The Caring God

2 Corinthians 1.1-11 is the passage for our theme this evening, which is The Caring God. Introduction But first, by way of background to this passage, a few words of introduction to 2 Corinthians, a letter which we're going to be studying in our home groups for the next two terms. 2 Corinthians is one of Paul's most passionate letters as he's deeply concerned for a church which had been infiltrated by false teachers and apostles who were challenging his integrity, authority and teaching. These false teachers were dominated by the need for success and emphasised worldly models of strong domineering leadership and of spiritual experience over right doctrine. In terms of Paul himself their line was: if Paul is such a great apostle he ought to be living a triumphant trouble free life. It seems they argued that Christians ought to be free of suffering and illness as some of the health and wealth merchants do today - that the Christian life should be lived at the super level. In their opinion Paul was not up to that and therefore he was unworthy of the title apostle. He was too intellectual and not experience centred enough for them. The new teachers had something better to offer - a super spirituality and the Corinthians liked that as it appealed to their pride. But what that led to was the Corinthian church being lulled into an inactive faith. Into a spiritual smugness, an inward turned Christianity that was chiefly concerned with its own joy, pleasure, excitement and satisfaction. Evangelism had taken a back seat and their giving was not going to where there was urgent material need. Paul therefore wants to emphasise in this letter his genuine authority as an apostle called by Christ (v.1). But also some of the marks and attitudes of a truly successful church and Christian life: a reliance on God and commitment to his truth, strength through weakness, that God's grace is sufficient, that there will be troubles to cope with in the Christian life as Jesus himself said, that the church must be concerned for the lost otherwise it will die and that there needs to be real sacrificial giving if God's work is to go forward and if needs are to be met. So 2 Cors is an incredibly powerful letter for us today and speaks to us where we are in the ups and downs of our Christian lives. So let's now go back to our topic The caring God and our passage, verses 1-11 of chapter 1 and our first heading: First, UNDER PRESSURE How many of us here tonight are under pressure in one way or another? One of the major themes of this letter is the sufficiency of God's grace when we face troubles and problems in our Christian lives, look at 2 Corinthians chapter 12. We are weak but God is strong. Paul wants the Corinthains and us to know that and to experience it. Look at v.2 of ch 1:

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Paul wants us to know God's grace in all its love, mercy, forgiveness, direction and kindness; the overflowing grace of God into which we have been brought and by which we are to grow and serve. And he also wants us to know the peace of God, the peace which passes all understanding, the peace in the middle of every storm, every pressure and every challenge. Paul knew personally that grace and peace of God in the midst of troubles and suffering as we'll see in vv.3-11 where he talks openly and honestly about the hardships he's faced, the suffering he's endured in the ministry of the gospel and how God comforted him and delivered him. Being a Christian is not easy. Jesus, the suffering servant, did not tell his disciples that following him would be a "blessed picnic in the sunshine", but rather that they should deny themselves daily, take up their cross and follow him. And we are called to do the same which will involve trouble, hardship and suffering for Jesus' sake. Not that we should go looking for trouble of course. But what kind of trouble is Paul particularly thinking of here? Paul uses the word troubles three times in vv.4, 6 and 8. The word in the original is "thlipsis" which means pressure - a physical, mental or spiritual pressure. Pressure is certainly a word for today isn't it? Rather like the word stress - everybody is under pressure and over stressed. Though according to the latest statistics the most stressful occasions for people over the past year were Christmas and the World Cup match between England and Argentina! But there's also the pressure of everyday living in this world; of illness, bereavement, work, family, exams, unemployment, relationships, finances etc. There's the pressure to conform (Rom.12:1). The world and the devil want Christians to conform. We all face media and peer pressure today. Just think of the TV schedules on Christmas Day - no live Christmas Day service on BBC and plenty of sex and gore later on the other channels. One TV controller said that's what people want after a day of sugar. And it's so easy for us to go along with that and even to watch it on the Saviour's Day. Paul's challenge to the idlolatry of Ephesus brought on him such an oppressive burden that he thought he would die. There's the pressure of a world in moral chaos, in desperate need of Christ and the size of the evangelistic task we face. There's the pressure of what others think of us for being Christians. And there's the pressure of ministry in the church. For Paul it was those latter 4 pressures that were chiefly concerning him here - the pressure of being an apostle and the responsibility he felt for the church and its growth. Undoubtedly he had other pressures too which may have been related, such as money worries, health problems and relationship conflicts. But for him his faithfulness to Christ and to the ministry he'd been called were the main source of his troubles. Do we find the same is true? Or perhaps we face the other related pressures? Jesus must have felt these pressures too - physical, mental and spiritual - but even more so. He saw sin more clearly and lived in a fallen world as someone who had created the world in its unfallen state and he suffered on the cross to pay the price of that sin. In all these pressures, but especially when we suffer for our faith, "the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives" (v.5). So how are we to cope with such pressures and suffering? Does God care? Well that brings us to my second heading: Secondly, THE COMFORT OF GOD Some say, as the false teachers did in Corinth, that we can be without pressures and suffering. But that's not true. We're not in heaven yet and we'll only be truly free from pressure or suffering when we leave our old bodies behind and go home to the Lord. Others say that we should praise God for suffering and have the victory over it in that way. But no - yes we can rejoice in God while we are suffering and in what God wants to do in our lives through the suffering, but that is not the same. James 1:2 says, "Consider it pure joy, my brothers, when you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance and perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete". What Paul does here (vv3ff) is that

