The Vindication of Faith in Suffering

“The Vindication of Faith in Suffering”
2 Cor. 1:1-11
February 2, 2003
Rev. Dr. Robert S. Rayburn

Text Comment

v.1 Timothy is with Paul as he writes. And he writes the letter not only to the Corinthians themselves, but to the other churches in the area, as 9:2 and 11:10 also indicate. 2 Corinthians was intended to be something of a circular letter, apparently because Paul believed that the problems he will address in the letter had spread outside of Corinth itself.

You will notice that Paul says that he is an apostle “by the will of God.” As his apostolic credentials were under attack in Corinth, this amounts to an opening salvo in his defense of his divine authority as a messenger of the Lord himself.

But, notice also, that he assumes that the people to whom he is writing, no matter all the trouble they had caused him, were saints, the holy people of God. It is fundamental to the NT outlook that even the “saints,” the “holy ones,” can behave very badly from time to time.

v.3 In the following verses, as was true in 1 Corinthians, Paul follows established rhetorical custom. He begins by establishing rapport with his readers and evoking their sympathy. Quintilian, the master of Latin rhetoric, says in speaking about making a beginning in the defense of oneself: “Our case may justify appeal to compassion with regard to what we have suffered in the past or are likely to suffer.” [In Witherington, 356-357] Remember, the Corinthians were folk who appreciated rhetorical style and Paul uses it aplenty in 2 Corinthians. It doesn’t mean that he isn’t telling them the truth; he certainly is. But he fashions his argument in a way most likely to impress them.

Remember now, Paul is already here dealing with the charge that his failure to visit them according to the schedule he had first proposed indicated that his word was unreliable. He is going to say several things in explanation, but the first thing he says is that he had been put through the ringer in Asia, in Ephesus, even to the point of despairing of life. No wonder he couldn’t keep all his appointments.

The word “comfort” either as a noun or a verb occurs 10x in vv. 3-7.

v.5 Paul speaks elsewhere of Christians sharing in the “fellowship of Christ’s sufferings.” He means that following Christ inevitably brings one into suffering, just as his righteous living, his doing of his Father’s will, brought him into suffering. He told the disciples, remember, “A servant is not greater than his Master. If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (Jn. 15:20). As the Devil and the world attacked him, so they will attack his followers who are serving his cause. As growing up into mature godliness required of him the discipline of suffering, so it will require suffering of us.

v.6 As Paul’s sufferings were those of a gospel minister, and derived from the service he rendered the Corinthians and others, they should not only have a particular sympathy for him in his sufferings, but should take personal comfort in his being comforted and learn a lesson about how to endure their own sufferings for the Lord.

v.7 Throughout the letter it is clear that Paul has little doubt that these folk are real believers, or, at least, most of them are. Of course, he was there when they became Christians in the first place.

v.8 There have been all manner of suggestions as to what Paul is referring to specifically. Is he referring to the persecution we know he suffered in Ephesus? Does he mean the personal trial he will later in this letter refer to as his “thorn in the flesh”? Was it some deadly illness? We simply do not know, but, of course, the precise nature of the trial is not important. The fact of it not the nature of it is what matters.

Now, to be sure, what Paul says in vv. 3-11 amounts, in one sense to a defense of himself. He was accused of fickleness – as we will read in 1:17 – because he had changed his plans. But there were reasons for that change and among them, and not least, was the terrific ordeal through which the Apostle had passed.

Paul did not live an easy life. He will tell us more of his difficulties later in the letter, but we know that in any case. Life was harder in those times than it is for many of us today and in a great many ways. They had only the most rudimentary medical care, there was no aspirin for a headache, no effective means of combating illness, life expectancy was shorter for various reasons, many folk were slaves, travel was by foot by and large, and so on. To be sure, there are many folk who live in a similar or actually worse situation today. And we Western Christians need to remember that when we think of our afflictions and trials, many of which are the trials that the healthy and the wealthy suffer because the trials of the poor and weak have been lifted off our shoulders.

But, in giving a defense of his conduct Paul presents us here with a theology of suffering, a view of the troubles of life that is fundamentally different from what most think of them and a view even Christians struggle to retain in the mind and heart in the midst of the pains and pressures of life.

