Interview with

Founder & Teacher,

Audio Transcript

Welcome back to another week on the Ask Pastor John podcast. In our Bible reading this week, we’re in the thick of it, reading through Leviticus — a notorious book that ends a lot of well-intended Bible readers in the month of February — a book that includes hard texts like Leviticus 21:16–24, forcing Bible readers to ask, “Why did God shun the disabled in the Old Testament?” We looked at that question last time, on Thursday.

Today we talk about personal suffering and the meaning-full-ness of Christian suffering. So often suffering feels meaning-less, and we can get disheartened and feel like giving up, leading to today’s question from Samuel. “Hello, Pastor John. The apostle Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:7–9 that he was ‘afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken.’ What does he mean that he was persecuted but not forsaken? When I imagine the sufferings of Paul hitting my life, I would be immediately tempted to think that such harsh persecution would make me feel completely crushed and abandoned by God. Much lesser pain in my life brings me to the brink of this already. So, how did Paul endure such pain without feeling totally defeated? And what has faith looked like in your life when your life was its hardest?”

Here’s the text that we’re being asked to get inside of: 2 Corinthians 4:7–9:

We have this treasure [namely, this treasure of vital faith in Christ, who is the image of God] in jars of clay [that is, fragile bodies and minds], 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.

And Samuel is asking, “How did Paul endure this — this being afflicted, perplexed, persecuted, struck down? How did he endure this the way he did?” And he has in mind the magnitude and frequency of Paul’s sufferings.

I doubt that most of our listeners have an immediate consciousness of how terrible that was for Paul. So, I’m going to read it. This is one of the most surprising and staggering and appalling statements of Paul’s life in the Bible. He endured

far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. (2 Corinthians 11:23–28)

And we complain.

Samuel’s question is relevant because of how easily we grumble about our own circumstances when in fact none of us — I’m willing to say this to everybody listening to me — has endured what Paul did. So, Samuel asks, “How did Paul endure such pain without feeling totally defeated — indeed, abandoned by God?” That’s what he asks, and I think Paul would give three answers.

1. ‘I endured by God’s keeping.’

Number one, I think he would say, “I was miraculously kept faithful by the Lord Jesus. It was a gift; it was a miracle; it was a work of God to keep me. That’s why I didn’t give in.” His perseverance was a gift. Here’s what he says in 2 Timothy 4:16–17:

At my first defense no one came to stand by me, but all deserted me. May it not be charged against them! But the Lord stood by me and strengthened me, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion’s mouth.

That’s his basic answer to how he endured. The living, sovereign Lord Jesus Christ stood by Paul when nobody else did. He did not infer that because everybody abandoned him, God’s not real. Since Christians are all a bunch of fakes, Jesus isn’t real. He never went that direction, which so many people do today.

In 1 Corinthians 1:8–9, he said that Christ sustains us “to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, by whom [we] were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” So, Paul enjoyed fellowship with Jesus. That’s the key: fellowship with Jesus. And God held on to Paul and sustained him and preserved his faith through everything by giving him the enjoyment of fellowship with Jesus through it all.

God began the work in Paul on the Damascus road. And according to Philippians 1:6, he believes God will finish the work. So, God calls, God keeps, God establishes, God glorifies. This is God’s work. If any of us endures to the end as a believer through suffering, it’s God’s grace that we endure. It’s a gift. It’s a supernatural work. So, that’s Paul’s first answer.

2. ‘I endured by sound teaching.’

As a second answer, I think he would say, “God preserved me, Jesus saved me and kept me, by means of teaching me a true and robust theology of Christian suffering.” And in that theology of Christian suffering, which kept him, was the conviction of God’s absolute sovereignty over Paul’s suffering — and that God is not only sovereign, but he’s good and he’s wise. Nothing befalls Paul but what God sends for his good purposes. “If the Lord wills,” James says (and Paul agrees), “we will live and do this or that” (James 4:15). If he doesn’t, we won’t. We are immortal till God’s work for us is done. God is sovereign. That is basic to Paul’s and our endurance.

In the first days after his conversion, remember that even before his blindness was removed there in Damascus, Ananias was sent to Paul, and he was sent with this message: “I will show him,” Christ says, “how much he must suffer for the sake of my name” (Acts 9:16). In other words, from the beginning, God made it clear to Paul, “To serve me is to suffer.” Suffering’s not a detour. It’s part of the path, part of the calling.

God’s Loving Discipline

Paul knew that all of God’s wrath had been absorbed by Jesus when he died. So now, there’s no condemnation for Paul (or for us) in Christ. None of these horrible things that are happening to Paul is owing to God’s wrath. What a relief! They were all part of God’s fatherly, loving, disciplining, ministry-advancing purposes for Paul, for the church, for the world.

“If any of us endures to the end as a believer through suffering, it’s God’s grace that we endure.”

Some of his sufferings, he says, were the refining of his own faith. Second Corinthians 1:8–9 is amazing. He says, “We were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.” That was God’s purpose: to help Paul trust utterly in God by knocking all the props out from under his life so that there was only one place to fall — on God who raises the dead. And he trusted God. He trusted this profound knowledge of the role of suffering in the life of the believer.

No Wasted Pain

Another part of his theology of suffering was that no pain here is wasted, because it’s producing a weight of glory beyond all comparison. “This light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Corinthians 4:17). In other words, even in those last horrible days and weeks of suffering before death — they seem so meaningless — even in those hours, nothing is wasted because they actually are producing a greater weight of glory after death.

I’ll mention one more aspect of Paul’s theology of suffering that is like a ballast in his boat to keep it from being tipped over by the sufferings. He says that his sufferings for the body of Christ were the filling up of what was lacking in the afflictions of Christ. “I rejoice in my sufferings” — which is an amazing statement in itself —“for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Colossians 1:24).

This was not because Christ’s afflictions were lacking in any atoning merit. That’s not the issue; that’s not the problem. It was because Christ’s afflictions were lacking in personal presentation to those for whom he suffered. Paul was saying, “In my sufferings for you, I am presenting to you Christ’s sufferings for you, so that you can see and feel his love for you in my suffering for you.” And I think that’s why many pastors are called to suffer the way they are.

3. ‘I endured by God’s promises.’

So, Paul’s first answer to how he endured these crushing hardships was that Christ kept him, stood by him. And the second answer is that he kept him by means of a true and robust theology of Christian suffering. And finally, the third answer that Paul would give is this: “I was kept by the precious and very great promises of God” — promises like these:

  • “I’ll be with you to the end” (Matthew 28:20).
  • “I’ll never leave you. I’ll never forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5).
  • “I will work everything together for your good” (Romans 8:28).
  • “I will strengthen you; I will help you; I will uphold you” (Isaiah 41:10).
  • “In the Lord, none of your work is in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58).
  • “To live is Christ; to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21).
  • “To be away from the body is to be at home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8).

So, these three answers to how Paul endured are our answers. I think that’s our answer as well as Paul’s answer. Paul lived his life for our sake. That’s why he endured these things — so that we could see and learn.

  1. The Lord kept him and will keep us.
  2. We should have a robust, biblical theology of Christian suffering.
  3. We should live through it all by the precious promises of God.