God’s Purpose in our Problems

2 Corinthians 12:7-10

July 25, 2010 | Brian Bill

My daughter and I went to the Demolition Derby at the 4-H Fair this past week and had a blast.  I loved watching drivers take aim at each other with the attempt to demolish or disable one another.  We saw some great smash ups and did a lot of laughing.  I don’t know much about how these derbies work but I do know that the last car still running is declared the winner.  The announcer pointed out that each driver has a long wooden stick duct-taped to the side of the car and if for some reason he can’t go on, either because he’s feeling a bit woozy from getting clobbered, or the car has gone caput, he simply reaches up and breaks the stick which is supposed to signal to the other drivers that he has surrendered.  No one is supposed to smash into a car that has a broken stick.  

During one of the heats a car stalled, and I saw a driver reach up and break his stick.  Apparently, the other cars didn’t see this and so they revved up their engines and came at him full-speed and collided with the stalled car.  The driver was not very happy at all.  I couldn’t hear what he said but I could tell that what came out of his mouth was not a word of blessing.  He held his hands up in exasperation and started waving the stick at the other drivers as if to say, “What’s up with that?  Can’t you see that I’m out of commission here?  Stop hitting me.”

I suspect that some of you feel like you’ve been in a demolition derby.  You’ve waved the surrender stick, but the hits just keep coming and you don’t know how much more you can take.  As we wrap up our series called, “When Life is Hard,” we’re going to learn that God loves to bring out His purposes through our problems.

Here’s what we’ve been discovering the last several weeks: Trials are designed to teach us so that our conduct and our character changes.  And, God works His good through our trials when we pray and when we stay.  One of the suggestions I made last week was to read the Book of Psalms when you’re suffering.  Anyone care to share what you learned through this assignment?  What themes jumped out at you in your reading?

Check out this email from a church member: “Pastor Brian, on Sunday you mentioned reading the Psalms as a great way to deal with trials.  I thought I’d share the one I’ve come back to several times in the last few months.  Sounds funny, but it helps me to know that the Israelites used this as a song in their worship.  Not only did they feel the same as I do but they talked (and sang) about it publicly.  As a group they acknowledged their doubts and pain before their holy God.  They asked hard questions but they weren’t smashed by God’s justice or holiness.  He heard every word they said.”

She then quotes this paraphrase of Psalm 44:23-26: “Get up, God!  Are you going to sleep all day?  Wake up!  Don’t you care what happens to us?  Why do you bury your face in the pillow?  Why pretend things are just fine with us?  And here we are—flat on our faces in the dirt, held down with a boot on our necks.  Get up and come to our rescue.  If you love us so much, help us!”

It’s so hard to hang in there when we cry out for help and it seems like heaven is silent.  My guess is that you have felt something similar to the psalmist at some time in your life.  What possible purpose could my problems have in my life?  Why doesn’t God remove my pain?  When will relief come?  Why do I keep getting smashed?  Can’t God see that I’m already broken?

I want to propose today that God works His purposes through our problems.  That reminds me of this poem.

I walked a mile with laughter,

She chatted all the way

But I was none the wiser

For all the things she had to say.

But, I walked a mile with sorrow,

And not a word said she.

But, oh, the things I learned

When sorrow walked with me!

Paul’s Problems

To help us better understand how God works His purposes through our problems, I want us to study a signature passage on suffering found in 2 Corinthians 12:7-10.  But instead of preaching a typical sermon, I want to ask you to use your imagination for several minutes as I step into a different character.  I’m not going to wear a costume because I’m too self-conscious in a bathrobe and sandals but if it’s OK with you, I’m going to morph in to the Apostle Paul for a short period of time.  

I’m going to share my story about my personal pain and then I’ll let your pastor help you apply it.  He’s a bit long-winded but nothing like the time I preached all-night long and a guy name Eutychus feel asleep (I know it’s hard to believe that people fall asleep in sermons) and fell out of an open window.  You actually don’t have any windows in here so you should be OK.  After Eutychus bit the dust, he died so I prayed over him and he came back to life.  I then took him back upstairs and continued my sermon, preaching until morning.  I’m not making this up.  Check it out in Acts 20:7-12.

