Calvary Road Baptist Church

ďGRACE TO SERVE IN THE MIDST OF SUFFERINGĒ

Second Corinthians 4.1-18

 

We are just days from the western worldís celebration of the birth of the Son of the living God. Though most who celebrate Christmas in one form or another live in what could geographically be referred to as Christendom, and thereby would very broadly be considered Christians by those who are not truly Christians in the Biblical sense, please understand that I am being neither harsh nor unkind when I remind you that most people who celebrate Christmas, and most approaches to the celebration of Christmas, are not Christian.

That said, the celebration of Christmas by more than one billion people (and that would probably be a very conservative estimate) serves to show some of the influence Christianity has had on not only western culture, but also people throughout the world. Therefore, it is appropriate that we bring the birth of Christ to bear on one of the most perplexing issues that faces western man, the problem of suffering.

You recognize, of course, that atheists have no problem explaining the problem of suffering. They write suffering off as the natural course of things in a dog eat dog world. Even the pantheists such as Hindus and Buddhists simply accept suffering as oneís lot in life resulting from karma and the penalty you must pay for not being such a good boy in a previous life.

The attitude of both of these worldviews could be clearly seen during World War 2 in the treatment of their own wounded soldiers by the military machines representing those two worldviews. The Soviet army, of course, represented the secular humanists who are atheists, and the Japanese Imperial Army represented the pantheist worldview because of the profound influence on Japanese society of the Zen branch of Buddhism. In both armies, virtually no resources were devoted to first aid for wounded soldiers or military hospitals for the rehabilitation and recovery of the severely wounded. Concern for the suffering of wounded or dying soldiers was nonexistent in the Soviet and Japanese armies because suffering was seen as a completely integral part of oneís lot in life. A Russian soldier shot in the belly was unlucky. A Japanese soldier shot in the belly had bad karma, and unlike Earl, one simply could not alter karma in this lifetime. Even among the Muslims there is a fatalistic acceptance of the horrors of suffering in this life, in part because of the Muslim concept of Allah, and partly because Islam resembles pantheism in a number of ways, despite their insistence that they are the only true monotheists.[1]

However, when you turn your attention to Christianity, and even to Judaism prior to the coming of Christ, you see en entirely different ethic at work. To be sure, suffering is recognized as a present part of life. However, owing to the Genesis account of creation and our concept of a loving God whose initial creation was good in every way, both Jews and Christians have always embraced the notion that although suffering is a part of everyoneís life, it has not always been that way and it is not supposed to be that way. When God created Adam and Eve, He created them sinless beings in a sinless environment. However, when they sinned against God, suffering and death was the immediate and lasting result. Since then, mankind and every other living thing have experienced suffering that culminates in death, though the suffering does not end with death.

What, pray tell, does this have to do with Christmas? Much in every way. Almost every Christian has encountered someone along the way of his witnessing who has challenged him by saying, ďIf God is so good, why is there so much suffering in the world?Ē Interestingly, no one ever asks a communist that question, or a Hindu, or a Buddhist, or a Scientologist, or even a Muslim. Only Christians are asked why there is suffering in the world, because only Christians are recognized to embrace the concept of a God who is good and kind, a God who is gracious and merciful, and a God who is tender and compassionate. What people conveniently leave out of their thinking, of course, is that Christians also posit an explanation for suffering that no one seems to want to deal with; sin.

Therefore, though God is good, and kind, and merciful, and compassionate, and tender, His creatures introduced sin into the world by their disobedience, and the direct result of sin is suffering. This, of course, brings us to Christmas, the birth of Jesus Christ into the human race. Why did He leave heavenís glory and clothe Himself in human flesh? It was not to directly address the problem of suffering, which after all is but a symptom of sin, but to address the problem of sin itself. This is clearly seen in the angelís words to Joseph in a dream, recorded for us in Matthew 1.20-21: ďJoseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost. And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins.Ē

The Lord Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem to embark on a journey through a life here on earth that would culminate in His crucifixion, His death, His burial, His resurrection, and ending in His ascension to glory. In His doing and dying He dealt with manís sins, though the benefit of His saving work has not yet been applied all those who will eventually be saved from their sins. Until then, not only will sin be a matter of ongoing concern in the human race, but also suffering as well that results from sin. What does that mean? It means that though the Lord Jesus Christ has suffered and bled and died for sins, there are still sins being committed and there is still great suffering for sin until the last of the elect turn to Christ and are saved and until Jesus comes again to establish His kingdom here on earth.

Children are still born with congenital defects. Childhood diseases still trouble youngsters around the world. The sex slave trade still thrives. Booze, drugs, and gambling still ravage lives. Boys and girls still play their nasty sex games with each other, frequently in plain sight of others. Crimes of violence against the young and against the aged are still rampant. As we know from our own experiences, cancer still strikes and claims those we deeply love and had hoped to intermingle our lives with for decades to come.

