Drawn To the Cross: In Suffering
But we have this treasure in clay pots so that the awesome power belongs to God and doesn't come from us. We are experiencing all kinds of trouble, but we aren't crushed. We are confused, but we aren't depressed. We are harassed, but we aren't abandoned. We are knocked down, but we aren't knocked out. We always carry Jesus' death around in our bodies so that Jesus' life can also be seen in our bodies. We who are alive are always being handed over to death for Jesus' sake so that Jesus' life can also be seen in our bodies that are dying. So death is at work in us, but life is at work in you. -2 Corinthians 4:7-12
Well, I almost said, You know, I'm not sure this is the right series to begin with with today's first lesson that we're drawn to the cross in suffering. Anybody see that in my sermon title or on that litany and think, Yeah, we're gonna talk about suffering. That's not exactly something you put on promotional posters and flyers that you'd want to encourage people to come and join us in church, Come On, Come and join us in suffering. Because the truth of it is, we live in a society where we go to great lengths to avoid any type of suffering, to even avoid the perception of suffering or ward off potential suffering that might come because... Well, who wants to suffer? It's not fun, it's not easy, it hurts. And so we want to avoid it, and yet, as we've all, I'm sure experienced on more than one occasion, there are times and seasons of life where it just seems that sufferings inevitable in spite of all of our best efforts to avoid suffering, it's just there and we can't get away from it. This idea of suffering in the world is one that sometimes is referred to as the problem of pain, CS Lewis wrote a book about this, and for many who are critical of the Christian faith and say, I'm not sure that's for me, this tension of pain and suffering in the world, as part of the reason why, part of their argument is that, okay, so you claim that God is all loving, and you claim that God is all powerful.
So if God is all loving, that none of us should ever have to suffer if God truly loves us, and if God is truly all powerful, God is able to do something about any and all suffering that there is, but because they're suffering in the world. Then one of those isn't true, either God doesn't truly love us or God isn't all powerful, and so that's part of the argument and the logic about it, but part of what we're gonna look at today in this text of Paul's is that they're asking the wrong question because both of those statements about, if God is all powerful and God is all loving, then why am I suffering... Well, the main object of that sentence is me, it's about me, and not that we're not a part of this story and we're not a part of this equation, but I think if we think and put ourselves first... We're looking at it wrong. You see, Paul begins by telling the church in Corinth, look, we have this treasure in clay jars, we have this amazing treasure, and I'd asked the question, What is the treasure? What is it that God has given us? It's so precious and so valuable...
Well, if we'd looked at the verse right before this, in verse 6, Paul says, For it is God who said, Let light shine out of darkness. And it is God who has shown in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. Again, that's not necessarily gonna fit on a business card or a fortune cookie real well, it's even a mouthful to say... He has shown in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. Well, if I'm gonna summarize that basically what I'm saying is, God has put this light within us, that is the result of his love, and so we are the vessels that carry this light, that is a reflection and the embodiment of God's love, and that's what's within us. That we are the vessels for carrying that, and now why in that love that God shines into our lives is an extraordinary power to change lives, to change the world, to change us, to change situations, but Paul is very clear when he says... It is this way, so that.
This extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us, this light doesn't come from us, this abundant love that changes lives and changes the world, doesn't come from us, we're simply the vessels that carry this light, and to say that because they're suffering. God is an all powerful where God doesn't love us, is the focus on the vessel and not what God has placed within it. Paul continues talking about some of these sufferings. He said, We are afflicted in every way. The thing is, Paul has a but In here, he gives four examples of suffering, but he contradicts every one of them. He could have easily just said, we're afflicted in every way. We're perplexed, were persecuted and were struck down. Now for a lot of people, they would think... Yup, sounds about right. I've been there, I've done that, I've had that happen to me. And it's still happening. But Paul is speaking as one who has experienced. Paul is speaking as one who has received that treasure, because he offers that counterpoint that... But he says, We are afflicted in every way, but we're not crushed. We are persecuted but not forsaken. We are struck down, but not destroyed.
He says that, You know what, suffering is a reality, suffering is going to happen and we're gonna experience it, but it will not win because of what God has done. Now he goes on and in the next two verses after that, begins to give examples of how it is that the death of Christ that we are connected with becomes a source of life, but he still is making the point that suffering, suffering is not the final answer. And as we journey with Jesus on this road that leads to the cross, they're certainly suffering that happens, and thanks be to God we can look back with hindsight and see that that suffering didn't have the final answer.
But when you're in the midst of it, when you're in the midst of... It's hard to see that sometimes when we're pressed, when were persecuted, when we're struck down, when all of those things are going on, it's sometimes easy to forget that God is with us in those times, that God has placed within us the strength, God has placed within us His love and presence to help us persevere. Paul talks about perseverance in Romans. He talks about this suffering that leads to perseverance, and the perseverance leads to other things, and we can grow and learn through this, that God, who is all about the business of redeeming, somehow is able to redeem suffering as well.
