Big Idea: When suffering, hold on to rock-solid truths about God and what he’s doing in your suffering.
“Suffering seems to destroy so many things that give life meaning that it may feel impossible to even go on” (Tim Keller).
So begins a recent book on suffering. The author goes on to describe his father’s last days on earth.
In the last weeks of his life, my father faced a great range of life-ending, painful illnesses all at once. He had congestive heart failure and three kinds of cancer, even as he was dealing with a gall bladder attack, emphysema, and acute sciatica. At one time he said to a friend, “What’s the point?” He was too sick to do the things that made his life meaningful— so why go on?
That’s a good question.
When we get whammed — not just whammed, but sometimes double- and triple-whammed with suffering — what hope is there? What hope is there when we seem to lose all hope?
I don’t ask this question as out of curiosity. If I have any qualification for talking about suffering, it’s that I’ve suffered. I don’t want to compare my suffering to others, because others have suffered much worse, but like many of you I’ve become acquainted with pain. I’ve faced long periods of intense pain with more questions than answers. And so have many of you.
We’re not alone. The man who wrote the words we just read knew what it meant to suffer as well. Read again what he wrote in verses 8 and 9:
For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death.
If anyone knew suffering, it was Paul. When Paul became a follower of Jesus Christ, Jesus appeared to a man Ananias and said, “I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name” (Acts 9:16). Right from the beginning, Paul was destined for a life of suffering. Later on, Paul would describe some of what he went through:
…with 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. (2 Corinthians 11:23-28)
So Paul is not writing as an ivory tower theoretician about suffering. Paul knows what it’s like to suffer. He’s been there.
In verses 8 and 9 he refers to the affliction he received in Asia. We’re not sure exactly what that affliction was. But we know, whatever he faced, that it caused him to feel burdened beyond his strength. Next time someone tells you that God won’t give you more than you can handle, bring to mind verse 8: “we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength.” God frequently gives us more than we can handle.
Paul was so overwhelmed that he despaired of life itself. He couldn’t see a way forward. He felt like he was done for, completely helpless, awaiting death. In other words, Paul didn’t just face suffering, but he faced the hopelessness that goes with suffering, which is even worse. It’s horrible to suffer. What’s even worse is to feel your soul crumble under the weight of the suffering so that you begin to despair of life itself.
If that’s how you’re feeling today, then I want you to know that you’re in good company. One of the things that I’ve noticed is that we sometimes tend to feel very guilty when we’re suffering. There are some twisted views of Christianity that claim that we should never suffer, and that we should never feel down. I don’t know where we got this idea from. The Bible is honest about suffering. It’s part of life. Some of God’s choicest servants went through unbearable suffering. You are not alone!
So what can we learn from Paul about suffering?
I don’t want for a minute to suggest that I have any easy answers to suffering. When someone is suffering, the right thing to do is often to simply be present with them, simply to weep with them. Biblical truths are always true, but it’s not like we can just quote a verse to someone and that will be enough to “fix” them.
I do, however, have some rock-solid truths that we can cling to in the middle of suffering, written not by a theoretician, but as a fellow sufferer who knew what it was like to despair. Here are three truths we can hold onto in the middle of suffering.
God Is a Compassionate, Encouraging God (1:3-4)
Paul writes in verse 3 and the first part of verse 4:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction…
Paul’s just been bruised by his recent suffering. What does he turn to? The reality of who God is: God is a compassionate, encouraging God. Our hope is not in our circumstances, and it’s even in the people who surround us. Our hope is grounded in the very nature of God himself.
One of the things we’re left to wonder when we’re suffering is, “Where is God?” It’s easy to think that God is distant and somewhat disconnected from what we’re going through. Here’s the lie we’re tempted to believe: God doesn’t care. It sometimes feels like God has abandoned us to our problems.
Paul comes right back at us in this passage with the very nature of God. This isn’t just what God does; it’s who he is. He is the God of all mercy. He has deep awareness of and concern for your suffering. He’s also a God who knows how to comfort and console. The word comfort here isn’t just the idea of saying, “Here, here. I feel your pain.” It’s the act of strengthening those who need it. “God’s comfort strengthens weak knees and sustains sagging spirits so that one faces the troubles of life with unbending resolve and unending assurance” (David Garland).
