Who are you relying upon?
For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again. You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many.
Last time we looked at verses 3 to 7 where Paul was overflowing with praise to God for His mercy and comfort in Christ Jesus. And Paul explained in those verses how it is that God extends mercy and comfort to His saints. And really Paul was describing the normal dynamic of the Christian life and ministry and mission of which we all have a part.
We saw that all of our suffering is intended by God to equip us to better minister the comfort of the gospel to others and all of the comfort that we receive in the gospel is intended by God to overflow from us to comfort others. Your Christian life is intended to be a participation in the compassionate ministry of God to gather and build up the people of God in the comfort of Christ.
In the last paragraph Paul used the word comfort 10 times, which seems obviously intended to leave us with that theme ringing in our ears. God is to be loved and praised for His merciful and comforting activity in the world, which is a work He is extending to the world by using and equipping each one of us – through suffering and through gospel comfort – to minister the comfort of Christ to others.
As we will see as we go through our passage this morning, Paul is asking the Corinthians to join Him in this ministry of comfort.
But let’s back up for a moment.
I can imagine an objection that threatens to undermine our thinking about God’s mission to spread gospel comfort through our suffering.
Here is the objection: is it true that God is using all our suffering for this comfort spreading purpose? In other words does all our suffering fall under the category of “the sufferings of Christ?”
For example, many of us suffer directly because of our own sinful choices. If you respond sinfully at work to a co-worker, say you have an impatient outburst and speak in such a way as to belittle and tear them down and if they then respond by making your life miserable at work, is that suffering – which is really a result of your own sin and not a result of your connection to Christ – is that suffering in the category of “the sufferings of Christ?” Can you really say in that circumstance, that you are suffering for Jesus?
I believe the answer is no. I don’t think we can, on biblical grounds, call all of our sufferings “the sufferings of Christ” but let’s make sure we do not assume then that suffering resulting from sin is wasted.
I think Paul’s words here in 2 Corinthians are clearly focused, not on the affliction experienced because of sinfulness, but instead focused on the suffering and affliction experienced by Christians because of Christlikeness and our commitment to Christ’s mission (see v 12).
But I want to emphasize that all is not lost, even when we suffer because of our own sin, because even if we fail and find ourselves living in this life with the consequences of sinful behaviors as believers (and, to some degree or other, we all do) that suffering is never outside of God’s ability or promise to work all things together for good for those who love Him. And it is never too late as long as we are here to repent and join Christ on the Calvary road and learn and grow and be molded even by the sufferings we experience because of sinful failure.
Do we believe Romans 8:28?
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.
Does this mean all things or only things that occur because of perfectly godly behavior? It means all things.
So for example, you yourself may be largely, or totally, responsible for a broken relationship at work or in your family because you have not behaved in this world as Christ would – maybe you have had an habitual sinful response to people in your life. The pain and mess is in large measure your fault. But according to Romans 8:28 regardless of how you came to be in the scrape you are in you, as a believer, should not view that suffering as a waste, or as pointless, or as meaningless, nor as unredeemable.
It is exactly what God has sovereignly determined you need to walk through and it will be used for good, every bit as much as the natural disaster or illness or unjust treatment.
This does not in any way excuse our sin, nor does it make God morally responsible for our sin, but it does eliminate purposeless suffering or fear that your life is a waste. It isn’t.
But, now, if we can come back to Paul’s focus here in 2 Corinthians – his point last time was that all of our sufferings that we experience as ministers (as Christians engaged in Christ’s mission) are intended to mold and shape and equip us to comfort others with the gospel. I don’t think that we should loose the force of that point.
However, we do need to be careful not to put the suffering we experience because of our own failures in the category of “the sufferings of Christ.” But I believe, because of texts like Romans 8:28, that Paul’s explanation about why God allows us to experience suffering remains true regardless of how we got into the circumstance. Every suffering is redeemable and purposeful. If we will repent and receive the comfort of the gospel every painful circumstance becomes God’s way of shaping us for more effective ministry.
Now, this morning Paul shows this ministry dynamic in his own life and invites the Corinthian believers to partner with him in the ministry of the gospel by intercessory prayer.
