Blog 1: God’s Goodness in Your Sufferings (2 Cor. 12:7-10)
In the next couple of weeks, we will feature a sermon series on suffering from 2 Corinthians 12:7-10. The sermon was preached in 2018 by a dear brother in the faith, Mr. Chris Gatihi, whose wisdom and love for God I admire greatly. So please, buckle up and enjoy this edifying ride.
Several years ago, I heard a true story about three pastors who were missionaries to a country that was hostile to Christianity. The soldiers captured and imprisoned the pastors for preaching the gospel for several days. During that time, they were mistreated and threatened so often that they were sure they would all die. They would pray together and recite Scripture from memory. Encouraging one another and even speculating about which one would have the honor of being the first one to go home and be with Jesus.
As God’s providence would have it, the soldiers released the missionaries from prison, and they went back home. Back to their separate lives. After several months, two of these men saw each other for the first time since they had been released from prison and spent some time catching up.
They talked about how life had been since those intense days in prison when they were sure each day would be their last one to live. Their experience was similar. In many ways, it seemed that life had never been better for both men. They were free. They no longer faced hostility and danger for preaching the gospel, and many people highly esteemed them for their exemplary courage and faithfulness in the face of persecution. Overall, life was pretty comfortable for both men.
But both men knew something was missing. It was as if they could see it in each other’s eyes.
And then one of them said, “I know this is going to sound crazy, but do you ever wish you could go back to those days when we were in prison?”
The other man responded, “Almost every day, I wish I could be back there. Because ever since the soldiers released us, I haven’t experienced Jesus so near to me as He was when we were there. And all I want is Jesus. All I want is Jesus.”
These men understood what the apostle Paul understood in the passage: “If suffering gives me more of Christ, then I want to embrace it, not avoid it.” Yet, this is something that makes no sense to us apart from the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit upon our minds and hearts.
Suffering is not about losing something but gaining Christ.
By nature, every single one of us is averse to suffering. We avoid it like the plague. We do so because we think suffering is primarily about losing something: your health, your money, your comfort, your freedom, your happiness, fill in the blank.
But in reality, for Christians, suffering is primarily about gaining something: Jesus Christ. However, it’s only by the Holy Spirit’s supernatural work that our hearts are changed to see that suffering is primarily about gaining Jesus, not losing something. When the Holy Spirit changes our hearts this way, suffering is no longer something we avoid like the plague. Instead, suffering becomes something we embrace and even boast about. This is because to embrace and boast in suffering is to embrace and boast in Jesus Christ.
We see this heart change happen in the apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 12:7-10, and my prayer is that the Holy Spirit would work this very same heart change in every single one of us, whether for the first time or once again after having done it a hundred times.
“So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord that it should leave me. But he said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast gladly of my weaknesses so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For Christ’s sake, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
As we focus on the sufferings of the apostle Paul, it’s essential to keep in mind that there’s a sense in which Paul’s experience of suffering is unique. Jesus specifically said that He would “show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name” (Acts 9:16). So the apostle Paul suffered in a way that none of us will suffer. But there are at least two reasons why Paul’s experience of suffering in this passage applies to us:
- On his way back to Antioch, as his first missionary journey ended, Paul visited each of the churches that God had used him to plant. He specifically told them: “through many tribulations, we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). In other words, suffering is an essential part of the path that every believer must travel to enter the kingdom of God.
- Throughout the New Testament, Paul instructs his fellow believers—which includes us—to imitate him as he imitates Christ. As Paul suffers, he imitates Jesus. And as we suffer, we imitate Paul as he imitates Jesus.
So as we experience our suffering, which is just as unique to us as Paul’s suffering was unique to him, we learn from Paul’s example in this passage how to imitate Jesus in our experience of suffering.
“God gives suffering to His people to break us of our pride because Jesus only makes His dwelling in broken people.”
So the question before each of us is: How much do you want to be the dwelling place of Jesus?
The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him. He cannot understand them because they are spiritually discerned (1 Corinthians 2:14). If anyone thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise (1 Corinthians 3:18).
Authentic Christian Living and Ministry
One of the themes of 2 Corinthians, which these verses (2 Corinthians 12) are explicitly dealing with, is authentic Christian living and ministry. There were men in Corinth calling themselves not only apostles but “super” apostles. But they were false apostles, and the worst part is that they were trying to discredit Paul, who was a true apostle of Jesus Christ.
These false apostles were trying to validate their Christian ministry’s authenticity by evaluating themselves according to the world’s wisdom.
“Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they offspring of Abraham? So am I.”
The wisdom of the world vs. the wisdom of the cross
The wisdom of the world validates a person based on things like appearance, how much money one has, the neighborhood one lives in, the school you went to, the car one drives, the company one works for, and other similar things (the list could go on and on)—whether you got there by birth or by personal accomplishment—because these things show how great you are.
So these false apostles thought they could validate themselves as apostles specifically by boasting about the fact that they were born as Jews who would have been well educated and belonged to a distinguished social class.
Simply, what Paul wants the Corinthians to understand about authentic Christian living and ministry throughout both 1 and 2 Corinthians—and especially in 2 Corinthians 12—is that authentic Christian living and ministry is validated according to an entirely different kind of wisdom, the wisdom of the cross.
And the wisdom of the cross is the opposite of the world’s wisdom. In the first century, the cross represented the most shameful way a person could die. So if being born a Jew would have given you the highest standing in society according to the wisdom of the world, then dying on a cross would have given you the lowest status in society according to the world’s wisdom.
According to the world’s wisdom, dying on a cross would have been everything you wanted to avoid. But what Paul argues is that it’s this cross, and how much a person’s life is shaped by it, that validates the authenticity of Christian living and ministry because it’s the cross alone that shows not only how great God is—but how much greater God is than man (1 Corinthians 1:18-25).
What do you boast in?
And so, unlike the false apostles who boasted in everything that society would have celebrated (like being born as Jews), the apostle Paul boasted in everything that society would have avoided.
“If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.”
So as we come to the beginning of 2 Corinthians 7, Paul is finishing up explaining the difference between what the false apostles boast in and what he boasts in with one last example.
God gave Paul an amazing revelation that seemed like no one else had received. Now, if he were thinking according to the world’s wisdom like the false apostles, it would have been easy for him to boast in this revelation that he received as something that made him more special than others. It would have been easy for him to boast about knowledge that no one else had. That’s what the false apostles would have done and, in a sense, were doing.
But the only reason Paul is sharing about this revelation he had received is to say that he had also received a painful thorn along with this revelation. And the main point Paul is trying to make is that it’s not the revelation he received that he ultimately boasts in. It’s the thorn he received that he ultimately boasts in.
We shall be posting the continuation of this piece on Thursday at 10:30 am, God willing. In the meantime, please feel free to peruse our other series on doctrine and theology here.