"Teaching #2: Paul and sufferings"
Our second theme focuses our thoughts upon Paul’s sufferings as a integral part of his apostolic ministries.
Frequently we have negative gut-level responses whenever the subject of suffering is introduced. May God’s Spirit help you to throw off any negative thoughts so you can think godly, positive thoughts, full of hope, concerning the role of sufferings play in our lives and ministries as God’s servants.
SUFFERING IN THE WIDER NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXT
Let’s begin by placing Paul’s understanding of suffering in the context of Jesus’ teaching in the Gospels where we find repeated references to suffering, for example:
- Mark 4:16-17
- Luke 9:23
- John 15:18-21
Other NT books also refer to the sufferings of God’s true people, for example:
- Hebrews 5:8; 10:32
- James 1:2-4, 12
- 1 Peter 1:3-7; 4:12-14
- Rev.2:2-3, 8-9, 13, 19; 3:10 – note the recurrence of the words “patient endurance” in these verses – note also throughout Revelation the frequent references to the sufferings of God’s people together with strong encouragement to remain faithful and true to Christ
What message does God want us to hear through these and other Scriptures on this theme of suffering? Answer: Suffering for His people is an inseparable part of our relationship with Christ – to belong to Christ means taking up our cross and following Him regardless of the cost
How do we receive this aspect of being one of Christ’s followers? We are all certainly more than happy to contemplate the final outcome of our salvation, i.e. being with Christ in His heavenly home.
But we all battle with some negative feelings and reactions to the thought that we cannot escape suffering as a follower of Jesus. Why is it? Many Christians tend to shun or try to run from suffering because of the prevailing negative attitudes towards suffering in the society in which they live:
- This is especially true for God’s people living in the West. Our western culture does everything possible to avoid or eliminate any kind of suffering, placing a high value on comfort, ease, fun, leisure and pleasure. Often we speak about all the “fun” we are having, as if this is the supreme test for determining whether an activity or experience is “good” or “bad”.
- However, an escapist attitude towards suffering causes us to live in an unreal, dream world, or causes us away to avoid people who are passing through some suffering whether emotional or physical. We need to consider suffering as an integral part of a healthy life.
- How we think about suffering impacts how we respond to any suffering whether in our own lives or in the lives of others. Consider the following levels of suffering and our responses to each:
- On the physical level…
- We often connect suffering with sickness or illness. So we feel particularly “blessed” when we live in societies that benefit from the advances in modern medical science and technology.
- However, at times suffering for the sake of Christ will include physical pain. God’s Word comforts us by reminding us that God bears all such burdens with us. We do not suffer alone. God understands and shares our pain. See Heb.2:9, 17-18.
- On the emotional level…
- Life at times can be very stressful and painful, even heart-breaking. If we focus our thinking and hopes on having fun, we will live in denial both of our own pain and gloss over the pain and struggles of others.
- If we have this hidden agenda or drive to avoid life’s pains and heartaches, we will always be looking for ways to run from pain, and in doing so miss many amazing lessons that can only be learned through suffering.
- Jesus’ call to us to take up our cross and follow Him will involve emotional pain through suffering rejection and ridicule from people who do not know God.
- Example: in our postmodern culture, Christians will be ridiculed even hated for believing that Jesus is unique, the ONE TRUE WAY to know God – John 14:6
- Therefore, clothe yourself with faithfulness to Jesus, no matter what the cost. Run with patient endurance to the end of the race so you will receive the rewards that He has promised to all His faithful ones – Matt.24:9-13; 2 Tim.4:6-8.
- Take your stand alongside fellow-believers who are TODAY suffering severely for their faith in Christ. Pray fervently for them that they will stand firm in the face of all their fiery trials. See Rom.15:30-32; 2 Thess.3:1-3.
PAULS SUFFERINGS IN RELATION TO HIS APOSTOLIC MINISTRIES:
From the very outset of receiving his apostolic calling, Paul knew that sufferings and trials would become an integral part of his life and ministry. See Acts 9:15-16; 2 Cor.11:23-28.
Pauls core belief regarding his sufferings and God’s higher purposes:
Paul knew that what happened “in” him was “for” the spiritual good of the people to whom he was ministering. In that way, he wrote to the Corinthian believers about their “sharing together” with him in his sufferings. See 2 Cor.1:6-7.
This meant that all the sufferings of Paul and his fellow-workers had an eternal significance and value. His sufferings weren’t just hard-going, “stiff-upper-lip” stuff! Rather they were purposeful in the purposes of God. Paul looked for the fruit of his sufferings in the lives of others, especially those whom he had introduced to Christ:
- 2 Cor.1:3-7 – in this passage, Paul spoke of his tasting a wide variety of sufferings, so that he might also experience God’s abundant comfort – and as a fruit of receiving God’s comfort, he would know how to comfort others (N.B. Paul’s use of “koinonia” in v.7 – sharing something in common).
- It is never easy to suffer rejection, ridicule, even more so torture, beatings et al such as experienced by brother Yun of The Heavenly Man.
- But when God allows us to suffer for His name, we can find comfort in this fact, that our trials will produce MUCH fruit both “in” us as well as “for” others.
- 2 Cor.1:8-11 – in this passage, Paul refers to a most severe trial, to the point that he felt in his spirit that the end had come (i.e. that his life would be snuffed out). However, he later understood God’s purpose was to demonstrate His great grace and kindness to the Corinthians, also to give them the privilege and joy to share in (“have fellowship in”) Paul’s deliverance through their fervent intercessions.
