Trusting God When Overwhelmed
2 Cor. 4:7-11
For a guy who knew how to throw a party, so to speak, who would have guessed that he would have as much trouble in life as he did?
I am talking about Paul. Paul, the eternal optimist, the great encourager and cheerleader of so many others and yet facing so many of his own struggles and challenges.
Judging by the tone of most of his writings you would have thought that his was a sunny disposition, and that his was an easy life.
Yet some of his most inspiring letters were written in some of the worst places on earth and the darkest prison dungeons of his time.
These amazing letters of his were forged in the crucible of some of the most severe trials and tribulations imaginable.
Such was his life. Already at the beginning of his spiritual journey, the Lord made it clear the kind of life Paul was to lead:
“This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.” Acts 9:15-16
True to his word, trouble began for Paul soon after. As early as on one of the first trips, Luke records how the leading people of a particular area where he was: “stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and expelled them from their region.” Acts 13:50
And it only went south from there!
As mentioned, most of his ministry was done from a prison cell and some of his most inspiring writings were within that context.
I can’t help but wonder what impact conflicts and trials had on his life?
We tend to look at trials and conflict as negative things; something to be avoided or at best to be endured; something that you hunker down to and hope it blows over fast.
So how was this life of trial for Paul? If some of his best writings were done at some of his lowest moments, would those letters have been penned?
The only reason this world knows about Paul was because of his writings. Would his writings have made the bestseller list had they not been forged in the crucible of struggles and suffering?
I somehow doubt that Paul would have become the giant that he is, had it not been for his prison experiences. His trials made him the man we love and respect so much.
1. Trials Shape Character
Which brings me to a question and that is: ‘What is the interplay between the crucible of trials and the people we become?’
If Paul’s trials made the man, so to speak, can trials do the same for us?
Can character be forged in the struggles of life? That’s the question!
You bet it can. Consider for a moment what Paul wrote to Timothy:
“10 You, however, know all about my teaching, my way of life, my purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance, 11 persecutions, sufferings—what kinds of things happened to me in Antioch, Iconium and Lystra, the persecutions I endured. Yet the Lord rescued me from all of them.”
2 Tim. 3:10, 11
A couple of things are being said here:
First of all, the link is made between Paul’s sufferings and the quality of the faith he lived out.
Look at how his faith was lived out in front of people like Timothy. He says that Timothy knew all about Paul’s way of life characterized by “purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance.”
Amazing qualities and strong characteristics! This was Paul’s way of life! This was who Paul was. This defined the man.
These qualities didn’t just come to him out of nowhere nor were these gifts bestowed from heaven. These were the result of what he says in the next breath in vs. 11 when he talks about his suffering and talks about “what kinds of things happened to me in Antioch, Iconium and Lystra, the persecutions I endured.”
Paul’s character was forged in the crucible of suffering!
Trials can make or break you. They can make you fall apart, make you give up the ghost and run for the hills, or they can forge character and create in you an inner resolve and strength you never thought you had.
Secondly, notice the kind of character forged in the crucible of suffering. “Purpose, faithfulness, patience, love and endurance” began to emerge and rise to the surface in Paul’s life.
There is a unique character forged in the struggles of life that only those who are facing trials can realize. A life characterized by purpose, faithfulness, patience, love and endurance:
Purpose – a commitment to God’s purposes and God’s plans in all of life. Paul became a man of singular purpose!
Faith – loyalty toward the Christian faith; no compromise, taking a stand. Paul became a man known for his unwavering faithfulness.
Patience – patience and gentleness toward his oppressors. Paul epitomized what it meant to be a gentleman.
Love – selfless, steadfast commitment toward the greater good of others. Paul became a man of love and compassion toward foe and friend.
Endurance – long suffering in the trials that befell him. Paul becomes a man of great endurance and ‘stick-to-it-ness’.
These were characteristics forged in prison and these were what made the man great!
Which is why, thirdly, Paul’s life was an incredible inspiration to countless others such as young Timothy.
Paul says: “You, however, know all about my teaching, my way of life.”
I love how Kenneth Wuest translates this:
“But as for you Timothy, you were attracted as a disciple to me because of my teaching, conduct, purpose, faith, longsuffering, divine and self-sacrificial love, patience.”
Back to this idea from last Sunday of the circle of life pointing to the interconnectedness of what happens to us. None of us are islands. Nothing happens in a vacuum. Others constantly observe and watch us.
As we respond with the emergence of a godly character forged in the crucible of suffering, it will inspire those who come behind us and watch our lives closely.
So first of all trials forge our character!
2. Trials Keep us Honest
Then secondly, trials keep us honest! They have a way of bringing us to our knees like little else and they create a reliance on God found nowhere else.
That was another one of Paul’s great lessons learned first hand in prison.
Paul in many ways was a spark plug. He was an apostle, which was another way of saying he was an entrepreneur, a visionary and a go-getter. Nothing would stand in his way. If his mind was made up, he did it.
No doubt much of what was accomplished was because of Paul the man.
But even great people need to come to the end of themselves if they hope to be exceptional.
In Paul’s case one of the ways that was done was by being in prison.
“8 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 Cor. 1:8-10
He is writing at a time in his life when he was not only in prison but on death row (“we felt we had received the sentence of death”). It doesn’t get more final and bleaker than that.
There is no exit and no escape. It was absolutely desperate. In fact, Paul uses the rarely used word “despaired” (“so that we despaired of life itself”), which implies the complete absence of an escape.
