Thank God! for Struggle
Topic: Struggle Scripture: 2 Corinthians 12:8–12:10
“The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.” These are the words of Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. She was the renowned psychiatrist who developed the common Five Stages of Grief that so many of us are familiar with. She was a person with a unique familiarity with not only death but also struggle. She approached the ways in which the human experience collided with adversity and sorrow from a psychological perspective but not a sterile one. Her work was never intended to magnify the power of pain or loss but rather to demonstrate the resiliency and hopefulness held as potential within the human spiriAnd in these words, Dr. Ross voices something I believe all of us desire and hope to be true: That not only can we endure struggle, but that it can have a greater purpose. Last week we started a new message series about thankfulness, about the need for us to recognize the generosity and presence of God in some of the most common and also meaningful elements of our lives. We started off looking at community. For all intents and purposes, a really pleasant and often joyful aspect of our experience. This morning we’re going to explore an aspect of our lives that is common to all and yet rarely, if ever, invited or even appreciated: struggle.
I want to be very clear about something before we move any further. I don’t believe we need to be thankful for struggles or the things that cause struggles simply for their own sake. There is no reason for us to ever be thankful just for a flat tire. Or for a troubling conversation with our doctor. Or for the loss of a loved one. We do not express thanks for those things, not in themselves. Instead, I believe our thankfulness simply uses those experiences as vessels for something that we can truly and whole-heartedly be thankful for. And that is a truth that our text this morning highlights in a powerful way. We’re going to take a look at 2 Corinthians 12:8-10.
This text holds a special place in my heart. It was actually the second passage of Scripture I ever committed to memory. And I did it for the very reason that we’re looking at this text this morning: I had a hard time processing the struggles in my own life in a way that drew me closer to Christ. I memorized this text in high school. I still struggle with the same dilemma. The struggles themselves have changed. The fears of whether my high school girlfriend would break up with me or how I would pay for college have been replaced with different fears and struggles but I still have to wrestle with processing them.
In this text, we are hearing from Paul. And what a person to hear this message from. Paul was a man who held a lofty position in both social hierarchy and in respect. He commanded respect. All that changed on the road to Damascus when Christ blinded his eyes and transformed his heart. But his conversion experience didn’t lead to a Hallmark movie type of story. He was despised by the Jewish community he had left in order to seek after Christ, and he was feared and untrusted by the Christian community he was seeking to join. And when he finally did find himself at the center of God’s plan for his life, he faced a seemingly never-ending carousel of disaster, violence, and imprisonment. He’d been stoned multiple times, run out of countless towns, ship-wrecked, and if prisons back then had had punch cards for frequent visitors, he would have been a platinum member. And now we hear that Paul is wrestling with what he calls a thorn in his flesh and a messenger from Satan.
Thoughts and guesses on what this is exactly are just that: guesses. And they vary wildly. Some think it is a physical or health issue. Some believe it is more psychological and internal, like depression. And a lot feel Paul may be voicing a form of opposition from the Enemy himself, Satan. There are merits in every camp for what it may have been but one thing is clear: It is serious. Serious enough that Paul, the one who had endured all that I previously mentioned, would write about it and would beg God to remove it multiple times.
But He said to me, My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness. This is the response Paul receives from God. It goes to show all of us that even the guy who wrote most of the New Testament doesn’t get special treatment. God doesn’t use the word no here. But God also doesn’t say yes. How common is that to our experience of prayer? If this was a Baptist church y’all would have just said Amen right there.
And how does Paul react to God’s response? He says he will boast about his weaknesses. He will brag, rejoice, take pride in, and gloat about his weaknesses. All for one reason: so that Christ’s power might rest on him. Paul says he delights in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, and in difficulties. And then he says, “For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
This is one of those texts that leaves us feeling inspired. Inspired to face the challenges before us. Inspired to press on. Or, maybe not. Maybe in the face of what you might be enduring, this particular text feels too far out of reach or even callous in its assumed simplicity. I know two things in regards to how we engage this text: First, every single one of us processes it with past or current struggles firmly fixed in our minds. Second, every single one of us needs to hear this text – even if some of us need to hear it and put it at the back of our mind for a time. Even if this is a truth we can share with another instead of ourselves right now. Even if we don’t want to hear it.
I want to be clear be clear what this text is not. It is not a command for us to toughen up. It’s not Paul telling us to just get over it. Paul came face to face with Jesus Christ and knew his heart. When Jesus appeared to Paul, the first words he spoke were focused on the pain and suffering of those following Jesus. In Acts 9 Jesus asks Paul why he was persecuting him. We know Jesus had already returned to heaven. If we look at the events leading up to Paul’s conversion we also read multiple accounts of Christ’s followers being persecuted and hurt. That reveals something crucial about the person of Jesus: He not only notices the suffering of His followers, He counts it as His own.
