1 Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, To the church of God which is at Corinth, with all the saints who are in all Achaia: 2 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, 4 who comforts us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. 5 For as the sufferings of Christ abound in us, so our consolation also abounds through Christ. 6 Now if we are afflicted, it is for your consolation and salvation, which is effective for enduring the same sufferings which we also suffer. Or if we are comforted, it is for your consolation and salvation. 7 And our hope for you is steadfast, because we know that as you are partakers of the sufferings, so also you will partake of the consolation.
8 For we do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, of our trouble which came to us in Asia: that we were burdened beyond measure, above strength, so that we despaired even of life. 9 Yes, we had the sentence of death in ourselves, that we should not trust in ourselves but in God who raises the dead, 10 who delivered us from so great a death, and does deliver us; in whom we trust that He will still deliver us, 11 you also helping together in prayer for us, that thanks may be given by many persons on our behalf for the gift granted to us through many (2 Corinthians 1:1-11, NKJV).
On his second missionary journey, Paul comes to Corinth with the gospel of Jesus Christ. He stays there for 18 months, founding the church at Corinth (see Acts 18:1-18). After firmly establishing this church, Paul moves on, concluding this missionary journey by returning to Antioch (Acts 18:22). When Paul commences his third missionary journey, he travels first to Asia Minor, where he stays in Ephesus for some three years of ministry, resulting in the proclamation of the gospel to all who lived in Asia (Acts 19:10). While still in Ephesus, Paul begins to receive reports from Corinth of disunity and schisms in the church (1 Corinthians 1:11)—even immorality (1 Corinthians 5:1). Paul also receives a number of questions (1 Corinthians 7:1, 25), which prompt him to write his first preserved Epistle to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 16:8).
In his first epistle, Paul tells the Corinthians he intends to send Timothy to them (1 Corinthians 16:10). It is not certain whether he ever arrived there, and, if he did, we are not told what kind of reception he received. At some point in time, Paul finds it necessary to make a quick visit to Corinth, but we are given no details about this encounter (2 Corinthians 12:14; 13:1). Some refer to this as Paul’s “painful visit,” based upon inferences from some of Paul’s statements in 2 Corinthians (see 2:1-11). Paul also refers to a letter written to the Corinthians which seems to have been lost (2 Corinthians 2:3; 7:8). In his second epistle, Paul expresses great concern for the Corinthians. Because he has had to deal firmly with these saints, Paul is fearful they might reject him and his rebuke. He therefore sends Titus to check on the welfare of the saints at Corinth, while he takes the longer route by land. Not finding Titus in Troas, Paul is deeply troubled and cuts short what could have been an even more fruitful ministry (2 Corinthians 2:12, 13; 7:5-9, 13-15; Acts 20:1-2). When Titus finally rejoins Paul somewhere in Macedonia, he has a most encouraging report. He tells Paul about the repentance of the Corinthians and of their love for him (2 Corinthians 7:5f.). Paul then writes 2 Corinthians from Macedonia to express his great joy and to encourage them further in their faith, as well as to give instructions regarding the gift they had previously promised (chapters 8-9). This epistle we know as 2 Corinthians. Later on Paul visits Corinth again, at which time he receives their gifts and delivers these monies to the saints in Jerusalem.
It is my conviction that every book of the Bible makes a very unique contribution to the canon of Scripture, and Paul’s second epistle to the Corinthians is no exception. Second Corinthians first serves to give us closure on some unresolved problems exposed and addressed in 1 Corinthians. This comes about in two different ways, as I understand 2 Corinthians. First, some of those rebuked by Paul have repented. Paul’s words to them in the first nine chapters are very encouraging. However, there are others whose true colors become more evident in 2 Corinthians by their lack of repentance and their continued resistance to Paul and his teaching. These problem people are now unmasked as “false apostles,” who need to be rejected by the Corinthian saints. Paul focuses on this group in chapters 10-13.
