Life in the Battle Zone
Trials, Suffering, Endurance
In the United States, a person who runs for major political office usually has to undergo a process known as “vetting” as part of their campaign. The idea of the vetting process is to dig deeply into the person’s past to see if you can turn up anything that would undermine them as a candidate. During every major election, it seems that there are always a couple of candidates who hope that people just won’t look closely at their past life—they hope that people won’t find out who they really are. Eventually, the person’s true colors ultimately shine through though, and many of these candidates lose the public’s trust.
In our text this morning, the Apostle Paul does completely the opposite. Rather than trying to hide his past struggles, he points to them. He recognizes that a person’s true character and beliefs are most clearly seen in the times of trial. Paul challenges the Corinthian believers to look at his life to see what he really believes. He says that his goal in life has been to live consistently—so that what he preaches matches up with how he lives.
In verses 3 and 4, Paul lays out his goal in life:
We live in such a way that no one will stumble because of us, and no one will find fault with our ministry. In everything we do, we show that we are true ministers of God. (2 Corinthians 6:3-4a, NLT)
Throughout this passage, Paul uses the pronoun, “we”. He is speaking on behalf of everyone who is a minister of the gospel. In truth, every Christian is called to be a minister of the gospel, even though not every Christian is called to be a missionary or a pastor. As a Christian, and therefore a minister of the gospel, Paul says his goal (and the goal of all Christians) is to live in a way that doesn’t create obstacles to people believing the gospel message. He says that he seeks to show himself as a minister of God in everything that he does. It’s hard for us to think of being that consistent—of saying that every area of our lives is intended to point people to Christ. Paul, however, was that consistent. He told the Corinthians to examine his life, because what they would see is his true commitment to the Lord.
Paul first points to the way that he has endured some horrible circumstances.
We patiently endure troubles and hardships and calamities of every kind. We have been beaten, been put in prison, faced angry mobs, worked to exhaustion, endured sleepless nights, and gone without food. (2 Corinthians 6:4b-5, NLT)
Paul listed some of the difficult times he had faced, and pointed out how he had endured those circumstances without wavering from the task to which God had called him. It is interesting that Paul draws attention to these hardships, because many Christians believe that difficult circumstances are evidence of God’s punishment. It’s a common belief today, but this view is not new (we see it even back in the book of Job). Surely there were people who held this same belief in Paul’s day too. By listing the hardships he had faced, Paul opened himself up to all sorts of attacks. He knew people might claim that his difficult circumstances were evidence that he wasn’t really serving God. But Paul knew these hardships weren’t punishment—he knew they were the unfortunate consequence of living in a fallen and sinful world. Paul’s point was that he had patiently endured these difficult times. Because he saw the bigger picture, he was able to carry on, even when it seemed like the world was against him.
If we piece together other accounts from the Bible, we see that Paul isn’t exaggerating when he lists these things. Paul was beaten by governing authorities many times. Often, after being beaten, he had been put in prison. Throughout his ministry, Paul spent quite a bit of time in prison, simply because there were powerful people who didn’t like the message Paul was preaching. On several occasions, Paul faced angry mobs, and in at least a couple of cases, these mobs tried to kill him! Paul also said that he worked to exhaustion, endured sleepless nights, and went without food. He was a traveling minister who made tents as a means of supporting himself, so he was never rich from a worldly perspective. He often went without in order to be able to preach the gospel. He endured these hardships because he knew he had a job to do.
Notice that Paul doesn’t talk about these times in flowery language. He doesn’t describe these experiences as his favorite times of life. He doesn’t say that he enjoyed these circumstances, but rather, that he patiently endured them. He also didn’t brag about these times, as though suffering made him more spiritual—he was simply telling people to see the consistency in his life, no matter what the situation. Paul continued to do what he knew was right, even though he met resistance every step along the way. He was willing to keep pressing on and doing what was right even when it was uncomfortable, because he knew there were things that were far more important than his personal comfort—Paul was willing to endure personal hardship in order to see others believe in the gospel message.
We read these verses and are amazed at what Paul went through. His endurance is inspiring. But it is also instructive for us. There are a couple of things we can see from these verses. First, as Christians, we will face difficult times. People who claim that if God is pleased with you then you won’t experience hardship are liars. Those who claim that if we are obedient to God, then we won’t struggle are distorting the message of the Bible. Paul lived in obedience to God, yet he faced tremendous hardships. Jesus was pretty clear when he told his disciples, “In this world you will have trouble.” (John 16:33b, NIV) He didn’t say we might have trouble; He said that we will have trouble! Christians face difficult times—the question is how will we respond to them?