You may wonder in the middle of suffering if God really cares. Paul assures us: God really does. He has not abandoned you to what you’re going through. He knows and he cares. Nothing you’re going through has escaped his notice.
Charlene has often been comforted by what Psalm 56:8 says:
You have kept count of my tossings;
put my tears in your bottle.
Are they not in your book?
God pays careful attention to every restless night, every tear you shed. God isn’t distant. God cares.
The greatest evidence of this is Jesus. If you’re ever looking for evidence that God really cares, then you just have to look at Jesus. He did everything to make us right with God, including becoming one of us and giving his life for us. We never have to wonder if God cares or not. He’s shown us that he does. God is a compassionate, encouraging God.
Here’s the second truth we can hold onto in the middle of suffering:
The Suffering We Face Is Purposeful (1:4-6)
One of the problems with suffering is that it feels so useless. It feels like it accomplishes nothing. If we thought that it served a purpose, then suffering would be a lot easier. Nietzsche said, “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.” If we knew why we were going through suffering, it would be much better to deal with the how.
We’ve already seen one purpose of suffering. Paul says in verse 9, “Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.” Suffering has a way of helping us to realize how limited our resources really are. We are meant to rely on God, not ourselves. Suffering teaches us this. A.W. Tozer said, ““How completely satisfying to turn from our limitations to a God who has none.”
In verses 4 to 6, Paul gives us another purpose behind our suffering. When we’re encouraged by God in the middle of harsh situations, it allows us to encourage others who need it.
who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer. (2 Corinthians 1:4-6)
The famous preacher Charles Spurgeon once preached from the text “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” As he preached, he shared some of his experience. “I heard my own chains clank while I tried to preach to my fellow-prisoners in the dark; but I could not tell why I was brought into such an awful horror of darkness, for which I condemned myself.”
On Monday, someone came to see him. It was obvious that the man was going through a rough time. Here’s what he said to Spurgeon: “I never before, in my life, heard any man speak who seemed to know my heart. Mine is a terrible case; but on Sunday morning you painted me to the life, and preached as if you had been inside my soul.”
By God’s grace I saved that man from suicide, and led him into gospel light and liberty; but I know I could not have done it if I had not myself been confined in the dungeon in which he lay. I tell you the story, brethren, because you sometimes may not understand your own experience, and the perfect people may condemn you for having it; but what know they of God’s servants? You and I have to suffer much for the sake of the people of our charge.
Do you know what God is going to use most powerfully in your life? Not your strengths. God will use your suffering to help others. Because you have walked through periods of trial, you will be prepared to help others who go through the same trials. The hard things you go through will become something God uses to bless others. Count on it. After all, God used the suffering of Jesus to bless us. It’s how God works.
God is a compassionate, encouraging God. He has a purpose in your suffering. Here’s another truth we can cling to in the middle of suffering.
Suffering Builds Community (1:7-11)
We like to approach others from a position of strength. We like to have it all together and to create good impressions. As we’re going to see in the coming weeks, we like leaders who are strong and impressive.
But what happens when we’re not strong, and when we begin to share our sufferings rather than just our strength? We start to build relationship. In verse 7, Paul says that as they share in his sufferings, they will also share in his comfort. And in verse 11 he says, “You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many.”
I love how George Guthrie puts it: “through sharing with another person our pain, our own limitations, or our needs and hopes, we extend an offer: ‘Hear me. Embrace me. Help me. Walk with me, and allow me to walk with you in community.’”
One of the most powerful things you can do to build relationships is by being honest about your suffering. It’s far more powerful than pretending that you’re strong.
What should we do when we suffer? Hold on to these rock-solid truths: God is a God of comfort and encouragement. He has a purpose for your suffering. And your suffering is building community. When suffering, hold on to rock-solid truths about God and what he’s doing in your suffering.
Small Group Questions
- What do you learn from suffering from this passage? (1:1-11)
- Some people say that God won’t give us more than we can handle. Does Paul agree with this statement? (1:8-9)
- Suffering isn’t good, and yet God brings good out of suffering. What are some good things that God does in our lives as a result of suffering that you notice in this passage?
- What truths can you apply in your life the next time you face suffering?