As you may know, before I became a Christ-follower, I sought out Christians in order to make them suffer.  I even killed some of them.  But my life changed dramatically when I met Jesus.  While I didn’t fully comprehend it at the time, Jesus made it clear to me at my conversion that I would be sent to tell people about Him but I would also suffer.  Check out what Acts 9:16 says: “I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.”

I had the privilege of taking the Word to different parts of the world and saw churches come to life and multiply.  After spending time in these cities and encouraging the new believers, I often wrote letters back to them to address issues, to provide encouragement and to do some teaching so these believers could be equipped to be world-changers.  Amazingly, many of these letters have been preserved and make up much of your New Testament today.  

I’ve been asked to shed some insight into a passage I wrote to the church at Corinth.  This particular church, mainly because of its corrupt community, had some significant problems that I needed to address.  I’m sure this hasn’t happened to any of you but many of these Christians were once on fire but had started to coast.  Some of them had slid into sin so I wrote to confront them.  I also corrected them on some topics they were confused about.  In the book you call 1 Corinthians, I addressed divisions, immorality, lawsuits, marriage and singleness, attacks on my apostleship, the Lord’s Supper (I understand you’re celebrating this next week – make sure you’re ready), spiritual gifts, the Resurrection and the importance of regular giving.

In another letter to them several years later I wanted them to know that God comforts us when we go through hard times so we can comfort others (see 2 Corinthians 1:3-7).  I also wanted to establish the importance of reaching out with the reconciling love of Christ (chapter 5), of not being unequally yoked with unbelievers (chapter 6), and how to grow in generosity (chapters 8-9).  And, even though I didn’t want to do this, I felt the need to defend my ministry because many were attacking my authority as an apostle (chapters 10-12).

If you have your Bible with you, and I sure hope you do, because I understand that there are a lot more available today than what we had in the first century, would you turn to 2 Corinthians 12?  I’m going to ask you to follow along as I give you an “extended play” version.  After quickly summarizing an amazing experience I had in the beginning of this chapter, I’m going to slow down a bit in verses 7-10 and offer you some inside insight into a very agonizing time in my life.

I had an experience 14 years previous to writing this letter that I had not told anyone about.  I think partly it was because I didn’t think anyone would believe me but it was more that I couldn’t put in to words what I saw.  Somehow I was transported to heaven and I saw and heard things that are inexpressible. By the way, when I said I was caught up to the “third heaven,” the first ‘heaven’ referred to the clouds and atmosphere around earth and the second was where the stars and sun hang out.  The third heaven is the invisible realm where God dwells.  I felt like I needed to share a bit about this because some false teachers had infiltrated the church and were castigating my credibility.

Look now at verse 7: “To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.”  What I’ve learned is that there is no sin as subtle, as pervasive or as ugly as pride.  Listen to Proverbs 29:23: “A man’s pride brings him low, but a man of lowly spirit gains honor.”  There’s been a lot of discussion and conjecture about what exactly my “thorn in the flesh” was so I decided to let you know…that I don’t want to tell you.  You see, if you don’t know what I struggle with, you can apply what I learned to your situation.  All I will tell you is that the word I used for “thorn” referred to a point on a fish hook.  It was also a sharp stake used for torturing or impaling someone.  That will give you an idea of how persistent and painful my malady was.

I also used a strong word at the end of this verse: “torment.”  It might help if I define it for you.  It means “to beat or strike with the fist.” To help you understand, think about what happens in a UFC cage fight when the two combatants just pummel each other until one goes unconscious.  And it’s hard to tell in English but the tense I used refers to my thorn being constant and recurring.  Some of you know exactly what I’m talking about because your pain is chronic and you wonder if it will ever go away.  It might be emotional or physical or spiritual or mental but it’s tormenting you right now.  

God knows what can happen to each of us if we get too comfortable

In order to humble me, God took me from pleasure to pain, from blessings to burdens, from ecstasy to agony.  God knows what can happen to each of us if we get too comfortable.  I’m challenged by what He says in Hosea 13:6 says: “When I fed them, they were satisfied; when they were satisfied, they became proud; then they forgot me.” 

