Suffering is one of the main avenues by which God brings revival. Perhaps no one understood this concept more than the apostle Paul. His writings are full of references to God’s power entering through the pathway of pain. In 2 Corinthians 12:7–10, he mentions his “thorn in the flesh,” a physical infirmity. He prays for God to remove it, but the Lord intends instead to use it! His suffering experience would be a way to manifest God’s power and grace. The key for Paul was in his response. We must follow Paul’s example if we too would experience revival through suffering.
Admitting the Sting
“A thorn in the flesh” (v. 7). Paul was never too embarrassed or too proud to admit that he suffered. Spurgeon had on his bedroom wall a plaque inscribed with Isaiah 48:10: “I have chosen thee in the furnace of affliction.” He wrote, “It is no mean thing to be chosen of God. God’s choice makes chosen men choice men. . . . We are chosen, not in the palace, but in the furnace. In the furnace, beauty is marred, fashion is destroyed, strength is melted, glory is consumed; yet here eternal love reveals its secrets and declares its choice” (W. Wiersbe, Wycliffe Handbook of Preaching and Preachers, 223).
Suffering is an affliction that comes through some plight or evil, causing a struggle within the body, mind, or emotions. Paul listed a variety of ways in which believers suffer: infirmities, reproaches, necessities, persecutions, and distresses. Suffering is a part of the Christian experience (1 Pet. 5:10). Vance Havner observed that of the 318 delegates who attended the Council at Nicea in the 4th century, fewer than 12 had not lost an eye or a hand or did not limp on a leg lamed by torture for their Christian faith.
A young woman overwhelmed with sorrow because of the loss of her son sought help from a Chinese sage. He told her, “I will be able to help you if you will bring to me some mustard seed obtained from a home that has never had any sorrow.”
Eagerly, the sorrowing mother began her search. In every home she visited however, there had been sorrow and some homes had lost loved ones. Returning to the sage, she exclaimed, “How selfish I have been! Sorrow is common to all!”
“Ah, you have learned a valuable lesson, and now you are prepared to sympathize with others” (Walter B. Knight, More of Knight’s Timely Illustrations, 298).
Accepting the Suffering
“There was given to me” (v. 7). Paul accepted the origin of his trial as something permitted by God. There are times when God Himself prepares and sends the suffering, as with Jonah (1:4, 17; 4:7, 8). But whether God prepares it or permits it, it is still from the Lord! He designs the trials in order to make the servant. John Henry Jowett said, “The gospel of a broken heart demands the ministry of a bleeding heart. We can never heal the hurts that we do not feel” (Knight, 297).
Paul accepted the opportunity of his trial as a means of greater breaking. God brings pressure to bear upon us in order to bring us to the end of ourselves and to reveal our need of the Lord. The key to how it affects us is our response. While in Pakistan, Frank and Billie Wilcox lost their six-month-old baby. An old Punjabi man who heard of their grief came to comfort them. “A tragedy like this is similar to being plunged into boiling water,” he explained. “If you are an egg, your affliction will make you hardboiled and unresponsive. If you are a potato, you will emerge soft and pliable, resilient and adaptable.” Billie wrote, “It may sound funny, but there have been times when I have prayed, ‘O, Lord, let me be a potato’” (Guideposts Magazine).
Paul also saw his suffering as a means of greater blessing. Paul was able to hear God’s voice in a new, fresh way. “For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (vv. 8, 9). When our lives become stale God sends trials. Like orange juice in the morning needs a good shaking, we need God to shake us so that we can receive fresh insights out of God’s Word. Special portions from Scripture soon take on new life!
Let me introduce you to my very good friends. They live in a huge, 66-room house. Every room is uniquely decorated and has its own special beauty. I love to spend time in all of them, but the one room I visit the most is where my close friends live. One hundred and fifty of them dwell in this largest room in the house. You’ll notice right away that my friends are very different from one another. Some are very small while others are very large. Their personalities are all unique, yet they have gotten along with each other in perfect harmony for the last 3,000 years. They are all very wealthy and willing to offer you their riches whenever you take time to be with them. What’s so wonderful is that they do so much for me! You never need to see a psychologist or take Prozac when you’ve got friends like these. It doesn’t matter which friend I go to see, for they are always available. Their wisdom is deep, and their help is solid. I never leave without their comforting my heart, inspiring my faith, guiding my steps, and enlightening my mind. And they are not picky as to whom they choose to befriend. They will embrace anyone who will invest the time to be with them. Their name? The Psalms.
Appreciating the Suffering
“Most gladly, therefore, will I rather glory in my infirmities” (vs. 9). Paul embraced suffering as a cause of blessing and boasting! Trials are like silver and gold; therefore, we should be good stewards of our sufferings. Don’t waste your trials. Receive every dividend they want to pay you. Paul knew that suffering would be a means to greater usefulness, “that the power of Christ may rest upon me.”
In 1874, at the age of 42, Hudson Taylor was home in England on furlough from China. He had come to recruit workers for the China Inland Mission. During this time, he slipped and fell off a ladder while disembarking from a boat. Over the next few weeks, he developed a gradual paralysis in his lower back. He was confined to a bed with no certain hope that he would ever stand and walk. All of this came in the prime of his life and ministry. New opportunities were opening in China, and the churches in England were experiencing great blessing. Taylor had a choice: he could make his room of confinement either a prison or an opportunity. Because of his response, his room of suffering became the headquarters for the largest growth of the mission. Between the posts at the foot of his bed hung a map of China. Taylor used prayer to make the difference in China. While lying in bed, he sent out a public appeal for 18 pioneer evangelists to go into unopened provinces and preach Christ to the 150 million Chinese. What he normally would have tried to accomplish by urgent appeals to men, he accomplished through prayer. For five months, he stayed in bed and declared it to be one of the happiest times of his life. He learned to wait on the Lord, to pray, and to rejoice.
Years later when someone remarked to him that God had prospered the CIM and given him great honor, he replied: “I do not look upon it that way. Do you know I sometimes think God must have been looking for someone small enough and weak enough for Him to use, so that all the glory might be His, and that he found me” (Dr. and Mrs. Howard Taylor, Hudson Taylor and the China Inland Mission, Vol. II, p. 263–268).
Paul also knew that suffering would be a means to future glory. Suffering and glory are partners! “For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us” (Rom. 8:18).
The Galeras volcano in Colombia, South America, erupted suddenly in January 1993. One week later, geologist Dr. Fraser Goff was sampling gas vents in a canyon west of the volcano summit. The guide who was with him jokingly said, “Do you want to look at some gold?” Dr. Goff picked up some of the rocks and later cut them into thin slices. He found that the rocks, in fact, contained quite a bit of gold! The naked eye could see tiny golden nuggets in the slices. This was the first time scientists had detected visible gold particles in an active volcano. More than a year later, Dr. Goff announced that the Galeros volcano, which remained active, was spewing more than a pound of gold each day and depositing 45 pounds of gold a year into the rock lining in crater. He explained that magma from inside the earth has many components, including gold, and estimated a ten-foot wide gold vein at the base of the volcano. The pressure of our fiery trials down here in life will bring forth gold not only now, but in the life to come (Contemporary Illustrations for Preachers, Teachers, and Writers, 269).
Steve Pettit travels in full-time evangelism.