Now, to be sure, Paul is not talking about any and all suffering. He is talking about the sufferings of Christ, that is the sufferings that Christians must endure because they are Christians or the sufferings that they endure as Christians and concerning which they look to God and Christ. Christians aren’t the only ones who get sick; they aren’t the only ones that suffer loss; they aren’t even the only ones who are persecuted. We know that. But, Christians’ sorrows are different precisely because they are Christians. Their relation to the trials and disappointments and difficulties of life is very different because they belong to Christ and trust in God.

You know, of course, that the problem of suffering is perhaps the greatest intellectual obstacle to Christian belief. Sigmund Freud, perhaps the 20th century’s most influential atheist, argued against religious belief first and foremost because he could not accept that a loving and benevolent Creator would make a world or permit a world to be so full of trouble and pain and sorrow as this one is. And Freud was not speaking theoretically only. He was speaking out of his own life experience. He lost in death some of the people most precious to him while he was still a child or young man. Later a favorite daughter and a much loved grandson. He struggled with depression all his life and we know what an agony depression can make of life. What is more he was marked by the pervasive anti-Semitism of Viennese life. “Perhaps only those who have experienced prejudice and bigotry can understand the intense emotional suffering such experiences can have on both a child and an adult.” [A. Nicholi, The Question of God, 189] This bigotry and condescension toward Jews was particularly painful for Freud when he entered university at only 17 years of age and was made to feel an unwelcome outsider while still just a boy. As he grew older troubles multiplied as they often do. For the last 16 years of his life he suffered terribly from cancer of the palate. [194] He suffered some 30 surgeries on the roof of his mouth and eventually had to have a metal plate put in to separate his nasal cavity from his mouth. Both eating and breathing became difficult.

From time to time his anger would erupt. He wrote as an older man to his friend, Oskar Pfister: “let me be impolite for once – how the devil do you reconcile all that we experience and have come to expect in this world with your assumption that there is a moral order?” [196]

We know there are many like Freud, who cannot believe in God, who will not believe in God, because they cannot believe that a good and holy God would allow such suffering as there is in this world.

Now, Paul very firmly believed in God and he believed in defiance of great suffering. He had suffered deprivations of all kinds. He once wrote, “I have suffered the loss of all things.” He struggled with illness we surmise from the data of the NT, he was a much hated man in certain circles, numerous attempts were made on his life, he was stoned, and even those who should have been his friends often made his life punishingly difficult. His motives and character were often suspected or actually impugned. He endured imprisonment a number of times, once for a period of two years. He would eventually be murdered, executed because he was a Christian. But, far from his troubles weakening his faith in God, they strengthened it. Far from them making it more difficult for Paul to believe in God, they confirmed God’s kindness and goodness to him.

That is the extraordinary difference Jesus Christ makes. He so completely and so powerfully alters the meaning and the purpose of our lives, his salvation so sanctifies and ennobles our lives and imbues them with such hope, that even the hardest things, the most painful things, the most unwelcome things, become the demonstrations of his love for us.

It was certainly so for Paul. The last thing we could say, reading Paul here, is that he took his troubles lightly. They were still troubles and still heavy to bear. He confesses to us that, at the time, he wasn’t sure he could bear them, they were so heavy. He thought they might do him in. But, still, he does not, cannot doubt their good, holy, and happy effect in his life or that the comfort he received from Christ in them outweighed them. There is nothing sentimental, nothing superficial here. There is both an honest appraisal of the difficulties of life and the pain and fear with which they fill the soul and at the same time the confident assertion that, bad as troubles may be, there is, for the Christian, more good in them than bad.

I. First, he says, they equip the believer to live a life of sympathy and of the comforting of others.

This is the point Paul begins with in vv. 3-4. The troubles of life and the comfort that the Lord brings in those troubles, fit a man or woman to be the comforter of others. The troubles make us tender hearted and sympathetic and the comfort we receive from the Lord provides us with something helpful, genuinely hopeful, to say to others. We know what they need and we know where it may be found. Many people do not. They are not able to help in any real way because they have no answer for life’s troubles. Freud had no answer. He thought that the best that could be done was honestly to face the fact of the hopelessness of life, to accommodate oneself to the fact that there is no God, there is no meaning, there is no answer. But Christians know better because they meet the Lord in their sufferings and they discover that hard as life can be, God’s comfort is always greater than the trials. The Lord’s comforts are never outweighed by our sufferings.

