Does Grace Grow Best in Winter?
Winter Luncheon Series
The Quandary and Questions of Suffering”
January 17, 2008
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
Good afternoon, folks! Please continue to eat and drink and I will get started, to honor and respect your time. Thanks for being here with us in this series of talks on “Does Grace Grow Best in Winter? Suffering…Sovereignty…and Sanctification.”
I do want to mention some books. We've got a few books today that we didn't have last time that I want to draw your attention to. One is Edith Schaeffer's book on affliction, Affliction – A Compassionate Look at the Reality of Pain and Suffering. It's published by Baker, and we have a number of copies on the table in the back. Also, Dan McCartney's new book…Dan McCartney teaches at Westminster Theological Seminary, and his book is called Why Does It Have to Hurt? — The Meaning of Christian Suffering. It's published by P&R, and we've got it back on the table.
I didn't mention last time, I don't think, the volume that John Piper and Justin Taylor edited from the “Desiring God” national conference a couple of years ago on the subject of suffering and the sovereignty of God. John's material has been some of the most helpful material to me personally on this. In fact, I'm going to recommend another John Piper piece while I'm with you today, but Suffering and the Sovereignty of God are the papers, or the addresses, that were given at that conference, and there were some really amazing addresses.
In the Appendix to this book is John Piper's little…it was really just a very short paper called Don't Waste Your Cancer. It's a play on words. He wrote a book a couple of years ago called Don't Waste Your Life. And then, many of you may know that John Piper was diagnosed with cancer about 18 months ago and had to undergo surgery and treatment. In the leading up to his cancer surgery and treatment, he went back through his own book and said, “OK, now John. You've got cancer. You've been giving people advice on how they’re supposed to trust in God in the trials and tribulations of life. How are you going to take your own medicine?” And so he wrote the paper to himself, Don't Waste Your Cancer. And then of course when people saw it, they said, “John, you've really got to share that with other people.” The Appendix is in the back…Don't Waste Your Cancer.
By the way, David Powlison, who many of you know, with the Christian Counseling Educational Foundation, an outstanding counselor and a professor at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia, has written his own addition to Piper's Don't Waste Your Cancer. And if you or someone you know are struggling with cancer, that would be a great piece to meditate on. It won't take you long to read, but you’d be able to meditate on it for the rest of your life and you wouldn't exhaust the significance of it.
Let me just give you a little taste of the kind of counsel that John Piper gives:
“You will waste your cancer if you do not believe that it is designed for you by God.
You will waste your cancer if you believe that it is a curse, and not a gift.
You will waste your cancer if you seek comfort from your odds rather than from God.
You will waste your cancer if you refuse to think about death.
You will waste your cancer if you think that beating cancer means staying alive, rather than cherishing Christ.
You will waste your cancer if you spend too much time reading about cancer and not enough time reading about God.
You will waste your cancer if you let it drive you into solitude instead of deepen your relationships with manifest affection.
You will waste your cancer if you grieve as those who have no hope.
You will waste your cancer if you treat sin as casually as before.
And, you will waste your cancer if you fail to use it as a means of witness to the truth and glory of Christ.”
Now if that whets your appetite, go read what he says about each of those. Those are just his categories…those are just the headings. And then he begins to meditate on each of those points. But the book is Suffering and the Sovereignty of God, and John Piper's Don't Waste Your Cancer is appended to the back with David Paulison's comments.
Then, John Piper's book When the Darkness Will Not Lift…and I love the subtitle: Doing what we can while we wait for God and joy….Doing what we can while we wait for God and joy….When the Darkness Will Not Lift. And again, he addresses here not just suffering in general, but especially the kinds of spiritual depressions that result either because of Satan's assaults or because of very difficult circumstances that we find ourselves in, or even hereditary and physical issues that result in depression. He addresses that here…very helpful books I want to commend to you.
