I attended a lecture at the University of Alberta a few years ago during their lecture series on the topic of religion and politics. The lecturer was a person named Kate Bowler who had recently written a book that chronicled the history of the prosperity gospel. The lecture was interesting – Bowler is a gifted speaker and had clearly done her homework – but this is not what stood out to me. The part of the lecture that I will never forget is the part where she strayed away from her academic research and leaned forward on the podium to share with us that she had recently been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer.
Here was someone who had spent years researching the genesis of a movement that claims God exists for our health, wealth and happiness and was now left trying to make sense of how a cancer diagnosis fits in that. Her conclusion was simple… it doesn’t. A stage 4 cancer diagnosis simply doesn’t belong; no form of suffering, for that matter, belongs.
As we continue to look at the various prayers by the apostle Paul we find ourselves in the book of 2 Corinthians where Paul offers a very different way of understanding the role of hardships in our lives. Here is what Paul writes:
“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 afflictions…. For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ.” – 2 Cor. 1:3-5 NIV
According to Paul, the abundant life that God has for us includes an abundance of sufferings. In other words, hardship, struggle, and suffering belong. And yet, they don’t just belong as some inevitable side effect to the good life like lineups at Disneyland or stomach aches after McDonalds. Suffering plays an active role in our discipleship as it did for Paul.
Right after Paul’s prayer he tells a story of how he was in despair because he thought his life was going to end and then he says, “This happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God” (1:9). He goes on, a little bit later in this letter, to describe a time where he pleaded with God to remove something that was tormenting him. God doesn’t, and Paul concludes that it was “to keep him from becoming conceited” (12:7). Suffering belongs and God is actively using our sufferings to make us more dependent on him.
But, if all we did after reading Paul’s prayer was talk about suffering, we would miss the point he is getting at. So here it is: in the midst of our suffering, our Father will comfort us. Abundant suffering is met with abounding comfort through Christ. So Christian, don’t lose heart. May we find comfort like Paul, who in the midst of pleading with God to relieve his suffering, heard Jesus say, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (12:9). In times of weakness we often begin to see that Christ is our only hope in life and death and it is here that we find our strength. When I am weak (read desperate for the Lord) then I am strong.
Fellow suffers may you be comforted by Paul’s words this week,
“Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” – 2 Cor. 4:16-18 NIV