Second, we find revealed in his second epistle to the Corinthians the most “human” Paul we shall find in the New Testament. Paul is one of those men who seems almost unreal in his devotion to Christ, to His gospel, and to pure doctrine. He is the picture of self-discipline and focus; he knows what he has been called to do, and he does it. He sometimes appears almost above and apart from other Christians, and certainly from us. Second Corinthians reveals a very human Paul with whom we can identify. This second epistle reveals not only Paul’s circumstances but also his heart. Paul is more transparent here about his inward feelings and motivations than anywhere else in the New Testament:
While others of Paul’s epistles may be more profound, scarcely any could be more precious than this second heart-outpouring to the Corinthians. It was written with a quill dipped in tears, from the apostle’s ‘anguish of heart,’ and contains more of human pathos than any other of his letters. Yet there is a lovely rainbow shining through it all, for in his dire distress and deep disappointments he is discovering more than ever before that “the Father of mercies” is the “God of all comfort,” and that the heavenly Master’s strength is made perfect in His servant’s weakness.1
“What an admirable Epistle,” he [George Herbert] exclaimed, “is the second to the Corinthians! How full of affections! He joys and he is sorry, he grieves and he glories; never was there such care of a flock expressed, save in the great Shepherd of the fold, who first shed tears over Jerusalem and afterwards blood.”2
“Of all the Epistles, the second to the Corinthians is the one which contains the most intimate self-revelations, and few can read it without loving as well as honouring the author.”3
The weakness in strength, and the strength in weakness, both so wonderfully displayed in the life and death of Jesus, were in a scarcely less wonderful manner reflected in the life of His apostle, who could say, “Most gladly will I glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me” and whose greatest paradox is expressed in the words “When I am weak, then am I strong” (xii. 9, 10). To enter therefore into the heart of Paul is to know Jesus and the power of His resurrection.4
Several years ago, I heard J. Oswald Sanders speak on the subject of spiritual leadership. It was an excellent word given by an elder statesman of the faith. He summed up his teaching on the subject with three words, each beginning with an “s.” The first word was “sovereignty”: God sovereignly raises up those whom He has chosen to lead. The second was “servanthood”: Those who would be spiritual leaders are those who understand and practice servanthood. The third “s” was “suffering”: Suffering is the tool which God employs in the life of the Christian to make him a leader.
Sanders told of the time he first began to preach when he spoke in a very small church. This church had a small room at the front of the sanctuary off to one side of the platform. After he had finished preaching, brother Sanders left the platform and entered this small room. He could not help but overhear a couple of the ladies discussing his preaching. “What did you think of the preacher?” one woman said to the other. “Not bad,” she replied, “but he’ll be better after he has suffered.” And suffer he did. He nursed his first wife until she died. He later remarried and eventually nursed his second wife until she died. He then went to live with his niece to whom he ministered until she died.
Some people seem to think suffering is detrimental, and they cannot fathom why a God who is both good and great could allow anyone to suffer. You may remember the book written by a Jewish rabbi, entitled Why Bad Things Happen to Good People.5 The rabbi concluded that God could not possibly be both good and great at the same time. Suffering could be explained if God were great, but not good. A great God is able to do anything He wants, and thus He must enjoy watching people suffer. If so, God cannot be good; He can only be great. The other alternative is that God is good but not great. God wants the best for everyone and does not desire for anyone to suffer. But since men do suffer, God must be good but not great. God then must not be able to keep men from suffering. This latter conclusion is the solution reached by the rabbi.6
Some Christians handle the problem of suffering in yet a different way. Knowing better than to lay fault at God’s feet for human suffering, they place the blame at the feet of the one suffering. Like Job’s “friends,” they reason that sin is the only reason why men suffer. If a saint is suffering, then it must be due to unconfessed sin. And so there are many today who assure us that God does not want us to suffer and that we need not suffer—if we but have the faith to be delivered from our suffering to the success, health, and wealth God wants to give us. This tragic error brings accusations and guilt upon the sufferer at the very time he or she most needs comfort and compassion.
In 2 Corinthians, Paul’s first words to the Corinthians address the matter of suffering in a way which corrects our thinking about the problem of pain. I have entitled this message, “Why Bad Things Happen to God’s People.” Listen closely to the Apostle Paul, and you will learn some of the reasons a good God uses suffering in the lives of His people.
We must first see that the Apostle Paul, who writes to us about suffering, is a man who has had more than his share of suffering.
His valued helper, Titus, was to have met him at Troas … with an anxiously awaited report on developments at Corinth, but he did not turn up (2 Cor. ii. 13), which accentuated the apostle’s concern. Disappointment, apprehensiveness, and physical illness now swooped in concerted attack upon Paul to make this perhaps the darkest hour in his heroic but costly struggle for the propagation and preservation of the true Gospel. “When we were come into Macedonia,” he writes, “our flesh had no rest, but we were troubled on every side. Without were fightings; within were fears” (vii. 5). As G. G. Findlay says: “Corinth appeared to be in full revolt against him. Galatia was falling away to ‘another Gospel.’ He had narrowly escaped from the enraged populace of Ephesus—‘wild beasts’ with whom he had long been fighting, and at whose mercy he had left his flock in that turbulent city. Under this continued strain of excitement and anxiety, his strength succumbed; he was seized with an attack of sickness which threatened to terminate his life.”