Now! Last week…and we've got a lot of visitors here today, and last week I didn't have an outline, but this week I do…for last week! And you've got last week's outline in front of you. On one page front and back, you've got the outline. And next week, I’ll give you this week's outline. And then…I don't know that I'm going to do the fourth week! I guess I've got to give them both to you then, huh? But I’ll give you this week's outline. Last week's outline was fairly complex, this week it's easy — four points, OK? Four points…that's unusual for me…Just four points, OK? But it's easy this week, and I will give it to you next week. But this will, I hope, help you catch up. Last weeks message is already transcribed. You can read it in its entirety on the website. If you go to “Resources” and “Sermon Archives,” you’ll see it there. And you can listen to is, as well. It's very helpful.
Now let's pray.
Heavenly Father, thank You for this time that we have together. Bless us as we study this very deep but very practical subject. No one could possibly approach such a subject as this without trembling. We've been in the room when friends have held the lifeless body of a child. We've been in the room when the diagnosis came from the surgeon, “It's terminal.” We've been in the room when a friend found out that his or her spouse was unfaithful. We've been in the room when the phone call came, and the word was their child was dead. We've been there, Lord, and so how could we but approach this subject with solemnity and reverence? But Lord, we also approach it because we want to fight for joy, because we know that our Lord Jesus Christ came and suffered and lived and died so that our joy would be made complete. And so we want our motto — the one emblazoned on our hearts and flying over our heads like a banner…we want our motto to be “Suffering, but rejoicing.” And we know that only the Spirit can do this. And so we ask You to help us, in Jesus' name. Amen.
I. Suffering is a constant in this fallen world.
Last week we said that suffering is a constant in a fallen world. Sin brought misery into this world, and until sin is expunged from this world there will be misery. God will not get rid of misery until He gets rid of sin completely. And so as long as we are in a fallen world where there is sin, it should not surprise us that there is misery and suffering, because though Satan said to Adam and Eve, ‘Disobey God and you will be like Him’, in fact their disobedience brought on them only misery…and misery and suffering into this world. And until God has eradicated the very last parcels of that sin, misery will still be with us. So suffering is a constant in this fallen world, and therefore we need to learn at least two things.
First, we need to learn how not to be surprised by suffering. Because even though we know in our heads that this is a fallen world and even though we know in our heads that this is a world filled with suffering, it seems that even Christians, even believers, get surprised by suffering. It takes us by surprise. We get caught off guard. It rounds the corner on us, and we weren't expecting it. And we think, “Oh, no! something's not happening right here! This isn't supposed to be happening to me.” Now, at one level of course we understand why that reaction is, but at another level we ought to be expecting these challenges rather than being surprised by these challenges in life. And so one of the things that we said that we wanted to learn is that suffering is…suffering happens. Suffering is to be expected. It's the norm in a fallen world. We don't want to be surprised by it.
That doesn't mean that we want to cultivate a generation of Christians who are brooding pessimists just waiting for the other shoe to drop: “Well, I just made a million bucks today, but I’ll probably lose it tomorrow.” That's not what we're talking about, OK? That's not what we're talking about. We’re talking about joyful, hopeful, energetic, consecrated Christians serving the Lord, loving their neighbors, caring for their families, ministering in the church, going about their business, but who will not be caught flat-footed when suffering comes into their lives. That's what we're talking about.
The second thing we want to do is we want to learn how to suffer. That's really going to be the focus of this week and next. You remember when I gave you the outline, I said we were first going to ask the question, “Why Me?”–you know, wrestle with the quandary and the questions of suffering. Then we were going to ask the question, “What For?” In other words, what are the divine and good purposes for suffering in our life? What is God trying to get for us out of our suffering? And then, having thought about what the divine and good purposes of suffering are, we want to ask, OK, “How So?” How is it that that kind of good can come out of the kind of suffering that I'm experiencing? How do I get there? How do I need to respond to this? What do I need to know in order that I would be able to rejoice in suffering, that I would learn to gain not only from suffering, but even in suffering. So that's what we're going to do this week and the next. We’re going to look today at the purposes, and then next week we're going to look at how we gain from and in suffering. And then we're going to look at the ultimate suffering in the last week, because ultimate suffering has something to say to us.