The question for the Christian, and for the honest inquirer, is not Why is there suffering in the world? We know why there is suffering in the world, even if other worldviews have no adequate explanation. It is sin, plain and simple. So long as there is sin, there will be suffering. The real question for the Christian, and the question that ought to be asked by any intelligent unsaved person who considers Christianity with real thoughtfulness, is what difference does Christ make in the life of a sufferer? Do Christians suffer differently than those who are not followers of Christ? Not that Christians suffer from different ailments than anyone else, but how does their suffering differ from others with the same ailments?

The Christ child was born into a world of suffering. Herod the Great caused grievous suffering to the children of Bethlehem when he murdered them in a futile attempt to assassinate the Christ child. Our Lord grew up in the midst of suffering. John the Baptist suffered martyrdom for His savior. Moreover, especially after the day of Pentecost, many of His followers suffered unspeakable horrors for His nameís sake. Thus, it should be recognized that in the beginning of the Christian era, and even in our own day, not only do Christians suffer the same maladies and ailments everyone else experiences, but Christians also suffer because we are Christians.

Again, the question is not the why of suffering. The real question has to do with how Christians suffer. Turn in your Bible to Second Corinthians 4, where we will survey the Apostle Paulís explanation of a Christian servantís suffering. When you find that passage in Godís Word, please stand to read along silently while I read aloud:

 

1      Therefore seeing we have this ministry, as we have received mercy, we faint not;

2      But have renounced the hidden things of dishonesty, not walking in craftiness, nor handling the word of God deceitfully; but by manifestation of the truth commending ourselves to every manís conscience in the sight of God.

3      But if our gospel be hid, it is hid to them that are lost:

4      In whom the god of this world hath blinded the minds of them which believe not, lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine unto them.

5      For we preach not ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord; and ourselves your servants for Jesusí sake.

6      For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

7      But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us.

8      We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair;

9      Persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed;

10     Always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our body.

11     For we which live are alway delivered unto death for Jesusí sake, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our mortal flesh.

12     So then death worketh in us, but life in you.

13     We having the same spirit of faith, according as it is written, I believed, and therefore have I spoken; we also believe, and therefore speak;

14     Knowing that he which raised up the Lord Jesus shall raise up us also by Jesus, and shall present us with you.

15     For all things are for your sakes, that the abundant grace might through the thanksgiving of many redound to the glory of God.

16     For which cause we faint not; but though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day.

17     For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory;

18     While we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal.

 

This is a long passage, and there are verses you are no doubt familiar with that are not particularly pertinent to the thrust of this morningís message that I will pass over, but I want you to keep two things in mind as we touch rather superficially on this problem of suffering for the Christian: First, keep in mind that Paulís comments are primarily about his own suffering and the suffering of those who labored with him. Second, keep also in mind that you and I both know a dear saint whose testimony while suffering was remarkably similar to what we see in this passage, showing us how Christ should make a difference in every Christianís suffering.

 

First, TAKE NOTE OF THE CHRISTIANíS SETTING

 

This would be the situation the Apostle and his band found themselves in because of important decisions they had made about their Christian lives and service. However, this setting is an important feature for every Christian who suffers:

First, there is your perception, verse 1: ďTherefore seeing we have this ministry, as we have received mercy, we faint not.Ē Do you approach your Christian life as ministry, or simply as existence? And do you look upon yourself as the recipient of Godís great mercy? Those two states of mind are what lead Christians to emulate Paul and his men: ďWe faint not.Ē We do not fold up when things get tough.

Next, there is procedure, verse 2: ďBut have renounced the hidden things of dishonesty, not walking in craftiness, nor handling the word of God deceitfully; but by manifestation of the truth commending ourselves to every manís conscience in the sight of God.Ē This is Paulís general description of his approach to serving God. Straight up, honest, not trying to be particularly clever, handling the Word of God properly, and trafficking in truth. There is enough slick in the world. What this world needs, even if they reject it when they see it, is open and honest Christian service and ministry that trusts the Spirit of God to provoke menís consciences to make things happen. From time to time God has taken one of our beloved church members. There is no denying that we have had no apostles in our midst, but men and women with feet of clay. Nevertheless, they were trophies of grace that saw their lives as ministry and committed themselves to an approach to serving Christ that is reminiscent of what Paul has written here.

 

Now, TAKE NOTE OF THE CHRISTIANíS SUFFERING

 

8      We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair;

9      Persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed;

10     Always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our body.

11     For we which live are alway delivered unto death for Jesusí sake, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our mortal flesh.

12     So then death worketh in us, but life in you.

 

To be sure, this is primarily a description of the suffering of the apostle and his companions, and of those early Christian martyrs who gave their lives to advance the gospel to the four corners of the globe. However, recognize the fainter imprint of these experiences on those wonderful Christians you have known that experienced their own sufferings.

