WE ARE AFFLICTED
I love you very much. I genuinely love this church very much, and today I have a deep sense of gratitude that I get to teach on what is, frankly, a difficult subject. And my hope is to help you and to help you help others, and it’s a great honor, as we find ourselves in Ephesians. And today we’re in Ephesians 3:1–13, dealing with the fact that we are afflicted, and so the sermon title is “I Am Afflicted.”
And what I appreciate about the Bible is that it’s the most honest book that’s ever been written. And like our lives, the Bible doesn’t deal with suffering just in one chapter or one book, it’s woven through many chapters and all the books. And as we come to the book of Ephesians, we’re gonna learn about suffering, and affliction, and hardship through a man named Paul.
Now, two things are true of you and me, and two things were true of him: we will cause other people to be afflicted, and other people will cause us to be afflicted. Paul caused affliction for others. We first meet him in Acts 7, he’s overseeing the murder of an early church deacon named Stephen. He afflicted people, and then he met Jesus and he was the one who was then afflicted because of his love for Jesus. So, you’ll see with me in Ephesians 3:1, he says that he is “a prisoner of Jesus Christ.” So, he’s in jail, he’s being afflicted. And then he says in verse 13, at the end of that unit of thought that we’ll be studying, he says, “I am suffering.” So, he starts, “I’m in prison,” and he ends, “I am suffering.”
So, here’s a man who’s talking about what it means to be afflicted, but it’s not just in a clinical way, it’s in a very practical way and a very pastoral way. And as he’s separated from his church in Ephesus, and he’s in prison, most likely in Rome, he is writing to them and he’s wanting them to learn from what he is experiencing through his affliction.
The Bible, as I say, is filled with affliction. Laments fill up a third of the Psalms. There are 150 Psalms; one-third of them are laments. These are people who are hurting and crying out to God in the midst of their pain, and their grief, and their suffering. All of the Old Testament prophets, with the exception of one, have laments in them where they’re just crying out to God and they’re hurting.
The Bible is very honest that suffering is real and it comes to God’s people. And you need to know that stands in contrast to some false teaching today that basically says, you know, if you really love Jesus, you won’t suffer, but we know that Jesus suffered the most. He suffered horrifically, and he suffered unjustly, and he suffered righteously. And the good news is that Jesus will bring all suffering to an end, but in a world that’s filled with suffering, we don’t have a God who’s immune from it and separated from it, that he enters into it, he tastes it and experiences it, and he identifies with us in the midst of it.
FOURTEEN KINDS OF SUFFERING
So, this’ll be maybe the longest introduction I’ve ever done to a sermon, but I want to share with you fourteen kinds of suffering that I see in the Bible. It’s in the book, I’ll put it on the blog. If you don’t catch them all taking notes, that’s fine. But what happens is when we’re suffering, I think it’s helpful to understand what kind of suffering we are experiencing, what kind of affliction we are enduring.
I want you to think of this in two ways: number one, how are you afflicted? Where is life hard right now? It’s painful, it’s difficult, it’s a season of trial. And what categories of suffering are others experiencing that you know? Family, friends, neighbors, coworkers—what can you learn and how could you help them? Well, fourteen kinds of affliction.
The first is Adamic affliction. This is where, because of Adam and sin entering the world, the world is just a broken place. And Paul and the church at Ephesus were experiencing this; we experience it as well. It’s why there’s death. We say goodbye to people we love, like we recently buried my father-in-law. It’s why we get sick. It’s why, as we get older, our bodies start to wind down. It’s why the world just isn’t the way that it’s supposed to be. It’s just the general result of sin, and that’s Adamic affliction.
Number two, there is punishment affliction. For those who are not Christians, sometimes their affliction is punishment from God and that culminates in eternal hell where there is punishment affliction, where people who have sinned against God and don’t turn from sin and trust in Jesus, they have affliction eternally.
Number three, there’s consequential affliction. This is where, to use the language of Paul elsewhere, we reap what we sow. That you eat poorly and you’re of ill health. You drink too much and you blow your liver out. You spend too much and you’re in great debt. You don’t get up and go to class and you flunk out of college. You don’t show up to work on time and you’re unemployed. You yell at your boyfriend or girlfriend, and lo and behold, they do not turn into a spouse. Alright, it’s—you’ve made a mess of your own life. It’s the consequences of your own sin and folly.
