I’ve written hymns for a lot of reasons, but until I got the call from David, I had never written one at the invitation of a church. Even though writing hymns for a specific purpose isn’t something we do much in the churches of Christ, it does happen sometimes in the denominational world. There, the results are called “occasional hymns”, hymns for a particular occasion.
It didn’t take me long to decide that this occasion was worthy of a hymn, and I reached this conclusion for a couple of reasons. First, even though I’ve been gone from Dowlen Rd. for almost 12 years now, I still feel a great debt for all that you have done for me, and this is a way I can make a payment on that debt. Second, even though we live millennia after the time of the early church, the experience of this church over the past several months easily could have come straight from the pages of the Bible. In fact, it touches on some of the great themes of the New Testament. This morning, then, let’s look both at my hymn and at the Scriptures to understand the reasons that we have for comfort and celebration.
However, all of these good things can only come from THE EXPERIENCE OF AFFLICTION. Look at what Paul says about this experience in 2 Corinthians 1:8-11. There are lots of little sayings that people think are in the Bible but actually aren’t, and of them all, one of my least favorite is “God will never give you more than you can handle.” Brethren, that’s not true, and Paul’s experience here shows that it’s not true. Paul isn’t merely burdened. He’s utterly burdened beyond his strength, so that he despairs even of life.
There are lots of different ways we can reach that point of despair. I obviously wasn’t here for the hurricane, but I know what that feels like. For those of you who don’t know the story, 10 years ago my daughter Macy was unexpectedly stillborn, and Lauren and I were certainly utterly burdened beyond our strength. Without God and our brethren, the experience almost certainly would have destroyed our marriage and may well have destroyed her. It was a dark time, and having been through that allowed me to put myself in your place to write about going through your dark time.
Why does God allow such things, though? Why does He allow the children of faithful Christians to die? Why does He allow a hurricane to come in and destroy the houses and possessions and memories of other faithful Christians? For that matter, why does He allow His faithful servant Paul to face such tribulation that he thinks he’s received a death sentence?
We’ll see several answers to these questions this morning, but there are two right here in this text. First, Paul says, God allowed him to suffer such affliction so that he could learn to rely on God and not on himself. I think that self-reliance comes all too easily to most of us. When times are good and we don’t have any problems, we easily jump to the conclusion that it’s because of us, that we’re the ones who have everything under control, and God is just kind of an extra instead of somebody we need the way we need oxygen. It is our afflictions that remind us how great that need is.
Second, Paul reveals that his trouble has led him to trust in other Christians too. Yes, it is God who delivers, but he says to the Corinthians that they must help him through their prayers. Paul has been given more than he can handle, and it’s going to take God and the church to get him through it. Sometimes, the same thing is going to be true for us.
From here, though, the story turns to THE RELIEF OF THE SAINTS. Consider Paul’s description of a similar event 2000 years ago in 2 Corinthians 8:1-5. This is a text about one of the most famous events in the first few decades of the church’s existence, Paul’s collection among the Gentile churches to help needy saints in Jerusalem. We don’t know the exact reason for the need; most likely, it was another famine. Regardless, Paul has set some of his friends to going throughout the eastern Mediterranean to get this collection together.
In many ways, the churches of Macedonia don’t look like churches that are going to be able to help a lot. For one thing, they haven’t been in existence very long, no more than a few years at this point. Second, they probably aren’t very large. Third, the church in Philippi, at least, is already committed to supporting Paul.
Finally, and most importantly, Paul describes these Macedonian churches as extremely poor. By our standards, everybody who lived back then was poor. Paul himself was poor. There were many times when he didn’t even have enough to eat. And yet, Paul looks at these Macedonian brethren and says, “They’re living in extreme poverty.” When they can barely sustain themselves, how are they going to scrape together the money to help somebody else?
The key shows up in v. 5. Even though they were poor, these were people who had given themselves to the Lord, so they gave themselves to doing God’s work too. They were extremely poor, and yet in their giving, they were extremely joyful. They begged Paul to take money they couldn’t afford to give up because they were so determined to help other Christians.
I haven’t had access to the numbers, of course, but I believe that in the hurricane’s aftermath, you have experienced something just like this. Christians you didn’t even know were more generous toward you than you had ever imagined would be possible.
