When Bad Things Happen
14/05/2006 at 9.30am / 11.15am
2 Corinthians 12
Jesmond Parish Church
A sermon preached by David Holloway
Our subject this morning is WHEN BAD THINGS HAPPEN - and happen to good people. Bad things happened to the apostle Paul whose second letter to the Corinthians we are looking at on these Sunday mornings this session. And this morning we come to 2 Corinthians 12.1-10. My headings are, first, “WHEN” NOT “IF” bad things happen to good people; secondly, WHY DO THEY HAPPEN? and, thirdly, WHAT DO YOU DO WHEN THEY HAPPEN?
First, “WHEN” NOT “IF”
Certainly it was a case of “when” not “if” bad things happening to Paul. At his conversion Ananias had to tell him "how much he must suffer for the name [of Christ]” (Acts 9.16). It is not surprising then that Paul and his missionary partner, Barnabas, taught new Christians that “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14.22).
In our last study in chapter 11 (verses 23-33) we read the details of some of Paul’s hardships; and in our passage this morning, in the second part of verse 7, Paul talks about something he calls “a thorn”:
“there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.”This was some form of suffering that came Paul’s way. We don’t know what it was. The following have all been suggested - Jewish persecution, sexual temptation, epilepsy, chronic ophthalmia, a speech impediment, a recurrent illness like malaria, or a physical deformity. But we just don’t know. And that has been good - it means that each of us can apply the teaching in this passage to our own personal hardships and difficulties, whatever they are. Paul certainly suffered and taught about suffering.
So did the apostle Peter. Speaking of suffering for “doing good” and enduring it, he said: “To this you were called” (1 Pet 2.21). It is a Christian calling to suffer.
I was once giving a talk at a SU summer boys camp and referring to Peter’s teaching on suffering. I think the Bible reading included 1 Peter 6-7 which says:
“now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith - of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire - may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed.”And I illustrated what I had to say from my experiences in the Sudan in the mid-sixties when the persecution of Southern Christians by Muslim Northerners was just beginning and there was terrible suffering.
After the talk the leader of the camp said to me: “you know, I personally have never really had to suffer.” I shall never forget those words because the following day his own little boy was playing with a farm cart on a slope on the camp site. And then the cart rolled back onto him and killed him as he was crushed against a wall. Yes, God does allow his people to suffer. Bad things happen to good people. It is, indeed, “when” not “if” they happen.
That, then, raises a question and brings us
Secondly, to WHY DO THEY HAPPEN?
There are at least three reasons in Paul’s case. To see the first reason, look again at verses 1-7 of chapter 12:
“I must go on boasting. Although there is nothing to be gained, I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord. I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know - God knows. And I know that this man - whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows - was caught up to paradise. He heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell. I will boast about a man like that, but I will not boast about myself, except about my weaknesses. Even if I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool, because I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain, so no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say. To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.”The probable context for all this is the false teachers at Corinth who were challenging Paul. They were probably claiming they had special teaching from God through visionary experiences. So they were superior to Paul. But they were mistaken. Although Paul didn’t want to talk about visions and the like, he too had such visionary experiences. So reluctantly he refers to a special experience he had fourteen years earlier. In doing so he makes several points.
One, he doesn’t think that every spiritual experience like this is for public consumption nor is it to be seen as a measure of spiritual superiority - verse 1: “there is nothing to be gained” [from talking about it.]
Two, he doesn’t want personally to be identified as a spiritual guru making a big thing of his experiences. So he puts the report of this experience into the third person. He refers to himself as a third party - verse 2: “I know a man” [he says - referring to himself].
Three, it was difficult to know how to describe what went on - verse 2: “whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know.” This past week someone told me of an experience they had of God’s presence. For them, too, it was easier to assert than describe.
Four, what Paul heard in this visionary experience of heaven (called both the “third heaven” and “paradise”) was only for himself and no one else - verse 4: “He heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell.”
And, five, even though he had this awesome experience, in no way was it to be considered a mark of being a true or false leader in the church. Rather, the test of his being a true or false leader should be, says Paul - verse 6: “by what I do or say.” The test of a leader is be from a leader’s behaviour and the content of their teaching. The true Christian leader - as any true believer - will be noted not for private visionary experiences in the past but for what they do and say now. And what is done, if they are true disciples of Christ, will involve suffering. Jesus said: “any one who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14.27).
A genuine Christian carries a cross. So Paul wanted to boast about his weaknesses - his crosses - not about these experiences - verse 5:
“I will not boast about myself, except about my weaknesses.”The first reason, then, why bad things happened to Paul was because he was a genuine Christian - so the false teachers couldn’t fault him.
The second reason we are told in verse 7 was, says Paul:
“To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.”Suffering was to stop Paul being conceited. Humility is so essential. The Bible says: “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (I Pet 5.5). So to get rid of Paul’s pride - or potential pride - God allowed this “thorn”. Why is pride so evil? Answer, it is so hard to detect. Most sins relate to evil deeds. But pride relates to what is good. So we so easily fail to see it. Pride is when you think you can do things quite well your way and not God’s way. But when you suffer - when you lose your money or your job or your family or your security or your health and you are really down and out, spiritually and emotionally, then you are made “humble” and have to rely on God.
Like suffering, pride can take many forms. You can be proud or conceited in thinking that you don’t need God to get to heaven; and thinking you are quite capable of saving yourself through your good deeds; and when you die, God will say, “well done!” - come on in and join the party. But that is just not true. That was the problem with the Pharisee in Jesus’ Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. The Pharisee was religious. He had done a whole lot of religious and good things. But the man who was right with God was not the proud Pharisee but the humble tax collector who simply asked God for mercy. Who here this morning is like that Pharisee? If you are, you are guilty of the sin of pride - one of the most deadly of sins. But Christ forgives all sin, if you become like the tax collector and say, “God, have mercy on me a sinner” (Luke 18.13).