There was no way out. This was literally hopeless.
“Paul indicated a burden that was excessive and beyond his ability to endure.” Kay Arthur
Somehow this was turned around for him. Somehow God made a way where there was no way, which is why Paul wrote: “But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead.”
And the dead might as well have been raised! To be released from death row might as well be the dead raised.
“In the wake of this trying experience that was tantamount to death there followed a further experience that was tantamount to resurrection. Only divine intervention enabled him to retreat from the portals of death to realm of the living.” Murray Harris
None of this was Paul’s doing anymore than Peter’s miraculous escape from his prison was his doing. An angel of the Lord released Peter from prison and for all we know the same thing could have happened here.
What this did for Paul,though, was keep him honest!
Trials have a way of taking your power away and reducing you to a level of dependence where unless God makes a way there is no way.
That’s the place where we see the hand of God most often. That’s the place where God not only gives grace to the weak but also opens prison doors.
The place of the “I can’t” which is also the place of the “God can”! For Paul it meant his utter reliance on God as Murray Harris wrote:
“All of this undermined Paul’s self confidence and compelled his utter dependence on a God who raised the dead and therefore can rescue the dying from the grip of death.”
Not a bad place to be! Trials keep us honest about our limitations.
3. Trial’s Path to God’s Strength
Not only do trials shape our character and keep us honest, but they are also the path to God’s strength.
Again from the same writings of Paul in his second letter to the Corinthians:
“God 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.”
2 Cor. 12:9-10
Who would have thought that an entrepreneur and sparkplug like Paul would talk like this.
“I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses” and “I delight in weaknesses” is not the normal language of success nor will such talk make the front cover of Time’s all time best seller list.
Some would say that this is the result of having been beaten down. This is what you get when in prison long enough. This is what happens to you if you have known nothing but hardship.
They would point to Paul’s experience descriptors; words such as weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and difficulties that you find in the passage as evidence of a defeated man.
They would say that you have to lean into your strength instead of embracing your weakness, as Paul seems to do here.
While it’s true that Paul is leaning into his weakness, it’s not as a defeated beaten down man but as someone who understood the spiritual principle of “when I am weak, then I am strong” and understood God’s Word that says: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
You see, where the end of self meets the beginning of God you find the place called God’s grace and the world beyond God’s grace can only be described as God’s power!
“God divinely enables us with a strength that is continually sufficient to overcome our weaknesses. In His grace we receive the power to do what we cannot do ourselves. But first we must recognize our weakness, submit ourselves to God, and put our trust in him.” Kay Arthur
Recognizing your weakness happens most often during times of trials.
“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
So, not only do trials shape our character, keep us honest before God and serve as the path to God’s strength but trials also have a limited reach.
4. Trial’s Limited Reach
Take a look at II Cor. 4:7-11
“7 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.”
There is a limit to what trials can do! We are neither at their mercy nor at their whim; they can go so far but no further.
Just like with the story of Job, when asking permission to send trials Job’s way, the adversary was told, “everything he has is in your power, but on the man himself do not lay a finger.” Job 1:12
So also trials have their limitations of what they can and cannot do!
So, while “we may be hard pressed on every side but we are not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.” 2 Cor. 4:8-9
“Paul was hard pressed on every side but not completely cornered or without room for movement, never driven to surrender. He was bewildered but ever at wits end. He was hounded by the foe, but left to his mercy. He was knocked down to the ground, but not permanently grounded.” Murray Harris
In fact, they can touch the jars of human clay but they can never touch the treasure we carry inside those jars!
All of this means we live in the tension between carrying “around in our body the death of Jesus” on the one hand, while on the other hand the reality of “so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.”
2 Cor. 4:10
So cheer up, you are not at the mercy of the enemy; you are at the mercy of God. Thus far, but no further!
“And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.” I Cor. 10:13
Did you notice that the way out is not the way of escape necessarily but the way of endurance?
“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” 2 Cor. 12:9
So, not only do trials shape our character, keep us honest before God, serve as the path to God’s strength and have a limited reach, but also finally, trials never negate the love of God!
5. Trials and the Love of God
It’s easy to doubt the love of God when in a fiery furnace. It’s easy to assume that God doesn’t love me when life crushes you.
If you have ever been at that place then you can draw comfort from Paul’s testimonial where he was able to declare, not from the safety of an ivory tower but from a rotting prison cell, that nothing will separate him from the love of God:
“35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?
37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 8: 35, 37-39
Friends, we are not merely survivors but conquerors and you know why? Because despite it all, nothing can ever separate us from the love of Christ!
Even the sentence of death that Paul carried around did nothing to separate him from the love of Christ.
We Conquer Through Jesus!
Trials far from our destruction, actually shape our character, keep us honest before God, serve as the path to God’s strength, have a limited reach and do nothing to negate the love of God!
How can you not help but be a conqueror in the midst of the crush of life?
“Paul’s life reveals what it means to live victoriously in the midst of suffering and trials. He was excessively burdened beyond his strength, yet he did not trust in himself; he trusted in God. He was afflicted with outward conflicts and inward fears, yet he was comforted by God and by others. He recognized that he was a humanly weak vessel whose power was from God and not from within himself. Paul showed us that nothing can separate us from the love of Christ, and he revealed to us the key to victory: We overwhelmingly conquer through Jesus Christ.” Kay Arthur
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