One of the greatest mysteries of life is the mystery of pain and suffering. It all seems so wrong and so arbitrary. If you have lived for any length of time you have known pain and suffering. It may be physical injury or disease; it could be a significant and devastating loss of life or a loss of a relationship; it might be a result of injustice or prejudice. Whatever your loss one thing is certain: it has impacted your life. . . forever.
This morning we are going to look at one of the most quoted and majestic passages in all of the Bible. In these words Paul tells us about how he has approached the difficult times in his life. In doing so he will show us how we can better walk through our times of darkness.
There are three popular approaches to suffering in the world today: the secular approach, the Buddhist approach, and the Christian approach. Let me give you a overly simplified summary.
The secular view of suffering starts with the assumption that there is no God who is in control of all things. As a result, people are left to despair in suffering, simply trying to survive by any means necessary, because they are on their own—no one else is going to help them.
The Buddhist view is that suffering is caused by our own unfulfilled desires. Their prescription is to learn how to get rid of desire. The Buddhist view essentially says that if we simply lower our expectations, then suffering will disappear. In essence, the Buddhist view claims that suffering is all in our heads.
The Christian view recognizes that suffering real. We also recognize that God is in control. Therefore God “redeems” our suffering”. He uses it to teach us and accomplish other good things in our lives and in the lives of those around us. We know God has conquered evil, so even in the midst of our suffering we can trust God’s love for us and His power to take us through thee times.
If you remember, in verse 7, Paul likened us to “clay pots”. We are temporary and fragile vessels yet we have been greatly loved and honored by the eternal and righteous God. Paul picks up from there in verse 8:
8 We are pressed on every side by troubles, but we are not crushed. We are perplexed, but not driven to despair. 9 We are hunted down, but never abandoned by God. We get knocked down, but we are not destroyed. 10 Through suffering, our bodies continue to share in the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be seen in our bodies.
11 Yes, we live under constant danger of death because we serve Jesus, so that the life of Jesus will be evident in our dying bodies. 12 So we live in the face of death, but this has resulted in eternal life for you.
Life Involves Pain
Paul acknowledged that life is not easy. He uses words such as pressed, perplexed, hunted down, knocked down and suffering. He even says pain becomes more severe because we follow Jesus.
It was Jesus who said, “Anyone who wants to follow me must take up his cross, and follow me.” (Luke 9:23) Jesus tells us that the God-directed life will be painful. Paul says we cannot know the life of Jesus until we share in his death. Or to put it another way, we cannot know joy without also knowing pain. He said it three times. In verse 10, 11, and 12 he tied the idea of death and life together.
Tim Keller wrote,
Suffering can kill you. It can destroy you. It can make you dehumanized. It can make you bitter. It can make you a bad person. It can hurt you badly. It can twist you badly. But without any suffering you can’t become real. You can’t become deep. You can’t become insightful. You can’t become wise. You can’t get glory.
Even though that is an insight, it’s not a free-floating insight because it’s grounded in the very heart of Christian doctrine, which says even God could not come into this world and be real without suffering. God could not love without suffering. You can’t love without suffering.
C.S. Lewis puts it “Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact …” In other words, if you want to make sure you don’t suffer “… give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket—safe, dark, motionless, airless—it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation.”
We see an illustration of this in parenting. If you truly love your child you will face heartache. You will feel every pain your child has. However, every crisis you go through together will deepen your love for your child. Their hurtful words will cut you deeply.
This is true of every meaningful relationship in our lives. If you risk love you are also risking pain. Through the pain we learn to love more deeply. This is not just theory, we know it from our experience.
This is the irony we see in the cross. In order for us to have life, Jesus had to suffer. He had to identify with human pain and then bear the penalty of human rebellion. Life involves pain.
We Draw Strength from What We Know
Paul gives us another insight,
13 But we continue to preach because we have the same kind of faith the psalmist had when he said, “I believed in God, so I spoke.”14 We know that God, who raised the Lord Jesus, will also raise us with Jesus and present us to himself together with you. 15 All of this is for your benefit. And as God’s grace reaches more and more people, there will be great thanksgiving, and God will receive more and more glory.
16 That is why we never give up. Though our bodies are dying, our spirits are being renewed every day. 17 For our present troubles are small and won’t last very long. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them and will last forever!
Paul says even though he had suffered, he continued to proclaim the message without hesitation. The resurrection of Jesus and the reality of life beyond the grave (which we will talk more about next week) keeps us going even in the hard times. As we see God’s grace reaching and transforming lives we find strength to keep going because we know the effort is worth it.
I often say to a family standing at a graveside: “this is the place where faith becomes very real and intensely practical. As you stand before an open grave the question: ‘Is this all there is?’ matters intensely.” At the grave we must ask: Do we like the secularist believe that we live, we die and that’s it? Is life really just a mad dash to nowhere? Or is this life part of something bigger? Even our instinct tells us that there is something more. The Resurrection of Christ and the testimony of Scripture tell us that our instinct is the Spirit of God telling us the truth about life and about death.
Paul tells us that the trials of life help our spirits to be renewed. We grow spiritually through hard times. In the hard times we have to choose whom or what we will trust. Hard times help us to look past the unimportant things and see what is truly important.
Paul also calls these our “light and momentary troubles”. Paul takes the perspective of eternity. He looks at the big picture. Think about it like surgery. Let’s say you have surgery that is going to repair something in your heart or even a painful joint. When we think about 6-8 weeks of recovery time we might become timid and decide to avoid anything that takes that long to heal. However, when you consider how long the benefit lasts and compare it with the length of the discomfort you realize that this is a small price to pay for increased health and mobility.
