Big Idea: Expect to suffer for Jesus, but expect joy and even life to come through that suffering.
I think we’ve all had it happen. We’ve ordered something on Amazon, but when it arrives the package looks like this.
It’s crushed. It’s destroyed. The thing that we ordered, the thing that we needed, shows up and has been damaged beyond repair.
But that’s not just a picture of deliveries we’ve received. That’s a picture of how some of us feel.
Mary Karr is an award-winning writer, best-known for her New York Times best-selling books Lit and The Liars’ Club. In 2009, Karr, who described herself as a “blackbelt sinner and lifelong agnostic,” surprised the literary world by embracing Christian faith. But listen to what she has observed about the human condition:
I don’t think any of us get off this planet without suffering enormously. And one of the chief ways we suffer is by loving people who are incredibly limited by the fact that they’re human beings, and they’re going to disappoint us and break our hearts …. Your parents—no matter how great their marriage was, at some point it trembled in its foundation, and it was terrifying. [Or] you fell in love with someone who didn’t love you back. Or whatever. We are all heartbroken. It’s the human condition.
Sooner or later you will feel like this box looks.
And that’s why I’m so interested in what the Apostle Paul teaches us about suffering.
In this letter that we’re studying that Paul wrote to the Corinthians, Paul gives us a glimpse of what his life was like. We read in chapter 11:
far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant? (2 Corinthians 11:23-29)
Paul’s sufferings were so profound that he would have lived in constant physical pain. Think of what Paul went through: multiple near-death floggings, the gruesome stoning, the frequent shipwrecks, the dangers on the road from both places and people, the great suffering over an extended period of time. I can’t think of an equal in history to Paul’s courage and endurance under such suffering.
Which brings us to the passage before us. In chapter 6 Paul gives us another hardship list. We just read it in verses 4 to 10. What’s fascinating is what we learn from this passage about suffering. In particular, I think we learn two simple but profound lessons.
Expect to Suffer for Jesus
Look at what Paul says in this passage: “We put no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, but as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way…” (2 Corinthians 6:3–4).
Paul is defending his ministry from critics, and he offers proof that his ministry is, in fact, valid. He says, “Here’s how you can know that my ministry is the real thing.” And what does he say? You’d expect Paul to complete his sentence — “we commend ourselves in every way” — by listing his successes. Instead he lists his sufferings. In fact, he lists sufferings so severe that most of us would not survive even half of what he lists. Paul says that his suffering proves that his ministry is legitimate. Suffering is something every Christian should expect. Jesus suffered, and the call to follow Jesus is a call to suffer too.
There’s this lie out there that if we follow God, our lives will get better and we will suffer less. I’ve heard it out there, but I’ve also heard it right in this very church — that if I follow God, then he will bless me; that ever since I started to follow God, things have gone really well. It’s like we do our part, and God rewards us by making our life go well.
The only problem: the Bible never teaches this. In fact, it teaches the opposite. Consider these verses.
Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. (John 15:20)
In the world you will have tribulation. (John 16:33)
When they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God. (Acts 14:21-22)
For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake, engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have. (Philippians 1:29-30)
Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. (1 Peter 4:12)
I don’t know why we don’t talk about this more!
Ajith Fernando, a Christian leader from Sri Lanka who ministers to the urban poor, writes:
The church in each culture has its own special challenges—theological blind spots that hinder Christians from growing to full maturity in Christ …. I think one of the most serious theological blind spots in the western church is a defective understanding of suffering. There seems to be a lot of reflection on how to avoid suffering and on what to do when we hurt. We have a lot of teaching about escape from suffering and therapy for suffering, but there is inadequate teaching about the theology of suffering ….
That’s exactly what Paul gives us in this passage: a theology of suffering. Fernando goes on:
The “good life,” comfort, convenience, and a painless life have become necessities that people view as basic rights. If they do not have these, they think something has gone wrong…
When we’re surprised by suffering, two things happen. First, we miss out on the opportunity to grow, because God grows us through suffering. Second, we miss out on reaching people. “The West is fast becoming an unreached region. The Bible and history show that suffering is an essential ingredient in reaching unreached people. Will the loss of a theology of suffering lead the Western church to become ineffective in evangelism?” He asks. The answer is a clear yes.
