2 Corinthians 1: 1 - 11
When you look at the questions of life and death, and when you consider the problems of this death-sentenced generation, even the most fervent believer looks up to the heavens and cries out, Why? Why me? Why now? Why this?
Why? The question rings across the centuries and through every generation. All of us ask it sooner or later. If you haven’t yet, you will. It’s a question that does not have an easy answer. Indeed, the most godly believers have sometimes wondered about the ways of God. If Job never got a complete answer, what can I expect? I don’t think there is one single answer to that question.
But there are answers. Men and women of faith have found them true throughout the centuries. One answer tucked away in the Bible may surprise you. It is found in a New Testament book we don’t read very much: 2 Corinthians. In the first verses of the first chapter, we discover a perspective on the heartaches of life that may help us. After a brief greeting to his readers (v. 1, 2) in which Paul (along with Timothy) wishes grace and peace to his readers in Corinth and throughout the surrounding region, he immediately begins to talk about the comfort he had received in the midst of much hardship he had endured as an apostle of Jesus Christ.
v. 3 -11 set the stage for the whole book by plainly saying that no matter what he had suffered, it was more than worth it.
An Unexpected Answer
Here we learn right up front an important principle for all of life. It’s not what happens to us that matters; it’s how we react that makes all the difference. “When hard times come, be a student, not a victim.” Think about that for a moment. Be a student, not a victim. A victim says, “Why did this happen to me?” A student says, “What can I learn from this?” A victim believes his hard times have come because God is trying to punish him. A student understands that God allows hard times in order to help him grow. A victim believes God has abandoned him. A student sees God’s hand in everything, including the worst moments of life.
That’s the true Christian position. We believe so much in the sovereignty of God that when hard times come, we believe - we know! - that God is at work somehow, somewhere, in some way for our good and his glory. Here we discover how affliction works 4 positive benefits for us.
1. It Draws Us Closer to the Lord v. 3 - 5
There is a divine purpose at work in your life and in mine, and that divine purpose begins with God. Paul calls him the “Father of compassion.”
“Who comforts us in all our troubles." That means that when I am sick, he is there by my bedside. When I run out of money, he is there with me in my poverty. When I am hated and despised, he stands by my side. When I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, he takes me by the hand and he leads me on through.
We never discover the depth of God’s compassion until we get in a place where we need God’s compassion desperately. You don’t receive mercy until you are in real trouble. Cancer is not easy or fun and it is not “good” in and of itself. But cancer can be the channel for much good if in your sickness you work out what matters and what doesn’t. It will be a very deep blessing if through your sickness you discover that God’s comfort is greater than your sorrow. That leads on to the second benefit -
2. It Equips Us to Minister to Others v. 6, 7
Paul looked at his sufferings – the hardship, deprivation, imprisonment, the unrelenting opposition he faced, and he concluded, “This isn’t just for me. God is doing something in me for the benefit of others."
We never suffer alone. Someone else is always watching. Our friends watch to see how we will respond to tragedy. They want to know if what we say we believe is really enough for us in the hard times. Further in the distance, others watch what we go through. Many of them are unbelievers who wonder if Christ is real. They don’t know, they aren’t sure, maybe they’ve read the Bible, maybe they haven’t, but they’re watching how we respond to mistreatment, malicious accusations, sickness, the loss of a job, the end of our marriage, a career setback, a financial collapse, and from the shadows they watch the suffering saint to see if what he has is real or not.
Our afflictions soften our hearts so that when we have received the comfort of God, it is easy for us to pass it along to someone else. Oh, how we need this in the church of Jesus Christ. It is so easy to be callous. It is so convenient to be unkind. It is so easy to look down our noses at weaker brothers and sisters who go through hard times. We say so carelessly, “Why don’t they just get tough? Why don’t they show some backbone? Why don’t they stop complaining and get on with life? Why can’t they be strong like the rest of us?” God lets us go through hard times to break us of that attitude and soften us so that we are able to minister in the name of Jesus Christ to other hurting people.
Chuck Colson went to prison and out of that harrowing experience he founded Prison Fellowship. Joni Erickson Tada was paralyzed during a diving accident and out of her suffering came a worldwide ministry to the hurting called Joni and Friends. This should not surprise us because the Lord’s strongest weapons are forged on the anvil of adversity.
This mighty principle answers many questions. Many of us have hardened places in our lives that will not become tender until we go through the fires of affliction. God lets that happen so that we might reach out to others and comfort them. Third benefit -
3. It Empties Us of All Self-Reliance v. 8 - 10
We don’t know the exact nature of the hardships Paul suffered in Asia (modern-day Turkey). It might have been extreme opposition from the Jewish leaders. It might have been some sort of serious physical ailment. Whatever it was, the Corinthians knew about it and they understood that Paul thought during his ordeal that he was going to die. He writes to tell of God’s deliverance and to ask the Corinthians for their prayers.