Well, we said last week, as we looked together at the Bible, that the Bible gives a lot of attention to the issue of suffering. If I could just point you to one passage…if you have your Bibles or if you have the outline that I gave you, you can turn to II Timothy 2:3. I think it's on the flip side of the outline…II Timothy 2:3. There in the midst of a bunch of verses (and we could have added a lot more)…there in the midst of a bunch of verses, here the Apostle Paul gives this exhortation to Timothy:
“Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ….”
There Paul is preparing Timothy at the outset of his ministry to suffer. Timothy, don't be surprised by this; Timothy, expect this; Timothy, prepare to share in suffering; get ready for this, embrace this. This is going to be a part of being a soldier of Christ.
Brad Mercer was telling me about a scene at the processing center as Harrison was getting ready to be shipped out to Fort Benning. And he said that the military personnel made a line, and the young men that were walking out and heading up and hopping on the bus to go off to their various bases for training, the military men stood in these long lines on either side of them and applauded them and encouraged them and cheered them as they went out their way. But he said he noticed a Marine, and as the young guy was heading off to get on the bus to head to Marine training, the Marine just leaned forward and said, “Next stop, Parris Island!” [Laughter] …Just like a Marine! And he was preparing him for suffering! He was just letting him know, ‘Just get ready, buddy, it's coming! It's coming!’ That's what Paul's doing to Timothy. He's saying, ‘Timothy, don't be surprised by this. This is coming.’ Paul is assuming it as a norm not just of Christian ministry, but of Christian experience, that we're going to suffer.
So the Bible gives a lot of attention to suffering, but that ought to encourage us, because suffering is a part of all of our lives. Wouldn't it be terrible if God's own word didn't speak to us in that? Isn't it wonderful that God spends so much time in His word speaking to us about something which is such an important and constant part of our experience, an experience that we need help in? Because we get in the middle of it, and the harder it is and the longer it lasts, the more confused we get. And we need the clarity of God's word speaking into our lives and hearts to help us out.
II. There are different causes of suffering.
Now, last week we also said that there are different causes of suffering.
Our sin. We acknowledged that our sin causes suffering. Now that doesn't mean–it's so important for you to understand this–it doesn't mean that you can build this equation: I'm suffering [therefore] God is punishing me for a sin that I committed. That may be true, but it is not always true, and God in the Bible wants us to look more than at just isolated things that we do as the causes of suffering. Yes, it is true that human sin brought suffering into this world in Genesis 3. God tells Eve because of her sin she will experience pain in bringing children into the world, and He tells Adam because of his sin that he will experience toil and frustration as he attempts to farm the earth. And so God makes it clear that the toil, the pain, the misery, the suffering of life that man and woman will now experience in a fallen world is because of Adam and Eve's sin. They brought that into the world. It wouldn't have been there had they not been unfaithful to God.
Can you imagine what life would have been like for Adam? He lived to be nine hundred and something years old, you know. And everybody…literally, everybody… you walk down the street every day, and everybody could have pointed at him and said, ‘You know what? All of this is his fault!’ They could have said it for 900 years, everywhere he went: “You know this is your fault!” A flood comes and wipes out some crops — “This is your fault, Adam!” It's true. It was. But it's not just that Adam has sinned so that all of us in this world are inclined to sin; it is that we sin, too. And our sin sometimes brings suffering on us.
Take your outline out and look at the passage in I Peter 2:19. Peter is encouraging Christians to endure suffering, but he says, ‘Look, endure unjust suffering.’ Don't have to endure just suffering…. In other words, ‘Brothers and sisters, I want you to endure suffering when it's wrong. I don't want you to have to endure suffering that you ought to endure. If you do something wrong, you ought to suffer. There's no honor in that’, he says. ‘I want you to endure suffering when it's wrong, when you’re being treated unjustly rather than being punished for what you ought to be punished for.’ What does he say in verse 20?