That is the Jesus that Paul is talking about in our text when he mentions Christ’s power and for the sake of Christ. He is talking about a Savior whose first words to him, a glorified bounty hunter, were not a violent threat but instead a compassionate question saturated with concern for the people that Christ loved. In 1 John 4:8 we read that God is love. Jesus displayed that to Paul. And not only in their first encounter but over and over again. Like I said, Paul’s life was anything but easy. Still, Paul remained passionately committed to Christ and to introducing any and everyone he met to Christ.
Paul’s experience here in our text is inspiring and moving. But for almost every person at one time or another in their life, it is out of reach personally. Life is filled with encounters with every single one of the things Paul mentions here: weakness, insult, hardship, persecution, and difficulty. Every single one of our stories has chapters that are marked by tragedy or loss or confusion or suffering or anger or struggle. The details might be different for each of us but the impact is always reaching and caustic and jarring.
So how do we get to where Paul is here in this text? How do we boast in weakness? How do we thank God for struggles? As is probably evident from the multitude of human experience and the countless volumes written around the subject, there is no definitive answer. But I already shared with you what I did. I put this verse on my heart. First I put it on my lips then in my mind then in my heart. I repeated it over and over again until it became a piece of the tapestry of the way I experience the world. Not because these words are some kind of magical incantation. Not because this collection of sentences holds any unique power. But because they gave me an anchor to hold onto that reminded me of the one person who I know that suffered worse than I ever would and yet loved more strongly than I am capable: Jesus Christ.
A number of us are exploring the book The Shack right now. In it, the character who portrays the Father God – Papa – asks a significant question: “When all you can see is your pain, perhaps then you lose sight of me?” How true that is! And maybe it was because of my then lack of life experience or maybe it was divine grace but as a teenager I knew that in the midst of the maelstrom of my struggling and my confusion and my pain that I was losing sight of God. This text was one of the means the Lord used to help me keep my eyes fixed on Him.
The strength that we receive in our weakness is not intended to be some sort of numbing agent that dulls us to the point of not experiencing that weakness. And while this strength can absolutely become a buoy to hold us afloat throughout our struggles, I do not believe this is the sole purpose of this strength. We receive this strength from Christ. Paul tells us that it is Christ’s power that rests on us. It’s not our own. And what does Christ do with His limitless power? He heals. He speaks truth. He shows love. He redeems. To the point of even willingly not using his strength in the face of the cross, in the face of death. Even in appearing to a terrorist hunting down His beloved followers, Christ exercises His strength to convey compassion for those He loves. In our weakness, we can receive the strength of Christ. And with that strength, we are called to practice, embody, and deliver hope.
Not right away, not immediately maybe. We are fragile, broken creatures. God made us and knows our capacities and limitations. God will not ask us to ignore our struggles. But He will ask us to let Him redeem them. And while redemption is a beautiful action of the redeemer, it is an even more precious gift to the redeemed. Let me give you an example.
When I was a freshman in college I made my first steps into student ministry. I was an intern for the middle school ministry at a Presbyterian church right outside of Philadelphia. It was an awesome experience and I loved almost every minute of it. When you’re in student ministry, you never hope certain kids won’t show up. But there can definitely be kids that you can’t wait to see graduate. Ben was one of those kids. He was a 6th grader and God had given him the profound spiritual gift of knowing the location of every person’s buttons and the precise time when to press them. He was a handful. But for some reason, Jenny (the middle school director), asked me to specifically make an effort with Ben. To really pour into him. And in the beginning, I honestly believed it was some form of hazing or the result of being on the bottom of the totem pole. When it finally became too much, I asked Jenny why she was making me focus so much on Ben. She told me to ask Ben about his dad.
As it turns out, less than a year before then, Ben’s dad had been tragically killed in a car accident. Ben, like any kid who loses a parent, was shaken to his core. The fact he was at church at all was a miracle in the eyes of his mom. And as I listened to Ben share with me I was struck when he said something in particular: “I just don’t know what I’m supposed to do.” And finally, it clicked. Jenny knew my story. She knew the tremendous pain and struggle I endured having lost a parent in my own childhood, only a year or so older then Ben was when he lost his dad. I didn’t have sage advice or an easy fix. But I had that rare mixture of compassion and empathy…and hope. I’d like to think God took a tragic weakness in my own life, a terrible struggle, and gave me strength so that I could participate in God’s work of redeeming the tragedy in Ben’s life.
Listen, I don’t know every corner of all of your stories. Nor do I know the reach of your struggles or maybe the pain you’re going through right now. You can ask Caitlin, this is a message I struggled with because the last thing I want is to present a glossy, fabricated, generic word about how Christians should endure suffering. The realities are far too personal and reaching for that. But I do believe with all that I am that God’s work of redemption begins in the darkest corners of our hearts. That there is hope despite what depths of sorrow are behind or before us. And that hope is found only, entirely, and uniquely within the person of Jesus Christ.
Elisabeth Kubler-Ross said, “The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths.” I think that statement needs amendment: The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have been found by Christ amidst those depths. We can be those people. A people of redemption. A people of hope. A people who thank God for struggles.