To be sure, my own memory runs to the godly Mr. Williams, to Daved, and of course to our beloved Rosa. Think of them, if you knew them, or of other dear suffering saints of God, as I read a portion of the passage once more:

 

8      We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair;

9      Persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed;

 

Violet and Doreenís minds run immediately to their sister, Roxanne. Mike and Tony will think with Pam and me of Toniís grandfather.

Please do not think this applies to everyone who suffers, or even to every Christian who suffers, for that is not at all the case. Paul here speaks of the Christian who suffers in exemplary fashion, who deals with a fatal disease and with failing health, as well as with persecution or other trials, without faltering in the faith, without giving up the fight, without capitulating. Do you remember Lloydís grace for all those years in a wheel chair? Do you remember the meekness and humility Daved displayed? Not sinlessness, mind you, but meekness and humility. I am speaking, after all, about Christians. Amen? Was your heart not warmed with wonder and astonishment that Godís glory showed in the brightness of Rosaís countenance and the sweetness of her spirit?

 

Finally, CONSIDER THEIR SUSTENANCE

 

How did they do it? What kept them from unraveling? How did it come to be that they were useful in Godís service all the way to the end? What sustained them through the heat of their battle against discouragement, against declining health, against the ravages of advancing disease, as Paul was sustained against virulent spiritual opposition?

 

13     We having the same spirit of faith, according as it is written, I believed, and therefore have I spoken; we also believe, and therefore speak;

14     Knowing that he which raised up the Lord Jesus shall raise up us also by Jesus, and shall present us with you.

15     For all things are for your sakes, that the abundant grace might through the thanksgiving of many redound to the glory of God.

16     For which cause we faint not; but though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day.

17     For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory;

18     While we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal.

 

We could spend weeks on this passage, but I will leave it to you to spend some devotional time reading and reflecting, leaving it to me to give you some suggestions to think and meditate about:

First, there is faith. Verse 13 refers to faith no less than three times. Keeping in mind that faith knows that God is a rewarder of them that diligently seek Him, it is no wonder faith in Jesus Christ plays such a large role in sustaining Godís children through suffering, trusting Godís goodness and wisdom for His suffering children.

Next, there is hope, the confident expectation of future blessing, in verse 14. What hope, specifically? The hope of a certain resurrection, and of Jesus coming again. The Father raised up His Son, and He will certainly raise up His children. Suffering saints know there is a better day coming. ďWeeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning,Ē Psalm 30.5.

Third, suffering saints know their difficult experiences are brought on them for a reason, verse 15. We may not always know what the reasons are, but we know the result will be beneficial for other Christians, and will end up bringing glory to God. Our Advocate who sits at the Fatherís right hand guarantees it.

Fourth, verse 16 speaks of the inward man being renewed day by day. Thus, even when the Christianís health is failing, her spiritual vitality is on the upswing as God supplies abundant grace from our Lord Jesus Christ.

Finally, there is also this matter of perspective. Verses 17 and 18 shows an understanding that suffering, no matter how long it is, is only temporary in comparison to eternity. Besides, it enables the suffering saint to enter into the fellowship of Christís suffering. Do you not, therefore, grasp this sense of proportion to see things from the eternal standpoint? It is only because you are not suffering to such a degree as to need Godís grace in this way.

 

The baby Jesus came into a world that had known great suffering for thousands of years. Because of His own birth in Bethlehem, the reaction of His enemies produced even more suffering. Was He unaffected by mankindís suffering? Not at all. He suffered Himself, if you will remember, more than anyone who had ever lived. Yet His mission was not to end suffering, so much as it was to deal with manís sins.

What are we to do with our own suffering until sin is fully dealt with? It depends upon your relationship with Christ. If you are not saved from your sins, there is nothing you can do concerning your suffering, insofar as any meaningful remedy is concerned. Your suffering will only become worse when you pass from this life.

However, the child of Godís course is quite different. Child of God, your Savior will provide you with great grace to deal with your suffering, in the form of faith, in the form of hope, in the form of knowledge, in the form of a renewing of your inner man day by day, and in the form of the wisdom to see yourself in terms of eternity. How else could Paul rejoice in hope of the glory of God as he faced the prospect of death each day? How else could the beloved saints who have passed on before us have faced the future with such calm assurance and joy?

Suffering had been the common lot of all men for thousands of years when the Christ child was born. However, until He finally ends the suffering of the righteous, He has brought to His Own grace to deal with the suffering in a way mankind had not known before.

Are your sins forgiven by this One whose birth we are about to celebrate? Is there grace to deal with your suffering? Forgiveness of sins, and grace to deal with suffering, come only to those who know Jesus Christ as their own personal Savior. Come to Jesus, my friend.



[1] Nancy R. Pearcey, Total Truth, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2004), pages 387-388.



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