“For what credit is it if, when you sin you are beaten for it, and you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, that is a gracious thing in the sight of God.”
So sometimes what we do brings suffering on ourselves.
The sins of others. Other times, of course, our suffering is the direct result not of our own sin, but the sins of others. Many of you in this room will know what it is to carry around certain hurts and pains and unfulfilled desires and heartbreaks because of something that you experienced as a child, perhaps with your own parents. So, suffering is not necessarily the result of our sin, it may very well be the results of the sins of others.
Of course, suffering is oftentimes the result of satanic activity, as it was in the day of Job. Satan was behind the sufferings that Job was experiencing. It was not that Job had sinned, therefore God was punishing him; it was that Satan desired to sift Job like wheat, and so he caused Job to suffer.
But then of course ultimately we have emphasized that suffering is under the sovereign God. And we said last week some people don't want to think that God is involved in their suffering, because their suffering is so painful that they cannot conceive a good and loving God having anything to do with it. And so what they want to do in an ironic way, in order to protect God, is they want to push Him as far away as they can from their suffering. But think about it, my friends: if that is the case, and He is that far away from our suffering…think about it!…our suffering is some of the most significant experience that we ever have in this life, and that would mean that in those significant experiences God has nothing to do with them. In the end that is not a very encouraging thought. I want God right down in the middle of my suffering. And of course it's not just a matter of what I want, it's what the Bible says: God is sovereign even in suffering.
Why For? Why do I suffer?
And God tells us what He is up to in suffering in the Bible, and so what I want to do with you today is look at four things that God says that He purposes to do with your suffering…four things that God says that He purposes to do with your suffering.
Let me just give you the outline ahead of time so that you can follow along more easily. First, God purposes to work godliness in you by suffering (Romans 5:3-5)…God purposes to work godliness in you by suffering.
Secondly, God purposes that you would prize Christ more than this world by your suffering…God purposes that you would prize Christ more than this world by your suffering (Philippians 3:8-11).
Third, God purposes to serve the maturity of the whole body of believers through your suffering (Colossians 1:24-29).
And then, God purposes to prepare you for glory through your suffering (II Corinthians 4:7-18).
Now there's your outline. You've got it. Let's look at these.
I. What do we suffer for?
First, what do we suffer for? What are the divine and good purposes of suffering? Number one, God tells us in His word that He purposes to work godliness in us by our suffering. Listen to what Paul says in Romans 5:3-5:
“More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”
Now that's a mouthful, and there's no way that we can exhaust the riches of its meaning. But let me in one sentence try and sum up what Paul is saying there for you, as an anchoring truth for your suffering. Here it is. Here's my sentence:
“God ordains that by the Spirit [the Holy Spirit] and by faith, your suffering will produce endurance, character, and hope.”
Paul is saying that God ordains that by the Holy Spirit, by the work of the Holy Spirit in you and by your faith, by your response of believing trust in Christ and the promises of the living God, that your suffering will produce in you endurance, character, and hope. In other words, suffering is an instrument in the hands of God's Holy Spirit to build up believers in Christ in godliness. That's exactly what the Apostle Paul is saying.
We rejoice in our sufferings — why? Because we're sadomasochists? No! No! We don't like this… “Do that to me one more time, right there!”…No! Why do we rejoice in suffering? Because we know that God the Holy Spirit at work in us in accordance with God's sovereign plan is purposing to use this suffering to build something in me that I would not have otherwise, and which I must have in order to go to glory. I've got to persevere to the end. I've got to walk with Christ to the end. How is God by Christ going to work that in me, even in my suffering? By the Holy Sprit He is going to work in me an endurance so that I walk with Him to the end. And that is going to produce in me character, which is going to produce in me hope. God is telling us that He uses suffering to build godliness in us. God ordains that by the Spirit and by faith our suffering will produce endurance, character, and hope.
Haven't you seen this in your friends who have suffered most? Who trust in Christ? And suffering has not made them bitter, it's made them sweeter. And they’re not just sweeter, they’re stronger. And you can throw anything that you want at them, and they have already looked death in the face and they have not flinched. And just to be around them, you see what God is doing to their character.