The apostle’s own comment is: “We were pressed out of measure, above strength, insomuch that we despaired even of life. … We had the sentence of death in ourselves” (I. 8, 9). In chapter iv. he tells of “bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus” and of “the outward man perishing” (verses 10, 16). These and other expressions leave no doubt as to the mental distress and physical prostration of our wonderful hero. “He had been at death’s door. His life and work, to all appearance, were coming to an end, and under circumstances of the most ominous nature. Together with his life, the fate of his mission and of Gentile Christianity trembled in the balance. Never had he felt himself so helpless, so beaten down and discomfited, as on that melancholy journey from Ephesus to Macedonia, and while he lay upon his sick-bed (perhaps at Philippi), not knowing whether Titus or the messenger of death would reach him first.”7
Note the texts in 2 Corinthians which indicate the sufferings of Paul and his associates:
12 Now when I came to Troas for the gospel of Christ and when a door was opened for me in the Lord, 13 I had no rest for my spirit, not finding Titus my brother; but taking my leave of them, I went on to Macedonia (2:12-13, NASB).
8 we are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; 9 persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 10 always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. 11 For we who live are constantly being delivered over to death for Jesus’ sake, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. 12 So death works in us, but life in you (4:8-12, NASB).
3 giving no cause for offense in anything, in order that the ministry be not discredited, 4 but in everything commending ourselves as servants of God, in much endurance, in afflictions, in hardships, in distresses, 5 in beatings, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labors, in sleeplessness, in hunger, 6 in purity, in knowledge, in patience, in kindness, in the Holy Spirit, in genuine love, 7 in the word of truth, in the power of God; by the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and the left, 8 by glory and dishonor, by evil report and good report; regarded as deceivers and yet true; 9 as unknown yet well-known, as dying yet behold, we live; as punished yet not put to death, 10 as sorrowful yet always rejoicing, as poor yet making many rich, as having nothing yet possessing all things (6:3-10, NASB).
5 For even when we came into Macedonia our flesh had no rest, but we were afflicted on every side: conflicts without, fears within (7:5, NASB).
23 Are they servants of Christ? (I speak as if insane) I more so; in far more labors, in far more imprisonments, beaten times without number, often in danger of death. 24 Five times I received from the Jews thirty-nine lashes. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, a night and a day I have spent in the deep. 26 I have been on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my countrymen, dangers from the Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers on the sea, dangers among false brethren; 27 I have been in labor and hardship, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. 28 Apart from such external things, there is the daily pressure upon me of concern for all the churches. 29 Who is weak without my being weak? Who is led into sin without my intense concern? 30 If I have to boast, I will boast of what pertains to my weakness. 31 The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, He who is blessed forever, knows that I am not lying. 32 In Damascus the ethnarch under Aretas the king was guarding the city of the Damascenes in order to seize me, 33 and I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall, and so escaped his hands (11:23-33, NASB).
7 And because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to buffet me—to keep me from exalting myself! 8 Concerning this I entreated the Lord three times that it might depart from me. 9 And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may dwell in me. 10 Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong (12:7-10, NASB).
Paul suffers the entire gamut of afflictions. Many of the afflictions to which Paul refers in 2 Corinthians are not described in the book of Acts. Those recorded by Luke, who wrote Acts, are thus only the “tip of the iceberg” of Paul’s afflictions. He suffers from hunger, thirst, from heat and cold, from physical attacks, from illnesses, from constant threats on his life, and from betrayal and false accusations. His intelligence (or at least his wisdom), his homiletical skills, and his apostolic authority are challenged and sometimes mocked. He is accused of being fickle and failing to fulfill his promises. He is said to be strong in his written words but a wimp in person. And if suffering at the hands of men and nature is not enough, we are also informed that Paul suffered at the hand of Satan (12:7-10). We know that this demonic affliction would not have been gentle but would have been purposed for his spiritual and physical destruction. No epistle describes the afflictions of this great apostle more clearly than 2 Corinthians. When Paul speaks about suffering, he speaks from experience.8
While the entire epistle of 2 Corinthians supplies us with much information concerning Paul’s afflictions, Paul gives us a very graphic snapshot of the suffering he experienced just prior to the writing of this epistle:
8 For we do not want you to be unaware, brethren, of our affliction which came to us in Asia, that we were burdened excessively, beyond our strength, so that we despaired even of life; 9 indeed, we had the sentence of death within ourselves in order that we should not trust in ourselves, but in God who raises the dead; 10 who delivered us from so great a peril of death, and will deliver us, He on whom we have set our hope. And He will yet deliver us, 11 you also joining in helping us through your prayers, that thanks may be given by many persons on our behalf for the favor bestowed upon us through the prayers of many (2 Corinthians 1:8-11, NASB).
In 1 Corinthians, Paul alludes to the very real dangers which he had faced in Ephesus:
32 If from human motives I fought with wild beasts at Ephesus, what does it profit me? If the dead are not raised, LET US EAT AND DRINK, FOR TOMORROW WE DIE (1 Corinthians 15:32, NASB).
