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How Paul Connected the Gospel to Personal Suffering

How Paul Connected the Gospel to Personal Suffering

Paul had a gospel-centered perspective on personal suffering. In 2 Corinthians 12, we learn that the Lord gave Paul a thorn in the flesh. Though we are unsure what his “thorn” was, Christians generally agree that it was a physical debilitation. I have written on connecting the gospel to physical suffering, so here, I am addressing a gospel connection to personal suffering of any kind.

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Paul’s Counterintuitive Gospel

To connect the gospel to suffering, you first want to gain Paul’s perspective on the gospel, which you may read in 1 Corinthians 1:18-25. Here is how he wrote it to the Corinthian church. As read his view of the gospel, you want to connect what Paul is saying to his thoughts on suffering in 2 Corinthians 12:1-10.

For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. But we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men (1 Corinthians 1:18, 23-25).

Christ dying on the cross was a stumbling block for the Jewish person. It made no sense to them. If Christ was God in the flesh and the Savior of the world—as the Christians taught—why would He die? The Greeks had an even lower view of a crucified Savior. It was foolish to their intelligent minds. A dying Savior is no Savior at all. His death was a “foolish and ignorant” attempt to bring hope to people who needed a crutch.

Paul’s Counterintuitive Wisdom

The unspoken question is, How can brokenness create wholeness or healing? God’s view of a dying Savior was utterly antithetical to the Greek and Jewish way of thinking. From the Sovereign Lord’s perspective, the cross of Christ was wisdom and strength. Christ’s willful giving up of His life on a cruel cross was veiled brilliance and unspeakable power (Isaiah 55:8-9).

Perhaps you’re struggling like the Jewish or Greek thought leaders of Paul’s day. I have had battles in my mind, too. The problem that we have with evil is not unimportant or “out there” somewhere. You suffer, and you know folks who are going through hard things.

It’s your worldview about suffering that sets the trajectory for how you will live your life. Whether you spend time thinking about it or not does not hinder its effects on you and your relationships. My hope is that wisdom and reality provoke you to consider how Paul perceived and reacted to evil, particularly the personal suffering that intruded into his life.

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Paul’s Counterintuitive Suffering

Paul prayed like any of us should when afflicted by personal suffering. He was in pain, and he wanted God to extract it. Paul persisted in his prayers, as he asked God repeatedly to remove the “thorn” that the Lord gave to him. I understand why Paul prayed that way; I do not like personal suffering either. Listen to how he talked about it.

So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me (2 Corinthians 12:7-8).

The primary thing I want you to hear in Paul’s words is his tone. What you don’t hear is a complaint as he tells you what was happening to him. There are two ways you can share your problems, with faith and hope or without them. The first is a God-centered person who does not ignore what is happening but communicates those problems from a faith-filled perspective. The second type of communicator is problem-centered, which is where the path to bitterness begins.

Paul’s Counterintuitive Remedy

God had another direction for Paul’s life. Though it is counter to how the self-esteem gurus and prosperity peddlers lead us, the Lord was clear that real power comes from our weaknesses. This text is how Paul relayed his encounter with God to his Corinthian friends.

But he said to me, My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness. Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Corinthians 12:9-12).

What you don’t hear is how long it took Paul to transition from the reality of his condition to accepting God’s counterintuitive response. After the Lord presented Paul with the gospel-impregnated statement, “My power is made perfect in weakness,” the next sentence begins with the conjunction “Therefore,” which is Paul’s response to an unchanging hardship. The gap between God’s declaration and Paul’s acceptance is unknown. We can biblically speculate that everyone will not stand at attention the first time they realize God is going to use them through weaknesses, not their successes.

 

Paul’s Counterintuitive Strength

You see in Paul’s statement after the bad news that he not only understood the counterintuitive nature of the gospel but that he could now boast in his hardships that made him a weak man. Paul had connected the “dots” from the gospel to his suffering. At some point in time, Paul was able to “boast all the more gladly of [his] weaknesses so that the power of Christ may rest upon [him].”

Paul was ready to live out a practicalized gospel in a personal and radical way, as noted in 2 Corinthians 12:1-10. Notice the parallel thoughts regarding the gospel and Paul’s suffering in the two Corinthian texts:

  • The weakness of God is stronger than humanity (1 Corinthians 1:25).
  • For when you are weak, then you are strong (2 Corinthians 12:12).

Though the gospel appears to be weak, it is much stronger than any human can produce. Though suffering may appear to be a weakness to the human psyche, God can do more through brokenness than we can do through optimal strength and health. Paul was a mature believer who not only understood the irony of the gospel but was able to bring that gospel irony to bear on one of the more difficult ways a person has to accept the calling to the gospel-centered life (1 Peter 2:21; Philippians 1:29).

From Theory to Practice

In theory, many Christians will “yes” and “amen” these undeniable truths. We will even “sign-off” on them as we listen to the stories from our heroes of the faith, then and now. But the real question is your willingness and ability to practicalize these ideas to your suffering today. That part is the hard part.

One of the things you don’t want to do is equate victory with joy, with no exceptions, thinking that you’re not working under the strength of God because you don’t have the joy of the Lord. Some of the Lord’s most powerful messengers are weeping prophets (Jeremiah 9:1). Jesus was a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief (Isaiah 53:3). Sometimes strength and sorrow produce incredible grace-empowered strength.

I have seen many of the Lord’s suffering servants exhibit crazy strength even in their grief or hardship. Some may think that “victory in Jesus” only happens when you’re skipping across the mountain tops (Song of Solomon 2:8). That may be true if one of those “mountains” looks like Calvary. You can be a powerful vessel for the Lord as you crawl through the valley of death (Psalm 23:4).

Call to Action

Before you ever have victory in the valley or on the mountain, you must confront and agree with this idea of connecting the gospel to your suffering. Without doing this, you won’t have the hope that propels you to embrace your suffering with faith. Hope is the fuel that keeps you going to where you begin to evolve into a gospel-centered person. I trust these questions will help you in that process.

  1. Describe the hope you have as you think about the gospel’s counter-intuitive nature and your suffering. In what ways do you need to change? Will you be specific?
  2. Describe the comfort you find in reading how Paul connected the gospel to his suffering. What are the positive things that come to mind? What are some of the negative aspects that you want to address?
  3. Talk about God’s all-sufficient grace during a time of suffering, whether currently or in your past. How did you experience the administration of His grace to your life? In what ways does it provide hope for what is happening with you today?
  4. Talk about how you have seen the Lord’s strength work through you and impact others. How does that help you to press on for the Lord?
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