What is the point of affliction? Does God have any purpose in it? In this modern world, a lot of our time is spent trying to avoid suffering. Products are developed and marketed to us with the express purpose of avoiding pain, suffering, discomfort and any type of encumbrance.
The first chapter of 2 Corinthians is a slap in the face to this modern mindset.
Paul says first that God comforts us in all our affliction. That’s great! We want to hear that. But the sentence isn’t finished. God comforts us so that we would be a comfort to others in their affliction. He says if he is afflicted it is for their comfort and salvation. (1:6)
He then goes on to elaborate about their afflictions. They were burdened so much beyond their own strength that they thought they would die. What was the purpose of that? Why would God allow that? Is God even in control of that?
Yes, Paul says. There is a purpose:
“But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raised the dead.” (v. 9)
God is involved in our affliction. He does have a purpose. And even more than this, Paul goes to describe an even greater lesson, though it may be hidden in his words.
“He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again.” (v. 10)
I absolutely love the logic of this verse. Focusing just on the repeated verbs it says this: He delivered us. He will deliver us. He will deliver us again. Paul has a steadfast hope that the God who delivered him will continue to do just that.
God’s deliverance from affliction doesn’t mean avoiding affliction. It means deliverance through the affliction. Paul goes on to elaborate on God’s purpose in affliction in chapter 4:
“But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.” (4:7)
Paul’s goes on after this to explain that the afflictions they are going through are working to produce life in them and in others, all to the glory of God.
Paul’s vision isn’t fixed on his afflictions or on this temporal world. His gaze is eternal.
“For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” (4:17-18)
In our modern world there seems to be two extremes right now. There is a desire for comfort and convenience. We need to surround ourselves with things that make our lives easier. And then at the fringe of society there has developed an opposite mindset. You can see it in the world of obstacle course racing and Spartan competitions. One of the founders of these types of competitions has deliberately set up his life and family to tackle hard things and learn to deal with pain. It’s interesting to see these two extremes in our society.
Neither of these, though, reflects the mindset of Paul. Paul doesn’t go out of his way to seek suffering. In chapter 12 he begs God three times to remove the thorn in the flesh. Rather, he accepts every hardship as something coming from the Lord’s hand and focuses on the Lord’s purpose in it and through it.
“I will most gladly spend and be spent for your souls.” (12:15)
In his afflictions, Paul is focused outward for the sake of the Corinthians and upward for the glory of God.