Lord, I confess my inadequacy to create or to build faith. Yet this is my goal in these next minutes. That’s why we are praying, for you must do the work. Take this voice, these words, and all these listening ears, and do your gracious will in every life here. Amen.
It doesn’t take prophetic powers to predict that there will be tragedies in 1973. And I don’t think anyone would be alarmed if I were more specific and said that the people of God at White Oak will experience their share of suffering in the coming year. That’s what I’d like to think with you about this morning—Your Calamity in 1973.
I’m not going to try to guess what it will be, or when, or how severe. What I care about now is whether you and I will respond in faith to our calamities in 1973.
I feel like my mission here this morning is somewhat like Timothy, when Paul sent him from Athens back to the newly started church in Thessalonica. Paul describes the situation in 1 Thessalonians 3 like this:
Therefore when we would bear it no longer we were willing to be left behind at Athens alone and we sent Timothy our brother and God’s servant in the gospel of Christ to establish you in your faith and to exhort you that no one be moved by these afflictions for you yourselves know that to this we are appointed. (1 Thessalonians 3:1–3)
You heard my prayer—that my goal in these few minutes is to exhort and establish us strong in our faith so that when the calamity to which we are appointed comes, we will meet it full of faith unwavering confident in the love of Jesus.
There are at least two instances in Paul’s Second Epistle to the Corinthians where he relates the purposes of God to his own experience of suffering. In these two texts Paul is humbly grappling with the question why he—a faithful servant of the Lord—should be appointed for calamity. If we will open ourselves to receive the answer Paul received from the Lord, I believe our faith will be strengthened and we will be more ready to meet our own calamity in 1973.
Exceedingly Unbearably Crushed
I do not want you to be ignorant, brothers, concerning the affliction which we experienced in Asia for we were so exceedingly unbearably crushed that we despaired even of life, but we had in ourselves this sentence of death in order that we might not rely on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. (2 Corinthians 1:8–9)
Question: Why was Paul exceedingly crushed, beyond strength, to the point that he despaired of life itself?
Answer: In order that he might learn to put no confidence in himself but rather to put all of his trust and hope in God. Paul was brought to the brink of death that he might have no other recourse of hope than to turn to the one who has the power over death—God who raises the dead.
Question: What is God doing in the calamities of our lives?
Answer: He is causing us not to rely (for our happiness and hope) in ourselves or in the stable comfortable circumstance that surround us. Rather he is causing us to rely on himself who alone in all the universe is eternally and beautifully reliable.
Question: In the light of this can we dare to speak of glorious calamities in 1973?
Answer: I don't want to speak lightly or blithely about real tragedies that you know much more about than I do. But does not this text encourage us to confess in faith that for those who love God the calamities of 1973 will work together for good? And this is not this “good” precisely what we have seen here in 2 Corinthians 1. The good that will come from our calamity in 1973 is that we will rely more fully on God, we will love him more intensely, we will praise him with deeper understanding, in short, we will be established strong in our faith.
Thorn in the Flesh
We said that there were at least two instances in 2 Corinthians where Paul relates the purposes of God to his own experiences of suffering. We’ve seen the first here in chapter 1. The second is found in chapter 2 Corinthians 12:7–10, and I wand us to look at that now together. This text concerns that very familiar phrase of Paul’s “thorn in the flesh.”
To keep me from being too elated by the abundance of revelations, a thorn was given to me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to harass me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I besought the Lord about this, that it should leave me; but he said to me: “My grace is sufficient for you, my power is made perfect in weakness.” I will therefore all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong.
I suppose it was a reasonable prayer, like many of ours.
“Lord, I believe you. I’ve served you faithfully. Please take this suffering from me.”
“Paul, my grace is sufficient for you.”
“But Lord your grace is sufficient for other believers who have full health, what kind of answer is that?”
“Paul, when you are weak and suffering, there is my power made perfect in you.”