What experts afflicted Christians become! What wise and effective counselors they become who trust the Lord through their trials and find, as they always will, that he who watches over Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps. Alexander Whyte, the Scottish pastor, was an expert at comforting others, in no small part because he had been comforted himself by the Lord through some very sharp trials. He was himself born out of wedlock and grew up without a father in a day when there was a very real stigma that attached to such a life. As a father himself, he lost a little son to illness and then another as a young adult in the First World War. And what he learned about suffering he could tell others. He once wrote down the lessons he had learned:

1. It is God’s love that so cuts you to the quick. [He took Samuel Rutherford’s view that we are to accept that our trials and tribulations are absolutely necessary. We couldn’t make it to heaven without them. God is a God of love and that is why he tries his children so and that is why he tries those who are not his children so, that they would not do, what most human beings do, grow so comfortable in this world that they will not care to look beyond it. There is a great comfort in knowing that our trials are necessary and God gives them to us only because they are.]
2. There is to be no myrrh allowed nor chloroform nor any kind of mental or moral insensibility. [That is, if afflictions have this absolutely vital role in our lives, then we do not want to be insensitized to them lest they not do their work in and for us.]
3. No pain, no cure; little pain little cure; great pain great cure; life long pain here, everlasting life without any more pain in that land where God himself shall wipe away all tears from his patients’ eyes. [Something like A.W. Tozer’s thought: “It is doubtful that God can bless a man greatly unless he has hurt him deeply.”]
4. All his divine operations are performed in secret. [You cannot fully tell what God is doing in and for you through your troubles, but only you yourself know what work is being done within you and how much it needs to be done and why and how the affliction serves that holy purpose. What is most important happens within a person and is known only to that person.]
5. All his divine operations are performed free and for nothing: for his hospital is fully endowed for the service of the poor. [That is, you do not have to earn God’s comfort in your trials, still less the fruit of those trials in your life; you have only to open your heart and hand to receive from him what his love desires for your blessing.]
6. A perfect and everlasting cure is absolutely guaranteed: absolutely guaranteed against all possible relapse. [Thomas Shepard, 172-173]

About a year before she died, I wrote those six lessons – lessons that affliction had taught a faithful man, lessons that represented the wisdom that comes from walking with God through trouble – I wrote them down in my sister’s Bible. I read them to her first and she wanted to have them to read them herself over and over again. When trials mount, when the pain of life increases, no platitudes will do. We must have real wisdom from someone who has passed through the deep waters before us. We must know that the Lord’s comfort will sustain us and only the person who has been so comforted can assure us of that or explain how it is possible for there to be real comfort in the midst of troubles and sorrows such as we are suffering. We can learn many other things well from all sorts of people, but we can learn well the deeper lessons of suffering and divine comfort only from those who have suffered and have been comforted.

I walked a mile with Pleasure
She chattered all the way,
But left me none the wiser
For all she had to say.

I walked a mile with sorrow,
And ne-er a word said she;
But, oh, the things I learned from her
When sorrow walked with me.

Obviously, if a Christian does not look to the Lord, does not trust in the Lord during his or her trials, there will be correspondingly less comfort and so less of this holy effect. There are many Christians who have suffered much but have learned far too little from all that suffering; have suffered much but still can be of comparatively little help to others. I know such people and you do as well. So, while sorrows and trials should work a perfect sympathy and soul-expertise in us, they will only if they, at the same time, have a second effect.

II. And this is Paul’s second point. The troubles of life, heavy though they be, serve the holiest and most necessary of all purposes: they cause the believer to rely on the Lord and not on himself or herself.

This is the point Paul makes in v.9. The terrible ordeal through which he passed, the weight of which was so great that for some time he didn’t think he could bear it, “happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God.” I don’t think we fully appreciate the importance of that statement. For, you see, to rely on God is to be saved, it is to be a Christian, it is to have one’s sins forgiven, it is to live in this world as a follower of Jesus Christ. To be any of those things and all of them one must “rely on God.”

