Finding Purpose in Pain

2 Corinthians 1:3-11

Praise to the God of All Comfort

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ. If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer. And our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort.

We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters,[a] about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. 10 He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us again. On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us, 11 as you help us by your prayers. Then many will give thanks on our behalf for the gracious favor granted us in answer to the prayers of many.

Dear Friends in Christ,

Even though we’re still several months away from our annual celebration of Christmas, have you ever noticed how around the Christmas holidays it’s not unusual for sad and sometimes even tragic events to take place?  Looking back in my records, for example, I noticed that on December 30, 1995 I did the funeral for Newton Phelps, the husband of our now 2nd oldest member Mary Phelps.  The following year I had 4 funerals in December, including one on Christmas Eve for Howard Russell, Ruth Russell’s husband.  And speaking of Ruth, her family was deeply saddened by her loss this past Christmas season as her funeral was held on December 23.  And if you want tragedy, how about the tsunami that struck the Indian Ocean basin the day after Christmas in 2004, leaving at least 290,000 people dead or missing in its wake.

But it’s not just around the holidays that we hear of sad and tragic events happening.  I’m sure none of us here today will ever have a problem remembering what happened on 9/11 of 2001.  And sometimes those tragic situations even hit pretty close to home.  They can come in so many forms: a life-threatening illness; the death of a loved one; the loss of a job; the collapse of a marriage.  And whenever they come, there is one question that we invariably want to ask, whether we actually do so or not.  And that is the question, Why?  Why did this happen to me, Lord?  Why did you stand by and allow such a tragedy to occur?  Why did you not protect me, help me, heal me – you fill in the blank.  And because we all face difficulties sooner or later and because we are so tempted to ask that question, Why, I want to spend some time talking about this today under the theme “Finding Purpose in Pain.”

And I’d like to begin by examining a few misconceptions that we often encounter when we deal with the subject of suffering.  One misconception is that it’s wrong to ask, Why? – that a Christian never questions, a Christian never doubts, a Christian never challenges.  Now I call that a misconception because the Bible is full of examples of faithful people of God who did ask why.  I think of Abraham, for example, when God informed him that he was going to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah for their extreme wickedness.  Remember how Abraham went before the Lord and pleaded for them, primarily because his nephew Lot lived there.  In essence, he said, “Why do you want to do that, Lord?  Why would you want to destroy the righteous along with the wicked?  Is that really a fair thing to do?”  And God gave Abraham a fair hearing, agreeing to not destroy the cities if just 10 righteous people could be found there, as Abraham had requested.  Unfortunately for them, there were not that many righteous folks there and so they were still destroyed.

Or what about David’s questioning of God in some of the Psalms.  In Ps. 13, for example, he cries out to God and says, “How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me?”

But perhaps the most piercing Why question found in the Bible comes from the lips of Jesus himself when he hung from the cross and cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  So it’s not wrong to ask God why.  He’s a big God.  He can handle it when we do that.

Then a 2nd misconception that we often have about suffering is that life is always fair.  Most of us have lived long enough to learn that that simply is not the case.  We know that good people suffer, that even the best of Christian people die before we think they should die.  Last Sunday after church I went on a 3 mile walk and run at our house out in the country.  I was listening to some Christian music on my phone and the song “Our God is an Awesome God” came on.  That was written by this fellow here, Rich Mullins, and as I listened to it I recalled that he had been killed in a tragic accident some years ago.  And I got to thinking that when he died I’m sure there were many who were wondering where that awesome God was at the time of his accident.

So life isn’t always fair.  We live in an imperfect and fallen world, a world that has been adversely affected by sin.  And sometimes even the best of Christians find themselves being touched by those imperfections.

Then a 3rd misconception we often have about suffering is that Christians, by virtue of their relationship with God, will have fewer struggles than non-Christians.  Yet you don’t have to read very far in the Bible to see that that simply isn’t true.  Scripture is full of examples of very godly and righteous individuals who experienced unbelievable problems.  I think of Abraham, Moses, David, Job, Elijah, Daniel, Peter, and Paul to name just a few.  All of them faced major challenges at some time or another.  And of course, we could also include Jesus in that list.  So no one is exempt from the trials and troubles of life.

All of which leads us to a very important question.  And that question is:  “Why, then, do we suffer?  What purpose does suffering serve, if any?”  Well, the Apostle Paul does a great job of answering those questions for us in our text for today, so let’s see what purpose he could find in pain.

