2 Corinthians 1:3–11,
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ's sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer. Our hope for you is unshaken, for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort. For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For 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. He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again. You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many.
As we wrap up this series on the Things of Earth, it’s good to take stock of what we’ve seen. First we saw God created the world to show us who he is and what he’s like. Creation is a web of interlocking things of earth that help us to know and love God. We taste and see that honey is good as a way of creating categories in our experience so that we can taste and see that the Lord is good. This means that we don’t stiff-arm the things of earth in order to love God more; we don’t make creation stoop so that Jesus stands tall. Instead we let our joy in them soar since it carries our joy in God with them. Then we saw that the two chief sins that human beings commit are idolatry and ingratitude. We don’t honor God as God (we don’t put him as supreme in our lives) and we don’t give thanks for all of his kindness to us. We also said that the Bible gives us two complementary ways for relating God and his gifts. The comparative approach separates the gifts from the Giver and asks which is more valuable. And when we do that separation, we say, “Jesus is. Your love is better than life. Better is one day in your courts. There is nothing on earth I desire besides you. All I have is Christ.” But then, having established Jesus as the sun at the center of our solar systems, we bring the gifts and Giver together and enjoy God in everything and everything in God. That’s the integrated approach.
After establishing the basic paradigm, Pastor David helped us think about money. Money is from God. Money is for people. Money is about Jesus. God gives us wealth. We receive the wealth, and then we use the wealth in order to help others know and love God. We have freely received and therefore we freely give. And then last week, Pastor Jonathan helped us to see how self-denial fits with our enjoyment of the things of earth. When we deny ourselves, we give up good things like our time and our best curly fries so that we can know Jesus more and help other people know Jesus more. And we do so because one day we know that our sacrifices won’t feel like sacrifices. One day, we’ll see him and all of our self-denial will be worth it.
Now self-denial is the voluntary giving up of good things in the cause of love. In the final sermon, I want to talk about the involuntary loss of good things. I want to talk about suffering and pain and death. And that may feel a bit odd to you. After this service, we’re going to go to a park and celebrate birthdays for the Rigney and Mathis boys. There will be baseball and sunshine and laughter and friends and cake. Do I really want to talk about suffering and sorrow and loss?
No one wants to talk about suffering. But we need to talk about suffering. And we need to do so, because whether the sun is shining outside or not, there are people in this room who are suffocating in their grief and loss. Some of you came in here today and you could barely see the sun shining because the darkness inside was so great.
When I was writing The Things of Earth, I remember a brief conversation with Piper where I was laying out integrated joy—let joy in the gifts soar because it carries joy in God with it. And he nodded and then said, “Until they’re gone. Until they’re taken. Until you die.” It was a very Piper thing to say; but it was also a very biblical thing to say. If our theology of the things of earth is silent when the baby dies or the persecution comes or the cancer comes back, we don’t have the right theology. So we have to face the inevitability of losing the good things that are designed to enlarge our minds and hearts to know God. What do we do when precious things of earth are ripped from our hands and torn from our hearts?
Let’s start by distinguishing kinds of suffering. Then let’s look at three effects of suffering. Then we’ll look at two purposes of suffering. And then we’ll close with three responses to suffering. There are a number of ways to divide up suffering. We could talk about natural suffering (such as sickness or disease) and moral suffering (such as persecution and enmity). We could distinguish suffering based on intensity: inconveniences (such as when your favorite restaurant changes their menu and drop your favorite item) versus calamities (such as the death of a loved one). And, because I believe it will be most relevant for everyone here, I’m thinking mainly in terms of natural suffering (not persecution) and calamities (and not inconveniences). But within natural calamities, there is another distinction I want to make. It’s the difference between losing something that we already had and desiring something that we’ve not received. This is the suffering of loss and the suffering of longing. Both are painful. Both can break your heart. But there are differences worth noting.
In the suffering of loss, we know the sweetness of what we no longer possess. When dad dies, when the child dies, when sickness or injury robs us of health, we hurt because we know what we’re missing. Our past haunts our present. We look back and say, “Why? God, why did you take him? Why did this happen to me?”
