The Blessing of Pain

2 Corinthians, Pain, Suffering, Evil

When someone titles a message “The Blessing of Pain” it is tempting to conclude one of two things: 1) they have never really known pain or 2) they are just nuts! Anyone who has experienced any kind of pain whether it is physical (hang nail, sprain, infection, surgery, or a devastating disease which often comes with devastating treatments) or emotional (loss, betrayal, failure, disappointment, embarrassment) or even spiritual pain (a sense of distance from God, or conviction and guilt) knows that pain is not a pleasant experience. However, I have not chosen to title the message as I have because I like the sound of the title (I don’t). I chose this title because I believe this is what Paul is teaching us in the first chapter of 2 Corinthians.

During the course of the next year (and likely even during the next week) we will experience pain so I hope this message will be valuable information to have available to us.

We turn our attention this morning and for the next several months to the letter of 2 Corinthians. It was written by the Apostle Paul about 25 years after the death of Jesus. Corinth was a rich trade city. Kent Hughes writes,

Corinth was a sports and entertainment culture. Caesar had reinstituted the Isthmian games in Corinth (which were second only to the Olympics). The city’s theater held up to 18,000 and the concert hall some 3,000. Travel, tourism, sex, and religious pluralism were woven together in Corinth’s new culture. The similarities to modern Western culture are so striking that a California pastor, Ray Stedman, used to call Paul’s Corinthian letters “First and Second Californians”![1]

Paul helped to start the Corinthian church around 50 AD. He later wrote them a letter we call 1 Corinthians to address some concerns and answer some of the questions the people had raised. Apparently after Paul left and was working in Ephesus he heard about problems in Corinth and made a quick visit to the city. The visit did not go well. In 2 Corinthians 2:1 he calls it a sorrowful visit. It is likely that some of the people in Corinth had turned on Paul. We draw clues from the letter itself. It seems the Corinthians attacked Paul’s character (they said he lied to them), they attacked his motives (said he was in ministry for the money), they attacked his ability (said he was a poor speaker and a weak man), and even questioned his credentials as an apostle.

When Paul returned from his visit he was shaken. Paul sent a letter which he indicates was very strong. A messenger returned to report that the church heard his words and had truly repented (or changed direction) and for this Paul was overjoyed.

This is where 2 Corinthians comes in. In this letter Paul continued to defend himself but was also trying to mend things with the church. It is a very personal letter where Paul shared a great deal about his own life and feelings. This is one of the least preached books of the Bible; not because it doesn’t have good things to say, or is any less inspired, but because it is overshadowed by the rich teachings of 1 Corinthians.

Paul begins the letter with an introduction.

This letter is from Paul, chosen by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus, and from our brother Timothy. I am writing to God’s church in Corinth and to all of his holy people throughout Greece. May God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ give you grace and peace. (2 Corinthians 1:1-2)

Paul is making a statement even in his opening words. He postpones the usual thanksgiving and greeting and immediately states his authority as one “chosen by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ.” He claims the authority of the founders of the Christian Church!  He sent greetings from Timothy who may have been serving as Paul’s secretary as he dictated the letter.

The Principle of the Blessing of Pain

You can’t miss the theme of chapter 1:3-7. Listen for recurring words . . .

All praise to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is our merciful Father and the source of all comfort. He comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us. For the more we suffer for Christ, the more God will shower us with his comfort through Christ. Even when we are weighed down with troubles, it is for your comfort and salvation! For when we ourselves are comforted, we will certainly comfort you. Then you can patiently endure the same things we suffer. We are confident that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in the comfort God gives us. (2 Corinthians 1:3-7)

The word “comfort” occurs no less than 10 times in its noun and verb forms. This is one-third of the amount of times the word is used in the entire Bible! The word suffering or similar phrase occurs at least 6 times. In these words Paul declares several truths.