he praises God because he knows that whatever pressure comes on him and whatever sufferings he has to endure, the comfort of God outmatches it! (Baughen)

But what is meant by comfort here? The original word is paraklesis which means called alongside. So comfort here is God coming alongside us - the gracious presence of the Lord - helping and supporting through the pressure. And of course the Holy Spirit is the Comforter. God is the Father of compassion, the God of all comfort who comes alongside us in all our troubles (vv.3&4). Isn't that a beautiful picture of God's care for his people? Listen to this missionary:

In 1981 I had breast cancer. I was 36 years old. My mother had died 32 years earlier at the age of 36 with breast cancer. In 1983 I had a second mastectomy and learned that my husband was having an affair. In 1986, our bright beautiful 18 year old son took his life. No warning. No sign that he'd been unhappy. My husband and I were at home when he quietly hanged himself in the basement. How have I overcome all this grief in my life? It was due to the help that I received in the loving support of my church, my family and friends, but above all it was my belief in the presence of God in my life." ( quoted in G. Twelftree, Get the Point Across, Monarch, 1996)

God doesn't always remove the pressure but he doesn't leave us on our own. "When I walk through the valley of the shadow of death you are with me Lord," says Psalm 23. In the midst of the depths of despair he is there. As we had read from Deuteronomy, "Underneath are his everlasting arms". His comfort and grace are there and are sufficient. And in fact they overflow. Look at v.5:

For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows.

But God's comfort is not meant just for ourselves when the pressure's on. No - God's comfort is also for sharing, which is my third heading. Thirdly, GOD'S COMFORT IS FOR SHARING Look at vv.4, 6&7:

[God] {4} who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God ... {6} If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer. {7} And our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort.

Our troubles and our comfort are for a purpose. After all, all sunshine makes a desert! Bishop Michael Baughen puts it like this: it's the difference between a Euston experience and a Crewe experience. Let me explain. Euston station in London is a terminus. Crewe station is a junction. We are not to be Eustons but Crewes. Meaning that we are not to be the terminus of all the comfort God wants to bring us. Yes part of its destination is us certainly but we are also to be comfort junctions - sharing and passing on the comfort we have known. So often God takes our suffering and uses it for good. Our experience can help others as well as building up our own faith. Perhaps you feel you've had your fair share of pressure and suffering. Well God may want to use you to help others and it's not easy to share his comfort with others when you've not known illness, pain or suffering for Jesus' sake yourself. I learnt a little of how God can use our troubles to help others when I briefly suffered from depression 16 years ago. I hadn't understood depression before and God used that experience and the comfort I'd experienced from him and through friends to comfort others with the comfort I received from God. Look at vv.6-7 again:

{6} If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer. {7} And our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort.