In the suffering of longing, we hurt because we want something that God is withholding. It’s not that he’s taking; it’s that he’s not giving. When we’re longing for a husband or a wife, when we’re aching for a baby, our future haunts our present. We look around and say, “Why not? God, why not me?”
Now, I bring up these distinctions in kinds of suffering for a reason. They matter. The particulars matter. Paul says that he doesn’t want them to be unaware of the affliction in Asia—the unbearable burden, the despair, the feeling that they had been sentenced to die. The Asian affliction was different than the Syrian affliction or the Thessalonian affliction. There are differences between loss and longing, and between losing a parent and losing a child, between wanting a spouse who might be just around the corner and wanting a baby that physically will never come. The particulars do matter.
But, the main reason I bring up the distinctions is because of the danger of the distinctions. It is far too easy for us to compare suffering, to try and gauge who has suffered more or whose pain lingers longest. It’s easy to look at the affliction in Asia and say that it’s worth than the afflictions in Corinth. It’s easy for the unmarried to look at the pains of marriage and say, “At least you have a spouse.” It’s easy for someone who has lost a child to look at the loss of a sibling or parent and say, “It’s not the same.” And that’s true. It’s not the same. The particulars matter. But that truth can actually hide one of the central things that the Bible wants us to see about suffering. Listen to Paul in 2 Corinthians:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. (2 Cor. 1:3-4)
God comforts us in our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those in any affliction. There are different afflictions, and those differences matter. But we cannot let the differences in affliction overshadow the fundamental commonality in all afflictions. What is that commonality? It’s that the only comfort in any and all affliction comes from the one God, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort. All comfort. Whether you’ve lost someone or you’re longing for someone. Whether you’re assaulted by sickness or assaulted by evil men. Whether your suffering is comparatively great or comparatively small. Our only hope in affliction comes from the only God who gives comfort.
Effects of Suffering
Let’s look now at effects of suffering. I have three effects in mind. The first is guilt. That may sound odd to some, but for Christians who believe that the steadfast love of the Lord is better than life and who confess that all things are loss compared to knowing Jesus, guilt in the midst of suffering is real. When the calamity occurs, when the pain and loss run deep, when the sorrow doesn’t go away, there can be, in the back of the mind, a low-grade guilt. “If I really trusted God, if I really loved him above all else, I wouldn’t hurt this way. It wouldn’t cut me this deep.” And the effect of that guilt is to push us away from the God of all comfort. We can’t deny our sorrow, and since we feel that our sorrow shows how little we love God, we run from God. We isolate ourselves from him.
And not only from him. The second effect is isolation. There arises between the sufferer and the world an invisible blanket. The comparison that I mentioned earlier can feed this. “They don’t understand. They’ve not suffered as I have.” People and relationships are hard when we’re hurting. They don’t know what to say. We don’t know what to say. Everyone feels embarrassed and awkward. We can’t speak of it. We can’t not speak of it. Best to just go our separate ways.
The final effect I have in mind is the anger and the frustration. Anger at God. Frustration at the world. Why did he do this? Why didn’t he stop this? And this anger at God can increase both the guilt and the isolation. We find that our anger at God bubbles out in strange ways. We’re angry at him for letting this happen to us, but we can’t get at him. So we end up taking it out on other people. We lash out at others and this further isolates us from people who may be able to bring comfort.
This anger and frustration is compounded when the God of all comfort seems absent in our pain. Like Paul, we feel the despair and hopelessness of being abandoned by God. C.S. Lewis captures this well in writing about the death of his wife.