Number four, there is demonic affliction. This is where Satan and demons are harming one of God’s people. This could be sickness, this can be torment, this can be night terrors, this can be hearing of voices, this can be demonic accusation. Paul is experiencing this while he’s in prison, and the church is experiencing it. That’s why in chapter 6 of his letter to the Ephesians, he’s gonna talk a lot about this particular kind of demonic affliction.
Number five, there is victim affliction. This is where someone sins against you. I met a number of women recently who have gotten out of or are getting out of abusive relationships with violent men. This is where someone just sins against you. I was speaking to a woman and praying for a woman recently, and the worst abuser in her whole life was her dad. The things he did to her were just very difficult to hear as a dad. Victim affliction is where you didn’t do anything wrong, they just harmed you. This is where people are attacked, this is where children are abused, this is where women are mistreated and where men sometimes even do violent things to one another. It’s victim affliction. Somebody did something that was just wrong. You didn’t deserve it and in no way should you have endured it, but you were sinned against.
Number six, collective affliction. This is where you’re part of a people who are suffering and so you’re suffering with them. So, you’re part of a nation that’s at war, or you’re in a community where tragedy has struck. Now, for Paul and the Ephesians, they’re suffering in this way. He loves them and they love him. He can’t be with them because he’s in prison, so he’s suffering, and they’re suffering because they’re suffering with him, because they are identified with him. Is there anybody you really love and they’re suffering, and so as a result, to some degree, you’re suffering?
There is, number seven, disciplinary affliction. This is where, for a believer, God allows some affliction, not to punish them but to mature them, to mature them. And so some of that is going on in the life of Paul as he is continuing to mature. Some of that is going on in the church at Ephesus to whom he is writing. And for some of you, the season you’re in is under the loving hand of God. He’s trying to mature you and correct you, so he’s allowing some hardship to come upon you to inspire you, to motivate you to mature.
Number eight, there is sometimes vicarious affliction, and that is people seem like they hate us, but what they really hate is the Jesus in us, that we love Jesus and they hate Jesus, and since we love Jesus, they hate us. You need to know that I enjoy a lot of this and you will as well, that we live in a day when it’s now quite fashionable to be anti-Christian, and if you say that you love Jesus, it’s quite fashionable to speak in an ill way toward those who do love Jesus. And so that kind of affliction, I think, is increasing—vicarious affliction. And then Paul tells us in Ephesians 6 that our war isn’t against flesh and blood, that we’re not to fight back with people, that it’s really a spiritual battle, that we should love them and that what they are fighting against is the Jesus who loves us. And it may seem like they’re attacking us, but they’re really offended by him. How many of you have family members, friends, they just don’t like you, coworkers, just because you’re a Christian? That’s it, and there’s some affliction that comes to you for that.
Number nine, there’s empathetic affliction. This is someone we love is hurting and so we’re hurting too. Again, for Paul and the church, that’s the case. He’s hurting and they’re hurting because they love him. I was talking to a man this morning. On Tuesday, he and his wife find out whether or not the test that she recently undertook will indicate that she has cancer and are concerned. Now, he doesn’t have cancer, she does, but because he loves her, her suffering is his suffering. And as we’re church family, and you’re in Community Group together and doing life together, the more people you know, the more opportunities there are for this kind of affliction. The Bible says that we are to mourn with those who mourn, and that’s what it’s talking about. It’s talking about you love someone, and when they’re hurting, you’re hurting for them, and you’re hurting with them.
Number ten, there’s testimonial affliction. This is where you’re being afflicted, but it’s primarily as an opportunity to show people who Jesus is and what he’s done, and that is most certainly the case with Paul. He has not sinned or done anything wrong. He’s been preaching and teaching about Jesus, so they arrest him and throw him in jail, but it’s testimonial affliction. It gives him a bigger platform to talk about Jesus, so there’s a greater purpose for his affliction.
Number eleven, there’s providential affliction. This increases the worship of God. Someone goes through a hardship, but they endure it in such a way that other people come to know and love the God they’re devoted to. That was the case with Joseph in the Old Testament. Opposed, thrown in jail, but then he rises up to power and he’s a great testimony to God and many people are saved. So it is with Paul. He is, here, having an opportunity to glorify God in his sufferings, and in so doing perhaps more people will become Christians, and that increases worship of God.