On the other hand, have you not seen your friends who do not have that faith in Christ, who do not have that hope of glory, meet the same suffering that your believing friends have met, and it has made them smaller and more brittle and bitter? You see, it's not the suffering that produces the result; it's the Spirit in you using the suffering to produce the result. That's why the same suffering bears entirely different fruit in those who by faith trust in Christ and those who do not. God's purpose in our suffering is by His Spirit through our response of faith to (by the suffering) produce endurance, character, and hope in us. That's the first purpose of the suffering, the Apostle Paul says.(But there's another one. Turn with me to Philippians 3:8-11.) Godliness in us… God's purpose in suffering.
II. To prize Christ more than this world.
A second one…prizing Christ more than this world… prizing Christ more than this world. That is God's purpose in our suffering, and the Apostle Paul explains this in Philippians 3:8-11. And by the way, isn't it interesting? Ever since you were in Sunday School you've been told that the letter to the Philippians was “the letter of joy.” And I want to tell you, you've been told right. It is. It's the letter of joy. I don't know a smaller book in the New Testament that talks more about suffering than Philippians, and yet it's right — it is the letter of joy. Do you see that those two things are not a contradiction? Rejoicing in suffering is not a contradiction in Christian grammar. That may be a contradiction in the eyes of the world, but for the believer rejoicing and suffering can go in the same sentence without fear of contradiction. And it's just so glorious that we would turn over and over again to the book of Philippians, that book of joy, to learn about suffering.
Well, here's what Paul says in Philippians 3:8-11:
“Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but hat which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith–that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”
Let me summarize at least one thing that Paul was saying to us in that passage. Here's my sentence:
“God ordains that by the Spirit [by the Holy Sprit] and by faith, our suffering will produce in us the right estimate of the ephemeral treasures of this world, and an eternal knowledge of Jesus Christ.”
Let me give that to you again: “God ordains that by the Spirit [by the Holy Sprit] and by faith, our suffering will produce in us a right estimate of the ephemeral treasures of this world….” [They’re passing; they’re not going to last. No matter how good they are, no matter how great they are to experience, they are not going to last. Suffering gives us a right estimate of the fact that they are passing away. The day before we were suffering, we were enjoying them. In our suffering we cease to enjoy them. We suddenly realized they’re not going to last. This is not what's going to give me joy.] “…And, it produces in us a right estimate of the eternal knowledge of Jesus Christ.”
Paul, in Philippians 3:8-11, is saying, ‘Look, here's what happened with me. I was a worldwide, respected religious leader in Judaism. I was an up and comer. I was on my way to leadership in the Sanhedrin, unchallenged by anyone. I was seen as a future leader of my people, a moral leader of my people over against the pagan influences of Rome. And one day I was on my way to Damascus to persecute some heretics, and I met Jesus and I lost everything. Praise God!’ That's what he's saying. He's saying, ‘Everything that I had that I thought was valuable in this world…I met Jesus and I lost it, all of it…to the point that I've been beaten by the Romans and there's a death warrant out on my head from my own people, and I've been ostracized, and I've lost my family, and I've lost all of my friends. And you know, I've been thinking about it, and it's the best deal I ever made. Because knowing Christ is so valuable to me that everything else that I have lost in this world does not matter.’
And the Apostle Paul is saying to us that God ordains by His Holy Spirit and by faith that our suffering will produce in us a right estimate of the ephemeral treasures of this world, and of the surpassing greatness of the joy of knowing Jesus Christ. That's why my friend, Margaret, when she was holding her two-year-old child as his life slipped away at University Medical Center…he had drowned in the family pool…. She was working at the hospital and they medevaced him to Jackson. He clung to life for two days and didn't make it. That's why, holding her child in her arms, she could look up to me and say, “Ligon, could we sing The Doxology now?” Because as precious as that little life was to her that had been taken from her, and as precious as the hope that she had in her heart that he would not return to her, but she would go to him, as precious as the hope of heaven was…surpassing all of that was her knowledge of God in Jesus Christ. And so she wanted to sing The Doxology to her Creator as the very last breath of her child slipped away. Because she prized Christ. And the Holy Spirit, by faith worked that deeper into her in the crucible of suffering.