Before moving on to the next verse I want to point out something that has been really helpful to me.  Notice the phrase “was given me” and “messenger of Satan.”  It helped me immensely to see my suffering as a gift from God, even though it was intended by Satan to knock me out of the ring.  Some of you spend a lot time wondering and worrying about whether Satan is behind something or if it’s God.  Here’s how I figure it.  Whatever Satan does is ultimately allowed by God and God will work out His purposes through our problems.  Just like in the Book of Job, God even uses Satan as His instrument.

My thorn was so paralyzing that I pled with the Lord three different times to take it from me.  Check out verse 8: “Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me.”  These weren’t just casual prayers – I was intense about this but even when we pray and pray sometimes suffering still won’t go away.  Some of you may think my prayers weren’t answered but actually they were, just not in the way I wanted…at least at first.

I want you to notice the very first phrase in verse 9: “But he said to me…”  It’s difficult for you to see in English but this literally means, “And God has once and for all said to me.”  This settled it for me.  Oh, and before I forget, did you catch the fact that I was not allowed to talk about what I heard in Paradise but I could talk freely about what God told me in the midst of my problems?  

He gave me a great gift when He told me in verse 9: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”  It took me awhile to understand this but God works His will most profoundly when I’m at my weakest.  Grace is God’s provision for every single one of our needs, not necessarily our wants.  His grace comes to me when I’m in the gutter.  I think I have to be strong and yet God does His best work when I’m suffering.  The phrase “made perfect” refers to be being complete.  If you and I want to see God’s power in our lives, then we must first become weak.

Look now at the next part of verse 9: “…Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses…”  Did you catch that I said, “weaknesses” in the plural? Most of us have a number of weaknesses.  It goes against what most of think because we tend to boast about our strengths but God wants us to boast about what has led to our weakness…and to be glad about it.  I could have bragged about what I saw in heaven but instead I wanted people to see how weak I really am.  If you drop back to 2 Corinthians 11:30, you’ll see that I put it this way: “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.”   

I do this “…so that Christ’s power my rest on me.”  The phrase, “rest on me” is filled with meaning.  It literally means, “to tabernacle upon” or “to spread a tent over” like God’s Shekinah glory resting over the tabernacle in the Old Testament.  Isaiah 4:5-6 comes to mind: “Then the Lord will create over all of Mount Zion and over those who assemble there a cloud of smoke by day and a glow of flaming fire by night; over all the glory will be a canopy.  It will be a shelter and shade from the heat of the day, and a refuge and hiding place from the storm and rain.”  

God’s glory and the power of Christ are like a canopy resting over us when we feel weak.  The root for the word “power” is where the English word “dynamite” comes from.  Wait.  There’s more.  John 1:14 says that Jesus became God’s canopy when he “tabernacled” among us: “The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us.”  

I hope this helps to explain why I was able to celebrate my suffering, because it was precisely at my point of greatest weakness that the very presence and power of God settled on me.  Until you’ve experienced it, it’s hard to believe that there’s a privilege to pain.  Notice verse 10: “That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties.  For when I am weak, then I am strong.”  That’s the paradox of pain.  The weaker I am, the stronger He is in my life.  That’s exactly what Isaiah 40:29 says: “He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak.”  I may have gone to heaven; but it was through my hurts and hardships that heaven came to me…and the same can happen for you.

Finding Purpose in Your Problems

Thanks, Paul for your perspective.  Now, let’s look at some practical ways we can find purpose in our problems.  Remember this: God has a plan to use your pain for His purposes!

1. Confess your bitterness to God. 

Friends, bitterness will short-circuit God’s plan to use your suffering for His glory and for your good.  While it’s OK to express your anger to the Almighty, some of you are brimming with bitterness.  I think I’ve mentioned Hebrews 12:15 in every sermon in this series and I do so again because a bitter heart will harm you and others: “See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.”  Someone has said that bitterness is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.

2. Admit your arrogance and turn from pride. 

In what area of your life are you filled with pride?  Here’s an idea.  Instead of boasting about strengths, start boasting about weaknesses and how God has demonstrated His power in your problem.  If you can’t think of a weakness, ask a family member…they’ll tell you.  Friends, the most dangerous threat to your faith is pride.  James 4:6 says, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”   What happened to Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 5:20 is a chilling reminder of what can happen if we’re not humble: “But when his heart became arrogant and hardened with pride, he was deposed from this royal throne and stripped of his glory.”