Meanwhile, where is God? This is one of the most disquieting symptoms. When you are happy, so happy that you have no sense of needing Him, so happy that you are tempted to feel His claims upon you as an interruption, if you remember yourself and turn to Him with gratitude and praise, you will be—or so it feels—welcomed with open arms. But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence. You may as well turn away. The longer you wait, the more emphatic the silence will become. There are no lights in the windows. It might be an empty house. Was it ever inhabited? It seemed so once. And that seeming was as strong as this. What can this mean? Why is He so present a commander in our time of prosperity and so very absent a help in time of trouble? (A Grief Observed, 4)
Lewis goes on to say that the real danger for many of us at this point is not that we would cease to believe in God. Rather, it’s that we come to believe such dreadful things about him. “This is what God is really like. He wounds us and then won’t heal. He wrecks us and then turns his back. This affliction might be bearable if I knew he was near, but I don’t feel his nearness.” And this distrust is worse than unbelief. We believe in God, but he has become a horror to us. We look back on his graciousness as preparation for his next torture (and we imagine that keeping our distance from him will be a protection). Paul says, “He delivered us in the past; he will deliver us again.” We say, “He has afflicted us in the past, and he will afflict us again.” In fact, these horrible thoughts are often a way for us to get back at God in the only way we can. We cannot actually injure him, so we call him a Cosmic Sadist and believe lies about him—that he is cruel and uncaring and harsh. And between the guilt (“Does my pain show that I have loved the gift too much?) and the isolation (“No one understands”) and the anger (“God is cruel and uncaring”), we spiral into deeper despair and bitterness and grief.
Purposes in Suffering
Before I give some practical responses to these effects of suffering, it will be good to see the purposes of suffering in light of what we’ve said in this series about enjoying the things of earth. First, suffering, whether of loss or of longing, tests the comparative approach to God and his gifts. It forces us to put our money where our mouth is. We sing, “Hallelujah, all I have is Christ!” And then God asks if we mean it. Is he enough? If you lose everything, and all you have is Jesus, is he enough?
We see this again and again in the Bible. Friends abandon us in our time of need. Will we be undone? Or will we be like Paul?
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. The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen. (2 Tim. 4:16–18)
If our parents reject us and forsake us, can we say with the psalmist, “For my father and mother have forsaken me, but the Lord will take me in” (Psalm 27:10)?
When the storm comes and blows the house down with our children inside it, will we curse God or say with Job, “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21)? Or when all sources of earthly joy and prosperity fail, can we say with Habakkuk:
Though the fig tree should not blossom,
nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail
and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold
and there be no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
I will take joy in the God of my salvation.
ere’s a good exercise for everyone here. Take Habakkuk 3 and personalize it (I got this idea from Pastor Kevin). What are the things of earth that are such sources of joy and stability and prosperity in your life? Put them in place of fig trees and flocks, and pray this to the Lord.
So suffering tests whether or not God is supreme in our hearts and minds. But what about integrated joy? What about enjoying God in everything and everything in God? Does it go when the gift goes? Is suffering only about the comparative approach? I don’t think so. Integrated joy continues even in the absence of the gift. To see how, you have to remember that the heart of enjoying everything in God is soul expansion. The things of earth enlarge our minds and hearts so that we can know God more. And this soul expansion happens when the gift is present, and it can happen when the gift is absent.
I remember when Pastor Michael and Emily were losing their precious son Henryk. I remember trying to be with them in their suffering. And I remember thinking, “If I were in their shoes, I might have a hitch in my grief because of my belief in the sovereignty of God. If God is taking the baby, then am I fighting him because I want to keep the baby here as long as possible? Am I loving this baby too much?” I didn’t know whether they were feeling that, but I wrote them a short note and said, “I know you guys love Jesus above everything. And so I just wanted to say, You can’t love Henryk too much. It is impossible for you to feel too deeply for him, for you to want to hold him too much, for you to long and ache for him with too much intensity.”
Now how could I say that? Was I saying that idolatry was impossible for the grieving? Not at all. But idolatry isn’t loving something too much. It’s loving something in place of God. You only love wrongly when you separate the gift from the Giver and love the gift instead of God. But if you receive the gift, if you receive Henryk, as a gift from God, then you cannot love him too much or prize him too highly. God is not threatened by his gifts.
Responses to Suffering
Let me make a few closing words about how to respond when we’re in the midst of suffering. First, we press into the pain. We don’t stand aloof and detached. We’re not Stoics. We don’t believe the lie that says, “If you truly loved God, you wouldn’t be weeping and wailing like this.” Instead, we grieve the way that people in the Bible grieved. Job trusted in the goodness of God, and that didn’t keep him from feeling the loss of his children. He tore his robe. He shaved his head. He fell on the ground, and he sat there for seven days. He grieved and wept and worshiped through tears.