Now in 2 Corinthians, he again speaks of his suffering in Asia. We know there was a riot in Ephesus incited by those whose incomes were derived from the worship of Artemis (or Diana). Paul’s life is in danger here, but what Paul writes about in verses 8-11 seems to be even worse. His affliction is such that he loses any hope of surviving the ordeal. He does not simply fear he will die; he is convinced he will die. And more than this, he is convinced he will die from “so great a … death.” I am not sure the words “peril of,” supplied by the translators of the NASB, are necessary or accurate. I believe Paul is saying he not only is certain he will die, but he will die “a great death.” It is a burden so great he does not have the strength to endure it. Even Paul has his limits, and the suffering he experiences in Asia surpasses those limits.
In verses 1 and 2, Paul greets his readers, reminding them of his apostleship which is by the will of God. He greets them on his behalf and also on behalf of Timothy who is with him. In 1 Corinthians, Sosthenes is with Paul at the time of his writing. Paul writes to the Corinthians as well as all those in Achaia, the Roman province in which Corinth is located. In 1 Corinthians, Paul addresses his epistle to the Corinthians and to all other saints in every place (1 Corinthians 1:2). Paul is not limiting his second epistle but rather seems to be instructing the Corinthians indirectly to see to it that this epistle is distributed throughout Achaia. In 1 Corinthians, Paul greets the Corinthians and whomever else might read the epistle. In 2 Corinthians, Paul greets the Corinthians in such a way that they will see to it that all the saints in Achaia read his second epistle.
Verse 3 begins with the words, “Blessed be …” These words should sound familiar to us, because Paul employs them elsewhere in his epistles (see, for example, Ephesians 1:3), and so does Peter (1 Peter 1:3), as well as others (Luke 1:68). This is a common way for Old Testament saints to commence their worship and praise of God (see Genesis 9:26; 14:20; 24:27; 1 Samuel 25:32; 2 Samuel 22:47; 1 Chronicles 29:10; Psalm 41:13; 72:18). While these words may sound strange to us and may be foreign to our worship, they should not be. The New Testament saints found the Old Testament expressions of worship appropriate to express their worship. Sometimes we may work so hard at making worship contemporary that we neglect those long-established expressions of worship found in the Bible.
It is important to recognize that this expression of worship and praise recorded in verses 3-11 is occasioned by suffering. Paul’s praise flows out of his growing love for God, as enhanced by his suffering. How can Paul praise God because of his suffering? That is what we are about to learn. The answer to our question can be found in several statements which sum up several reasons God’s people suffer at the hand of a God who is both good and great.
(1) To suffer is divine. You have probably heard it said, “To err is human, to forgive divine.” I believe the Apostle Paul indicates that to suffer is both human and divine. Suffering is human because it comes with our humanity. We are fallen creatures living in a fallen world. As a result, there is, and will be, sin and suffering until the kingdom of God is established at the second coming of our Lord (see Romans 8:18-25). Suffering is divine because ultimately it comes to us from the hand of God. We suffer because God has willed us to suffer. Even Joseph’s seemingly innocent suffering at the hands of his jealous brothers was a part of God’s plan, which was for the good of Joseph and his family (see Genesis 50:20). The first step we must take for our suffering to produce blessing (for us and others) is to acknowledge that our suffering has come to us from God:
19 Therefore, let those also who suffer according to the will of God entrust their souls to a faithful Creator in doing what is right (1 Peter 4:19).
Suffering is divine when it is the suffering of the saints for living righteous lives.
14 If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. 15 By no means let any of you suffer as a murderer, or thief, or evildoer, or a troublesome meddler; 16 but if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not feel ashamed, but in that name let him glorify God (1 Peter 4:14-16).
There are many reasons for suffering, and most of them are not noble. The suffering which pleases God is that suffering which results from living a righteous life in an unrighteous world. God may use all forms of suffering for His glory and for our good, but the kind of suffering for which Christians are commended is righteous suffering:
12 Keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles, so that in the thing in which they slander you as evildoers, they may on account of your good deeds, as they observe them, glorify God in the day of visitation (1 Peter 2:12).
Paul specifically identifies the suffering of which he speaks as “righteous suffering” because he calls it “the sufferings of Christ” (2 Corinthians 1:5). He even informs us that such sufferings will be experienced “in abundance” (verse 5). The suffering and affliction which come to us because we belong to Christ are those sufferings which are righteous, for which we can expect abundant comfort (verse 5).
Since righteous suffering is experiencing “the sufferings of Christ,” we should remind ourselves that, since our Lord was “without sin,” His sufferings were innocent and undeserved (see 1 Peter 2:18-25). His sufferings were also those which the Father willed (see Matthew 26:39) and were thus prophesied in the Old Testament (see Isaiah 52:13–53:12). And of great importance to us, we must remember that these innocent sufferings of our Lord were the means by which our sins have been forgiven forever (see 1 Peter 2:22-25).
