Brothers, Our Affliction Is for Their Comfort
Pastors and their people must suffer. "Through may tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God" (Acts 14:22). "You yourselves know that this is to be our lot" (1 Thess. 3:3). "The Lord disciplines him whom He loves, and chastises every son whom He receives" (Heb. 12:16).
The afflictions suffered by the family of God are from the Heavenly Father for our good. This is solid Swedish insight:
He whose heart is kind beyond all measure
Gives unto each day what He deems best-
Lovingly, it's part of pain and pleasure.
Mingling toil with peace and rest.
It is also biblical. Job and Paul have this in common: When struck by Satan they felt the hand of God. Ultimately, their suffering was from the Lord, and they knew it.
The Lord said to Satan, "All that he [Job] has is in your power" (Job 1:12). But when the calamity struck, Job responded, "The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord" (1:21). A second time the Lord said to Satan, "Behold, he [Job] is in your power; only spare his life" (2:6). But when the horrid disease came and Job's wife urged him to curse God, Job replied, "Shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?" (2:10). And the inspired writer adds: "In all this Job did not sin with his lips."
Even if Satan is sometimes involved as the nearer cause of our calamities , it is not sin to see God as the more distant primary cause. Satan's design in the destruction of faith (Job 2:5; 1 Thess. 3:5), but God's design is the deep cure of our soul:
I only design
Thy dross to consume
And thy gold to refine.
Like Job, Paul recognized his thorn in the flesh as a "messenger of Satan" (2 Cor. 12:7), but designed by God for a very gracious purpose: "to keep me from being too elated [conceited]."
Satan does not have free rein in the world , and even less so in the family of God. Therefore, in our struggle with suffering it will never be a sufficient comfort to say, "It is of Satan and no of God." The only genuine comfort will come from acknowledging that the all-powerful God has done it, and that He is infinitely wise and infinitely loving to those who trust Him.
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.
His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding every hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flower.
God has unfolded for us one of the purposes for which pastors must suffer. Paul states it in 2 Corinthians 1:6: "If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation." A sermon on this text would have as its main point: "The afflictions of a Christian minister are designed by God to achieve the comfort and salvation of his flock."
When Paul says to the Corinthians that his affliction are for their comfort and salvation, he implies that there is a design and purpose in his sufferings. But whose design? Whose purpose? He does not design and plan his own afflictions. And Satan surely does not design them to comfort and save the church. Therefore, Paul must mean that God designs and purposes His pastoral afflictions for the good of the church.
God ordained the sufferings of Christ for the redemption of the church (Acts 2:23; 4:27f), and He ordains the suffering of Christian ministers for the application of that redemption (Col. 1:24).
This is a sobering thought, but also a very comforting one. On the other hand, it means that the fabric of a pastor's life will be laced with dark threads of pain. But on the other hand, it means that every affliction he must endure is designed not only for his own good but for the good of his flock. God never wastes the gift of suffering (Phil. 1:29). It is given to His ministers as He knows best, and its design is the consolation and salvation of our people.
No pastoral suffering is senseless. No pastoral pain in pointless. No adversity is absurd and meaningless. Every heartache has its divine target in the consolation of the saints, even when we feel least useful.
Answering the "Why"
How does a pastor's suffering achieve the consolation and salvation of his flock? The context of Paul's words suggests the following scenario:
Circumstances conspire to crush a pastor's spirits. (Perhaps loss of health, loss of a loved one, defection of a friend, unresponsive people, slander, weariness or overwork.) Things become so bad that he even despairs of life itself. He cries out, "Why?" The answer comes back from 2 Corinthians 1:9. "That was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead." If, by grace, we manage a mustard seed of faith in God's sovereign goodness through it all, we will discover unspeakable comfort.
God's first great design in all our trouble is that we might let go of self-confidence. When we do that, there is a temporary sense of falling. But by faith in God's mercy, we land, infinitely more secure, in the arms of our Father, who is utterly in control at the brink of life and death.
But has He brought us through this wrenching fall for ourselves only? No. If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort." Now, as 2 Corinthians 1:4 says, we are able to "comfort those who are able to "comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God." Only one thing comforts in the end: "God who raises the dead."
All pastoral afflictions are graciously designed to make us rely on God and not ourselves. And therefore our afflictions prepare us to do the one thing most needful for our people - to point them away from ourselves to the all-sufficient God. In this alone is consolation and salvation. Therefore, "If we are afflicted it is for your comfort and salvation."
At least twice again in 2 Corinthians, Paul delivers this sober message. In 4:7-12, he describes his ministerial miseries and interprets them like this: We are . . . always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our bodies. For while we live we are always being given up to death for Jesus' sake, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you."
This is another way of saying, "If we are afflicted, it is for your salvation."
When Paul endures weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions and calamities, and accepts them as God's gracious therapy, the power of Christ is perfected in his life (2 Cor. 12:7-10). And since it is Christ's power, not Paul's, that brings life to the church, we can see why he said, "Death is at work in us but life in you" (v. 12). Paul's weakness and affliction minister life to the church. And so should ours.
Christ Our Pattern
Finally, Paul reminds us that this is the pattern of Christ: He brought life to the church through weakness and affliction; so should His ministers. "For though He was crucified through weakness, yet He lives by the power of God. For we also are weak in Him, but we shall live with Him by the power of God toward you" (2 Cor. 13:4 KJV - the most literal).
This is a complicated sentence, but I think it means: A minister's life in Christ shares all the weaknesses (and more) that brought Christ to the cross. But in our weakness God's power comes into its own with two effects: It enables us to love and serve the church and thus it brings us life, now in the inner man (4:16) and, finally, in the resurrection. The main idea is repeated in 13:9, "We are glad when we are weak and you are strong."
The Christian pastor will not expect to comfort or save his people except by following the Calvary Road. "Though He [Christ] was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that by His poverty you might become rich" (2 Cor. 8:9). Thus Paul describes himself "as poor, yet making many rich" (2 Cor. 6:10). Poor that our people might be rich. Weak that they might be strong. Afflicted for their comfort and for their salvation.
But note well: not a whiff of self-pity. For there is nothing we desire more than to "know [Christ] and the power of His resurrection, and . . . share His sufferings, becoming like Him in His death, that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead" (Phil. 3:10-11).
We know that it is more blessed to give than to receive (Acts 20:35). Therefore, apart from all naive and romantic idealizations, the Christian pastor says with Paul, "With all our affliction, I am overjoyed" (2 Cor. 7:4). For "if we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation."
©2013 Desiring God Foundation. Used by Permission.
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in its entirety or in unaltered excerpts, as long as you do not charge a fee. For Internet posting, please use only unaltered excerpts (not the content in its entirety) and provide a hyperlink to this page. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Desiring God.
Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By John Piper. ©2013 Desiring God Foundation. Website: desiringGod.org