- Ministry isn’t just about learning what to say, and how to “do” ministry but even more importantly about God speaking through our lives and our responses to difficult and trying circumstances, also through His working sovereignly and miraculously to provide our needs.
- We need to humble ourselves and recognise that we are “a work of God in progress”, and so allow God to work through the circumstances of our lives in whatever He so desires, for the honour of His name.
- 2 Cor.4:10-12 – in these verses, Paul speaks about his sharing in the sufferings and dying of Jesus, so that through him and his fellow-workers, life might flow into the faith of the Corinthian believers – “death” in us, but “life” for you.
- True Gospel messengers enter willingly and joyfully into this process of dying for Jesus’ sake, so that many will receive life.
- Therefore, do not ask, “what’s in it for ME?” For example, “I am thinking about applying to your mission. What provisions do you make for your missionaries in retirement?” See Give Up Your Small Ambitions by Michael Griffiths which teaches us that as God’s servants, we must learn to die to our personal (small) ambitions to have and achieve what others have and have achieved, so that through our lives, God might bring life to others.
- Thus ministry is much about giving ourselves selflessly for Jesus’ sake SO THAT God bring life to many others. See John 12:24-25. This then means that the process of dying for Jesus’ sake is glorious (Paul calls it “the ministry of glory” – 3:7-11).
- 2 Cor.6:3-5 – Paul commended himself to the Corinthians in a very different way to the approach used by that his opponents, the so-called “super-apostles”. See 2 Cor.3:1-3.
- Paul regarded his sufferings as God’s “commendation” for his ministries to the Corinthians. See his positive and thankful attitude regarding his suffering as expressed in chapter 6.
- We are called to hand over ourselves totally and unreservedly to Christ so that He can work in any way He pleases both in us and also through us. Hence we need to develop a view of Christian ministry that reaches far beyond lots of planned activities. Therefore, God sometimes allows various forms of suffering into our lives not as a punishment for some failure or weakness, but rather as an opportunity to bear a clear and powerful witness to many of His great glory that is manifested through the sufferings of His people.
- As servants of Christ, God (as the Author who writes the script of our lives) wants to use our lives as a stage on which He can enact a powerful drama revealing His glory, so that others will be drawn to desire similar experiences of God’s amazing grace in their lives.
- Many people become the observers or witnesses of the dramas that God plays on the stage of our lives (e.g. fellow-believers, family members). They observe and may even feel pity for us as they see the severity of the trial we are passing through. But more than that, they will observe how we are coping with or responding to the heat of the trial. By facing our trials through the power of Christ (Phil.4:13), other believers will be aroused to also trust God when faced with similar trials.
Putting on godly ATTITUDES in the face of sufferings:
- Firstly, throw off any attitude or fear of suffering that will short-circuit God’s holy purposes for the eternal good of others. Much is lost when God’s servants run from suffering for Christ’s sake. See 2 Tim.1:7.
- Example: running from any situation or ministry where potentially we will suffer hardship. See 2 Tim.2:3.
- Remember Peter who denied his Master. Remember above all else how Jesus prayed for him (Luke 22:31-32), restored him, commissioned him (John 21:15-19) and then used him mightily.
- Put on the mindset of a soldier – prepared to be bold and suffer for the honour and glory of his Commander-in-chief.
- God has promised all Christ-followers including us, that we must prepare our minds and hearts to pass through fiery trials and tribulations for the sake of Christ. See 2 Tim.3:10-12; John 16:33.
- What shape these trials take, when, where, how severe, how long we must endure – these are all variables. God calls us to put our trust in Him and in His loving heart, believing that that He won’t allow us to suffer beyond the limits of what we can bear (1 Cor.10:13). Furthermore, He has promised to be “with” us in our sufferings (Isaiah 43:1-2).
- Therefore, DO NOT LOSE HEART. See 2 Cor.4:16-18
- Put on the garment of praise. See Isaiah 61:3 (** vs.1-4). Compare Paul & Silas singing and praising God in jail in Philippi (Acts 16:24-25):
- Paul experienced God’s profound comfort amid his trials and sufferings. His God wasn’t distant, disinterested and uncaring. Rather He was always present with him in the same way that He had always been with His Son, Jesus.
- So Paul encouraged the Corinthian believers to join him in offering up prayers of praise and thanksgiving, not for the trials but for the deliverance that God had so graciously given to him/them – 1:10-11
- Put on the shield of faith (Eph.6:16):
- Paul also learned through his severe trials NOT to rely on himself but on God “who raises the dead”. See 2 Cor.1:9-10.
- Faith is relying and leaning upon God’s UNFAILING, STEADFAST LOVE.
- TRUST = knowing and being confident in God’s perfect and utterly trustworthy character of “unfailing, steadfast love.”
- Genuine trust leads to hoping in God alone. See 2 Cor.1:10b; Rom.8:35-37.
- The end result is great and lasting JOY. See Heb.12:2.
- Paul believed and knew that God was at work achieving far greater outcomes through his trials and sufferings than he could possibly know or see at that moment. See 2 Cor.1:6f; 4:16-18; Rom.8:18. Paul’s God is also our God, therefore, let us also put our trust fully in God not just to rescue us from suffering but to work powerfully for His eternal purposes through any sufferings He allows into our lives.
Pastor Graham Roberts
Equip & Encourage International
Ministry at the Evangelical Institute, Greenville, South Carolina, USA