Facing Hardship

2 Corinthians 6:3-13

In this passage the Apostle Paul describes his life and ministry, with a focus on the hardships he experiences. We might wonder why Paul is saying all this. It could sound like complaining, that he’s a whiner.

We have a clue to Paul’s reasons in verses 11-13. He writes, “We are not withholding our affection from you, but you are withholding yours from us. As a fair exchange—I speak as to my children—open wide your hearts also.”

Paul and the Corinthian believers have a strained relationship. Paul had founded the church in Corinth some years before. But at some point the Corinthian believers began to look down on him and reject him. 

They criticized Paul’s personal presence as weak. He wasn’t a polished speaker. He had some kind of disability. He didn’t pepper his message with snippets of Greek philosophical wisdom. He didn’t require that the Corinthian church to support him financially, which oddly they viewed as a weakness. They compared Paul unfavorably with travelling preachers who were powerful orators and carried a sense of their own superiority, which impressed the Corinthian Christians.

These were their complaints about Paul. But the deeper reason for their negative feelings was probably Paul’s frank criticism of their various faults. The Corinthian believers resented Paul’s efforts to correct their un-Christlike behaviors. And they responded by criticizing him and pushing him away.

The Corinthians’ rejection worried Paul because he loved them as his children. But even more because the traveling preachers might entice them to embrace a distorted Gospel. Paul was defending himself not because his ego was wounded. But because he loved the Corinthian believers and wanted them to stay faithful to Jesus and not be led astray.

So what does Paul say about himself? In this passage he writes about his hardships and suffering. He talks about beatings, imprisonments, riots, sleepless nights, hunger. In chapter 11 he’s more specific: He was whipped with 39 lashes five different times, and three times he was beaten with rods. Once he was stoned. He’d been shipwrecked three times and spent a night and a day in the open sea. He had often been imprisoned, often gone without food, often freezing and sleepless. He was in imminent danger wherever he traveled.

Paul surprisingly refers to his recital of hardships as boasting. The impressive super-preachers boasted about themselves and their strengths and abilities. So Paul says that he will boast too, but about the things that show his weakness. Why? Because, he says, “we have God’s treasure in clay jars to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.” God’s presence and power were revealed in the midst of Paul’s hardships.

One thing this passage tells us is that we followers of Jesus will at times experience hardship and suffering. We’re not exempt from that. So today we’re going to talk about some of the kinds of hardships we experience as believers.

Jesus-believers sometimes suffer because our values clash with those of society at large. Much of the time we’ll find that our commitment to follow Jesus is respected and valued by non-believers. But not always.

Diana and I have a friend who was an engineer who designed products for a major company. At some point the company won a Defense Department contract to design military weapons. When our friend was asked to work on this, he explained that he was a Christian and couldn’t in good conscience design weapons of war. When his boss kept giving him these projects, he resigned. Even though he had a family with small children and no immediate prospect of other work.

Thankfully, we don’t often have to make such difficult decisions. Our clashes with the world’s values are not usually that drastic. But we must always be ready to make a costly decision if God’s leads us to do that.

We should also understand that followers of Jesus suffer the same hardships that are common to humankind: sickness, disability, accidents, economic struggles. It’s a blessing that God often intervenes to prevent something bad from happening to us. But God doesn’t always do that.

God doesn’t take us out of the world, doesn’t take us immediately to heaven when we receive Jesus. He doesn’t place us, as it were, to a trouble-free Garden of Eden. We live in this fallen world and like others, are subject to its pain. But God promises to be with us. God doesn’t cause bad things to happen to us, but he does promise to use them to form the character of Christ in us.

Paul had some kind of disability, which he called his thorn in the flesh. The Scriptures don’t tell us what it was. Paul asked God three times to remove it, but God didn’t do that. God said to Paul, “my grace is sufficient for you. My power is perfected in weakness.” We too can count on God’s grace as we face our own hardships with faith and patience. 

There are, however, some kinds of suffering that we are spared as we faithfully follow Jesus. If a man stops getting drunk, many things will improve in his life and the life of his family. They’ll have more money to spend on everyday needs. And drunken violence against family members will stop. As we live faithfully for Jesus, we will avoid many hardships that are the consequences of destructive behavior. And we’ll grow more in peace and happiness.

Often the particular ministry God calls us to requires specific hardships and sacrifices. Mission workers who travel to challenging areas of the world are an obvious example. Or the Christians who risk jail by providing food and water for immigrants in the deserts of the Southwest. Or one called to extensive intercessory prayer who is often led to pray in the middle of the night. 

Such hardships involve what is called “redemptive suffering.” This is where we choose to share the suffering of others, helping to bear their burdens. Genuine love for others is costly. Jesus’ suffering on the cross for our wholeness and salvation was redemptive suffering.

We are led to bear others’ burdens in love. I think of my wife Diana, a public health nurse, whose patients are at-risk pregnant women and children. Some women with severe struggles and children with heartbreaking disabilities. Diana visits them in their homes. She helps them professionally to meet their basic needs. But she also becomes their friend. Caring about them, accompanying them in their hardships, and praying for them. And they love her in return.

I think of the schoolteachers in our church and elsewhere who give so much of themselves above and beyond, for the sake of vulnerable and struggling children. All of us, whatever our life and circumstances, have opportunities to walk with those in need.

This world is filled with blessings. But there is also tremendous pain. As Jesus’ followers we are called to share the pain of the world. Paul calls this “filling up in our bodies what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ.” We are called to extend Jesus’ sacrificial love for others. To walk along side of them and help bear their burden. To bring comfort and encouragement. To let them know that they’re loved. To alleviate their pain to the extent we can. And to receive from them the gifts they too can offer.

This is our calling as priests. Did you know that Scripture says that all Jesus-believers are priests? The priesthood isn’t limited to ordained clergy. Tyrone, you’re a priest of God! Did you know that? Silvia, you’re a priest of God! All followers of Jesus are priests. We are a priesthood of believers.

As priests our work is to lift up the pain of the world in intercession to God. And to minister back to the world God’s grace and blessing. Walking with and praying for those God places in our lives and on our hearts. This is our priestly calling by God’s grace.

There is one final thing of special importance. Paul writes in verse 10, “We are regarded as sorrowful, but in truth we are always rejoicing.” After listing his many troubles, Paul says that he is always joyful. God enables us to be joyful in the midst of hardship.

We may sometimes feel that it’s wrong to be happy, to have joy in life. We may think that the only proper Christian attitude is somberness. Certainly there is much to be somber about. But God wants us to have joy. To enjoy all the everyday blessings of life, with thanksgiving. And even in the midst of hardship and pain God gives us the joy of the Lord.

So brothers and sisters, let us bear our hardships with grace and patience. Knowing that God’s power is revealed in them. Let us bear the world’s burdens in love. And as Scripture encourages us, “let us rejoice always.” For “the joy of the Lord is our strength.”

Martin Shupack