God purposes to use our suffering so that we come out of it treasuring the passing things of this world less, and treasuring the eternal friendship that we will have with Jesus Christ more than all things combined. That's why John Piper says, ‘You know, if you come through cancer, and you make it, what a waste if you don't come through saying ‘Whether I live or die, I am in Christ, and Christ is mine, and I am His. And if I'm here, praise God, I work for Christ. And if I'm there, praise God, I'm with Christ. But who cares either way, as long as I have Christ?’’
III. Maturity of the whole body.
Thirdly, the maturity of the whole body. It's quite extraordinary that our suffering is not only designed to work in us godliness and to work in us more prizing of Christ, but our suffering individually is designed for the whole body of believers to work in it maturity.
Turn with me to Colossians 1:24. It's an extraordinary passage. If Paul had not said this and I just stood up and started talking about this, you’d accuse me of heresy. But listen to what Paul says — Colossians 1:24:
“Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake…”
“I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and…”
[This is what's so shocking…here's what Paul says:]
“…and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of the body, that is, the church….”
Listen to that again:
“In my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of His body, that is, the church, of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints. To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.”
Well, that's a mouthful. Here's just one thing that Paul is teaching us about suffering in that passage, about how suffering is God's instrument for the maturity of the whole body. Here's my one sentence:
“God ordains that by the Spirit and by faith, our suffering, as a participation in the suffering of Christ's body, will bring about in His body the purposes, the aims, of Christ's affliction.”
In other words, friends, God appoints His children to suffer, sometimes so that the whole body will be matured in Him.
These afflictions which are lacking, the lacking of Christ's afflictions that Paul is speaking about, are not afflictions that indicate that Christ's suffering was insufficient for our salvation. It's simply this recognition: When you’re saved, when you become a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ, when you trust on Him for salvation, what do you become a part of? You become a part of His body. And what does He say? That because you are part of His body, your sufferings are His sufferings. So, what sufferings are lacking in Christ's affliction? The ones that haven't been experienced yet by His body; the ones that will continue being experienced by His body until He comes again and makes an end of all suffering.
And the Apostle Paul is telling you something amazing. He's telling you that the purposes of God in the body of Christ experiencing those afflictions is so that everyone in Christ will be built up and experience the truth of Christ in you; that everyone in the body of Christ will be made mature in Christ.
That is, God ordains that by the Spirit and by faith our suffering will bring about in the body the purposes, the aims, of Christian affliction, which are: Christ in you, the hope of glory; and, every one of you being made mature in Jesus Christ.
Anne and I a few years ago had the privilege of going to Vienna, Austria, to work with Overseas Missionary Fellowship missionaries who were serving mostly in Eastern Europe, but they would come to Vienna for missionary training. A number of them were taking courses with Reformed Theological Seminary [this is while I was still at the seminary] and I was in the classroom teaching the doctrine of God to about seven veteran missionaries. One of them was named Dave Babcock. On the second day of class (eight hours a day, grueling class), during the lunch break we started talking about what some of these guys did. And it turned out that Dave Babcock was a colleague of somebody that you may have heard of. Ever heard of Brother Andrew? OK. Well, Dave is the guy that did most of the things in the book, God's Smuggler. But they couldn't say who Dave was because of fear of Communist bloc persecution. Dave had been arrested, imprisoned, and beaten in Bulgaria, Turkey, Ukraine, Russia, China…and I've forgotten all of the other places. And he was very reticent to talk about any of this. I was dragging this out of him. But as I was dragging this out of him, two things were crossing my mind simultaneously: “This twenty-nine-year-old nincompoop is standing in a class talking to Dave Babcock about how to believe about God and Jesus and serve the Lord? Dave, come up here, brother, and teach the class! I'm sitting down from now on!” There's nothing that will reduce you more quickly than somebody that has served the Lord so faithfully.