Second, the appropriate response to difficult times is patient endurance. Paul’s example shows us that we should continue to do what we know is right even when it seems like it isn’t getting us anywhere! Maybe you’ve felt that way before—you keep trying to do what you know is right, but things just seem to keep getting worse. You start to question yourself and begin to doubt your decision making ability. Paul’s experience reminds us that we can patiently endure difficult times because we know that God is ultimately in control. We do not have to have all the answers, but we must trust His wisdom. We must continue to serve the Lord, doing what we know is right, even when it feels like it’s not doing any good, because we trust that He knows what’s best.
After enumerating the different hardships which he had patiently endured, Paul next draws our attention to the way he lived. He lists several characteristics that marked his life and his ministry.
We prove ourselves by our purity, our understanding, our patience, our kindness, by the Holy Spirit within us, and by our sincere love. 7 We faithfully preach the truth. God’s power is working in us. We use the weapons of righteousness in the right hand for attack and the left hand for defense. (2 Corinthians 6:6-7, NLT)
Paul doesn’t only point to the fact that he had endured great trials as evidence of his faithfulness; he points to how he lived in the midst of those trials. He lists several characteristics that were present in his life (and should be present in ours).
Purity Paul refused to compromise. Even though it would have been easy to lie, cheat, and steal in order to make things easier in the short-term, Paul continued to strive to live a life that was pure. He sought to be honest with everyone.
Understanding Paul didn’t have all the answers, but he continued to wrestle with God’s Word. He sought to understand his own situation as well as the situations of others. Rather than focusing only on himself, he continued to see the people around him.
Patience As we mentioned earlier, Paul continued to press on, doing what he knew was right, even when it didn’t seem to get him anywhere. He could have bailed out, he could have compromised, he could have chosen an easier course, but he didn’t. He kept serving the Lord. He knew that he might not see results immediately, but that didn’t mean his efforts were in vain.
Kindness The temptation we have when under pressure is to become harsh with the people around us. We view others as annoyances and intrusions. Paul continued to work at being kind and caring to the people around him, even though there were surely times when he didn’t feel like it—times when he would rather have focused on himself.
The Holy Spirit Paul understood that his strength did not come from within, but it came from relying on the Holy Spirit working within him. When he felt weak, he knew that God would supply strength. In those times when we feel we just can’t carry on, when we’ve got nothing left in the tank, we can ask for God to help us to carry on. You will find that when you keep striving to be obedient, God will give you a supernatural strength.
Sincere Love Love, by definition, requires us to focus on someone else and meeting their needs. Paul refused to give into the temptation to become indifferent to the people around him. He refused to simply pay lip service to those people. He wanted to show sincere love to those with whom he came into contact—to see their needs and try to meet them, even when he felt like his needs were going unmet.
I’m sure these things didn’t come easy to Paul. I’m sure there were many times when he didn’t feel like acting this way. I’m sure there were times where he simply wanted to wallow in his own self-pity, but he didn’t. Paul knew that how he lived communicated a great deal to others about what he believed. He wanted his life to be consistent.
Christians and non-Christians alike face difficult times. The Christian’s trials are really not much different than the trials non-Christians face. What should be different is how we handle them. We have a hope that they do not have. We believe that God is in control, and that He knows what’s best. The question is do our lives show that we believe this or not?
The world is watching us. There are a lot of people who talk a good game, but who they really are becomes evident when they are under trial. Paul refused to become self-centered and angry because of the things he was facing—he knew that these times of trial were opportunities for him to show that he really believed the message that he preached. He knew that if he continued to be faithful even in these horrible times, it would lead many others to understand that his preaching wasn’t just wishful thinking—it was the cornerstone of his life.
As Paul continues on in verses 8-10, he gives one more series of examples of how he had been faithful in the midst of trials.
We serve God whether people honor us or despise us, whether they slander us or praise us. We are honest, but they call us impostors. 9 We are ignored, even though we are well known. We live close to death, but we are still alive. We have been beaten, but we have not been killed. 10 Our hearts ache, but we always have joy. We are poor, but we give spiritual riches to others. We own nothing, and yet we have everything. (2 Corinthians 6:8-10, NLT)
At first glance, this passage is confusing, because it seems like Paul is being contradictory, but he isn’t. Paul is contrasting what appears to be true from a worldly perspective and what he knows to be true from an eternal perspective. He says that his obedience to God is not tied to his current circumstance. To Paul, it didn’t matter what other people said about him, because he clung to what he knew was true. He knew that the way things seem in the moment isn’t the whole story.
He talks about being called an impostor even though he knew he was being honest. Maybe you’ve felt that way. You try to do the right thing and get blasted for it. You try to be generous and people accuse you of seeking attention. You try to help and people say that you’re nosy. You strive to live honestly but people accuse you of cheating or lying. In those situations you begin to ask why you even bother—the temptation is to just stop trying because it feels like you’ll be attacked no matter what you do. People leveled all sorts of charges against Paul, they claimed he only cared about making a name for himself, that he was in it for the money, or that he was a liar. Those are accusations that cut deep. But Paul kept preaching and doing what he knew was right. It is hard to have your motives impugned, but if we trust that God knows the truth we can keep on going, even when others criticize us.