Comfort Comes from God. Paul tells us that God is the source of ALL comfort. The word for comfort used is “Parakalein” from which we get Jesus’ description of the Holy Spirit as the “Comforter” (or paraclete). Paul says God is the One who gives us strength in the difficult times. He is the One who props us up and is the only one who can do so permanently. Real, deep and lasting comfort does not come ultimately through people, drugs, or greeting cards. It comes from the Lord.

Pain Leads us to the Lord. It is a sad truth that we generally do not turn to the Lord until we are in a time of trial or hardship. We seek him most intensely when the pressure is greatest in our life. The word used for affliction means to be pressed or put under pressure. This pain may come to us in many forms: Rejection, Illness, Loss, Stress, Personal attacks, the Loss of a job, a Natural Disaster or some other form of destruction, or from financial reversals.

In each of these situations our strength escapes us. We feel helpless and weak. We have nowhere to turn . . . except to the Lord. Paul, I believe is telling us that God allows the times of pain (which is different from God inflicting the pain) because it drives us to look to Him. In verse 8-11 Paul says

We think you ought to know, dear brothers and sisters, about the trouble we went through in the province of Asia. We were crushed and overwhelmed beyond our ability to endure, and we thought we would never live through it. In fact, we expected to die. But as a result, we stopped relying on ourselves and learned to rely only on God, who raises the dead. 10 And he did rescue us from mortal danger, and he will rescue us again. We have placed our confidence in him, and he will continue to rescue us. 11 And you are helping us by praying for us. Then many people will give thanks because God has graciously answered so many prayers for our safety.

Paul illustrates this principle here from his own life. He experienced trouble (we don’t know what it was) and felt crushed and overwhelmed. He thought he would never life through it. They even expected it would actually kill them.

Note the next words, “we stopped relying on ourselves”. Pain brought Paul to the end of himself so that he basically had no other option than to turn to the Lord.

We believe we can fix things on our own and we will go to great lengths to try to prove that we can “figure things out”. We will spend great amounts of money for gadgets to distract us; we will talk to every friend or counselor we can find; and we will work hard to “tough it out” on our own to prove that we don’t need the help of anyone!

Trials, afflictions, and hard times of life show us how weak we really are. As a result they drive us to the Lord . . . if only as a last resort. In this, the trials are actually a blessing in disguise.

We have witnessed this phenomenon in some of the tragedies in our society. When there is a bombing, a natural disaster, a school shooting, or even a severe drought, people return to church. This is because they instinctively know that they need strength, they need help that is beyond them. Unfortunately, when the crisis starts to pass, so does the faithfulness of most of the people.

God Comforts and Strengthens UsPaul affirmed not only that trials lead us to God. He says God also willingly extends comfort to those who turn to Him. In verse 10 he writes: “And he did rescue us again. We have placed our confidence in him, and he will continue to rescue us.”

Rescuing us from danger is not the same thing as keeping us from times of heartache and difficulty. Sometimes God keeps us from trials and sometimes He gives us strength to endure the trials. Paul is not saying that the person with a good devotional life will have an easy life. He is saying those who turn to the Lord will find His strength in whatever circumstance comes their way.

Paul was arrested, whipped, stoned, and left for dead (several times!). He was in a Shipwreck, he was bit by a snake, and in the center of a riot in Ephesus. He had physical problems, he experienced loneliness, and at times he had little to live on. Even when he was converted he experienced blindness! Please hear this: Just because your life is hard doesn’t mean you are not a true believer or that God doesn’t like you.

I don’t know why life is so much harder for some than others. All I know for sure is that history is filled with stories of men and women who found the strength to face torture, fires, and even death with the strength they found in the Lord. These people were not hated by God . . . they were used by God in powerful ways and we look to these people as a picture of what the most fervent faith looks like.

As a Result of This We Are Better Equipped to Help Others.  When hard times come into our lives people want to know why God “is doing this to them”. Please understand, God is not some masochist who is afflicting people. God allows trials but that is not the same as God causing trials. Our trials often are the result of sinful people attacking us, or the consequences of bad choices (such as poor eating, fast driving, or reckless actions or the effects of a fallen world. I believe we will eventually find out that even the so-called natural disasters are a result of something we have done to our environment.