Anne and I got to the home late (whatever night it was that we arrived there), and they started handing out the food. Very simple, and very little food. And of course they served Anne and me first. And they put what I thought were pretty chintzy little portions on the plate, you know, and I'm thinking on the inside, ‘You know, I've been traveling all day, and I'm kind of hungry here, you know! And it's kind of like a biscuit and some old milk or something like this.’ Until they got around the room and I realized that two of their children weren't eating. And they weren't eating because their portion had been given to Anne and me, and there wasn't any other food in the house. The one thing that happened is…I just….!!!…just like one of those little cartoons where the guy shrinks. What am I doing teaching these guys about God and the Bible?
But you know, the other thing that happened was I was built up and strengthened. I just wanted to be around that man, to have the privilege of talking with that guy who had loved his Savior like that through beatings and persecution and humiliation, and had taken Bible after Bible after Bible into the Communist bloc and had shared Christ, was giving the whole of his life, was living in poverty for the sake of the gospel. It was like food just to be around him. I've never forgotten that week. I’ll never forget that week. I may never get to fellowship with Dave Babcock again in his life or mine, but I will never forget him and the gift that he gave me through his suffering. Who knows how God will use it in my life?
And, my friends, your suffering doesn't just belong to you. Just like Dave Babcock's suffering belongs to me because we are members of the same body, your suffering belongs to your fellow believers. It's there for their maturing. It's there for them to be built up. It's there for them to be given faith and hope and confidence in the hour of their trial. Your suffering doesn't just belong to you. It belongs to the body, because one of God's purposes in suffering is the maturity of the whole body.
IV. To prepare us for glory.
Fourth, and finally [and here I am most out of my depth, and so I just have to say it, and here it is]: God's purpose in our suffering is preparing us for glory.
II Corinthians 4:7-18 —
“But we have this treasure…” [the treasure of being indwelt by God the Holy Spirit]
“…We have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.
“Since we have the same spirit of faith according to what has been written, ‘I believed, and so I spoke,’ we also believe, and so we also speak, knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence. For it is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.
“So we do not lose heart. Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison….”
Now here's my one sentence. What's Paul saying? Paul is saying that God ordains that by the Spirit and by faith, our suffering shows us God's power in our weakness in such a way that we could not have seen it without seeing and experiencing our weakness and suffering. God ordains that by the Spirit and by faith, our suffering shows us God's power in our weakness, and is in preparation for an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison. The only way I know to even begin to scratch the surface of what that means is to say this one sentence, and here's my sentence:
“Paul is saying that you couldn't bear the glory that God has in store for you unless you had been held up by God in your affliction now.”
I think if I say anything else more than that, I'm probably off in heresy somewhere. Listen to it again:
“You couldn't bear the glory that God is preparing you for, if you hadn't been held up by Him in your affliction now.”
The Apostle Paul is telling you that your suffering here is not just for now. It's not just for maturity in Christ — though it is; it's not just for godliness — though it is; it's not just so that you’ll prize Christ now — though it is; it's not just for the edification of the body — though it is. It is to prepare you for a glory that you can't even comprehend. And if you hadn't been held up by God in your affliction now, you couldn't bear the glory that He's going to give you then, so great is the glory that He has in store for you.
And that takes us right back to Romans 5, doesn't it? There's a hope that can't be taken from believers in suffering, because God is up to something bigger than us; but we are going to participate in such a way that we describe our fellowship with Him as joy inexpressible and full of glory. And that awaits all those who trust in Christ, no matter how much or how long they have suffered in this world.
Lord God, Your purposes in suffering both boggle our minds and comfort our hearts, because they are obvious and practical; and yet, O God, they are profound and beyond our fully comprehending. And yet we see clearly in Your word that You do not plan to waste one drop of our suffering. Help us to believe that, in Jesus' name. Amen.