Sharing in Affliction
Let’s take a look at verse 8,
For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia.
An extremely important point that Paul made last time is that we who are in Christ have come to have a share in Christ’s sufferings. That is, we share in the mission of Christ in this world. We have a share in the great commission ministry of Christ’s people who follow Him on the Calvary road in order to bring the gospel to others.
And so there is a very real sense in which the sufferings that each one of us experience as we pursue that mission are not our own. We saw last time that they are not for us only, but are designed to mold and shape and equip us to comfort others. Our sufferings don’t belong to us.
But notice that Paul does not want the church to be unaware of the sufferings he experienced. Why? Why does Paul want the church to know about the sufferings he experienced? I think there are two reasons.
The first is to teach them and us about this very important ministry dynamic – especially as it contributes to the defense of himself as a New Covenant minister. But the second reason, I think, that Paul wants to include the Corinthians in the suffering he experienced while pursuing ministry is that Paul is asking the Corinthians to join him in this mission by intercessory prayer.
We will see in verse 11 that Paul wants God to be thanked, so, Paul is welcoming the Corinthians into the mission so that more and more people will praise God for His mercy.
I gather from this that we should share the sufferings we experience while pursuing the mission of Christ in this world with one another and we should share what we are learning of Christ by those sufferings – our personal sufferings are not ours only and should be shared so that others might rejoice with us in God’s comforting, merciful work in our lives and join us and help us by prayer.
That’s the overview. Let’s take a closer look at the suffering Paul makes the Corinthians aware of.
Again in verse 8 and into verse 9 he says,
For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death.
So, Paul relates to the Corinthian saints the depths of this affliction in Asia and how he himself understood these sufferings. We are not told exactly what the affliction was – there are lots of guesses (from riots to being thrown to wild beasts to an illness), but we simply don’t know what the affliction was.
But the description of how Paul understood this affliction is really an amazing thing. He is giving the picture of some kind of pack animal loaded with a weight impossible to bear – he was utterly burdened beyond his strength.
I don’t know if you have ever seen a weightlifting competition, but the idea is to see who can move the most weight successfully through a particular range of motion. And so they begin with a weight they know they can handle and then they start increasing the weight until it becomes too much. The competition becomes most exciting when the top competitors begin to shake and falter and finally begin to fail. You see their bodies burdened just beyond their strength and sink under the load.
Well, Paul says he was utterly burdened beyond his strength. It would be like if I walked onto the olympic weight lifting platform and they placed on me the same weight the top heavyweight competitors are struggling to move. I would be utterly burdened beyond my strength.
Despaired of Life Itself
Paul says this is what he experienced in Asia. Paul says that this was so much the case that he despaired of life itself. Paul fully believed that this affliction was going to kill him. He says he felt that he had received the sentence of death. Paul absolutely believed that his time had come and God had said, I am taking you home. There was absolutely no earthly on natural escape – this was it. Paul could do absolutely nothing to stop the burden from crushing him.
Have you ever been in a situation that you come to the end of yourself?
I have had the privilege of experiencing just a taste of this kind of suffering – but it doesn’t need to be that you received the sentence of death to relate to this. have you ever come to a place that you realized that no human being, including yourself, could do anything to change the circumstances of your life?
This is probably a silly example, but when you have the flu and you know that there is simply nothing you can do about it. You simply have to endure whatever your body is going to do. I’m sure there are more serious examples of financial hardship, loss of work, friends and family who get sick and die, children who make foolish life decisions, a relationship that is just so damaged, and mangled, and complicated and seems immovable that healing and restoration is just beyond you.
Have you ever come to the end of yourself?
The truth is, whether we know it or not, we are never truly the ones in control of any circumstance. Great suffering simply helps us acknowledge that fact.
A Reason for the Burden
Notice that Paul in verse 9 explicitly gives a reason for this incredible burden that brought him to the end of his own strength. He says,
But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.
Let me just highlight this fact: Paul is giving a reason for the affliction. There was purpose in it. When a weight that was far beyond his ability to handle descended upon him and he despaired of life itself it was not random, meaningless, impersonal fate.
