“And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong.”   (2 Cor. 12:9-10)

The last four chapters of 2 Corinthians is a roller-coaster ride of emotions from the apostle Paul. In chapter 10 he is proving his apostleship to the doubters in Corinth; in chapter 11 he is contrasting his own testimony with the false apostles (who really were ministers of Satan) by listing his own perils suffered for Christ’s sake; in chapter 12 he takes the reader to the heavenlies where he was raptured to see the glory of God, and then explains that God also gave him a thorn in the flesh so that he wouldn’t glory in himself; then in chapter 13 he concludes that just as Christ was crucified in weakness but raised in power, so we, though weak in our sufferings, can live by the power of God.

Though we may not suffer as many have throughout our history, every believer suffers in some fashion under the mighty hand of God. If we be without this chastisement of God we are illegitimate and not real sons. We learn nothing without effort and struggle and so it is with our knowledge of the love and grace of God. It is part of our nature to resist, to take the easier path of avoiding hardship, but softness comes by inactivity as well as lethargy and laziness.

John Bunyan was a man acquainted with suffering, spending twelve years in prison simply for preaching the gospel. He said,

“I count therefore, that such things are necessary for the health of our souls, as bodily pains and labour are for [the health of] the body. People that live high, and in idleness, bring diseases upon the body: and they that live in all fullness of Gospel-ordinances, and are not exercised with trials, grow gross, are diseased and full of bad humours in their souls.”1

Most of us would admit that our suffering for Christ has been of the more inward type, that is, we may have been wounded in spirit, gossiped about, slandered, or simply have been forced to go through a time of heart ache for someone else. I am not necessarily talking about those things we suffer because we live in a sinful world such as accidents, disease, or simply the pains of growing older. Those things are brought upon us by the introduction of our own sin into God’s originally perfect creation, and are allowed by God that we might see ourselves as we really are. No doubt, God will faithfully help us through these also. But there are sufferings that are specifically for Christ’s sake, as Peter wrote, “if ye be reproached for the name of Christ, happy are ye” (1 Peter 4:14). And why should we be happy about this? “for the Spirit of glory and of God resteth upon you.” Or, as Paul wrote, “when I am weak, then am I strong.”

Perhaps if we suffered for Christ more in our very flesh we could see the work of God in us more directly. Yet when we suffer in our spirit, which is by far the more common form of suffering for the average Christian, the work of His grace in us is more difficult to grasp and therefore the more difficult to grow thereby. If we could really see how much we can learn from such circumstances, we would desire the fellowship of His sufferings even more. Not for revenge, nor for self-reward, but because, though some unknowing person did us harm, we know it was more Satan who desired the ruin of our spirit than the human instrument of his use, and also because we will grow by it if we learn to let Him increase as we decrease.

The abuse of prejudice

Those who fight against Christianity don’t always do it by brute physical aggression. Paul himself suffered from the prejudice about his physical appearance. “For his letters, say they, are weighty and powerful; but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible” (2 Cor. 10:10). To be prejudiced is to make a judgment about someone based on one’s previous ideas before obtaining any first-hand knowledge of the person. Samuel had this prejudice when he went to the house of Jesse expecting to find a king for Israel. When he saw Eliab he thought, “Surely the LORD’s anointed is before him. But the LORD said unto Samuel, Look not on his countenance, or on the height of his stature; because I have refused him: for the LORD seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the LORD looketh on the heart” (1 Sam. 16:6-7).

Many men and women in God’s service have not measured up to the physical standards of what society thinks or wants in a leader. Fanny Crosby said of herself, “I’m four feet three inches tall. I was four feet five, but I’ve shrunk up some. I weigh eighty-four and a half pounds. My grandmother used to call me ‘Fanny Flewit,’ because I flew around the house so.”2 But her physical size and appearance did not stop God from using her in a marvelous way. George Whitefield was evidently a very short man and probably cross-eyed, and perhaps even spoke with an impediment, but neither England nor America has produced a more powerful preacher of the gospel.3

The list of God’s servants with physical “shortcomings” could go on and on. My professor, Dr. Harju, in Life of Paul class, used to call the apostle Paul “a hook-nosed, runny-eyed, little Jew.” And maybe he was. Paul said he prayed three times for God to change him but God does not deal in divine eugenics. He had a greater blessing for Paul. “My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness.” And so Paul answered, “Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (2 Cor. 12:9).