And so, hardships keep us humble.  If you think about it, it’s an act of arrogance to demand that God owes us an explanation for why we’re going through pain and suffering.  I received this email from someone who is part of this faith community but has been unable to attend because of her affliction: “I believe that those who suffer have been chosen by God.  We are to me an elite group of people who look at the world differently than others and I don’t mean that in an arrogant way.  Pain humbles you and brings you to your knees…pain can change you.” Richard Baxter wrote, “Suffering so unbolts the door of the heart, that the Word hath easier entrance.”

3. Keep on praying as long as you can. 

Pray with passion and persistence.  Ask God for a miracle.  A cynic once needled an elderly believer who had endured pain for 20 years: “What do you think of your God now?”  To which she replied, “I think of him more than ever.”  2 Corinthians 4:7-9: “But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.  We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.”  This is easier to sing than it is to live, because even when we pray and pray sometimes suffering doesn’t go away. 

4. Give God the right to say “no” to you. 

In the whole scope of things, God already has the right to say no but it’s important for us to admit this.  I love the model of Jesus, which Paul seems to have followed, when he prayed three times for the suffering to be taken away in Mark 14:36: “‘Abba, Father,’ he said, ‘everything is possible for you.  Take this cup from me.  Yet not what I will, but what you will.’”  I briefly addressed this last week but just because you’re going through problems and not experiencing “prosperity,” this does not mean that God is against you or that somehow you don’t have enough faith to claim God’s favor.  Suffering happened to Paul and to Jesus, not because they were out of the Father’s will, but because they were in His will.

5. Treat your trial as a gift from God. 

Don’t trust your feelings!

Think about your biggest trial and thank God for it.  Think and thank right now.  Here’s a practical hint.  Don’t trust your feelings!  When those you love are in great pain or when you face senseless tragedy or when friends turn against you, when life tumbles in, your feelings won’t be an accurate guide.  You won’t “feel” joyful or grateful or full of trust normally.  So don’t judge your circumstances by your feelings.  Judge your circumstances by the Holy Spirit and by the Word of God.  From the depths of a concentration camp, Corrie ten Boom recorded her sister Betsie’s words: “There is no pit so deep that He is not deeper still.”

When you do that, a powerful conclusion emerges: These great trials give me great hope that

God means a great benefit to me.  Seeing things God’s way doesn’t cancel your trials and it doesn’t turn them into non-trials, but it does transform your evaluation of those trials. You will view them differently because you believe that God intends through them to accomplish His purposes.  Malcolm Muggeridge offers this wise insight: “Supposing you eliminated suffering, what a dreadful place the world would be!  Everything that corrects the tendency of man to feel over-important and over-pleased with himself would disappear.  He’s bad enough now, but he would be absolutely intolerable if he never suffered.”  

Keep these two truths in mind.

1)  Struggles are sent from the Lord.

2)  They are necessary for my spiritual growth.

The first statement reflects a high view of God’s sovereignty.  I love what Tony Evans says: “Everything is either caused by God or allowed by God, and there is no third category.”  If I truly believe that, then I can move to the second statement and begin to look for ways to grow spiritually. Jim Harrell, reflecting on how his slow death from ALS was helping him to discover real life, said this: “Suffering is the icy cold splash that wakes us up from the complacency of living this life. We truly don’t see God and his purpose and strength without suffering, because we just become too comfortable.”

Someone has said this about a trial: “Accept it and it will become a heavenly blessing; fight it and it will become a heavy burden.”  Check out what Paul said in 2 Corinthians 1:8-10: “We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about the hardships we suffered in the province of Asia.  We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life.  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.”

In 2005, the Washington Post conducted a major survey of Hurricane Katrina survivors who wound up as refugees in Houston.  Asked about their faith in God, “Remarkably, 81 percent said the ordeal had strengthened their faith, while only 4 percent said it weakened it.”  Did you hear this week that pastor Rick Warren was hospitalized after the toxins from a poisonous plant got in his eyes?  Living what he says he believes; here was his response on Twitter: “May God use this pain for His glory.”

