Knocked Down But Not Knocked Out

2 Corinthians 4:8-9

Late night phone calls rarely bring good news.

I was reminded of that not long ago when the phone rang in the middle of the night, waking me from a deep sleep. Startled and groggy, I wondered who could be calling at such an hour. It was a friend who lives in a distant state. “I’ve got some bad news.” He went on to tell me about a mutual friend who lives several thousand miles away. He is a wonderful minister of the gospel, a great man, and a tremendous evangelist. “He had a massive heart attack an hour ago. They say the outlook isn’t good.” I knew he had been going through a hard time, but I wasn’t prepared for this. The last time I saw him, he was upbeat, smiling, positive and future-focused. Now he is in a hospital fighting for his life. It didn’t seem possible.

The man who called me said, “Son, the ways of the Lord are sometimes very strange.” Indeed they are. When we prayed together, the man pleaded with the Lord to spare our friend. Then he said, “But Lord, we know you do all things well. And we are trusting in you completely tonight.”

After I hung up, it was hard to go back to bed. Marlene and I stayed up talking about it for a while. As of the writing of these words, our friend is still alive but no one knows what to expect next.

That late-night phone call came to mind as I prepared this message from 2 Corinthians 4. If I could talk to my friend, he would say, “I’m definitely just a clay pot, fragile and easily broken."

I’m been thinking lately about the fragility of life. Maybe it’s because of the flood that hit Nashville or the tornadoes that swept through this part of the country or maybe it’s because of the string of earthquakes in many places or maybe it’s because of a long list of friends battling various diseases. Whatever the reason, it’s good to meditate on our own mortality from time to time. We all die sooner or later. When Pat Conroy wrote South of Broad, he included this sobering description of how death is woven into our existence from our earliest days:

The moment you are born your death is foretold by your newly minted cells as your mother holds you up, then hands you to your father, who gently tickles the stomach where the cancer will one day form, studies the eyes where melanoma’s dark signature is already written along the optic nerve, touches the back where the liver will one day house the cirrhosis, feels the bloodstream that will sweeten itself into diabetes, admires the shape of the head where the brain will fall to the ax-handle of stroke, or listens to your heart, which, exhausted by the fearful ways and humiliations and indecencies of life, will explode in your chest like a light going out in the world. Death lives in each one of us and begins its countdown on our birthdays and makes its rough entrance at the last hour and the perfect time (p. 10).

In a deep sense, we are all born dying. We are born saying hello, and the rest of life is one long goodbye. That thought, reinforced by the late night phone call, leads to a deeper truth. The way we respond to the trials of life reveals a great deal about the strength of our Christian faith. If we deny our troubles, or if we give in to anger or bitterness, or if we blame others for our problems, we miss what God intends to teach us through what happens to us. It is a great advance spiritually to be able to say, “I believe God has allowed this difficulty for my good and his glory.”

We are all born dying. 

In verses 8-9 of 2 Corinthians 4, Paul makes four statements that describe how Christians respond to the trials of life.

We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.

These four statements describe the true condition of believers in the world. They are always true, even though our experience of them varies. We are not always pressured, but we often are. We’re not always perplexed, but it happens more than we think. We do not always face opposition, but sometimes we do. And not every day are we struck down by the circumstances of life, but it does happen to all of us eventually. No one is exempt from these things.

1. Pressure will not defeat us.

“We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed” (v. 8a).

The word “pressed” was sometimes used for walking through a crowd where people surround you and literally press against you.  Or we may think of grapes in a winepress. The pressures of life may squeeze us but we are not utterly crushed. Here are some ways this phrase has been translated or paraphrased:

We are not always pressured, but often we are.

“We are pressed on every side by troubles, but we are not crushed” (NLT).
“We catch it from every direction but we don’t let them squeeze the life out of us” (CP).
“Hard-pressed on every side, we are never hemmed in” (NEB).

2. Confusion will not discourage us.

We are “perplexed, but not in despair” (v. 8b).

Sometimes we just don’t know which way to go. Life has a way of throwing us a curve ball now and then. Sometimes we face circumstances that are so confusing that we honestly don’t know what we need or what we want or what would be best. There have been times when I have said, “Lord Jesus, if you were here, standing in front of me, and you said, ‘Ray, what do you want me to do for you?’ I wouldn’t know what to say.” Paul himself said in Romans 8:26 that sometimes we don’t know how to pray. There are moments when the pressure is so great and we are so tired and worn out and life has become so confusing that we honestly don’t know what to say to the Lord. Fatigue wears us all down eventually.

I have found in those moments that if all I can do is cry out, “O God, O Jesus. Have mercy, Lord, have mercy,” then that is enough. The Lord who knows all things can fill in the details. People sometimes ask for more information so they can “pray more intelligently.” I’m all for that, but it’s not like the Lord needs more information from us or that better information will somehow make our prayers “better” with the Lord.

When we are confused, Jesus is not confused.

When we are confused, Jesus is not confused.

Sometimes we are puzzled and perplexed by life.
Sometimes we are bewildered and unsure.
That’s okay.