(2) Suffering, even unto death, presents an opportunity for each of us to express and expand our faith in the God who not only ordained our suffering, but who raises the dead. The kind of suffering Paul describes as his personal experience is that which seems certain to lead to death. No one can know for certain what situation Paul faced, but he does inform us that he is certain he will die. One such situation is seen in Acts 14, where Paul is stoned at Lystra (14:8-20). As the crowd begins to stone Paul, I very much doubt Paul is thinking to himself, “Oh, well, God will no doubt keep me from dying.” I am sure he thinks he will die. Whatever Paul is describing in our text must have been similar in its certainty of death.
Paul’s suffering is not just “unto death”; it is a suffering he believes is certain to lead to a horrible death. The New American Standard Bible, unwisely in my opinion, supplies two words in verse 10: “Who delivered us from so great a peril of death, …” The words, “a peril,” are not in the original text but have been supplied by the translators who believed they were needed to convey the sense of the text. I much prefer the rendering of the New King James Version: “Who delivered us from so great a death, …”
When we watch television, we know when a writer is setting us up so that we not only hope to see the villain die, we hope he or she will die a horrible death. Of the many ways to die, some are much more agonizing than others for the one dying. Paul tells us he is sure he will die, and he believes his death will be one of great torment.
The picture could not have been more bleak for the apostle at this moment in time. Humanly speaking, Paul’s situation is hopeless, which is precisely the way God wants it to be. In such circumstances, Paul cannot trust in himself; he can trust only in God. And since he is certain to die, He must trust in the God who raises the dead. This kind of suffering, which appears to spell Paul’s demise, is actually a friend to Paul, because it brings him to a point where he and every other Christian must be—the point of trusting not in ourselves but in God who raises the dead.
(3) Suffering as a saint is God’s means of drawing us into closer communion with Him. Suffering as saints enables us to know God as we would not otherwise know Him. If it were not for sin, we could not know the grace of God manifested in the sacrificial death of our Lord Jesus Christ. If it were not for Satan, and for all those who oppose our God, we should not know His omniscience (all-knowing) and omnipotence (all-powerful). If it were not for suffering, we would not know God’s mercy, compassion, and comfort. Suffering is a divinely appointed means of knowing God intimately.
Paul’s language in our text is suggestive of the intimacy with God we may find in the midst of our suffering. Paul speaks of God as “Father.” He is called, “the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,” and also “the Father of mercies” (verse 3). As the loving “Father” of our Lord Jesus Christ, God sent Him to the cross of Calvary to suffer for our sins in ways we cannot even fathom. God is our “Father,” who comforts us in all our affliction. This He made possible through the sufferings of our Lord Jesus Christ. Our comfort comes at the highest cost, a cost paid by the Son of God and by the loving Father who sent Him. What a comfort to know that both our suffering and our comfort come from a loving Father:
3 For consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you may not grow weary and lose heart. 4 You have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood in your striving against sin; 5 and you have forgotten the exhortation which is addressed to you as sons, “MY SON, DO NOT REGARD LIGHTLY THE DISCIPLINE OF THE LORD, NOR FAINT WHEN YOU ARE REPROVED BY HIM; 6 FOR THOSE WHOM THE LORD LOVES HE DISCIPLINES, AND HE SCOURGES EVERY SON WHOM HE RECEIVES.” 7 It is for discipline that you endure; God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline? 8 But if you are without discipline, of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. 9 Furthermore, we had earthly fathers to discipline us, and we respected them; shall we not much rather be subject to the Father of spirits, and live? 10 For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but He disciplines us for our good, that we may share His holiness. 11 All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness. 12 Therefore, strengthen the hands that are weak and the knees that are feeble, 13 and make straight paths for your feet, so that the limb which is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed (Hebrews 12:3-13).
God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, is now our Father because of the work of His Son (see John 1:12; 1 Peter 1:17). He is the “Father of mercies,” not “the Father of mercy.” He is the source of all kinds of mercies. More than this, He is ultimately the source of every form of comfort, the “God of all comfort.” As “every good thing … and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father…” (James 1:17), so every manifestation of comfort comes from above as well. He is a merciful Father, the Father of mercies.