Number twelve, there’s preventative affliction. This is where God allows some hardship, but it’s to warn us and spare us from a greater hardship. So all of a sudden you realize, man, my side hurts, better go to the doctor. You find out your appendix is bursting and that pain was a warning in God’s love for you. All of a sudden, you’re having a hard time breathing and you have pains in your chest, and you go into the doctor and they say, “You’re having a heart attack” or, “You’ve got a blockage.” Oh, so that was preventative affliction. It was uncomfortable, but it spared me from a greater misery, and so in that way it was really a gift from God.
Number thirteen is a category I would put a lot in, and it’s mysterious affliction. And here’s the answer: we don’t know. We don’t know why we’re suffering, we don’t know what’s going on. We don’t know. Now, those who are Bible teachers and theologians, sometimes we struggle and strain to just say, “I don’t know,” but let me say, that’s a perfectly good category. Alright, when the Bible says in Romans, you know, it asks the rhetorical question, “Who has known the mind of the Lord?” He’s not waiting for, you know, one of us to raise our hand and say, “Oh, I know.” I don’t know. Sometimes people come up to me and, again, in the last few weeks I have literally shook hands with hundreds, and hundreds, and hundreds—maybe a thousand people and many of them ask me the question: “Why, why, why, why?” And often the answer is “I don’t know.” The Bible says, “We see in part, we know in part.” When we’re with Jesus, it’ll all make sense. Until then, we have to wait for the answers that we seek.
And then number fourteen, there’s apocalyptic affliction, and that is that as we get closer to the end of the world, and the dawning of the kingdom of God, and the return of Jesus, and the judgment of the living and the dead, there will be intense opposition and affliction toward God’s people, and things give every account in Scripture of getting harder, and more difficult, and worse.
So, here’s what I want you to do when you’re suffering: I want you to think, “What kind of affliction am I experiencing and enduring?” And when you’re dealing with someone else, you need to understand these categories so you can help them, because if they come up to you and they say, “I’m really hurting,” if it was folly and sin, the answer is, “You need to repent. You’re shipwrecking your whole life.” If they’ve been sinned against, you don’t say the same thing. If it’s demonic, you pray for them. If it is because they love someone and that person is suffering, you comfort them.
Do you see how this works? Otherwise, what happens is we’ll provide a certain diagnosis for the wrong kind of suffering. Job’s friends did this. Job’s kids die, his wealth is taken, the only thing left is his wife and she wasn’t very nice to him, and he’s sitting there with shards of broken pottery rubbing the boils on his skin because he’s itchy and devastated, and his friends come up and say, “Where’s the sin in your life? You should repent.” No, they didn’t understand that he wasn’t suffering because he was sinning. He was suffering, it was demonic, it was testimonial. There were other aspects to what he was enduring. I want you to understand your suffering so that you can understand how to, in the grace of God, endure it, and I want you to understand suffering so that as you comfort and counsel others, you can provide a right diagnosis for whatever suffering they are enduring.
NOT “WHY,” BUT “WHO”
And here’s what I see all the time happen with people who are suffering: they ask, “Why, why, why?” Lots of “why” questions. And again, I mean, I wish you could see the faces of people that I know and I love. But I mean, golly, it’s hard sometimes as a pastor because you love people and then to see the devastation is devastating. “Pastor Mark, why did my husband leave? Pastor Mark, why do I have cancer? Pastor Mark, why did our unborn child die? Pastor Mark, why can we not conceive? Pastor Mark, why did I get fired? Why, why, why, why, why?”
And I love you very much. Let’s ask a different question: who? Who? Who is Jesus and who are you in Christ? What’s your identity through your affliction, because your affliction doesn’t establish your identity, but your identity will get you through your affliction. Who is Jesus? Who are you? I don’t have all the “why” questions. Jesus does, and when you see him, he’ll straighten it all out, I promise you that, but the “who”—who is Jesus and who are you?
AFFLICTED FOR OTHERS’ GOOD
Three things the Apostle Paul wants to teach us about affliction and suffering. I can just feel the heaviness in the room. Let’s not diminish your affliction, let’s not compare it to anyone else’s, let’s not say yours is easier and theirs is harder, let’s take whatever you’re dealing with, and see what the Holy Spirit has to say through Paul, and then let’s see what others are dealing with, and how you might comfort them with the words of Paul.