Or just read the Psalms. Listen to David and Asaph and the rest wrestle with God in their grief. “How long, O Lord, how long? Will you forget me forever?” They cry out for justice. They claim his promises. They hold nothing back. They pour out their souls to God.
And then, of course, there’s Jesus. Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. Weeping over Jerusalem. Deeply moved in his spirit by the grief of Mary and Martha. Shedding troubled tears at the tomb of Lazarus, minutes before he would raise him from the dead.
Now, why can they do this? Why can they (and we) press into the pain? When I was losing my dad to dementia, I came across a quotation that has hung with me ever since. “It hurts just as much as its worth.” Sorrow is what love looks like when love’s object is taken. The depth of the pain shows the value of what was lost. And the whole point of this series has been that the things of earth are unfathomably valuable because they are designed to bring us to God. And they can bring us to him, even when they are being taken by him.
Here’s a section from the letter I wrote to Michael.
So I just want to encourage you and Em to plunge headlong into the gift. Savor every moment with that baby. Touch him, hold him, caress him, let the love that you feel for him surge through you. Let it provoke you to tears and sadness and that gut-wrenching feeling that you would do absolutely anything to make your son whole. Let your love for your little boy take you beyond the pain and sorrow to the indestructible joy of the God who gives good gifts and is not threatened by them.
It’s as if God is saying to you, “You don’t know how intense my love is for you, how deep my affections are for you. So I’m going to show you. I’m going to stretch your heart to the breaking point. It will feel like you are dying. But if you go with me, into the love, into the pain, into the sorrow and longing and desire, then when all is said and done, you will know that “as a father has compassion on his children, so does the Lord have compassion on you.”
Second, press into people. Don’t isolate yourself. It may hurt more. They may not know what to say. It may be embarrassing. In addition to the loss, you may have to endure the additional pain of being pitied. No one likes to be pitied. I take that back; the only people who like to be pitied are those who want to use pity as a weapon to manipulate others.
In 2 Corinthians, the central link between the God of all comfort and the suffering person is others who have suffered and been comforted. We are one of the key ways that God brings comfort. It’s our prayers that bring help. It’s our presence and words that bring comfort. But bringing comfort to others requires that we have both received comfort ourselves and that we have the wisdom to know how to channel the comfort in ways that will actually help.
We need wisdom about when to speak and when to be silent, when to sit and grieve, and when to offer counsel. We need wisdom to know who should speak and what words are appropriate and when those words are appropriate. Who is sufficient for these things? But the fact that it is hard doesn’t mean that we can avoid it. We’re the link between the comfort of Christ and the suffering of people. If we’re to do 2 Corinthians 1 well, we must be connected to both the one who is afflicted and to the God of all comfort.
Finally, press into the Lord. In your sorrow, do not sin. Weep, wail, grieve, lament. Rage against this broken and cursed world and the evil powers that steal and kill and destroy. But never curse God. Don’t run from him. He is the only source of comfort. He is the God of all comfort. Press on to know him. Press hard into him. As surely as the coming of the dawn, he will respond.
For me, songs and poetry can often communicate better than a sermon. So I’m going to mention one song that has ministered to me, and then during communion, Nick is going to lead us in a second. The hymn is entitled “Come, Ye Disconsolate.”
Come, ye disconsolate, where’er ye languish;
come to the mercy seat, fervently kneel.
Here bring your wounded hearts, here tell your anguish;
earth has no sorrows that heaven cannot heal.
Joy of the desolate, light of the straying,
hope of the penitent, fadeless and pure!
Here speaks the Comforter, in mercy saying,
“Earth has no sorrows that heaven cannot cure.”
Here see the bread of life; see waters flowing
forth from the throne of God, pure from above.
Come to the feast prepared; come, ever knowing
earth has no sorrows but heaven can remove.
I love that hymn because of the last line of each verse. God never takes without giving back. He brings us face to face with death so that we will rely not on ourselves, but on the God who raises the dead. The sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing to the glory to be revealed. These light and momentary afflictions are working for us an eternal weight of glory that far outweighs them all. Nothing good will ever finally be lost. Earth has no sorrow that heaven cannot heal.