Suffering is the occasion where mercy and comfort are most evidently needed, and so it is in suffering that we come to know God as the “Father of mercies.” I think of Asaph, the psalmist and author of Psalm 73. This worship leader was greatly distressed because he perceived (wrongly, in part) that the wicked were prospering while the righteous (as Asaph) were suffering. Then he realized the “prosperity” of the wicked is temporary and tentative at best. In times of suffering, the righteous are comforted by their fellowship with God, and this intimacy lasts for all eternity:
16 When I pondered to understand this, It was troublesome in my sight 17 Until I came into the sanctuary of God; Then I perceived their end. 18 Surely Thou dost set them in slippery places; Thou dost cast them down to destruction. 19 How they are destroyed in a moment! They are utterly swept away by sudden terrors! 20 Like a dream when one awakes, Lord, when aroused, Thou wilt despise their form. 21 When my heart was embittered, And I was pierced within, 22 Then I was senseless and ignorant; I was like a beast before Thee. 23 Nevertheless I am continually with Thee; Thou hast taken hold of my right hand. 24 With Thy counsel Thou wilt guide me, And afterward receive me to glory. 25 Whom have I in heaven but Thee? And besides Thee, I desire nothing on earth. 26 My flesh and my heart may fail, But God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. 27 For, behold, those who are far from Thee will perish; Thou hast destroyed all those who are unfaithful to Thee. 28 But as for me, the nearness of God is my good; I have made the Lord GOD my refuge, That I may tell of all Thy works (Psalm 73:16-28).
Those who experience the sufficiency of God in times of suffering do not resent their affliction but treasure it as God’s appointed means of drawing men close to Him, the “Father of mercies.” Asaph learned this lesson, as did Job. Peter, who bristled at the mere mention of suffering by our Lord, wrote his first epistle on the subject, telling his readers that those who suffered for Christ’s sake were blessed (1 Peter 4). Paul finds his former status and success as an unbelieving Jewish leader are “dung,” but his sufferings in Christ are a precious treasure (Philippians 3:1-16). James instructs us to “Consider it all joy, … when you encounter various trials” (James 1:2). Suffering is intended to draw us near to the heart of God. And so it is with Paul, who in the midst of unbelievable suffering, writes these introductory words to his epistle praising God for His mercies and comfort in the midst of his trials and tribulations.
(4) Suffering is God’s means of equipping us to minister to others (verses 4, 6). Suffering as a Christian, experiencing the “sufferings of Christ,” is a source of personal blessing and benefit. But it would be wrong for us to view our sufferings in a selfish way. As our Lord’s sufferings were for our benefit and blessing, our sufferings are intended to be a blessing to others. The comfort which we should experience, the comfort which the “Father of mercies” bestows upon us, is not something we are to hoard but something we are to share. Paul assumes that Christians will all share in the sufferings of Christ (see 2 Timothy 3:12). When we experience Christ’s sufferings and share in God’s comfort, we are being equipped to minister to others who will experience similar afflictions:
3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort; 4 who comforts us in all our affliction so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. 5 For just as the sufferings of Christ are ours in abundance, so also our comfort is abundant through Christ. 6 But if we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; or if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which is effective in the patient enduring of the same sufferings which we also suffer (2 Corinthians 1:3-6).
Paul says it as clearly as it can be said. His sufferings are intended for the Corinthians’ comfort. Paul’s comfort (in suffering) is for their comfort. The price Paul and his colleagues (Silvanus and Timothy—1:19) pay, as well as the comfort they receive, are for the benefit and blessing of the Corinthians. Suffering for Christ’s sake is sure to bring us comfort from the heavenly Father. This comfort is given from our heavenly Father so that we might share it with others who will endure similar suffering.
If we fail in our suffering, doubting God’s goodness and questioning His infinite wisdom and mercy, then we shall also fail to experience the comfort God has for us. And if we fail to experience God’s comfort, we deprive others of the comfort they should receive through us. This, I believe, is what Asaph is saying when he writes these words: “If I had said, ‘I will speak thus,’ Behold, I should have betrayed the generation of Thy children” (Psalm 73:15).
For Asaph to turn away from God would betray those who might follow his example. Just as we may bless others by sharing our comfort with them, so we may harm our brothers by failing to accept God’s hand in our lives and thus fail to gain the comfort He has for us.
A further word must be said concerning the blessing we may be to others by suffering well. I do not understand Paul to say we must suffer exactly the way others suffer in order to share our comfort with them. Joni Eareckson Tada suffered spinal damage from a diving accident a number of years ago. She experienced then, and continues to experience, the mercies and comfort of God and shares her joy with many. Her response to the affliction God brought into her life comforts me even though I have never spent one day in a wheelchair. In fact, I am ashamed whenever I feel sorry for myself and my petty sufferings when I consider the trials Joni, and others, face daily.
Beyond this, I believe those who suffer well bless us even more broadly. In preaching through the Psalms years ago, I noted that some of the most insightful commentators on the Psalms were men who had suffered in German concentration camps during the Second World War. I mentioned this to a friend who responded, “Those guys [the men who suffered in concentration camps] have a lot more to say.” They do. These men and women (like Corrie Ten Boom and others not so well known) have depth and maturity that surpass those who have not suffered. I notice this also in the music we sing. The young contemporary Christian music writer who has never suffered to any degree writes with shallowness compared to someone like Fanny Crosby, who wrote as one who knew suffering through her blindness. Those who suffer well have a depth and maturity beyond their years, which God desires for them to share with others.