Oh, how we all need to here this! Paul understood that the sufferings that he encountered were not pointless, they were purposeful. And they were not ultimately the effects of a fallen world and sinful people – though both those things certainly played their part. Ultimately Paul understood that this affliction was from God!
How do we know that? We know that because who else has the power and the desire to teach Paul to rely not on himself, but on God? Not Satan. Satan does not want to teach us that. Neither do sinful men. No it is God who wants to teach us to rely not on ourselves but on Him.
In Our Lives
Oh, how we need this reminder in our lives. When things are not going pleasantly. Small unpleasantries and large complex painful circumstances have a reason. God is working to wean us off of ourselves and to rely on Him. Are we learning this lesson?
In every sphere, in our personal battle with sin, in our families – with your parents or spouse or kids, in our vocations, in our hobbies, in our church family, in our cultural and political involvement are we learning this lesson: we must rely on God.
Doesn’t this reveal how different our value system is compared to God’s – He knows we what we need most of all is to know and love and rely on Him and on nothing else.
God Who Raises the Dead
Now, notice that Paul describes God here particularly as “God, who raises the dead.”
In Romans 4 we are told that it is those who share Abraham’s faith in God that will share in the blessing promised to Abraham. And in verse 17 of that chapter God is described as He, “…who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.” And Hebrews 11:19 tells us that Abraham is said to have “…considered that God was able even to raise [Isaac] from the dead…”
I think it is all too easy to say with our mouths that God is the one who even now is giving us life, sustaining our bodies and souls, the one who out of nothing called all things into being, and raises the dead. We can say that with ease, but so often we do not live relying on God.
It is just so easy to rely on what we can see and touch and do. And it is not until we come to see who God is and who we are that we begin to place our trust in the right place. Are we placing our confidence in ourselves or in the government or in other people to make things happen? Oh, that we might rely on God who raises the dead.
Paul Had Something to Learn
But I would just like to point out that even the apostle Paul was not immune to relying on himself. He says that this burden beyond his ability to bear was given to make him rely not on himself but on God who raises the dead.
God knew just what Paul and his fellow workers needed to grow and mature. The God of all comfort and the Father of mercies knew just how to bless and strengthen Paul for fruitful ministry. Paul didn’t need a nice home that was paid off or a good retirement plan or a job he enjoyed with good health insurance benefits. What Paul needed was to learn to rely on God.
If Paul still has things to learn we all have things to learn. None of us are yet graduates from the school of maturity and the God of all comfort still has much to teach us.
Past Deliverance, Present Confidence in Future Grace
Notice in verse 10 how God’s past deliverance created in Paul a present confidence in God’s future work.
He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again.
God allowing Paul to come through this experience bore the fruit of making Paul more confident in God and so more bold in his ministry. Paul was now with more fervency able to hope in God no matter what the circumstance of his ministry.
Inviting the Saints to Help
But notice now, in verse 11, that Paul welcomes the Corinthians into his ministry by praying for him. And here again, is an important reason that Paul shared this affliction.
You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many.
How can we help one another in ministry? Pray!
God has commanded prayer and uses prayer. And here we see that it truly is a help to Paul – God actually responds to the prayers of His people and grants blessings to Paul through prayer. Oh, how we need to pray for one another!
But notice also that prayer for Paul doesn’t just help Paul. The result is many giving thanks to God on Paul’s behalf. That means that as the Corinthians join in Paul’s ministry and see how God has delivered him and sustained him and used him for the going forth of the gospel and the in gathering and upbuilding of the saints the Corinthians will then be able to thank God with Paul about God’s work.
And recognize, that as Paul set the example here, this requires that we share our sufferings and we share how God is maturing us with one another so that we can join one another in prayer.
One the great benefits of being a people who share our sufferings in Christ and share what we are learning of Christ and one of the benefits of being a praying people who pray for each other in the ministry is that we get to see what the God of all comfort and the Father of mercies is doing in this world and we will have more and more opportunity to give thanks.
Let us praise God for His material and earthly blessings, but more than that let’s invite one another into God’s merciful work toward each one of us so that we will have more and more reason to thank God for the blessing He is extending to others through each one of us.