Sunday, 14 October 2012

The Christian and Suffering (2 Cor. 4:16-18)

This sermon was preached on 14/10/2012

It is evident that we live in a world marked by great suffering. Some of the suffering is caused by natural disasters or by war; there is also suffering caused by criminal activity, whether to individuals or communities. In addition, there is suffering caused by the mistakes of others. Or some have to live with suffering caused by their own actions earlier in life. 

The Bible has a great deal to say about suffering. Most of its heroes suffered in one way or another. We have all heard of Job, and in his story suffering is a mystery beyond earthly explanation as his friends discovered. Abraham and Sarah suffered disappointed hopes as they waited for God’s promised child, David suffered from deprivation as he spent many years on the run from Saul, Elijah suffered from depression as he descended from the heights to the valleys of spiritual experience, Mary was told by Simeon that a sword would pierce her heart, and the apostles of Jesus suffered martyrdom apart from John and he was exiled to an island prison as an old man. 

In our passage in 2 Corinthians, we have Paul’s description of some of his sufferings. It is important that he is writing out of such an experience because it gives him empathy with others who are suffering. What kind of sufferings had he known? Later in this letter to the Corinthians (11:23-28)) he informs them of some of his experiences as he contrasts himself with the false apostles:

These are a range of external sufferings caused by others. Paul also had other types of suffering. He had bad eyesight, perhaps a consequence of malaria that he may have experienced when he was in Galatia. The apostle also knew the effects of aging. Further he would have seen the sufferings in the lives of other people caused by everyday problems such as headache, toothache, rheumatism, arthritis, and no doubt more lethal illnesses for which there was no medication to alleviate the pain. So what advice did he give to his readers regarding suffering?

First, he did not lose heart. We all know that difficult circumstances and problems can deflate our spirits. Does this mean that Paul was an insensitive person, immune to distressing situations? There was a philosophic method in his day that argued that stoicism would help a person cope with their problems. Or was he an escapist, wilfully ignoring the distress going around him? We know from his letters that he was a very emotional man, that he possessed deep feelings for others in distress, who was marked by intense concern for the good of other people. So how could he live in such a way as not to lose heart?

Paul was a realist about his body
If we wished to describe people in the twenty-first century, it would be true to define them as individuals who don’t listen to what their bodies are telling them. Paul was different. Every ache told him something. So he says in verse 16 that his outer self is wasting away. Every time he looked in a mirror he could see that this was the case. He no longer had the energy of his youth. No doubt his body also reflected the various trails he had gone through since he had become a Christian. As we look at the appearance of physical weakness, how should we respond to physical decline?

Paul’s ultimate answer to this question is given in 2 Corinthians 5, where he describes the glory of the resurrection body that each Christian will receive from Jesus when he returns. The apostle, although his body was currently wasting away, knew that eventually his body would be glorified. This was part of the message he declared when he was preaching the gospel. He told his listeners to look ahead because if they believed in the exalted Jesus they would one day share his glory. In a sense, what happened to Jesus will happen to them. His body went through the great suffering connected to his crucifixion, but even that degree of suffering did not prevent his body being glorified.

Paul did not want to die (or ‘to be found unclothed’). Although he was willing to go to heaven, he would prefer to live until Jesus returned and experience glorification then (‘further clothed’). His longing for this glorious state was very strong – he says that he groaned with longing for that experience.

The point that Paul would stress to us is that our bodies will yet share in the full salvation that Jesus died to provide. His death on the cross was not only concerned with providing atonement for our sin. In addition, his saving work is the basis of the restoration of Paul’s body as well as his soul.

Paul was being renewed inwardly
When Paul says ‘day by day’, he means continually. The Holy Spirit, who indwells Christians, is at work within their hearts as they face all the trials of life.  While the outward man gets weaker, the inward man receives divine strength. This is the secret of how Paul and all other Christians were able to endure. How does the Holy Spirit do this?

It will help us answer this question if we remind ourselves who Christians are. There are many ways of describing them but for the purpose of considering the renewing work of the Holy Spirit I will mention five details that cause the Spirit to renew them.

First, Paul and all sinners are saved by Jesus. Each one of them repented of their sins and trusted in Jesus. Because they did so, the Holy Spirit came to indwell them as an earnest of the fullness of salvation. He is in their hearts to refresh them by teaching/reminding them of the great details of their salvation. The Spirit does this day by day, whatever is the condition of each of their bodies. He may remind them of the privileges of adoption or he may cause them to think of the price that Jesus paid for their redemption. But he does it such a way that continues to renew their minds.