“O Lord, you know that my great desire is to know you and the power of your resurrection (Philippians 3:10), and if that’s true, then I will rejoice in my weakness.”
Note that Paul doesn't limit the application of Christ’s answer here to his thorn in the flesh. He extends the principle in v. 10 to all weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities.
Question: So we can ask, what does Christ will to do in the calamities of our own lives in 1973?
Answer: It is the purpose of Christ to manifest the sufficiency of his grace and to show the perfect completeness of his power.
This means that we believers who exist for the praise of Christ’s glory (Ephesians 1:12) should be able to say with Paul that we will be faithful and content in the calamities of 1973 because in this contentment we demonstrate the strength of Christ.
Now before we bring these two texts in 2 Corinthians from chapter 1 and chapter 12 together I want you to notice with me that the teaching we’ve found here is shot through the whole New Testament.
- It begins with Jesus: “Blessed (happy) are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account” (Matthew 5:11).
- Paul develops the theme in a number of epistles: “We rejoice in our suffering’s knowing that suffering produces endurance and endurance produces approvedness and approvedness produces hope” (Romans 5:3).
- James echoes the same teaching: “Count it all joy my brothers when you meet various trails for you know that the testing of your own faith produces steadfastness” (James 1:2).
- Peter makes it an essential part of his first epistle: “For a little while you may have … the revelation of Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:7).
- The writer to the Hebrews couches the same teaching in the context of the Father/Son relationship. “God disciplines us for our good that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:11, cf. 2 Corinthians 4:11, 17).
But now we want to bring these two texts in 2 Corinthians together and see what light they shed on each other.
- We saw in 2 Corinthians 1:9 that the purpose of God in Paul’s suffering was to cause Paul to rely more fully not on himself but upon God who raises the dead, That is, the purpose was to build up Paul’s faith.
- Then we saw in 2 Corinthians 12:9 that Christ’s purpose in Paul’s suffering was to show the sufficiency of his grace and manifest the completeness of his power.
The question we should raise now is this: How are these two purposes of God in suffering related to each other? What does the building up of faith through suffering have to do with the demonstration of Christ’s power though suffering?
Two Responses to Calamity
The answer to this question will, I think, become clear to us if we consider that there are always two possible responses to our calamities.
- We may react with bitter resentment and curse God for his harshness and swear that if this is the way he is, we want no part of him.
- But then there is the response of faith, which, like Abraham, hopes against hope and against all outward appearances (2 Corinthians 4:18; “unseen”), is confident that God is faithful, and so confesses with Job: “though he slay me yet will I trust him” (Job 13:15).
Only the second of these two responses demonstrates the sufficiency of Christ’s grace and the perfection of his power, because it is only be the power of Christ that a man can respond in this way to suffering. So in answer to our question how the two purposes of God in suffering are connected we can say this: The reliance upon God which we learn through suffering is the means by which we experience and demonstrate to others the grace and power of Christ.
This understanding of the connection between these two texts in 2 Corinthians is confirmed by Paul’s words in Philippians 3:8–11. He says that he desires to have a righteousness that is not his own based on law, but one that is through faith in Christ in order that he may know him and the power of his resurrection. In other words, having a righteousness based on faith was the means by which Paul experience and demonstrated the power of Christ.
It Is Well
When I think about what to pray for, or resolve, in 1973, I cant bring myself to ask for a placid life with no ripple or whirlpools. I don’t know if God’s will for me is ease and smoothness. But this I do know: it is God’s will that every one of his people in 1973 rely on him more fully, delight in him more intensely, praise him with greater zest and deeper steadfastness, and all of this in the midst of our calamities in 1973, so that thereby the grace and power of our Lord Jesus Christ will be manifest to the world.
Sing this together as a strong affirmation of faith in God:
When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea-billows roll—
Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul.
If what I’ve shared this morning helps you sing this, and mean it, I’ll be happy.