(5) Suffering is a bonding experience for believers. We all know of situations where we have shared some adversity with others, and in so doing, a special bond has developed. My daughters have gone to “boot camp” with Teen Missions, and some of the friendships made there still continue. One of my daughters went on Wheaton College’s “High Road” program, and some of those friendships continue to this day. Suffering together is a bonding experience. Paul makes a point of indicating that we should not, and do not, suffer alone. We share the sufferings of Christ, and we experience the comfort and mercies of our Heavenly Father. But in addition, we are drawn into a closer fellowship with our fellow-believers. The word “fellowship” (Greek, koinonia) means, in effect, “to share in common.” Paul’s suffering and the comfort he gains from God he now shares in common with other sufferers.
Fellowship also works in the opposite direction. When a particular believer is suffering, fellow-believers draw near to share the burden. That particular ministry Paul speaks of is the ministry of prayer.
11 You also joining in helping us through your prayers, that thanks may be given by many persons on our behalf for the favor bestowed upon us through the prayers of many (verse 11).
The same theme occurs in Philippians 1: “For I know that this shall turn out for my deliverance through your prayers and the provision of the Spirit of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:19). As Christians join together with the sufferer, interceding for him with God, they enter into a special fellowship. And when those prayers are answered as God purposes, those who have petitioned God may now praise Him for the answers to their prayers. The suffering of one member of the body affects all (1 Corinthians 12:26). And God’s mercy shown to the sufferer becomes an opportunity for all to praise God for the answer, according to the will of God, to their prayers.
How sad when saints become self-absorbed by their suffering, turning inward, and shriveling up as a result. Those who respond rightly to their suffering turn upward (Godward) and outward (toward people in need of comfort and encouragement), and they grow and blossom as a result. Menzies sums up this matter well:
“Of the many solutions given in Scripture of the mystery of pain,” Menzies comments, “this is not the least notable; the sufferer who feels that his sufferings equip him as a missionary of comfort to others will feel that they are well-explained.”9
What should Paul’s words say to the Corinthians to whom he is writing? For one, they put Paul’s sufferings in a whole new light. From 1 Corinthians we know these saints are into success, not suffering. Paul’s suffering is at least two strikes against him. Some see his suffering as Job’s friends did—as proof of sin or carnality in Paul’s life (see 2 Corinthians 10:2). They look down upon Paul for the very things which are a cause of rejoicing for Paul and are also proof of his apostleship. Paul’s attitude toward suffering should take the wind out of the sails of those who point to his adversity as proof that his ministry should be disdained and disregarded. Paul’s suffering is his badge of apostleship.
Paul’s words concerning his suffering should call into question a great deal of teaching popular today, teaching about health, wealth, and prosperity. Many tell us that God wants us to prosper, to have good health, and to have a trouble-free life. They tell us we can have this prosperity if we but have the faith to believe and claim God’s promises. They rebuke us for our lack of faith and blame us for our suffering if we fail to achieve what they promise. The simple fact is that God did not promise believers prosperity and popularity and good times in this life. He promised us adversity, rejection, and suffering because we have trusted in Jesus Christ. As He suffered, we too will suffer. As He was rejected by men, so we too will be rejected and persecuted. Those who deny this simply choose to read the Bible selectively and avoid the many texts which tell us to expect hard times. Suffering is an indispensable part of the Christian life, but it is one of the “all things” for which we should give thanks (1 Thessalonians 5:18), because it is included in the “all things” which God will cause to work together for our good and His glory (Romans 8:28).
We must pause here to ask ourselves whether we who reject the “health and wealth” teaching of some are guilty of the same kind of thinking. Do we not unconsciously fall into the practice of judging a person’s piety by external benchmarks of success? When speakers are introduced from the platforms of evangelical churches and organizations, why are we told about their “successes” as proof that they are worth hearing? “Reverend so-and-so has the fastest growing church in …” Such statements are predicated on the very premise our text challenges. Few are introduced by telling of their sufferings, rejection, opposition, or weaknesses. Maybe we should rethink our benchmarks of spirituality and “success.”
Suffering for the sake of Christ is not a curse but a blessing, if we respond as Paul does and as many other saints of old have done. Suffering is a stewardship, which we may misuse and misappropriate, or which we may utilize for our good and God’s glory. Suffering draws us closer to God and closer to our brothers and sisters in Christ. Suffering always comes with the promise of divine comfort and thus provides us with the fuel for worship and praise.