Here, I think we come to another answer to that “Why” question we’ve been asking. God allows disaster and tragedy to occur because they give His people elsewhere the opportunity to rise up and be great. I love Paul’s language here when he talks about “the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints.” For those of us outside, the opportunity to help you truly was a favor. It gave us the chance to be what we most want to be. It gave us the chance to be like Jesus. If there is no darkness, how can the light ever truly shine?
Next, we come to THE RESULTS OF MINISTRY. Paul explains what will happen as a result of the collection for the Jerusalem saints in 2 Corinthians 9:12-15. Of course, his future is your past. What he says will happen is what you have seen happen, and it provides us with several more answers to “Why?”
Paul’s first answer is that the generosity of the Christians in Macedonia and Corinth will supply the needs of the saints in Jerusalem, just as the generosity of Christians all over the country and perhaps all over the world has supplied the needs of the saints here. This is a beautiful thing, brethren, because it shows us that God keeps His promises. He tells us to seek the kingdom first and all these things will be added to us, and look—they’ve been added. God might allow His people to go through hard times, but He will never, ever forsake them, and your experience is proof of that.
Second, Paul says, generosity produces thankfulness to God. We live in a troubled time. I almost don’t want to read the news anymore these days because it seems like it’s all about sex scandals and racism and greed. Surely in a corrupt society like ours, everybody’s going to look out for themselves and for their own tribe and not for anybody else, right?
Wrong. Instead, what we actually saw is God still powerfully at work in the hearts and lives of His people. God does keep His promises, even when all the yuck on the news might lead us to doubt that He will. We need to remember that and give Him the glory for it.
Finally, generosity creates fellowship among brethren. In fact, I think this is much of what motivated Paul to take up the Jerusalem collection. He wanted to show the Jews in Jerusalem that Gentiles thousands of miles away were disciples of Jesus just as much as they were, and he predicts that the collection will accomplish it. Those Jewish Christians will acknowledge the faith of their Gentile brethren and, even though they’ve never seen them, long for them and pray for them.
Isn’t this just what has happened here? Sometimes, the only thing we see from brethren who live far away from us is when they say something idiotic on Facebook that starts a flame war. You think to yourself, “Man, I’m glad I don’t have to deal with them on a regular basis!” Now, though, we see the true picture. Even though they’ve never seen your faces, they love you enough to send you thousands and thousands of dollars, because you’re their brothers and sisters in Christ.
That doesn’t sound like people I want to stay away from. That sounds like people I want to know. In fact, that sounds like people I want to spend eternity with. “Thanks be to God for His inexpressible gift!” says Paul, and we should thank Him too, for all of the glory and the beauty that He has allowed us to see in this.
Even this, though, is not the final blessing that God is able to produce from apparent tragedy. Additionally, it instructs us in the gracious art of COMFORTING WITH GOD’S COMFORT. Look at 2 Corinthians 1:3-4. What an amazing thought this is! God allows us to undergo affliction so that when He comforts us, we can take that comfort and use it to comfort others. Why does God allow us to go through hard times? Because the process makes us more useful in His kingdom. This is real, brethren. I already told you about how my experience with Macy helped me to write the hymn, but this is far from the first time that my past suffering has helped me to serve.
Let me tell you, for instance, about a brother named Dennis. The first time I ever had a real in-depth conversation with him was when he called me and said, “I want to kill myself, and I don’t know where to turn. Please talk me out of it.” Naturally, that got my attention, and as I got to know him better, I found out his life story. He started out as a guy with everything going for him: brains, good looks, charm, beautiful wife, job as a bank VP, and a little one on the way.
However, the baby was stillborn, and his life fell apart. His wife blamed him for it, he took to drinking, she divorced him, he took to drinking more, and we all know how that story goes. It took him 20 years to drag himself up out of the pit of alcoholism, and even after he did, he was still racked by depression and guilt. That was his life until I said to him, “I get you. My wife and I, we lost a baby too.” Dennis has since died, but I believe he died in the Lord. It may well be that I made an eternal difference in his life that I could not have made if my daughter had lived.
My friends, do not undervalue the gift of your suffering. Do not undervalue the gift of your comfort. Let it change you, and use it to glorify God. If you will offer even this to the Lord for His use, I am certain that He will use it.