Everywhere in the Bible we read of the folly of trusting anyone or anything else but God but also of the readiness of men to do so.

“But man, despite his riches, does not endure; he is like the beasts
that perish. This is the fate of those who trust in themselves…”
[Ps. 49:13]

“Since you trust in your deeds and riches, you too will be taken
captive.” [Jer. 48:7]

“Their idols are silver and gold, made by the hands of men. They
have mouths, but cannot speak, eyes, but they cannot see; they
have ears, but cannot hear…they have hands, but cannot feel, feet
but they cannot walk; nor can they utter a sound with their
throats. Those who make them will be like them, and so will all
who trust in them.” [Ps. 115:4-8]

“Stop trusting in man, who has but a breath in his nostrils. Of
what account is he?” [Isa. 2:22]

Again and again in the Bible we are show men and women trusting anyone and everyone but God. It is the index of their rebellion, of their sinfulness, that they will not trust themselves to God, will not surrender their lives and hearts to him. No matter that the things in which instead they put their trust are so obviously, pathetically unable to save them.

The greatest and most essential lesson that any person can learn – whoever he or she is, wherever they live, whatever their circumstances – is that life comes, truth comes, hope comes, the endless and happy future comes from relying upon the Lord and not upon oneself or anyone or anything else. That is why Christians are always talking about faith, faith in Jesus Christ and faith in God, because faith is simply another word for relying on the Lord.

And one of the primary reasons why this world is and must be so full of suffering and sorrow is that the eternal welfare of people depends upon their coming to rely on the Lord and they never will unless they are driven to it. And, in the same way, the Christian life grows and deepens and becomes in all ways more beautiful and fruitful only as a believing man or woman comes more and more to rely on the Lord. And such is our aversion to this, such is our lust to look to ourselves and to other things that we can see, that were it not for our sufferings and sorrows we would never grow up. Relax life’s hardships and who among us would be safe? Relax life’s hardships and who among us would ever grow great in holy things? Relax life’s hardships and who in all the world would ever turn to God and Christ and be saved? Or, as Rutherford quaintly put it, “Faith’s necessity in a fair day is never known aright.”

See how Paul goes right on to prayer in v. 11. That is what trouble teaches us: to pray. We turn to God because our circumstances are too much for us, and turning to him we find him and a whole new world opens before our eyes. What is prayer but the impotence of man bowing before the omnipotence of God. And when God proves himself to a man or woman who turns to him, new life has begun. When we realize we need nothing less than such power as can raise the dead, as Paul says, and find that God has such power, then we will never think and never live the same way again. And if God can raise the dead, he can certainly lift a troubled person out of trouble or, what is perhaps a greater work of divine power still, he can console a soul in the midst of trouble. The world cannot understand this, but Christians know this wonderful reality.

Joseph Conrad in his book The Mirror of the Sea quotes from a letter written by Sir Robert Stopford, who commanded one of Admiral Nelson’s ships that chased to the West Indies a much larger enemy fleet. Describing the desperate hardships of that adventure, he wrote: “We are half-starved and otherwise inconvenienced by being so long out of port. But our reward is – we are with Nelson!” Well so the Christian who is sharing in the sufferings of his Captain, Jesus Christ. We are with Christ! And that fact ennobles and beautifies even the ugliest troubles and heaviest sorrows of life. [J.S. Stewart, Heralds of God, 144]

If you want to know how vital true faith in God really is, how great a difference it makes for time and for eternity, then just look at how much suffering is in the world, so much of it being designed for no other reason but that men and women should come to the end of themselves, should realize their hopelessness without God, and turn to him and rely on him. And if you want to know how vital it is that Christians grow in the grace of relying on the Lord, then just see how much trouble they must continue to endure as the sons and daughters of God. For in relying on the Lord is found everything, everything of true and lasting importance in human life.

All of which the poet also says in fewer words.

Count each affliction, whether light or grave,
God’s messenger sent down to thee; do thou
With courtesy receive him; rise and bow;
And, ere his shadow cross thy threshold, crave
Permission first his heavenly feet to lave;
Then lay before him all thou hast.