By Paul’s testimony, therefore, we ought rather to thank those who persecute us because they have brought an opportunity for us to learn the greater blessing of God’s grace. We are the winner and they are the loser. Even though any person, Christian or not, will answer to God for slander and railing, the Christian will be greatly rewarded if he does not fall into retaliation himself.

God is not a respecter of persons (Rom. 2:11) and neither should the Christian be (Jas. 2:1). How can we bless God with our tongue, and then with the same tongue curse another human being made in God’s image (Jas. 2:9)? But we have seen it often. A pastoral candidate may not look like the perfect pastor; a youth pastor may not be “cool;” a singer may not be the prettiest girl in the church; or worse yet, a visitor may not measure up to the cultural expectations of the neighborhood (Jas. 2:2-3). To display this kind of persecution toward a brother or sister is a sin and displays a woeful lack of spiritual perception. But to receive this kind of persecution, or any other kind, is a hidden blessing.

The abuse of unforgiveness

People without Christ really don’t know how to forgive. Forgiveness to them usually means overlooking transgressions. Politicians, athletes, actors, performers and even ministers can commit the most immoral things and are excused with the false piety of “I just forgive.” Of course, this only happens if the person in question is politically correct. Then all can be forgiven. Sometimes such misplaced forgiveness comes by comparing this sin with another’s. “Well, many people throughout history have done the same thing.”

The fact is, until a person has been forgiven much by God, he/she cannot know to forgive even a little with another person. In the parable of the two debtors, the master said, “O thou wicked servant, I forgave thee all that debt, because thou desiredst me: shouldest not thou also have had compassion on thy fellow servant, even as I had pity on thee?” (Matt. 18:23-35).

The few times as a pastor that I have had to deal with public discipline, I always begin my remarks by saying, “There are a few things we believe. Sin is real, repentance is real, and forgiveness is real.” If the first two have truly taken place, then the third should also. Paul had to scold the Corinthian church in his first epistle for not even dealing with the sin. But in his second epistle, when they had dealt with it in a proper way and had forgiven the man, he urged them, “So that contrariwise ye ought rather to forgive him, and comfort him, lest perhaps such a one should be swallowed up with overmuch sorrow” (2 Cor. 2:7). In a similar way Paul admonished the believers in Galatia, “Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such a one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted. Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:1-2).

In a recent message, Dr. Kevin Bauder listed the sins of many prominent Christian leaders and rightly pointed out the usual lack of accountability. Then he said, “But we also need to establish real protections against slander and destructive accusations—for they, too, are a form of abuse, and those who engage in such activities are themselves abusers.”4 If you have ever seen a person either repent or apologize (whichever is appropriate for the offense) and then are taken back by brothers or sisters who refuse to restore such a one, or want a pound of flesh (so to speak), it is a discouraging and distasteful display of (the lack of) Christian love. It is disobeying the law of Christ, rather than fulfilling it. These forms of persecution come from the flesh, whether saved flesh or lost flesh, and they are destructive to individuals who are then overcome with much sorrow, and also to churches in sowing seeds of discord which God hates (Prov. 6:16-19).

But at this point let me also repeat that trials are growing times for the Christian. The truth about all our sin is that we deserve much more than the pain our sin brings; yes, we deserve hell itself for eternity! It is by the grace of our Lord that He paid that debt for us and forgave us. We are left on this earth, in this faulty flesh, for a variety of reasons, one of which is that we may continue to grow and be more like Christ, and solid growth comes of pain. Do not be bitter toward those whom Satan has duped into using. Bless God for His mercy and grace in that hour and use it to your eternal benefit.

