When Life Seems Senseless
When Life Seems Senseless 2 Corinthians 12:7b–10 (NIV) 7b Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited [vain, self-important, smug, arrogant, proud], I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. 9 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 about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 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. The past three weeks we were inundated with comments, musings, reminiscences related to the Christchurch massacre. Politicians, church leaders and Joe Blow in the street all have an opinion. All ponder the senselessness on a despicable act that has flung a country into an existential crisis. Inadvertently people ask eventually ask those of us who believe: How does your God allow horrors like these? How should we respond? Friends, as hard is it might be, we have to humbly acknowledge that we don’t have any simple answer to this. The reality is that hardships, horrors, perceived senseless suffering are real. It is invasive and pervasive. We live in a world scarred by suffering. Talk to any pastor and they will tell you that ministry exposes us to the everyday experiences of people – their great highs but also their very deep depressions. This is true for all people. We all are impacted by a very wide scope of things. Some of these things might be extremely personal, it happens to us individually, [e.g. like becoming ill, having a stroke, a heart attack, or being diagnosed with cancer, Alzheimer’s, or Parkinson’s]. Some of these things happens to people we know or love [e.g. a partner, a child, a parent, a friend, a colleague, a parishioner, or an acquaintance]. And because it happens to them it impacts us. Some of these things happen in our vicinity [our neighbourhood, our town, our state, our country, or our region] and they impact us. Sone of these things happen far away [e.g. in Europe, the Middle East, Africa or America] and they still impact us. I started my ministry in Kwaggasrand in December 1986. In a certain sense it was an idyllic time. Ministry was new and exciting. Every experience was a first. Three years later in 1989, when Mariette and I went to Valhalla, I never thought that my life would be as profoundly affected by my time of ministry there that it did. For instance, during our nine years of ministry in Valhalla I baptised more than 250 people – the majority of them babies. What a joyful experience. To put this in perspective, during the last 20 years since we came to Ulverstone in 1998, it would be less than 10% of that. Sobering, isn’t it? Another sobering snippet: During the past 20 years of ministry in Australia I conducted less than 20 funerals – all bar one of them were elderly, retired, people. The exception was Paul Jones who was in his fifties. However, during the nine years in Valhalla I had to administer more than 120 funerals – that included burying babies who died a birth and toddlers that drowned in fishponds, young people that died of cancer, people that died in robberies, shooting accidents, homicides, car accidents, people who died during surgery, after strokes, heart attacks, cancer and old age. It tells us something very important about the church and Christianity – Australia is much more secular that we like to admit and the church struggle to make meaningful inroads into this secular world. Nevertheless, each of these incidents made an indelible impression on me. All of them represented the hurt and pain, the suffering of people. Every single one of them involved the process guiding people to come to grips with the harsh reality of their circumstances. Friends, during my 33 years in ministry I’ve learned that suffering is never neutral. Here’s what I’ve learned: every sufferer needs to understand that you never just suffer the thing that you’re suffering, [e.g. the death of a loved one, a debilitating illness or merely the process of growing old], you also suffer the manner in which your suffering is impacting the lifestyle that you’re used to [e.g. loneliness, constant tiredness, the inability to do the things you once could do without thinking about it]. I’ve learned that no one ever comes to suffering empty-handed. We all have our baggage that we carry along – our life experiences, beliefs, assumptions, viewpoints, desires, goals, and conclusions into suffering, whether it is our own suffering, the suffering of our loved ones or the suffering of people we minister to. I’ve learned that the rest of our lives are shaped, not only by what we or the people close to us suffer, but also by what we bring to situations of suffering. What we think about ourselves, about life, about God, and about other people profoundly affect the way we think about, interact with, and respond to the difficulties, the hardships, the situations of suffering that comes our way. Nobody is immune to this. I have learned that suffering has the power to expose what people have been trusting all along. I have learned that suffering is real, tangible, personal, and specific. I have learned that every person needs to find their own way to come to grips with what they would define as their moments of experiencing hardships, suffering and loss. This is also why pastors never treat 2 people or situations where people experienced tough times the same. The Bible never presents suffering merely as an idea or a concept. No, the Bible puts it before us in the blood-and-guts drama of real human experiences. Think about Job, think about Joseph, think about Jeremiah, think about David, think about Jesus, the man suffering from dropsy – their hardships, drama, suffering is placed before us as it happened in real life. Just listen with me to me some of their responses: David in Psalm 13 (NIV) 1 How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? 2 How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me? 3 Look on me and answer, Lord my God. Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death, 4 and my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,” and my foes will rejoice when I fall. 5 But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. 6 I will sing the Lord’s praise, for he has been good to me. Jeremiah in Jeremiah 15:10–15 (NIV) 10 Alas, my mother, that you gave me birth, a man with whom the whole land strives and contends! I have neither lent nor borrowed, yet everyone curses me. 11 The Lord said, “Surely I will deliver you for a good purpose; surely I will make your enemies plead with you in times of disaster and times of distress. 12 “Can a man break iron— iron from the north—or bronze? 13 “Your wealth and your treasures I will give as plunder, without charge, because of all your sins throughout your country. 14 I will enslave you to your enemies in a land you do not know, for my anger will kindle a fire that will burn against you.” 15 Lord, you understand; remember me and care for me. Avenge me on my persecutors. You are long-suffering—do not take me away; think of how I suffer reproach for your sake. And in Jeremiah 20:14–18 (NIV) 14 Cursed be the day I was born! May the day my mother bore me not be blessed! 15 Cursed be the man who brought my father the news, who made him very glad, saying, “A child is born to you—a son!” 16 May that man be like the towns the Lord overthrew without pity. May he hear wailing in the morning, a battle cry at noon. 17 For he did not kill me in the womb, with my mother as my grave, her womb enlarged forever. 18 Why did I ever come out of the womb to see trouble and sorrow and to end my days in shame? Elihu’s response to Job’s suffering in Job 36:5–15 (NIV) 5 “God is mighty, but despises no one; he is mighty, and firm in his purpose. 6 He does not keep the wicked alive but gives the afflicted their rights. 7 He does not take his eyes off the righteous; he enthrones them with kings and exalts them forever. 8 But if people are bound in chains, held fast by cords of affliction, 9 he tells them what they have done— that they have sinned arrogantly. 10 He makes them listen to correction and commands them to repent of their evil. 11 If they obey and serve him, they will spend the rest of their days in prosperity and their years in contentment. 12 But if they do not listen, they will perish by the sword and die without knowledge. 13 “The godless in heart harbor resentment; even when he fetters them, they do not cry for help. 14 They die in their youth, among male prostitutes of the shrines. 15 But those who suffer he delivers in their suffering; he speaks to them in their affliction. Friends, the Bible never minimizes the harsh experiences of life in this terribly broken world, and in so doing, the Bible forces us out of our denial and toward humble honesty. In fact, the Bible is so honest about suffering that it recounts stories that are so weird and dark that if they were a Netflix video you probably wouldn’t watch it. Scripture never looks down on the sufferer, it never mocks our pain, it never turns a deaf ear to our cries, and it never condemns us for our struggle. It presents to the us a God who understands, who cares, who invites us to come to him for help, and who promises one day to end all suffering of any kind once and forever. Because of this, the Bible, while being dramatically honest about suffering, is at the same time gloriously hopeful. And it’s not just that the Bible tells the story of suffering honestly and authentically; it also gives us concrete and real hope. This is what we have to let people understand – our hardship, our suffering, our existential, political, emotional, physical crises are never an end in itself. Yes, you’ve heard right: Suffering in Scripture is never, ever an end in itself but is designed as a means to the end of real comfort, real direction, real protection, real conviction, and real hope. This is where our Scripture reading of today becomes relevant. 2 Corinthians 12:7b–10 (NIV) Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. 9 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 about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 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. In these verses Paul’s point is to acknowledge that when we see our crises in the right perspective our view of the world and our place and role in it changes. Situations where violence, death, loss, suffering traumatise us, when seen and interpreted from God’s perspective [seen through the lense of Scripture], brings healing, understanding peace and hope. The grand theme, the melodic line, of 2 Corinthians is authentic ministry as Paul describes and defends the ministry of the new covenant. And the persistent motif of authentic ministry is power in weakness. At the onset of this letter Paul introduced his experience of weakness as being burdened beyond his strength: “We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, 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. 9 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.” 2 Corinthians 1:8–10 (NIV) Paul is reminding us that the highs and the lows we experience is life are God’s work – his experience of being taken up in heaven as well as the thorn in his flesh were instruments used by God to grow his usability in ministry. Scholars have poured out a great deal of energy into identifying Paul’s thorn in the flesh. Explanations are legion. It includes malaria, a serious eye condition, feelings of guilt and depression because of his failure to convert his fellow Jews, Jewish persecution, epilepsy, a speech defect, some sort of continued temptation like experiencing severe fits of anger, and many more. I would humbly suggest that to do so would mean that we’re actually focussing on a tangent. The important fact that Paul wanted to share is not the torn itself, but God’s response to his pleas for hits removal and his conclusion in verse 10. If I have to say something about the thorn, I would say that what seems clear to me, however, is that Paul’s thorn in the flesh, whatever it