Suffering is normal.
What does this mean for us?
We all like to operate out of a position of strength, to be in control, to have things going the way we want them to go. But that is not the way of the gospel. It is quite common for people to say they are looking for a church they are comfortable with. I think that is a scandalous statement. When were churches supposed to be comfortable places? There is too much need in the world for Christians to be comfortable. (The Call to Joy and Pain)
When a package arrives from Amazon and looks beat up, something is wrong. You should complain. But when you experience suffering in the Christian life, something is not wrong. Something is right. Expect suffering. It’s a normal part of the Christian life. I don’t know what form that suffering will take, but we should expect it.
If that was the entire message, then today would be kind of depressing. There’s a second lesson that we learn fro this passage.
Expect joy and even life to come through that suffering.
Look with me at verse 8 to 10. Paul lists seven paradoxes, seven seemingly contradictory truths:
- We are treated as impostors, and yet are true;
- as unknown, and yet well known;
- as dying, and behold, we live;
- as punished, and yet not killed;
- as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing;
- as poor, yet making many rich;
- as having nothing, yet possessing everything.
The first of these reflect what it looks like externally when someone suffers. The sufferer is seen as an imposter, unknown, dying, punished, sorrowful, poor, having nothing. That’s why we hate suffering. When you look at suffering, it’s an overwhelmingly bleak picture. Nobody would desire that list.
But then God enters the picture. God somehow takes the worst and transforms it to the best. Here’s what God does in the life of a sufferer. He shows that you’re true and genuine. He knows you. You are fully known by God. He produces life. He will not allow us to be killed one minute before it’s time.
Here’s the one that gets me: he gives us joy even in the middle of suffering. In 18 different New Testament passages, suffering and joy appear together. In fact, suffering is often the cause for joy (Rom. 5:3-5; Col. 1:24; James 1:2-3). Only God can do this!
And through our suffering, through our poverty, God makes others rich. And we posses everything. “To be right in the middle of God’s will, living out the cause of Christ, having a positive and eternal impact on those for whom Christ died—Paul embraces all this as of inestimable value” (George Guthrie).
John Chrysostom, who died in 407, writes: “People outside the church may think we are sorrowful, but in fact we are always rejoicing. We may look poor, but in fact we have enormous riches, both spiritual and physical. As usual, the Christian life is the exact opposite of what it appears to be on the surface”
Here’s what I want to tell you today: Expect to suffer for Jesus, but expect joy and even life to come through that suffering. After all, that’s what happened with Jesus. He suffered, and he brought about our eternal life and joy through that suffering.
I want to close with a story from Erwin McManus, a pastor in Los Angeles.
One summer Aaron went to a youth camp. He was just a little guy, and I was kind of glad because it was a church camp. I figured he wasn’t going to hear all those ghost stories, because ghost stories can really cause a kid to have nightmares. But unfortunately, since it was a Christian camp and they didn’t tell ghost stories, because we don’t believe in ghosts, they told demon and Satan stories instead. And so when Aaron got home, he was terrified.
“Dad, don’t turn off the light!” he said before going to bed. “No, Daddy, could you stay here with me? Daddy, I’m afraid. They told all these stories about demons.”
And I wanted to say, “They’re not real.”
He goes, “Daddy, Daddy, would you pray for me that I would be safe?” I could feel it. I could feel warm-blanket Christianity beginning to wrap around him, a life of safety, safety, safety.
I said, “Aaron, I will not pray for you to be safe. I will pray that God will make you dangerous, so dangerous that demons will flee when you enter the room.”
And he goes, “All right. But pray I would be really, really dangerous, Daddy.”
Have you come to that place in your own life where you stop asking God to give you a safe life, and make you a dangerous follower of Jesus Christ?