Three things he says. The first is that we are afflicted for others’ good. See, one of the first things that happens when we’re suffering and we’re hurting is our gaze goes inward and all of a sudden we lose sight of others, right? That we forget, oh, other people are hurting too. Other people are suffering too. “Yes, this is a hard season for me, but it’s a hard season for us.” And I really am amazed by the fact that Paul is in prison again, not because he did anything wrong, but because he wouldn’t stop talking about Jesus.
And he’s separated from his people and he starts by talking about others. He says it this way, “For this reason I, Paul, a,” what? “A prisoner for Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles—assuming that you have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me for you, how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I have written briefly.” What Paul is saying here is that his affliction is very purposeful.
He continues—let’s read the next section. “When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit. This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” So, here’s what Paul is saying: “I am a prisoner for Jesus Christ. I am in jail because I love and serve Jesus, but this is for others’ good.” He says, “I’m suffering for the Gentiles.”
Now, you need to understand this. Prior to him becoming a Christian, he hated the Gentiles. These are the non-Jews. He was in no way, in any way, empathetic or compassionate toward those who didn’t share his racial, cultural, religious heritage. And then he meets Jesus, and all of a sudden he realizes it’s not about Jew or Gentile, it’s about Jesus. And he receives a new identity in Christ, and in Christ he gets reconciled together with those who are not of his ancestry, or his heritage, or his pedigree.
And the calling on his life is that the world would come to know Jesus, and he’s an apostle to the Gentiles. That’s what he says elsewhere. And so what Paul is saying is, “I am being afflicted because I want people to meet Jesus.” He said, “Because for many people, Jesus is still a mystery.” You know what that means? They’ve never heard of him, they don’t know him. You and I walk through our life, and if you would know and love Jesus, you need to understand that there are many people who don’t know and love Jesus. For them, he is still a total mystery. They don’t know him, they’ve never met him, they don’t understand him.
Paul is saying, “I’m in jail because I want people to come to know Jesus and my suffering is an opportunity for me to testify about Jesus.” All of a sudden, people are paying attention to him. “Have you heard about that pastor in jail? Have you heard why he’s imprisoned? What is the issue surrounding him?” “Well, he seems to think that a man named Jesus was God. He seems to think that we’re all sinners and need a Savior. He seems to think that this man, Jesus, died on a cross, and that he rose from death, and that he ascended into heaven, that he’s going to judge the living and the dead, and that he calls all men everywhere to repent, and it doesn’t matter what race, or creed, or tongue, or tribe, you’re supposed to give your life to Jesus.” “Really, that’s what he believes?”
So all of a sudden, Paul’s whole goal is what? Get the word about Jesus out. And he’s in jail and he says, “Actually, this is a pretty good opportunity for my objective. Now I’ve got more attention, more controversy around me than ever, and it escalates and elevates the opportunity to talk to people about Jesus.”
And so Paul’s understanding, first, of his affliction is he could be afflicted for others’ good. It could help other people. It could serve other people. It could introduce other people to Jesus.
Here’s my question for you: how can you use your affliction to help others come to know Jesus? How could you use your affliction to help others come to know or grow in Jesus? For those who have been afflicted, you have a powerful credibility, a powerful credibility, and I would say that your suffering, and your hurts, and the afflictions that you endure, they’re going to cost you a lot. They’re going to take a lot of your time, a lot of your energy. They’re going to consume a lot of your life, so let’s not waste them. Let’s invest them in people. And I don’t mean this to sound trivial or trite, I just want your suffering to be meaningful, and valuable, and purposeful. You’re going to pay such a steep price for it, I want you to make a good investment with it.
That’s what Paul’s doing. Paul’s in prison writing a letter to get the news out about Jesus. I mean, for Paul, it’s amazing. He’s in jail. “Well, I have free time, good time to write some Bible.” He’s going to write a book of the Bible and use it to tell people about Jesus. He’s using that opportunity for others’ good, and two thousand years later, it’s still helpful to us, so he’s still serving us. I mean, he’s that amazingly able by the power of God to have a ministry of encouragement in the midst of affliction.