We are not driven to despair because life doesn’t depend on our knowledge of the big picture. When we are at our wit’s end, God is just getting started. Often he does his best work when we have given up completely.

3.  Opposition will not deter us.

We are “persecuted, but not abandoned” (v. 9a).

The Greek word translated “persecuted” means “to pursue,” as a hunter pursues his game. The word conjures up movie scenes where the hero knows he’s being followed wherever he goes, but he can’t quite see his enemies. They’re out there, he knows they’re after him. When will they strike next?

Paul knew about this from personal experience. Everywhere he went his Jewish opponents followed him. They stayed on his trail, attacking his character, maligning his preaching, mocking his message, and stirring up opposition inside and outside the church. They never gave him a moment’s rest. That’s why the NLT translates this as “We are hunted down.” That’s how he felt, like an animal fleeing through the underbrush with the hounds hot on his trail.

“The door of opportunity swings on the hinges of opposition.”

Bob Jones Sr. was fond of saying, “The door of opportunity swings on the hinge of opposition."

Opportunity.
Opposition.

They do go together, don’t they? In 1 Corinthians 16:9 Paul describes his situation thusly: “A wide door for effective work has opened to me, and there are many adversaries” (ESV). If you set out to do anything good in this world, someone is bound to oppose you. And if you decide to devote yourself to the cause of Christ, you can expect that some people close to you will not appreciate your decision. When writer Frederick Buechner was a young man, he attended a posh dinner party on Long Island where his hostess said to him, “I understand that you are planning to enter the ministry. Is this your own idea, or were you poorly advised?” No doubt many sophisticated people feel the same way.

We are not abandoned by God.
We are not deserted and left to stand alone.
We are never abandoned to our fate.

Recently I had a chance to lead a men’s Bible study on the words of Jesus in Matthew 28:18-20, the famous “Great Commission” where Christ calls his followers to “go into all the world and make disciples.” I commented that our problem with that text is that it has been used so many times as a missionary text that we don’t hear the great power of Jesus’ words. We tend to focus on the command: “Go into all the world.” But that command is bracketed by two powerful statements we often ignore:

“All authority has been given to me” (v. 18).
“I am with you always” (v. 20).

It’s as if the neighborhood bully has challenged us to a fight, and we’re scared to death of what might happen to us. Then up walks Paul Bunyan, 10 feet tall, arms like tree trunks, massive chest, with ruddy cheeks, a deep tan, a huge axe in his hands, and a smile on his face. Knowing our fear, he simply says, “Don’t worry about anything. I’m going with you. If you need me, I’ll be there for you."

How do you feel now?

Or imagine Donald Trump saying to you, “Don’t worry about your investments. I’ve got confidence in you. Even if you mess up, I’ll bail you out. I’ve got more money than you ever dreamed of. And I like you so I’m backing you play.”

That’s a financial term–backing your play. It means that a rich person is standing behind you, protecting you from disaster.

“I’m backing your play.”

How do you feel when Donald Trump says, “I’m backing your play"? Suddenly your fear vanishes.

Bring that back to the words of Jesus.

“Go into all the world and make disciples. But remember this. You’re not going alone. I’m going with you. I’m backing your play. I’m right beside you. You cannot fail because I am with you wherever you go."

We often look at the great challenge of reaching the world and think, “It’s impossible.” I mean, look at your own street, your neighborhood, your classroom, your office, your store, your company, the people you see every day.

Tough crowd.
How will you reach them?

By yourself and in your own power, you won’t. It’s just not happening. But imagine the mighty Son of God saying, “Don’t worry. I’m backing your play. When you speak for me, I’ll be right there with you.” That’s the vast promise of the Great Commission.

It’s not about what we do.
It’s about what Jesus does.

We do the going and telling, but Jesus does everything else. We are never left alone. Even when we are rejected, hated, mocked, ridiculed and vilified, the Lord Jesus is right there with us. As Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego found out when they were thrown into the fiery furnace (Daniel 3), the Lord Jesus himself went with them.

4. Hard hits will not destroy us.

We are “struck down, but not destroyed” (v. 9b).

J. B. Phillips offers us this memorable paraphrase: “We may be knocked down, but we are never knocked out!” If you live long enough, you’ll be hit with a “sucker punch” sooner or later. The term “struck down” refers to the sudden emergency, the unforeseen incident, the late-night phone call, the crisis that seems to come out of nowhere, the catastrophe that overwhelms us, the earthquake of trouble that rocks our world.

Most of us feel like we can handle “moderate trouble.” We can handle a cranky boss or a sick child or a prickly neighbor. We know what to do when we have a fender bender or when the electricity goes off. We can scrimp for a few days when the money is tight, and we know when we’re sick enough that we need to see the doctor. Because we know that “into each life some rain must fall,” we know where to find the umbrella when we see the dark clouds gathering.

But what will we do when the rain becomes a thunderstorm and the thunderstorm becomes a flood, like the “thousand-year flood” that struck Nashville last weekend? What then?

As Mike Tyson famously remarked, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” If you live long enough, you’ll be punched in the mouth more than once. Sometimes you’ll see the blow coming. More often it seems to come out of nowhere.