Purpose #1 can be found in v. 4 where Paul writes that God “comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.”  Sometimes God takes us through a painful experience so that he can one day use us to help another person through a similar painful experience.  Just think about it for a moment.  Who can better comfort a brand new widow than one who has been a widow for some time?  Who can better comfort someone who has lost a child than someone who has been through that horrific experience?  Who can better comfort one who has just been informed he has cancer than one who has already dealt with that illness?  It may very well be that the trial you are going through right now is God’s way of preparing you for the counsel and comfort you might be able to give to another person who is facing a similar struggle one month from now, one year from now, or even 10 years from now.

Then another purpose that we can find in our pain comes out in v. 9 of our text where Paul says, “Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead.”  So sometimes we suffer in order that we might learn to rely less and less on ourselves and more and more on God.

David, as I mentioned before, was no stranger to adversity.  As a young shepherd boy guarding his father’s flocks, he found himself on one occasion doing battle with a lion and on another fighting a bear, two encounters I’m sure he would have preferred to do without.  But when he went out to meet the Philistine giant Goliath on the battlefield, he recalled those experiences and how God had given him victory over those wild animals.  So when the Israelites were questioning David as to whether he could handle Goliath, David very confidently replied:  “The LORD who delivered me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine.”  David had learned from previous adversities to depend less upon himself and more upon God.

Then a 3rd purpose that we find in our pain comes out in v. 11 of our text where Paul writes: “Then many will give thanks on our behalf for the gracious favor granted us in answer to the prayers of many.”  Why do we suffer?  So that we might learn to be thankful for what we have rather than complaining about what we don’t have.  Day after day God showers us with blessings that go far beyond our numbering and naming.  Remember how Jeremiah puts it in Lamentations 3?  He says that God’s mercies are new to us how often?  Every morning!  And yet, one sad part of our fallen human nature is that the more we get from God, the more tendency we have to take for granted his blessings.  But when one of those blessings is threatened or taken away, then we realize just how precious and important it was.

How often doesn’t that happen with our health?  We can go for weeks and even months feeling great, free of pain, not even a cold or a sore throat to bother us or slow us down.  And yet how often do we take time to thank God for the good health he is giving us?  I have to confess with shame that I don’t do that nearly as much as I should.  But boy, when that sore throat or flu hits, or when my body gets injured playing basketball, it is then that I realize how blessed and fortunate I was before.  So the tough times of life have a way of sharpening our focus on God’s blessings and instilling in our hearts an attitude of gratitude for all that he’s done for us.

And that takes us to one more purpose that we can find in our pain and that is that it makes us yearn for heaven.  How many of us have found ourselves at the bedside of a loved one as they battled a life-threatening illness?  At first we bombarded the gates of heaven with prayers for healing, asking God to do what we knew he had the power to do – to make this sick person well again.  But then as the disease progressed and it became more and more apparent that our loved one was not going to survive and we heard their earnest pleas and desires to be free of all this suffering, our prayers changed, didn’t they?  And we found ourselves asking, indeed even begging God to take them home to heaven.  Sometimes people feel guilty when they offer those kinds of prayers, but I can assure you that there’s nothing wrong with them.  There’s nothing wrong with yearning for heaven, either for ourselves or for a suffering loved one.  Paul expressed that hunger for heaven so well in Phil. 1 when he wrote:  “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain…Yet what shall I choose? I do not know!  I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far.”

Sometimes this old world gets pretty comfortable for us, kind of like an old well-worn pair of jeans.  So God sends reminders to us that this world is not our final dwelling place because this world is far from perfect and he has something much better in store for us that he purchased for us through the saving work of Jesus – a life where he promises in Rev. 21 to wipe away every tear from our eyes, a life where death shall be no more; a life where all sorrow and pain, all crying and sighing will cease forever.  That’s what Paul must have had in mind when he wrote these powerful words in Rom. 8:18:  “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.”

Let me close then with a poem that some of you have heard before because I’ve shared with hurting and grieving people a lot over the years, but it’s meant so much to me and it ties in so well with all that we’ve talked about today:  It’s written from the perspective of a suffering Christian:

I know not why God’s hand is laid in chastening on my life,

Nor why it is my little world is filled so full of strife.

I know not why, when faith looks up and seeks for rest from pain,

That o’er my sky fresh clouds arise and drench my path with rain.

I know not why my prayer so long by him has been denied;

Nor why, while others’ ships sail on, mine should in port abide.

But I do know that God is love, that he my burdens shares;

And though I may not understand, I know for me he cares.

I know the heights for which I long are often reached through pain.

I know the sheaves must be threshed to yield the golden grain.

I know that though he may remove the friends on whom I lean,

‘Tis that I thus may learn to love and trust the One unseen.

And when at last I see his face and know as I am known,

I will not care how rough the road that leads, through Christ, to home.