See your suffering as a means to minister to others. 

Paul wanted his thorn removed so he could get on with his ministry but he learned that the thorn multiplied his ministry.  Randy Alcorn says, “Through suffering we become powerless so that we might reach the powerless…our suffering makes Jesus visible to the world.  Suffering creates a sphere of influence for Christ that we couldn’t otherwise have.”  Friend, sickness and pain and suffering does not have to knock us out of the derby.  Paul certainly understood this.  I’ve missed this verse for many years but God brought it mind this week and I found great personal comfort in it.  Check out Galatians 4:13: “As you know, it was because of an illness that I first preached the gospel to you.”

Have you ever thought about how God can use you to help someone who is going through the same suffering that you’ve been through?  According to 2 Corinthians 1:3-4, this is a big part of God’s purpose in comforting you in your pain: “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 have received from God.”

A reporter once asked Mother Theresa, “When a baby dies alone in a Calcutta alley, where is God?”  I love her response, “God is there, suffering with that baby.  The question really is, ‘where are you?’”

A Gentle Healer

Do you feel broken and bruised and battered today?  Take comfort from Matthew 12:20: “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.”  A reed was a hollow-stemmed plant that grew along riverbanks in Egypt and Palestine.  They grew anywhere from three to twenty feet high.  Reeds were used as a symbol of weakness and fickleness in the Bible.  In Matthew 11:7 Jesus describes a reed as “swayed by the wind.”  When the Roman soldiers mocked Jesus in Matthew 27:29 they placed a reed in his right hand to let everyone know that they thought He was powerless.

We can say at least two things about a reed:

  1. It was weak.  If a large bird landed on it, it would break.  And because of the wind, or people trampling along the shores, almost all reeds were bruised and blemished.  There is hardly anything more frail or brittle.
  2. It was worthless.  If someone came across a bruised reed they would not pick it up but would instead step on it or kick it out of the way.  Although reeds were used to make baskets and flutes, they had very little value, especially when they were bruised.  A reed came to represent the poor and the oppressed.  The word “bruised” means to be “broken by calamity.”  It’s a picture of an individual who has been wiped out by life.  

Do you feel weak and worthless?  Have your problems been pounding you?  Have you been battered and thrown around by the storms of circumstances?  Has sin scarred you?  If so, listen to these gentle words: “A bruised reed He will not break.”  This word “break” means, “to rend in pieces or crack apart.”  It was used of the breaking of the legs of those who were crucified in John 19:31.  Friend, Jesus is not out to break you into little pieces.  He longs to take your bruises and heal them.  Psalm 147:3 says, “He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.”

A victim of a great evil once told this to Randy Alcorn: “I discovered in myself the spirit of entitlement.  I learned that God was not going to go down my checklist of happiness and fulfill it.  I learned what it meant to surrender to His will.  Before, I wanted certain gifts from Him.  Now I want Him.”

I came across this prayer that was found on the dead body of a confederate soldier during the Civil War.

I asked God for strength, that I might achieve,
I was made weak, that I might learn humbly to obey. 

I asked God for health, that I might do greater things,
I was given infirmity, that I might do better things. 

I asked for riches, that I might be happy,
I was given poverty, that I might be wise. 

I asked for power, that I might have the praise of men,
I was given weakness, that I might feel the need of God. 

I asked for all things, that I might enjoy life,
I was given life, that I might enjoy all things. 

I got nothing that I asked for
– but everything I had hoped for. 

Almost despite myself, my unspoken prayers were answered.
I am among men, most richly blessed. 

  • Break the stick to show a life of surrender…

Are you finally ready to surrender?  What’s holding you back?  Knowing that He will not break you into pieces, isn’t it time to break your will and surrender to Jesus for salvation and service right now?  Tell him that you can’t go any further on your own.  Tell him that you’re stalled out.  Tell Him that life has come crashing down on you and that in the demolition derby of circumstances you are ready to surrender.

I want to give you an opportunity to surrender right now.  If it would help you to come down front while we sing our closing song, then please do so.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?