What happens to others happens to us too.

It’s a big mistake to think that God promises to shield his children from the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” What happens to others happens to us too. We get sick, our children get sick, we get laid off, the recession takes away our savings, the chemo doesn’t always work, and sometimes we end up in divorce court.

What then?

More and more I am convinced that our best apologetic to the world is not some clever argument we make to prove that Jesus really rose from the dead. Clever arguments can only take you so far. Our friends will judge our Christianity mostly by how we respond when we take it on the chin. Tim Keller says we need a theology of suffering if we’re going to reach this generation. If Christians are truly the light of the world, when is the light most likely to be seen? In the bright sun of midday or in the darkness of the night? The answer is obvious. And it’s not as if we have to choose. We are the light of the world 24 hours a day. But our testimony given in the midst of hardship and sorrow will resonate more loudly because it comes at midnight.

Anyone can sing when the sun is shining.
If you can still sing at midnight, the world will hear you in a different way.

Nitty-Gritty Realism

I love the nitty-gritty realism of this passage.

Are we under pressure? Yes!
Do we get confused sometimes? Yes!
Do we face harsh criticism? Yes!
Are we knocked down sometimes? Yes!

That’s life, that’s reality, that’s the truth for every follower of Jesus. If you thought anything different, you better go back to the recruiting office and have a chat with whoever signed you up because being a Christian doesn’t mean getting a free pass through life. Far from it.

Christ offers victory through trouble not victory apart from trouble.

I love how J. Philip Arthur summarizes the meaning of our text:

Taken together, these four images tell us that Paul was a hard-headed realist with no romantic illusions about his service for God. Far from depicting himself as a spiritual superhero blazing a trail of success like a comet across the first-century sky, Paul portrayed himself as a groggy fighter reeling from a succession of near-lethal blows, surprised to find himself still on his feet and sure that if he was still standing, it was only by the grace of God (cited by Michael Andrus, “Treasure in Clay Pots.”)

What does this mean for us? We talk a lot today about the “victorious Christian life.” I’m all for that as long you understand victory the same way Paul did. Sometimes when I hear people talk about “victory,” it sounds like they want some sort of experience that will deliver them from the trials and struggles of life. They want to be lifted to a higher plane and a “higher life” that will preserve them from trouble. It doesn’t work that way. Too many Christians want life to be like the “Pirates of the Caribbean” ride at Disney World. You float along in a little boat where you see menacing pirates with their sharp swords. And it seems like they are going to get you, but they never come close. So you have a “thrill ride” but you are never really in danger. Life isn’t like that.

Life is hard.
We face danger around every corner.

Paul’s view of “victory” means, “Yes, I face trouble every day, and sometimes I despair of my own life. I’m under pressure all the time. I get confused. People attack me. Sometimes I get knocked down by life. But that’s when the power of Christ shows up to help me. If I have victory, it is victory through trouble not victory apart from trouble.” That’s the message we need to hear today.

This Isn’t a Cafeteria 

We don’t get to choose our troubles. It’s not as if we can say, “I’ll take some light tribulation but let’s hold off on the persecution, and if you don’t mind, I think I’ll skip the part about being knocked down.” But life isn’t a cafeteria where we can pick what happens to us. We take what God sends us. But by God’s grace though we are knocked down, we are not knocked out.

Through many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come.
‘Tis grace has brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.

So what can we expect as Christians who live in this world? Well, we can say with Jimmy Stewart, it’s a wonderful life. But it’s not an easy life. If you follow Jesus, you will face suffering, trouble, distress and perplexity. Sometimes you will feel backed into a corner. Sometimes you may think God has forgotten you. But if you hang on, you will see God’s power at work, and though you are broken by life, out of your brokenness will come the fragrance of Christ himself.

Run to the cross!

You will smell beautiful!

And the Lord Jesus will be glorified by the way you respond to your trials. What about my friend who is hanging on to life? At the moment he has been truly knocked down, but it is equally true that he is not knocked out. He is clinging to Jesus even as he clings to life itself. As I pray for his complete recovery, I do not fear for my friend because long years ago, he placed his life in the hands of the Lord Jesus. And the Lord will take good care of him.

The same is true for all who believe in Jesus. Do you know him? Have you trusted him? He died on the cross and rose from the dead. Put your life in his hands and all will be well.

Perhaps the Lord is using the hardships of life to draw you to him at this very moment. If so, then my advice is simple.

Run to the cross!

Run to the cross and lay hold of Jesus Christ who loved you and gave himself for you. Trust him completely as your Lord and Savior.

And for all who do know him, rest in this truth. Whether we live or whether we die, no matter what happens tomorrow or the day after tomorrow, we need not be afraid. You may live another 50 years or you may die in the next 24 hours. In the ultimate sense it doesn’t matter for all things are in the Father’s hands. “No man need fear the years, for they bring him nearer, not to death, but to God” (William Barclay).

If we know Jesus, we’re in great shape today, tomorrow and forever. Amen.

2010-05-08-Knocked-Down-But-Not-Knocked-Out

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