God does allow these things to happen but He does so because by experiencing the effects of sin God desires we seek Him. Sometimes we will seek Him in repentance and other times we will seek in faith for His strength. God allows these things so that we can discover by firsthand experience that God is faithful. And through these times God develops within us a sense of compassion that will help us to help others.

Think about your own life. When times are most difficult who is it that is often the most help to you? It is the person who has been through what you have been through. Cancer patients (or cancer survivors) can best help other cancer patients; People who have survived marriage problems are best equipped to help troubled marriages. People who have experienced loss are helped most by those who understand that pain. As a society we have learned that support groups are very helpful. The only way to be a part of the group is to go through what others have gone through.

  • It is easy to give parental advice before you have children.
  • It is easy to say “Hang in there” to the person in the hospital if you have never been sick.
  • It is easy to say “there are better people out there for you” if you have never been rejected or faced a divorce.
  • It is easy to say, “They are in a better place” when you have never lost someone you love.

Going though the trials provides us credibility in what we say. And our experience also brings hope to the one we reach out to. The very fact that we have endured AND SURVIVED gives hope to others who are just entering into the time of difficulty.

Hear the message: Don’t hide your pain – Use it! The battles God has brought you through qualify you to help others going through similar things. We are all embarrassed that our life has not been perfect. We can continue to pretend things are great or . . . (the better choice) we can share what we have learned with others. God does not waste the times of pain and suffering. He uses those times to draw us to Him and to make us better able to help each other.

Paul mentions in verse 11 that one of the best ways to help each other is through prayer. Trials bring us to prayer and prayer (both ours and others) bring us through the trials of life.

Conclusions

In light of all this let’s draw some conclusions. First, it would seem that instead of turning from God we should turn toward Him. Sometimes in the pain we get mad at God because we feel He must be mad at us. We withdraw from the people of God (the church) we stop reading the Bible, prayer deserts us. When this happens we are running away from our help rather than TO our help.

In the time of pain run to the Lord. Confess your weakness and ask Him to come alongside of you in His wonderful comfort. Ask Him for the strength to overcome or to endure. Diligently continue to pursue Him.

Second, look for a way to use what you have learned in the hard times. I know that many of you have faced horrible things. These are things I find it hard to believe I could have endured. I also know that our tendency is to hide these experiences in the desire to appear “normal”. The thing is . . . no one is “normal”! Everyone has regrets, scars, and times that test faith. Rather than hide these things we need to look for opportunities to use what we have learned to help someone else. We need to show people what God’s grace can do by showing them what God’s grace has done in our lives.

Be on the lookout for those who may be going through a similar experience that you endured and stand alongside that person to encourage them.

Third, resist the urge to draw conclusions before the story is finished. God’s plan is marvelously broad. His ways are not our ways. God can even use us after we have died! I wonder how many people died thinking they were failures who never saw the positive impact their life had on their family and the people around them.

Whenever we are going through hard times we are tempted to conclude that God hates us. But that is a premature and horribly wrong conclusion!  God is working in us and in our circumstances. If we will trust Him, if we will continue to be faithful to Him . . . even unto death . . .we will be shocked at what He can do through us and in us. The story is not over until we stand before the Lord, the Righteous Judge. And at that time I believe we are going to be in for some startling surprises.

I know these words will not make the pain of life less painful. But I hope these truths will make it easier to hang on and to keep going. I pray that you (and I) will look for the hand of God working behind and through the pain.

I don’t know what the next year holds for us. That’s probably a good thing. The one thing I do know is this: whatever this next year holds, if we remain faithful, God will use us, and the circumstances of our lives, to draw us and others, closer to Him.


[1] Hughes, R. K. (2006). 2 Corinthians: power in weakness (p. 14). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

Scripture:

2 Corinthians 1:1-11