So, the second reason Paul suffered was to keep him humble and not conceited.
And the third reason was that Paul’s suffering enabled him to experience Christ’s power in a special way. Look ahead to verse 9:
“But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.”When Paul’s “thorn” didn’t go away, that is when he experienced Christ’s power. This is quite amazing. You think that your situation is just hopeless and that you can be no good for God. Perhaps you have a broken marriage, or perhaps something else utterly disastrous has happened to you. Perhaps you have an incurable illness. Perhaps you feel for some other reason that you have a life sentence. Well, that is exactly how Paul felt. This “thorn” - whatever it was - seemed permanent. It was not going to go away. He had prayed for it to go, but it hadn’t. But he then learned an amazing, wonderful truth.
Conventional wisdom says that your weaknesses and the mess or difficulty you are in, are a block to Christ perfecting his power in your life. But Paul does not merely deny that. He says the opposite. He says that it is only in our weakness that Christ’s power is made perfect - verse 9 again: “But he [Christ/the Lord] said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for your, for my power is made perfect [not in strength but] in weakness.’”
Who needs to take that to heart this morning? Do you think your “thorn” means you have a life sentence? It is not true. You have a life opportunity.
So - why do bad things happen to good people?
First, to prove the true from the false; secondly, to check human pride; and thirdly, so that you can experience Christ’s power.
Finally (and thirdly), WHAT DO YOU DO WHEN THEY [BAD THINGS] HAPPEN?
Look at verses 7b-10:
“there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”A vital thing to do is this: realize, as Paul did, that suffering or your “thorn” is, for all the good you experience, a “messenger of Satan”. So in itself it is part of the evil in the world that has followed the Fall and that God allows. And then realize, as Paul did, that Satan has no power except that which God allows. And then even his evil designs are made to serve God’s purposes. Of course, if something in that sense is a “messenger of Satan”, Christians must, as James says, chapter 4 verse 7, “resist the devil [ Satan]”. So you must both pray and act against his activity. Take disease and illness - because Christians following Jesus see disease as something evil and from Satan not God, they seek to heal the sick both by prayer and by action (by medical action). And so Paul prayed for his own healing or relief (of whatever it was) - verse 8:
“Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me.”In that he followed Jesus who in the Garden of Gethsemane prayed three times for the Crucifixion not to take place (Mat 26.44). Of course, if God answers your prayer for healing or relief straightaway, you then praise God - that is what you do. But sometimes there is no answer, as there was no answer for Paul (or Jesus) after their first prayer. So they continued to pray - as the Bible says we should - until it is clear what God’s answer is.
After praying three times there was a clear answer for Paul. The risen Lord spoke to Paul, as we’ve seen, those wonderful words – in verse 9:
“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”If you have a permanent “thorn” - a thorn that won’t go away, may I ask, “how are you responding?” The Bible teaches there are three sorts of response. Two are wrong and only one is right.
First, - a wrong one - you can drift from God saying he is cruel and vindictive. You are tempted to “give up” spiritually speaking. It was to people tempted to “give up” that the letter to the Hebrews was written. So Hebrews 4.14-16 says:
“let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest [the Son of God] who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are - yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”That is message for everyone who has a “thorn” that they have to live with. Paul had already told the Corinthians, earlier in this second letter (in chapter 4.17) that, in one sense, it is all relative: “For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.” This life is not all there is. And God allows you to suffer to prepare you for heaven. So the first response to God allowing your “thorn” to remain, is to give up spiritually - to reject God. How sad when people do that!
The second response is to ignore God but still try to get rid of your “thorn” by disobeying God. We saw that on Friday with Lord Joffe’s Bill in the House of Lords on Euthanasia. The sixth of the Ten Commandments is that “You shall not kill”. And as Job said, “the Lord gives and the Lord (not your GP) takes away.” So with Euthanasia people are wanting to remove suffering but by doing what is wrong. Promoting Euthanasia makes others sin and does not allow sufferers to experience God’s power.
I don’t know much about Alison Davis, but she was in the news this past week. She had a “thorn” - several, in fact. She experienced excruciating pain from spina bifida, hydrocephalus, emphysema and osteoporosis and was determined several times to end her life. But friends prevented that and then she started working, from a wheelchair, with disabled children in India. Now she says she is having the best years of her life. God has blessed her.
In so many ways today people try to alleviate suffering by doing wrong - at both ends of the life spectrum, from the embryonic to the senile stage of life.
Yes, the Bible recognizes that sad situations and suffering are the devil’s doing and need to be fought against, worked against and prayed against. But there comes a line that must not be crossed. Instead, people need to hear those words of the Lord to Paul,
“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”So the first response to having to live with a “thorn” is to give up trusting God. The second response is to do something wrong.
The third response is to praise God just as when God brings relief. No! You never praise God for the problem or the pain or the evil that somehow is in your situation - they all are “messengers of Satan”. But you praise God as Paul did for the way those situations can be used. Paul said he was “delighted”. Look at verse 10:
“That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when weak, then I am strong.”I must conclude. Let me summarize.
First, Christians are called to suffer.
Secondly, suffering for Christ proves you are genuine; it keeps you humble; and it enables you to experience Christ’s power in your sufferings.
Thirdly, you also must realize that suffering needs to be fought and prayed against. But when God allows suffering to stay, you must not give up trusting in him; nor try to escape it by doing wrong; rather you should praise God, realizing that in your suffering Christ’s power can be made perfect and experienced to the fullest degree.
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