He Let Suffering Teach Him.

A. About the sufficiency of God’s grace.

- God’s message to the apostle Paul was – there is something better than having the thorn immediately removed...

- that is...coming to learn in a richer, fuller, more profound way...about the sufficiency of His grace...

- 12:9 – And He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you...”

- the tense of the verb in verse 9 – “and He said to me” indicates that God said that over and over and over...every time Paul needed to hear it...my grace is sufficient for you...

- I’ve seen that happen over and over as pastor...

- where persons in our church family have been called upon to go through significant trials...

- and we would have never voted on those things...

- we would have done everything we could have to prevent that from coming into the life of one of our brothers and sisters here...

- but as that man or woman, and sometimes boy or girl suffered well...the outcome was a greater understanding and appreciation for God’s sufficient grace that cannot be gained through any other means than the crucible of adversity...

- 2 Corinthians 9:8 - And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that always having all sufficiency in everything, you may have an abundance for every good deed;

- friend, do you want that to be true in your life?...

- what if in order to gain a better perspective on the wonderful grace of God, you have to be a given a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to buffet you?

- one of the worst thing a Christian can do is to cut theology class...

- now, what’s the other lesson?

B. About the supremacy of Christ’s power.

- 12:9 – “...for power is perfected in weakness.”

- here’s the principle – you can either live by your own strength, and your own power...and that will get you to a certain place, but not very far...

- or you can acknowledge your weakness...and tap into a power that is not your own, but is far more superior to anything you could ever conjure up by yourself...

- and that’s the problem with many of us – we’d rather figure it out on our own...

- we’d rather solve it ourselves...

- we’d rather try to be independent...even when our own resources are pretty meager...

- it would be like these men and women working on the road out here...

- what would happen if you drove by and they were trying to dig with teaspoons...

- and that’s all they’ve ever known...and that’s all they’ve ever done...

- and you drive up with one of these big pieces of earthmoving equipment...

- some of them have buckets so big that just a few scoops fills up an entire dump truck...

- and you try to convince the workers to put down their teaspoons and use something much more powerful...

- only a fool would keep digging with a teaspoon...even if it was hard to have to admit that someone else’s way was better...

- God wants us to know about His power...do you agree with that?

- now, where does that start?...

- it begins by acknowledging that we don’t have enough power to save ourselves...to earn our way to heaven...

- Romans 5:6 - For when we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly.

- it’s only men and women who are willing to admit that they aren’t strong enough to earn their own way to heaven will be willing to humbly come to Christ in repentance and faith 

- it continues throughout the Christian life – or saying – Lord, I know that I can’t do this apart from you...and thank you for putting in a position of vulnerability...because I want to learn more of what your strength is like...

- Ephesians 3:16 - that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man,

- Ephesians 3:20-21 - Now to Him who is able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us, to Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen.

- and the question for all of us would be – have you been present in theology class – have you truly allowed suffering to teach about the grace and power of God?...

- now, do you see the take-aways at the end of verse 9 and into verse 10...

V. He Acted on the Lessons He Learned.

A. He delighted in his weaknesses.

- why, according to end of the verse?

- 12:9 – ...so that the power of Christ may dwell on me...

- dwell – episkenosei – to pitch a tent

- Paul says, I don’t have to be afraid of vulnerability...

- I can delight in such occurrences, because it is then that the power of God pitches its tent over me...

B. He cultivated contentment.

- 12:10 – for Christ’s sake, for when I am weak, then I am strong.

- many of you know that we have been praying Ben and Rhonda Hopkins, and their son Evan...

- Ben and Rhonda were members here for many years...and then the Lord took them out to California...

- they moved back here a year and a half ago, and not long after that, they learned their son had a recurrence of a very serious disease....

- I’d like you to hear their story of how they found hope in suffering...

Steve Viars

B.S. - Bible, Baptist Bible College
M.Div. - Grace Theological Seminary
D.Min. - Westminster Theological Seminary

Pastor Steve Viars has served at Faith Church since 1987. He and his wife Kris were married in 1982 and have two married daughters, a son, and two grandchildren. Pastor Viars’ gifted teaching ministry, enthusiasm for the Word of God, and organizational skills are instrumental in equipping Faith Church. He oversees the staff, deacons, and all Faith ministries and serves on the boards of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors, Biblical Counseling Coalition, Vision of Hope, and the Faith Community Development Corporation.

Read Steve Viars’ Journey to Faith for the full account of how the Lord led Pastor Viars to Faith Church.

View Pastor Viars' Salvation Testimony Video