The abuse of self-revelation

It is a dangerous thing to claim to receive a message from God. There is a fine line between saying that God has “led” me to do something, and saying that He “told” me specifically what to do. One is to say that the Holy Spirit works in me and leads me according to His will, while the other is to say that God has revealed something to me clearly and plainly. Current religious culture has created a panoply of confusing propositions with the words dream, vision, whisper, voices, revelation, prophecy, and so on. Bible believing people are properly cautious, not wanting to say in any way that God has not made Himself known to us, but also not wanting to wish “God speed” to someone who is changing the Word of God.

Albert Mohler rightfully insists that, “If you do not believe that God now speaks from His Word—the Bible—then what are you doing every Sunday morning? If you are not confident that God speaks as you rightly read and explain the Word of God, then you should quit.”5 But Mohler is not saying that every Christian will hear his/her own special revelation from God. Rather he is saying that God now speaks through His Word because it IS His Word. If you hear the Bible being read, you are hearing God speak—today! But if you seek other verbal communication from God, you are not hearing God’s Word but some human wisdom about God.

The examples of this are myriad. In Ann Arbor, Michigan, a Vineyard minister, Rev. Ken Wilson, claimed he received a “strong nudge from Jesus” to change his view on homosexuality and to support homosexuals in the church.6 Did he really? Of course not! But when someone claims that his view came directly from God, it becomes difficult to refute without a semester course on theology. Eliphaz the Temanite used this trick to lecture Job, “Now a thing was secretly brought to me, and mine ear received a little thereof. In thoughts from the visions of the night, when deep sleep falleth on men, fear came upon me, and trembling, which made all my bones to shake. Then a spirit passed before my face; the hair on my flesh stood up” (Job 4:12-15).

Recently, congregations have been pressured into drastic changes by pastors who have had such “visions” from God. What can be said in opposition to that? Can you fight against God? But, again, the fine line is, talking as though “vision” only means a leading of the Lord, and yet practicing as though “vision” means a revelation. Too many times their orthodoxy may explain it one way but their orthopraxy results in a stronger way. The fact is that God has spoken the same thing to all churches and it is our job to apply that revelation in the best way we can. But let us not pressure people into something by claiming divine revelation about it.

This has been a fact of our generation. Men want so much to be seen as great leaders, and this is a way to accomplish that. But God has not asked that of us. He has asked us to preach and practice His Word. If we do other, verily we have our reward! But, again, how should we respond in such an environment? Be faithful to God’s Word. Don’t strive to be a Warren or an Osteen or a Hybels or a Hinn, who would want to be? God has not asked us to work for the applause of men or churches. God, who sees in secret, will reward us openly at His Bema Seat. And that is enough.

 

And So . . . .

I could go on. There is an abuse of silence. This is when you find you have offended someone but they never let you know. If it really didn’t matter, that would be one thing. But you find that they have been hurt by it and have even left the church, or some such thing. To find that a brother or sister has done this without coming to you is disheartening. I call this hide-and-seek Christianity. All you can do at that point is take the initiative yourself (there is wisdom in the Lord’s directive) and pick up what pieces you can.

There is the abuse of gossip which is much more well known. The terrible thing about gossip is that someone is harmed by it, and harmed in a way that can never be undone or recovered in this life. We can make it right by repenting and going to the offended person, but the words are like fire that continue to burn around the world. Surely this kind of persecution against the spirit will be severely judged by God.

I could add the abuse of hypocrisy, whereby a false believer takes advantage of an unknowing brother or sister and then goes out from us because they are not of us. Many times destruction and hurt are left in the wake.

James’ cure is the best: “But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be intreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy. And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace of them that make peace” (James 3:17-18).

 

Notes:

1. John Bunyan, Advice To Sufferers (Louisville: Vintage Puritan Series, nd) Kindle, 91.

2. “Recollections of Fanny Crosby.” The Christian Herald, March 17, 1915.

3. Harry Stout, The Divine Dramatist (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994) 41.

4. “A Story Worth Repeating,” preached at Trinity Baptist Church, March 28, 2014.

5. Albert Mohler, He Is Not Silent (Chicago: Moody, 2008) Kindle, 764.

6. “Minister claims he received ‘strong nudge from Jesus to announce support for homosexuality,” The Beacon, May, 2014, p. 2.