was, came to him after his experiences of “surpassingly great revelations,” [verse 7] and maybe even as a consequence of the way he viewed them and himself [smug, conceited, full of himself, puffed up because of his perceived self-importance]. In other words, it was not a birth defect or a weakness of character that had tormented him long before the time he enjoyed being caught up to the third heaven. No, it seems to be something much more recent. It is equally clear to me that this thorn was something substantial than some minor irritation. Think about what he endured in his life. An apostle who could willingly put up with the sufferings and deprivations listed in 1 Corinthians 11 would not beg God so persistently and repeatedly for the removal of some minor problem that could easily be endured. For this reason, many scholars argue that Paul’s thorn was something very painful or extraordinarily embarrassing, and perhaps both. Friends, for many our brothers and sisters in Christ having to defend God in the face of horrors like the Christchurch massacre or even in trauma of the very individual existential hardship and suffering the people around us experience [marriage breakups, terminal illness, financial uncertainty, etc.], is a very difficult thing. Sometimes they experience it as a brutal onslaught on their certitude. It is then when Paul reminds us of 2 great truths: God’s response to his fervent pleas: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” And his conclusion: “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.” In our Scripture reading Paul reminds us that our views of greatness, of humanity, of right and wrong, of grace and mercy will become clearer, freer, and more incorruptible when we come to understand that it is often through hardship and suffering that we become aware of the frailty of humanity and the absolute need for God’s powerful intervention for humanity to survive. Greatness doesn’t exist in what we do or who we are. Greatness isn’t uplifted by our feeble weaknesses. No, people find their greatness [utter dependence on the one and only living God who can change lives and circumstances], in God’s powerful presence. Friends, come to think of it, if you observe and actively explore the world around you, you will find that personal suffering often has become a more useful key, a more fruitful principle, than opulence. Wealth cannot bring true happiness, contentedness, joyful hope or lasting peace. No, says Paul, these things depend on God’s power. And once we understand how God’s power works, it all depends on us not allowing negative worldly perspectives of hardship and suffering to make us eternally dissatisfied. David learned that. Listen with me to Psalm 27 (NIV) 1 The LORD is my light and my salvation— whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life— of whom shall I be afraid? 2 When the wicked advance against me to devour me, it is my enemies and my foes who will stumble and fall. 3 Though an army besiege me, my heart will not fear; though war break out against me, even then I will be confident. 4 One thing I ask from the LORD, this only do I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze on the beauty of the LORD and to seek him in his temple. 5 For in the day of trouble he will keep me safe in his dwelling; he will hide me in the shelter of his sacred tent and set me high upon a rock. 6 Then my head will be exalted above the enemies who surround me; at his sacred tent I will sacrifice with shouts of joy; I will sing and make music to the LORD. 7 Hear my voice when I call, LORD; be merciful to me and answer me. 8 My heart says of you, “Seek his face!” Your face, LORD, I will seek. 9 Do not hide your face from me, do not turn your servant away in anger; you have been my helper. Do not reject me or forsake me, God my Saviour. 10 Though my father and mother forsake me, the LORD will receive me. 11 Teach me your way, LORD; lead me in a straight path because of my oppressors. 12 Do not turn me over to the desire of my foes, for false witnesses rise up against me, spouting malicious accusations. 13 I remain confident of this: I will see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living. 14 Wait for the LORD; be strong and take heart and wait for the LORD. Jeremiah learned that. Listen with me to his acknowledgement in Lamentations 3:22–23 (NIV) 22 Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. 23 They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. Paul asked God three times to take this ailment away, but three times God refused, saying, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). Friends, grace is God’s love and unmerited favour that saves us once and for all (Ephesians 2:8). It also includes his power, as apparent here, where grace and power are parallel. We can distinguish, then, between initial saving grace or love and his ongoing enabling grace or power. God’s initial saving grace accepts us in Christ and puts us into God’s family forever, while God’s enabling grace empowers us to please our heavenly Father. We need both. So, Paul reveals to us this important principle of the Christian life: “When I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10). Paul reminds us that once we admit our inability to live for God in our own strength, we become able to rely on God’s enabling grace. Then like Paul we can witness instead that God strengthens us. This should be our perspective when the world question us about God in the presence of evil atrocities, trauma, hardship and personal suffering. As Paul says elsewhere, “1But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.” (1 Corinthians 15:10). Friends, Paul reminds us that that we should refocus people to see that God’s grace abounds so mightily that they should know that their experience of hardship, pain, suffering and even death is not the ultimate reality. This is why we can teach those who are traumatized by bad experiences this profound truth: When we understand God’s