When tragedy strikes or when hard times come or when friends turn against us or when the bottom drops out of life, we wonder why things happen the way they do. Here we find one important explanation. Hard times come to teach us not to trust in ourselves but only in the Lord who raises the dead. Most of us are adept at handling the “moderate” problems of life. We can deal with cranky children or a prickly boss or a bad case of the flu or a pile of work that gets dumped on our desk. We understand normal pressures and we learn how to deal with them. But sometimes things happen that “strip the gears” of life and force us to our knees and sometimes all the way down so that we are flat on the ground. At that point, our only hope is the Lord. We cry out to God in desperation, knowing that if he doesn’t help us, we’re sunk. That’s a lesson we have to learn over and over again. There is one final thing that affliction does for us –
4. It Reveals the True Power of Prayer v. 11
I love that phrase, “You help us by your prayers.” Paul uses a Greek word that occurs only here in the New Testament. It comes from 3 other words meaning “with,” “under,” and “work.” We join together and lift the burdens of life as we pray for each other.
Many times we view prayer as the last resort when it ought to be the first resort. I know that prayer sometimes seems futile because we think we need to “do something.” Praying is fine, but how about if we bake a cake? Well, that’s fine too. But don’t fall into the trap of separating life into the “spiritual” and the “practical,” as if baking a cake is “real help” while prayer is just something spiritual we do when we can’t do anything else. Very nearly the opposite is true. Through prayer we unleash the power of heaven for the problems we face on the earth.
Knowing that others are praying for us gives us strength to keep going. God has ordained that our prayers matter. Pause over that thought for a moment. Our prayers matter.
It makes a difference whether or not we pray. Paul is saying, “When I thought I was going to die, you prayed and God delivered me." We will never know until we get to heaven how many times the prayers of others rescued us. But I believe in that great day, when all the secrets are revealed, we will discover that we would have fallen but someone prayed for us. We would have given up but someone prayed for us. We would have made a stupid decision but someone prayed for us. We would have given in to temptation but someone prayed for us. We would have retaliated but someone prayed for us. We would have crumbled under pressure but someone prayed for us. When all is said and done, we will learn that God used the prayers of others to enable us to make the journey from earth to heaven, and we will discover that without those God-inspired prayers, we never would have made it.
We ought to pray for others, and we ought to give thanks together when our prayers are answered. When we pray, we join hands with God to bless others and to advance his cause on the earth. Through united prayer we knock holes in the darkness to let the light of Jesus shine in. This is why “the devil trembles when he sees, the weakest saint upon his knees.”
No one is exempt from the trials of life. Becoming a Christian is wonderful but it does not free you from the burdens of life. In many ways becoming a Christian may increase your troubles because of spiritual opposition you face. When hard times come, we only have 2 choices:
We can suffer with God, or We can suffer without God.
When hard times come . . . We can suffer by ourselves, or We can suffer with the people of God.
As we receive comfort, we are equipped to minister to others. We then pass along to others what God has given to us. This is the very essence of Christianity - From God - To us - To others.
Pebbles in the Water
Have you ever gone to a pond and thrown a pebble into the water? What happens? From the point where the pebble enters the water, ripples spread out further and further. What starts as a ripple from one small pebble soon affects the whole pond. That’s a picture of what God is doing in your life. He comforts you in your trials so that you might comfort another who may comfort another who may comfort another. The ripple effect spreads out from you to people you may never even meet.
Some believers never discover this truth. They are perpetual moaners when things get difficult. Life is never fair, they always get the short end of the stick, God has singled them out for punishment. Such people never have a ministry to others because they constantly fight against God’s perspective on their trials and remain tough and hardened when they ought to be soft and tender. As a result, they have nothing to pass along to anyone else.
This passage suggests that our personal ministry begins as we share with others what God has shared with us. That means there are people in your life who need the help only you can give. Some of them need a word of encouragement, and you are the only one who can give them that word. Some of them are staggering beneath a heavy load, and you are the only one who can lift that burden from their shoulders. Some of them are about to quit, and you are the only one who can keep them in the race. Some of them have been hit with an incredible string of trials, and you are the only one who can help them keep going.
Pray that God will bring at least one person across your path who needs the help only you can give. That’s a prayer God will answer, for there are folks all around you who are just barely making it. You see them where you work, and you live next door to them. Your children go to school with their children. They are out there waiting for someone to give them help. We have experienced the goodness of the Lord. God has helped us for a purpose: that we might take what we have received and share it with those who desperately need it.
We are all wounded with the failures of life and the burdens that weigh us down. It is to wounded men and women that God has committed the great ministry of sharing his love with others. Don’t waste your pain. Use it to grow closer to the Lord and to his people. Use it as a means to minister to others. May God raise up an army of “wounded healers” who will take the comfort they have received and in Jesus’ name offer it to a hurting, waiting, watching world. Amen.