Second, Paul and all other Christians are sorry sinners. People are surprised when Christians say they are sinners. But they fall into sin so easily. Yet there is one big difference between how a spiritually-healthy Christian reacts to his sin and how an unconverted person responds to his wrongdoings. When the unconverted person commits something wrong, he resolves in his own strength to adjust his priorities, which is an expression of pride. The healthy Christian’s first thought is to turn to God and say, ‘I’m sorry.’ And he does so because he is experiencing the renewing of the Spirit.

Third, Paul and all other Christians are strugglers in the Christian life. There are various reasons for this. We have already mentioned their physical defects and also their sins, but there are additional factors that contribute to their struggles. There is the range of opponents who hinder them, including the devil and the world that tempt them to sin. There are their failures to fulfil their own aspirations. Yet as they struggle they find themselves helped inwardly, and that help comes from the Spirit.

Fourth, Paul and all other Christians are sufferers. We have mentioned some of this already. In addition to persecution for their faith, they are subject to other ailments. Yet in their suffering, they obtain the assurance that their pain and distress is somehow light. In a sermon on these light afflictions, Spurgeon gave several reasons why we should see them as light. Among them were, they are light in comparison with what others undergo, they are light in comparison with what we deserve, and they are light in comparison with what Jesus suffered. The Spirit also reminds them that they are light in comparison to the glory that will be revealed.

Fifth, Paul and all other Christians are supplicants, that is, they are discovering continually new dimensions to prayer. It is the Spirit who brings this about as he prompts them to pray as children to a Father. At other times he groans within them as they endeavour to express their longings (Rom. 8:15, 26). It is all part of the ongoing renewing process.

Paul was becoming richer
Anyone who observed Paul from an outward perspective would conclude that he was becoming poorer. What had he received for all his activities? As he says to the Philippians, he had lost all things. Therefore in earthly terms Paul had no riches. Yet it would be a big mistake to assume that Paul thought that he was poor. 

As we can see from verse 17, he believed that he was rich, and not only was he rich he also believed that all believers shared in these riches. He does not individualise the riches and say that he was rich personally. Instead he stresses that the glory is shared by all believers. Paul also presents a corporate aspect in Romans 8:18 when he writes, ‘For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.’ So it is a shared wealth.

The apostle explains the riches by the method of contrasting it with the current sufferings undergone by God’s people. Paul says that the sufferings are light in weight and short in time in contrast with the glory that is heavy in weight and endless in possession. He is not minimising the suffering. Instead as Spurgeon observed, Paul ‘can scarcely find words big enough to express the contrast between what believers now have to endure and what they shall for ever enjoy.’ So it is incalculable wealth. 

Paul does not view the sufferings as worthless. Instead he likens them to an investment that is producing a fantastic dividend. We have heard of people who have invested money in a future project that others could not see, but which they were convinced would be a tremendous success. Sometimes the money that they invest is given by their parents. So here the heavenly Father gives to his people something to invest for the future. That something is the suffering that he allows or arranges, and he does so because he can see the future dividend. When we see the weight of glory of the new heavens and new earth, we will be so thankful to the heavenly Banker who is also our Father. At the moment we have no conception of what our investment of suffering is going to produce.

Paul’s gaze was re-directed
A fourth reason why Paul does not lose heart is connected to what he looks at. He tells us in verse 18 that we have a choice of two things to look at while we are suffering. We can look at what we can see physically, and the suffering we see will not be very encouraging. Or we can look at what we cannot see, away from the transient and temporal, to the eternal and permanent.

Writing to the Colossians, Paul tells his readers there: ‘If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth’ (Col. 3:1-2).  There are other verses that say very much the same thing. But how can we do it.

We have to look by faith. Faith enables us to focus in the present on the glorious realities that God describes in his promises. In this regard, faith is like a telescope and brings near what is far away. We have also to look with love and longing. I combine the two because longing is an aspect of love. Longing is how love expresses itself about the good that God promises. Further we are to look with joy. This is how Jesus endured his sufferings, by looking ahead beyond the cross to the joy that was set before him.

So in faith, in longing love and in anticipated joy, we cope with the sufferings of today by looking ahead to the glory of tomorrow. Sit down and let your mind run over the glory that is to be yours, the dividend that will yours because of your sufferings now. It is only a practical suggestion, but read something every day from the Bible that describes your future destiny and glory, and then think about it for a few minutes. The effect on your outlook will be incredible.

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