Now, before you go to that next conclusion and say that, well, then God is causing suffering... I can't go there. I wouldn't go there. I don't think God inflicts suffering intentionally on people, at least not universally, and across the board. Does God allow suffering? Possibly. Often at times, natural consequences are suffering as chosen by us or chosen for us, but we experience it and we can choose to allow it to crush us, to leave us feeling destroyed, but yet when we cling to that love that God has shown us, we discover a strength that we didn't know we had.
Paul was a man that was well acquainted with suffering later on in this letter in Corinthians in Chapter 11, Paul boasts... He says he's not boasting, but he is boasting. He's comparing himself to other people and saying, You know, you're gonna say this, and other people are gonna say this. He says, Guess what? I've had it pretty hard too. He says, Five times I received from the Jews the 40 lashes minus one, three times I was beaten with rods, once I received a stoning. Three times I was directed for a night in the day, I was adrift at sea, on frequent journeys in danger from rivers, danger from bandits. Danger from my own people. Danger from the Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters in toil and hardship through many sleepless nights, hungry and thirsty, often without food and cold and naked, and besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all of the churches. Paul had it rough. If he had just started there and said, You think you got it bad, listen to my list, that might have been enough to say, Oh well, you think it can get worse, listen to this, But as one who experienced all of those things, Paul still can confidently say we've got this treasure in clay jars, and yet it's not about the jar, it's about what is within.
And so in 2 Corinthians 12:9, where Paul says that he has been pleading with God on three separate occasions, he says he's been given this thorn in his side, and there's a lot of speculation about what exactly this thorn was that Paul was carrying in his life that maybe it was an appendix that nobody knew what to do about or some other physical ailment or who knows what it may have been, but apparently it was a struggle for Paul. He says, Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take this away from me. And then he heard Jesus speak to him and say, My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.
Paul, talking about this clay jar, an ordinary, simple clay jar, the stuff of everyday ordinary stuff that people of his day would have had grain or olive oil or other sorts of stuff in... It was their version of the tupperware or a cardboard box. It's just what you put your stuff in, and Paul says, I'm just one of those things that God has chosen to put his stuff in. But more importantly, God's love. And he says, You know what? Because I'm ordinary, because I'm humble, because I'm simple. And there's nothing special about me. What makes me special is what God has chosen to fill my life with. Friends, we're gonna experience suffering as well, and the thing about suffering is none of us suffer in the same way, my struggles, your struggles, their struggles, everybody has them, but seldom two people share exactly the same ones. And yet in spite of that, God's answer what God has chosen to place within us is still the answer to all of them, that in this life, Jesus says, you will have trouble, but take courage because I have overcome the world, the one who overcome that has overcome this world is the one who has offered us mercy and grace beyond anything we could imagine, in the light of that love that has filled our lives is exactly that precious treasure that represents God's extraordinary power at work in us and also through us, that we are living breathing testimonies of the love of God at work in our lives.
You may have heard people say, boy, I don't know how anybody gets through something like this without their faith. Now, the reality is, there are a lot of people that try to get it to go their own way and to get through this life on their own, but often the people that make that statement are the ones that have discovered for themselves, the truth of what Paul heard from Jesus that My grace is sufficient for you. That in your own way, you have experienced and heard that message of God, that Jesus' grace is sufficient for all of your needs, and you've tested it and discovered it to be true. Life isn't always easy. Sometimes it is downright hard, but that's part of being who we are.
In his book titled Life of the Beloved author and theologian Henri Nouwen who has a number of the writings in the devotion that we're using, he said the great secret of the spiritual life, the life of the beloved sons and daughters of God is that everything we live, be a gladness or sadness, joy or pain, health or illness can all be part of the journey toward the full realization of our humanity. So he points to the fact that our full humanity represents all of these things, he says, gladness and sadness, joy or pain, health or illness or suffering, those are all part of our humanity, and he says that discovering all of those things together is to make us fully human, I wanna follow that product with a thought by another Roman Catholic theologian by the name of Thomas Keating.
Keating said, If now, in saying that through suffering and all of these ups and downs and good and bad of life, through all of those things and embracing those things as God's beloved children, we discover our full humanity. Keating says that for human beings, the most daunting challenge is to become fully human… The most daunting challenge is to become fully human.
I think that in my hearing of that, it means that sometimes it's hard to accept all that life is; the good, the bad, the ugly, the ups and downs and all of it... That's daunting sometimes. But Keating continued by saying, For to become fully human is to become fully divine. To become fully human is to become fully divine. So it's daunting and challenging to become fully human, but our full humanness is revealed through the understanding as Gods’ beloved it with all of this mix of stuff. We are the people that God has created us to be. And when we embrace that and accept that, even the suffering by becoming fully human, God is able to end well in us, and in doing so, we become fully divine. Suffering, some would say, is the refiners' fire. That it is through suffering that we discover not only who we are, but more importantly who God is, I'm not looking for and I'm not encouraging us to go when, seek out suffering in our lives because guess what? It's there. But I also want you to not be afraid of it, to look the suffering straight in the eye, and to be able to confidently say, My God is bigger, because my God has loved me and redeemed me and is just with me even now.
May you and I, and all of us fragile and bruised and battered clay jars, look within and discover that God has filled us with His goodness and His love, and friends, that is what truly matters.