Sometimes we can best help to comfort others with the comfort we've received from God when we've experienced exactly the same kind of pressure or trouble as they. When we can say "I've suffered from depression too" or "I've just lost a loved one" or "we get called names for being a Christian at school as well". But our own experience of God's comfort is to help us comfort others in "any trouble" (v.4). Sometimes God's comfort is very practical, like the cake and water for the spiritually depressed Elijah. Or it can be the quiet presence of a friend that means more to us than talking. Perhaps tonight God is urging you to share the comfort you have received from him with others who are under pressure. And what about those who are in trouble or under pressure overseas? How can we share God's comfort with them in practical ways? Those in the Third World? Perhaps through TEAR Fund? Just remember not only the comfort we've received from God but also the comforts we have. Going through troubles and knowing the comfort and presence of God can not only help us comfort others in the future but it can also increase our faith. Which is my next heading: Fourthly, TROUBLES CAN INCREASE OUR FAITH Look at vv. 8-9:

We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about the hardships we suffered in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. {9} Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead.

Paul's experience here could hardly be any worse. On his own he couldn't cope. He despaired even of life itself because of the great pressure he was under. The bottom was literally dropping out of his life. So how did Paul cope and how did he view his great troubles? Well he didn't give up - instead he trusted in God, he threw himself upon his great God, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort. There was nothing else he could have done and no-one else who could have delivered him. As one writer puts it, "Rather than losing faith in such a moment, he had faith to the uttermost". He doesn't appear to have argued with God or complained or moaned about it or asked, "Why has this happened to me?" Paul knew that such an experience had a purpose. Look again at v.9:

Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead.

That's why this great pressure had happened - that Paul might not rely on himself but on God. Has it occurred to us that this might be true for us too? Why we are sometimes under great pressure? Paul learnt from the depths of despair to rely on God and to set his hope on God. Look at v.10:

He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us,

Paul's greater awareness of death was accompanied by a deeper trust in God. He also learnt that God is a deliverer who continues to deliver his people from dire circumstances. Though of course in this life God's deliverances are always partial in that we may recover from illness, but we can't escape death. Only in heaven is there perfect deliverance. However the interim deliverance caused Paul to trust God more deeply for the final deliverance when he will raise his people from the dead. Do we know God as deliverer? His power in our weakness? And where have we set our hope - on him? Let's not rely on ourselves but on God who does love us, care for us and whose sovereign purposes are best. God wants us to rely on him. Going through times of great pressure are to make us rely not on ourselves but on God. In our troubles we also need the prayers of others which brings us to my final heading: Fifthly, THE IMPORTANCE OF PRAYER Look at vv.10-11:

He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us, {11} as you help us by your prayers. Then many will give thanks on our behalf for the gracious favor granted us in answer to the prayers of many.

Paul has set his hope that God will bring deliverance in this difficulty with the Corinthians and he encourages them to help with their prayer. And if many Corinthians pray then many will share in the praise and thanksgiving when God answers. Isn't it sad that in many churches prayer meetings are only attended by a few, because in them we are to share the challenges and real needs in prayer. And then we can go on to give thanks and praise as God answers prayer so that we all may be encouraged. How important it is that we do pray in our home groups or music small groups or CYFA etc. for those who need God's comfort, for those who face despair, trouble and pressure especially in Christian service. Or use prayerlink for confidential matters which will need regular persistent prayer. Those who face such troubles are to rely on God and grow in that dependence but also need the prayers of the church. When David Watson the well known church leader of the 70's and early 80's was dying of cancer he said that he relied on the faith and prayers of others. He found it difficult to pray himself. After all, as one church poster put it, "why pray when you or they can worry and take tranquilisers?" Paul is confident that our great God will answer. On him we are to set our hope that he will continue to deliver us as others help us by their prayers. God cares for us and he wants us to grow and mature and rely on him and help others to be comforted and do the same. "Cast all you cares on him for he cares for you" (1 Peter 5.7).

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