Big Idea: Don’t give up when life beats you up, because God uses your suffering now, and remove your suffering later.
I don’t know if you’ve heard of the Yukon Arctic Ultra that’s on right now. It’s a 300 mile competition that is considered by some to be the hardest race in the world. You can choose your own transportation: a fat bike, cross-country skis, or your own feet. You must carry all your camping and survival gear, food, and water in sleds behind you. Temperatures are so cold that they could kill you, and it’s dark for 14 hours every day.
Most people who start don’t finish, and there have been plenty of serious injuries before: flesh blackened by frostbite, frozen skin peeling off racers’ faces like wax, and bits of fingers and toes lost to amputation. 85 athletes signed up this year despite the fact that an Italian runner lost both his hands and feet to frostbite this year.
I listen to that and have two reactions.
First: are you crazy? What is it that causes people to willingly subject themselves to that kind of hardship?
But the other thought I had is this: life can sometimes feel that brutal. Life is actually the hardest race in the world. It’s long, it’s challenging, it’s full of both joy and heartbreak, and nobody will get through it without intense suffering. In fact, nobody will get out of it alive. Life will beat you up.
And so we have to ask ourselves: if life will beat us up — and it will — how can we survive? And I’m so glad that Scripture answers this question.
I want to look at a passage of Scripture with you tonight written by the apostle Paul. If anyone knew what it was like to get beat up — literally — it was Paul. He was actually beaten up multiple times. That’s on top of being imprisoned, shipwrecked at least four times. Paul would have been in constant physical pain because of all that he’d endured.
And then there was the church. “And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches,” he wrote (2 Corinthians 11:28). Paul faced a number of challenges and hardships, and of all of them, this seemed to be the climactic burden—the primary burden—that he carried on a daily basis.
Life will beat you up. So why not give up?
Why should we, knowing that we’re going to be beat up by life, not give up? Paul gives us two reasons:
Because God uses your suffering now (4:7-16)
In other words, don’t give up, because your suffering is purposeful. There’s a reason for it.
Notice that Paul begins by helping us understand that life and ministry is suffering. He writes:
But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you. (2 Corinthians 4:7-12)
The first thing that Paul tells us is that life will beat us up. And contrary to what you might think, you’re not strong. He says that we are fragile containers: mass-produced, ordinary containers that really don’t amount to much. We are fragile and ordinary — even the most impressive of us.
But then life hits us, and look what happens. Paul lists four terms that characterize his life, before he gives us the qualifications that speak to how God uses these conditions. Listen to how Paul describes what he went through in verses 8 and 9:
- afflicted but not restricted — a catch-all phrase that summarized all of Paul’s trials and persecutions; but Paul says that all of these afflictions have not ended his ministry
- baffled but not to the point of despair — meaning that Paul has faced times when he’s been baffled by what’s happened to him; but he’s never given in and permanently given up
- abused but not abandoned — he’s experienced beatings, imprisonments, riots, slander; but God stood with him in the worst of what he went through
- knocked down but not terminated — literally knocked down, but still alive
Why didn’t Paul give up? I don’t think it was because Paul was naturally optimistic or persistent. I think it’s because Paul realized that his suffering had a purpose.
The thing that keeps me up at night sometimes is wondering if the suffering that we’ve been through in our ministry was worth it. You may wonder the same thing. Paul tells us here that it was worth it. It was worth it because it accomplished quite a few things. Here are just a few:
God uses your weakness to show his glory. Your weakness is a great backdrop to demonstrate the power of God. (verse 7)
God uses your suffering to advance his gospel (verses 10, 15). “For it is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 4:15). Our suffering is a prerequisite for the spread of the gospel. It mirrors the cruciform pattern of the gospel: life comes through death. We are following the pattern of our crucified Lord. If pastors didn’t suffer, no gospel ministry would ever take place.
To use an extreme example, the daughter of missionaries to the Congo Republic recounted how as a little girl she had participated in a celebration of the 100th anniversary of missionaries coming to the Congo Republic. Speeches were given, music was played, and at the end of the day a very old man stood before the crowd to speak. He said that when the missionaries first came, the people thought them odd and their message suspicious. The tribal leaders, seeking to test the missionaries, slowly poisoned them to death over a period of months, even years. Children of the missionaries died one by one, but the missionaries stayed and proclaimed the gospel, even as they died. The old man commented, “It was as we watched how they died that we decided we wanted to live as Christians.”