Paul also talks about being ignored, though he was actually well-known. It is a painful thing to be ignored, to be treated like you don’t even exist. You stand in a group and people act like you aren’t even there. You ask a question and nobody even acknowledges it. You begin to talk and someone else interrupts and talks over you. It’s especially painful when those who seem to ignore us are the people whose attention we desire the most. Paul was familiar with this feeling—there were people who thought that if they just ignored Paul, he would shrivel up and shrink back from the task God had called him to. But Paul didn’t shrink back, because he knew that even though it seemed like he didn’t matter to these people, he did matter to God and ultimately, that was all that mattered. We must remember the same thing when we feel like we don’t matter. We may not be famous, we may not even be popular, but we are loved by God.
The last group of statements is a little different from the first two statements. The first two statements were false, but the last five are all true statements, but they don’t tell the whole story. It is true that Paul lived close to death, it is true that he had been beaten, it is true that his heart ached, it is true that he was poor, and it was true that he basically owned nothing. But Paul knew that there was more to it than just those simple statements. He knew that even though he lived close to death, he wasn’t dead. Even though he had been beaten, he hadn’t been killed. Even though his heart ached from seeing that things weren’t as they should be, he had a joy that came from knowing that God was in control, and that one day He would make all things right. He knew that though he didn’t have much in terms of worldly possessions, but worldly possessions were not all that mattered. He may have been poor by the standards of the world, but he knew that when it came to the things that really mattered—changed lives and a relationship with God—he was a very rich man.
The lesson Paul is teaching us is one of perspective. It is easy to believe the bad things and stop there. Paul challenges us to not simply believe what the world (or our own worldly perspectives) tells us, but to look at what God says is true. He challenges us to dig deeper and gain the proper perspective.
- The world may say that you aren’t worthy of love or respect, but God says that He loves you so much that He sent Jesus to die for you. He loves you so much that He continues to hear your prayers. He loves you so much that He gives you strength in the times when you are weak.
- The world says your situation is hopeless, so you might as well just give up. We know that no situation is hopeless, because God can do things that we can’t. Even when God doesn’t change our circumstances, we still know that He has a plan.
- The world says you can’t possibly make any sort of lasting impact. There’s some truth to that statement, but it’s not the whole story. On our own, we have no real power. But God works through us to accomplish great things. He can use us to make a real, eternal impact in the lives of others if we will simply trust and serve Him.
As Paul closes out this section of scripture, he reminds the Corinthians of how much he has poured out his heart to them, and he pleads for them to love him too. Paul wrote 2 Corinthians to a group of people who had often attacked him. Even in this situation, he was trying to honor God by showing love even to people who didn’t love him back.
Paul wasn’t afraid of letting people look into his past. He knew his track record. He had faced many hardships and trials, but he didn’t view those experiences as weaknesses, he viewed them as opportunities to demonstrate that he really believed what he said he did. Each of us will face trials in our lives. Some of you are facing trials right now. That fact humbles me and makes me hesitant to give advice. I have not walked the same path that you have, so I’m not deluded into thinking I have all the answers. I don’t want to try to give advice, but I do want to share what God says—the lessons we can gain from this passage and apply to our own lives in times of trial.
Here’s what I think we can learn from Paul: the only way we can carry on living as we should in the midst of difficult circumstances is to learn to look beyond ourselves. It is tempting, when it feels like our world is crumbling around us, to retreat into ourselves and reflect on what a terrible hand we’ve been dealt. It is tempting to simply sit back and ask, “Why Me?” Paul reminds us that this mentality keeps us from living as we should. We must lift our eyes to see the people around us and the God who loves us.
When you feel helpless, it is time to ask yourself some hard questions: Do I really believe that God is in control? When you don’t understand why things are happening, ask yourself, do I really believe that God knows what’s best and has a plan? When you are tempted to take shortcuts or to compromise, ask yourself, do I really believe that God’s way is best? If we remind ourselves of what we know to be true, it will help us to keep going, to patiently endure, and to maintain perspective. One of the blessings of hard times is that it forces us to reach for a strength that is too often overlooked when things are going well.
How we endure the trials of life will tell us (and everyone else around us) a lot more about what we really believe than any words we can speak. So whether we are facing good times or bad ones, our goal should be the same—to be consistent in the way that we live, so that when people question what we believe, they will not only benefit from the words we say, they will also be able to see what we believe by the way we live. . . even in the crushing times of life.