grace, we may be grieved by the traumas we experience in this world, but we do not grieve like those with no hope. Why? Because we know to leave earth to be with Christ is far better than living on earth. We understand that there is a One Day to come when the joy of eternity will be real for all who belong to Jesus. This same balance ought to inform our perspectives on many areas of life still stamped by the curse of sin. Disease, accidents, oppression, opposition to the gospel: none of these is a good thing, and all of them can be traced in one way or another to Satan himself. None of these will find any place in the consummated kingdom. Yet at the same time, none of these ugly things escapes the outermost bounds of God’s sovereignty. “… we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” Romans 8:28 (NIV) This is why Paul reminded Timothy in 2 Timothy 1:8–9 (NIV) “So do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner. Rather, join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God. 9 He has saved us and called us to a holy life—not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time…” This is why Paul said to Timothy: “Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, descended from David. This is my gospel, 9 for which I am suffering even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But God’s word is not chained. 10 Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they too may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory. 11 Here is a trustworthy saying: If we died with him, we will also live with him; 12 if we endure, we will also reign with him. If we disown him, he will also disown us; 13 if we are faithless, he remains faithful, for he cannot disown himself.” 2 Timothy 2:8–13 (NIV) And challenges him in 2 Timothy 4:5 (NIV) “But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.” This is why Asaph could testify: “Remember your word to your servant, for you have given me hope. 50 My comfort in my suffering is this: Your promise preserves my life.” Psalm 119:49–50 (NIV) Friends, the ‘thorn’ from God kept Paul from imagining himself as a spiritual superman, and revealed to him the reality of his human mortality and weakness despite his extraordinary revelations. The ‘thorn’ also kept Paul pinned close to the Lord, in trust and confidence. Here is the ultimate revelation, which stands for all time. Paul no longer prays for the removal of the ‘thorn’. That lies in the past. The ‘thorn’ is with him still; the Lord’s answer rings in his ears still. But he is not concerned about it anymore. No, he is boasting about his weaknesses. The grace of God is not only for the beginning of the Christian life; it is for the beginning, the middle and the end. Through the pain of the ‘thorn’, Paul was to learn that we get no lasting glory here, least of all through dramatic religious experiences, though they appear glorious and laden with power. I’m bringing to back to 2 Corinthians 12:10 (NIV) where Paul said: “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.” Friends, there is no value in suffering hardships and indignities in themselves. There is no virtue in suffering. Everything turns on the phrase “for the sake of Christ.” Only a fanatic would find contentment in self-inflicted suffering and miseries. But Christians find a special contentment in sufferings endured “for the sake of Christ.” Paul understood that the kingdom over which Christ rules was served by the circumstances he encountered. He understood that even though daily hardships and failure are not easily graphed on a chart of personal achievement, they are by no means wasted. Consider the underside of a handmade tapestry. The elaborate coordinated threads on the exterior side of the fabric, woven with precision and creativity, produce a work of art intended by the weaver. The side that will not be seen, however, is a tangled mess of thread, yarn, and knots. How similar to life! Christ uses what appears to be random circumstances with no meaning—simply knots and tangles—and makes something beautiful out of them. We must not draw undue attention to ourselves, even in our suffering. He can produce spiritual renewal out of great difficulty and conflict. What we most need to see is that power in weakness is shorthand for the cross of Christ. In God’s plan of redemption, there had to be weakness (crucifixion) before there was power (resurrection). The fact that God’s power is displayed in weak people should give us courage. Instead of relying on our own energy, effort, or talent, we can turn to Jesus for wisdom and strength. Weakness not only helps us develop Christian character; it also deepens our worship, because admitting our weakness affirms Jesus’ unlimited strength. Friends, like Paul I’ve learned through my 33 years of ministry that when people are helpless and vulnerable Jesus empowers us to witness to them to endure. And by doing this both they and us fulfil the reason why God created us in the first place. Paul’s utter weakness was the platform for God’s resurrection power. We do not have to enjoy suffering, hardship or pain. But we have to understand it. Friends, in closing: We find the most eloquent statement of the power in weakness motif is in 2 Corinthians 4:7–12 (NIV) “But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. 8 We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; 9 persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. 10 We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. 11 For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. 12 So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.” This describes us as we faithfully witness to God strength becoming visible in our weaknesses. When you feel that the world chastises you because you believe in God and you cannot express a defence in words that will soothe their pain. Remember then that God’s grace is sufficient for you too. Then you should witness too: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. Amen.