That’s why Paul says “always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.” We’re called to cruciform lives: to reflect that God has always brought life from death, just as he did with Jesus. Our only hope is that Jesus lived and died for us.
Spiritual life comes through people who are willing to die, so to speak, so that others hear the gospel. Your suffering follows the pattern of Jesus, who suffered so that we could receive the gospel. Your suffering has a purpose.
God uses your suffering to make you holy. Verses 16 and 17 say:
So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison… (2 Corinthians 4:16-17)
It’s almost like a line graph with intersecting lines. One line shows our outer physical deterioration the longer that we’re in ministry. Ministry and life took a toll on Paul, just as it does with us.
But Paul says there’s another line: the line of vibrant, spiritual, internal renewal. The more that life and ministry takes its toll on us outwardly, the more God uses all of that to bring us alive spiritually. If you have suffered as a pastor, God can and will use that to change you.
Paul Tripp says, “We forget that God’s primary goal is not changing our situations or relationships so that we can be happy, but changing us through our situations and relationships so that we will be holy.” God uses your sufferings in ministry to make you holy.
Why not give up when life beats us up? Because God uses our suffering now. He uses it to show his power, advance his gospel, and make you holy.
But that’s not the only reason that we refuse to give up when life beats us up. There’s another reason.
Because God will remove your suffering later (4:17-5:10)
If you know this passage of Scripture, you know that Paul begins to discuss eternity beginning in 4:17 and extending right into chapter 5:10. It seems like an abrupt change of topic. Why does Paul go from talking about suffering to talking about the intermediate state and eternity?
The answer is clear. Paul isn’t changing topics. Paul is making a point about suffering, and here it is: your suffering is worth it, because our suffering is insignificant and momentary compared to what’s coming next.
I love Guthrie’s translation of 4:17:
For our momentary, light bundle of affliction produces for us—in a way both breathtaking and immeasurable—an eternal tonnage of glory.
Everyone in business seems to like talking about “exponential growth.” They love talking about the things we can do that are small that will lead to disproportionately large results. Well, Paul gives us something that will lead to exponential growth in our ministries. A comparatively small amount of suffering for a short amount of time produces a staggering tonnage of glory.
And then he goes on. In chapter 5, he talks about the ultimate hope of those who are beat up in ministry. Although God uses our sufferings, it’s normal to want them to be over. Paul tells us that they will be over one day. Paul says that our suffering is worth it, because one day soon our suffering will be over. Our fragile, fallen existence will be over. The burden of mortality and the burden of life will be swallowed up in immortality. We will be resurrected and transformed.
So, right now, Paul says, we can be of good courage. We won’t give up even when life beats us up, because God will soon remove our sufferings and give us the eternal tonnage of glory that we’ve been waiting for.
I’m here to tell you: you will suffer. But don’t ever give up. God will use your suffering, and God will one day remove your suffering and give you an eternal tonnage of glory that outweighs anything you’ll go through.
And so I want to pray with you. I want to pray to commit to follow God no matter what comes, because God uses your suffering now, and remove your suffering later. Some of us may be tired of suffering, so it’s time to recommit and resubmit to God. And so I want to close with this prayer from Blaise Pascal that’s a recommitment of ourselves to God, no matter what’s in store. Would you join me in this and read it together?
I ask you neither for health nor for sickness, for life nor for death; but that you may dispose of my health and my sickness, my life and my death, for your glory.… You alone know what is expedient for me; you are the sovereign master; do with me according to your will. Give to me, or take away from me, only conform my will to yours. I know but one thing, Lord, that it is good to follow you, and bad to offend you. Apart from that, I know not what is good or bad in anything. I know not which is most profitable to me, health or sickness, wealth or poverty, nor anything else in the world. That discernment is beyond the power of men or angels, and is hidden among the secrets of your Providence, which I adore, but do not seek to fathom.
Small Group Questions
- Paul says that we’re like jars of clay (4:7). We’re ordinary and fragile. Yet our weakness is shows the glory of the gospel. Have you ever seen the power of the gospel in someone else’s weakness? Why is our weakness and ordinariness so important?
- From this passage, how does God use our suffering for good?
- Verse 17 says that our light and temporary afflictions are preparing a disproportionate weight of glory for us in eternity. How does our hope of eternal life help us to handle suffering today?
- What lessons can you apply from this passage into your life?