Listen to these arresting words I read this week. It is a long quote but I found it very helpful,
Imagine you’re a billionaire, and you have three ten-dollar bills in your wallet. You get out of a cab, and you hand the driver one of the bills for an eight-dollar fare. Later in the day you look in and find out there’s only one ten-dollar bill there, and you say, “Either I dropped a ten-dollar bill somewhere, or I gave the taxi driver two bills.” What are you going to do? Are you going to get all upset? Are you going to disrupt the rest of your day? Are you going to the police and demand they search the city for the cabdriver? No, you are going to shrug. You’re a billionaire. You lost ten dollars. So what? You are too rich to be concerned about that kind of loss.
This week, somebody criticized you. Something you bought or invested in turned out to be less valuable than you thought. Something you wanted to happen didn’t go the way you wanted it to. Someone you counted on let you down. These are real losses— of your reputation, of your material wealth, of your hopes. But what are you going to do, if you’re a Christian? Will this setback disrupt your contentment with life? Will you shake your fist at God? Toss and turn at night? If so, I submit that it’s because you don’t know how truly rich you are. . .You are not living in joy. You are forgetting that the only eyes in the universe that matter see you not as the “phony little fake” you have sometimes been, but as a person of captivating beauty. If you’re that upset about your status with other people, if you’re constantly lashing out at people for hurting your feelings, you might call it a lack of self-control or a lack of self-esteem, and it is. But more fundamentally, you have totally lost touch with your identity. As a Christian, you’re a spiritual billionaire and you’re wringing your hands over ten dollars. It’s the job of the second Advocate (the Holy Spirit) to argue with you in the court of your heart, to make the case about who you are in Christ, to show you that you’re rich. And it’s your job to listen. . . . 
Life has its difficulties and pain but Paul says this short time of persecution and hardship teaches us things we can’t learn any other way.
The Secret of Survival – Where we Fix Our Eyes
18 So we don’t look at the troubles we can see now; rather, we fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen. For the things we see now will soon be gone, but the things we cannot see will last forever.
Paul says the secret to survival in the trials of life is to focus on the unseen. At first that sounds like nonsense. Paul is saying however that must understand that God knew the trials were coming into our lives. He allowed them for His purpose. He is using them to teach us. He is drawing us close. He is deepening our faith and character. He is preparing us for something eternal.
I find that much of the time life feels like when you are driving in a blinding blizzard. You can’t see the lines on the road, you are disoriented, and aren’t really sure where you are. You don’t know if you are in danger or if you are headed in the right direction.
Think about how grateful you are if you can look ahead a little up the road and see the lights of a snow plow traveling the same direction. At this point you no longer focus on the snow and the possible problems. Instead you put your focus on the truck in front of you. As long as the snow plow stays on the road, and you can see it, you know you will be OK.
There are times when we would give anything to be able to see some taillights in the storms of life. When life feels like it is crashing down around us, it is hard to look past the trouble. When these troubles are so overwhelming it is hard to believe that they are temporary. So how do we learn to focus on what we can’t see?
First, we focus on Jesus. He faced suffering and was victorious. We can learn from His life and in a sense follow His “taillights”. No one suffered as He suffered. No one lived more fully or victoriously than He did. Listen to His Words. Recall the truth and the evidence of His resurrection. Cling to His promises. Believe Him when He tells us that those who trust Him will live even though they die. If we remember that nothing can ultimately defeat us, we will know a new strength in the time of testing.
Second, hold fast to God’s Word. The Bible contains the record of those who dared to follow God in difficult times and saw incredible things happen,
- Joseph was sold into slavery and sent to jail for being a good guy and God used the experience to elevate him to the second most powerful man in Egypt which made it possible for him to save the Jewish people.
- Moses and the children of Israel were caught between the pursuing army of Egypt and the Red Sea and God used it to demonstrate His limitless power.
- Daniel’s three friends were thrown in the fiery furnace because they wouldn’t bow down to an idol and the King saw them walking the fire with a fourth being and were untouched.
God has given us His Word to guide us through the maze of life. It is like a GPS for life. If we will follow the guidance of the Scriptures with the same kind of faith we have in our GPS devices we would be in good shape. I have found it especially helpful to read and meditate on the Psalms in the times of trial.
Third, cry out in prayer and worship. We worship God as a way of professing faith. We worship as a way of moving our minds and hearts from focusing on the difficulties and trials and the potential difficulties and trials and instead focus on the One who overcomes difficulties and trials. Worship reminds us that we are not alone, we are not helpless; we are not defeated. Please allow one more quote,
I had a friend some years ago who was a medical student. He told me that in medical school he had learned how fragile the human body was, how many things could go wrong so easily, and how many millions of viruses and microbes were out there, ready to attack at any time. He said that it unnerved him. I asked him how he was dealing with his fear and he said that he had forced himself not to think about it. By and large that’s how the world’s “peace” works. Life is nasty, brutish, and short— and then you die. Just don’t think about it. But Christ’s peace works in the opposite way, not through less thinking, but through more. Not by ignoring reality, but by paying attention to it. The Holy Spirit tells you the Father loves you; your eternal bliss is guaranteed. In other words, Christ gives us true things to think about that overcome the darkness of this life, while the world can only say, “Just hum loudly and look away.”
If we will focus on Him, if we will put our trust in the One who came to save us, we will, through the trials of life, become the person God made us to be. It isn’t easy. We must focus and refocus. But as we learn to trust we will come to know Him with a new depth and we will see Him transform the heartaches of life into unforeseen blessings.
As we trust Him we too will move toward the truth that Paul confessed,
We are pressed on every side by troubles, but we are not crushed. We are perplexed, but not driven to despair. 9 We are hunted down, but never abandoned by God. We get knocked down, but we are not destroyed.
Let’s say it together . . .
We belong to the One who walks with us through the fire. Hold on to Him . . . hold on tight.