The key to seeing suffering as we should is found in the Person and work of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. From the outset of His ministry, Jesus made it clear that contrary to popular belief and teaching, suffering is indeed not a curse, but a blessing:
2 And opening His mouth He began to teach them, saying, 3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4 Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. 5 Blessed are the gentle, for they shall inherit the earth. 6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. 7 Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. 8 Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. 9 Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. 10 Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 Blessed are you when men cast insults at you, and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely, on account of Me. 12 Rejoice, and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:2-12).
Jesus also made it clear that He had come to suffer for sinners so their sins might be forgiven and they might have eternal life. “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).
What a difference our Lord brings about regarding our perspective on suffering. The world abhors the thought of suffering and cannot imagine how a loving God can allow it. God uses suffering to teach us how evil sin is and how devastating its consequences. He used the suffering of our Savior to forgive our sins. He continues to employ suffering to draw us closer to Him and to one another. Suffering for Christ’s sake is not an enemy but a friend. Suffering is not something we need to seek, but it is something we should accept, knowing it comes from our Heavenly Father, who is the “Father of mercies,” and the “God of all comfort.”
8 … I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish in order that I may gain Christ, … 10 That I may know Him, and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death (Philippians 3:8, 10).
One last thing must be said before concluding this lesson. This lesson is directed toward believers in Jesus Christ, just as this passage is written to true believers (see 2 Corinthians 1:1-2). This is the reason I am able to use the title, “Why Bad Things Happen to God’s People.” God’s people are those who have trusted in Jesus Christ for salvation. These are the ones who can claim these words of Paul, written elsewhere, as their own:
28 And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. 29 For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the first-born among many brethren; 30 and whom He predestined, these He also called; and whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified (Romans 8:28-30).
I dare not overlook the very likely possibility that you may be reading this message as an unbeliever. You may know about God. You may even believe in God and pray to Him at times. A true believer goes beyond this. A true believer is one who understands that he is a sinner, who deserves God’s eternal wrath, and whose good works will never be sufficient to gain him or her entrance into the kingdom of God or to obtain God’s favor (Romans 3:9-20; 6:23; 1 John 1:8-10). A true believer understands that while there is no way man can ever earn eternal salvation, there is but one way which God has provided whereby we can be saved, and that is by faith in the sacrificial death, burial, and resurrection of our Lord, by which our sins are punished in Christ, and God’s righteousness in Christ is given to us (John 1:12; 3:16, 36; 14:6; Romans 3:21-26; 10:9-10; 2 Corinthians 5:17-21; 1 John 5:11-12). The true believer knows these things and casts his entire trust on Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of his sins and the assurance of eternal life.
While it is not the point of our text in 2 Corinthians, it is nonetheless true that, often by means of suffering, God draws the unbeliever to Himself. If any unbeliever who is suffering asks the question, “Why me?” the answer is simple: “We deserve it.” We deserve none of God’s blessings and the worst punishment we can imagine. But it is often true that God graciously brings suffering into the life of the non-Christian as a means of drawing him or her to faith in Christ. All through the Gospels, we see the sick and the suffering coming to Christ for healing and deliverance. Many of those whom our Lord healed also came to faith in Him as their Savior. Suffering is a way of reminding us of the reality of sin and its consequences, of pointing out that we live in a world which suffers as a result of sin (see Romans 8:18-25). If your suffering has brought you to the point of acknowledging that you are helpless, and that your only hope is God, you are well on your way. Your sufferings will either harden you toward God, or they will soften you, turning you toward Him. If they do turn you to Him in saving faith, you can join with the psalmist, who wrote:
67 Before I was afflicted I went astray, But now I keep Thy word (Psalm 119:67).
73 Thy hands made me and fashioned me; Give me understanding, that I may learn Thy commandments. 74 May those who fear Thee see me and be glad, Because I wait for Thy word. 75 I know, O LORD, that Thy judgments are righteous, And that in faithfulness Thou hast afflicted me. 76 O may Thy lovingkindness comfort me, According to Thy word to Thy servant. 77 May Thy compassion come to me that I may live, For Thy law is my delight (Psalm 119:73-77)
92 If Thy law had not been my delight, Then I would have perished in my affliction (Psalm 119:92).
How tragic it would be for you to go through life, free from affliction and adversity, and never come to know the love and grace of God to be found only in the Lord Jesus Christ, who suffered more than you or I will ever be able to fathom, so that we might be forgiven and have eternal fellowship with God. How blessed our afflictions will be to us in heaven, if they have been a means by which we have come to the end of ourselves and have cast ourselves upon the mercy and grace of God in the Person of Jesus Christ.
6 “I can worship a God who hates suffering but cannot eliminate it, more easily than I can worship a God who chooses to make children suffer and die.” Kushner, p. 123. I must credit D. A. Carson for pointing out this statement in his book, How Long, O Lord? (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1990), p. 29.