ALL TOO EASILY FORGOTTEN IN OUR LONGING FOR THE LOVE OF GOD ARE THE WORDS OF Prov. 3:12: "For whom the Lord loves He chastens, and scourges every son whom He receives." As a consequence we can feel decidedly betrayed when we are called upon to suffer, sometimes quite painfully, because we are God's children. We may even begin to wish that God did not love us quite so much. But obviously pain has an important part to play in God's loving purpose for His children, and there is much to learn from the life and writings of Paul about how to deal with suffering, not just with patience but with thanksgiving and joy.
Suffering was largely foreign to Paul's early life as a zealous Pharisee. A staunch defender of the faith of his fathers he was revered and respected, and on a fast track to becoming one of ancient Judaism's most celebrated rabbis (Gal. 1: 14; Phil. 3:4-6). Yet, as a Christian, pain and suffering of every sort dogged him relentlessly until his physically and materially wretched life (2 Cor. 11:23-27) was ended by Caesar's sword (2 Tim. 4:6). Such is hardly the kind of life, and death, that we as Christians would choose. Hardly the sort of life we would call a model of God's marvelous grace at work. Yet that is exactly how Paul saw it. And in Paul's view of suffering for the Lord's sake is found, without doubt, the reason he was able to endure so much inward pain and outward conflict undaunted and without the remotest bit of self-pity or regret.
Second Corinthians is known for being the most open hearted of all Paul's epistles. In this letter he speaks openly and often of his suffering. It stuns us a bit to read these catalogues of adversity (chs. 1,4,6,11,12) because they are so uncharacteristic. Ordinarily Paul found it both uncomfortable and unprofitable to speak about what he had suffered as an apostle of Christ. We might be made to wonder if too many battles have taken their toll on an old warrior but a careful reading of 2 Corinthians will show that the very opposite is true. The truth is that he saw his tribulations as expressions of the grace of God, and he wanted the Corinthians to see that it was not only true for him but for themselves as well. "And our hope for you is steadfast...that as you are partakers of the sufferings, so also you will partake of the consolation" (1:7).
Paul's overwhelming burdens in Asia, that made him despair even of life, were seen as a blessing in all directions. They taught him to trust God and not in himself (1:9). They comforted him because they were "the sufferings of Christ" (1:5). They prepared him to be a comfort to others who were also going through the fire (1:4). And isn't it remarkable that it was amidst such suffering that he was able to say quite joyfully, "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort" (1:3).
In chapter four (vss. 7-11) Paul sees his outwardly pathetic state as graphic evidence that the power of the gospel was in the message not the messenger. He viewed his patient endurance of hardships and privation as a means of proving his selfless love for those he taught (6:3-10) and his suffering and distress as evidence that he was a true servant and apostle of Christ (11:23-33). He was, he said, suffering and dying with Christ so that he might live with Him (2 Cor. 4:10, 11; Gal. 2:20); and he rejoiced in it!
It is near the end of his letter that Paul reveals an early experience that is all likelihood shaped his remarkable response to a lifetime of suffering (12:1-10). Fourteen years before, likely during his retreat in Tarsus (Acts 9:30), he had been caught into paradise to hear wonderful things that he was forbidden to utter. But from those exhilarating heights Satan had brought him down by some unidentified but very painful "thorn in the flesh." He evidently saw his infirmity as a deterrent to his apostolic calling and earnestly besought the Lord three times to draw it out; and three times he was refused. The Lord's answer was "My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness." Satan's aim was certainly malevolent but God's was gracious, to prevent in Paul an overweening pride.
Every since, Paul wrote, he had rejoiced "infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ's sake" because it was in his weakness that he was made strong (2 Cor. 12:10). Paul realized as we all must that until we are emptied of ourselves God cannot fill us, and, until we know our own inadequacy, His great power cannot work to transform and make us a blessing to others. We have at last to realize that God's grace is sufficient for us even when suffering comes that we do not understand and that He does not take away. Trusting in God's goodness and the love of His Son we can know as Paul did in the midst of pain that "all things will work together for good" (Rom. 8:28) and that our light and momentary afflictions are working for us "a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory" (2 Cor. 4:17).
By Paul Earnhart in Biblical Insights, Vol. 7, No. 4, April 2007.
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