And what I find is, as soon as someone has endured some kind of affliction and they have learned and grown through it by the grace of God, as soon as they’re honest enough to talk about it, all of a sudden people swarm to them because they trust them. It’s amazing.
I’ve noticed this with my wife, Grace. She’s the best. She’s super brave. In our book, Real Marriage, she talked about her own assault and how she was an assault victim. I constantly have people, women in particular, coming up to me with tears in their eyes: “Tell Grace thank you. That she talked about her affliction encouraged me to talk about my affliction, and now I’m in a Redemption Group.” Last week, it was no less than at least ten women. At least ten women walked up to me and said that very thing to my face. That’s wonderful. Not that any of that has happened, but that you’re invited to talk about it, and get help for it, and be in community with God’s people, some of whom who’ve been through what you’re going through and are there to love and support you and be community and family for you.
What have you been through? What are you going through? What is God teaching you? How can you not waste it, but invest it? How could your suffering be the beginning of your ministry?
And I don’t want you to just— I feel inclined to say this. What I see sometimes with very religious people is they examine their own life in a detached way. They don’t really deal with their own struggles, and they’re always just trying to think of principles to help others. I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about, you know, going through the deep difficulties of your trial, shedding your tears, being frustrated, having your questions, freaking out, grinding it out, and then sharing whatever it is that you’ve been learning out of an honest place. When he talks about the gospel, that’s what he’s talking about. It’s good news.
And friends, here’s what’s amazing: our God has chosen to enter in and experience affliction, suffering, pain, poverty, rejection, and death. And the good news is that he has been where we are, he has been through where we are going, he has conquered death, and sin, and hell, and the wrath of God, that he’s alive to help and that as he helps others, he sends them to us that they might be a help to us, and then as we learn and grow, we can be a help to others.
And this is why sometimes the most powerful ministries are born out of the deepest afflictions. Someone has gone through something terrible, and then by the grace of God they’ve learned some things, and as they tell their story, others flock to them and say, “That sounds like my life. Could you help me?” Afflicted for others’ good.
AFFLICTED FOR YOUR GROWTH
Number two, Paul says that you can be afflicted for your growth. So, you could help others and you too could mature and grow. He says, “Of this gospel,” the good news of the God who suffers for us, and suffers like us, and will bring all suffering to an end, “I was made a minister according to the gift of God’s grace, which was given me by the working of his power. To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things.”
What we see here is that Paul is suffering and he is ministering, but he is also maturing. He’s growing. Do you see it in him? He says, “I minister by God’s grace.” There’s humility there. “I’m Paul, I’ve learned a lot, I’ve had a great education, I have a lot of insight.” He’s not boasting. He says, “My ministry is by the grace of God.” We see him growing and maturing.
He says, “And everything I do is by the working of his power.” The churches that get planted, the Scriptures that get written, the lives that get changed, the people that get saved, in Paul’s ministry he says, “It’s all by God’s power. Anything that happens is by God’s power.”
Again, there’s humility there, and he’s growing, and he’s maturing. He says he’s the least of all the saints. He’s recognizing that he’s a sinner, that he needs the grace of God, that he’s no better than anyone else. He’s just received much grace. There’s a humility, again, that is there and his self-awareness is—it’s increasing and growing.
He sees himself in light of his Savior. He’s not comparing himself to others and thinking, “I’m a pretty good person.” He’s comparing himself to Jesus and saying, “I’m the least of the saints,” saying, “There’s people in the church that are more godly and holy than me. The reason I get to do what I get to do is, back to the point, by God’s grace and by God’s power.” Paul’s growing and maturing.
“To preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ.” He says, ultimately, God does all these things, and the reason that God grows us is this, and I want you to see this. The reason we can grow and mature in our faith is not so that we would be mature, but so that other people would come to know Jesus or grow in him. He says, that’s the point, “to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all . . . to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ.” What he’s saying is this: “I am suffering but I am growing, and that’s amazing because I get to tell more people about Jesus.”
I know some of you are just devastated. I know that right now it feels, day by day, like you are just hanging on barely. I know some of you fight depression, and discouragement, and despair. I know that some of you are right on the border of hopelessness. I know the last thing you want to hear is more points and principles, that you’ve had enough self-help and self-talk. But God could use this season to make you more like Jesus, and let me say, if one of the great goals of your life is to become more like Jesus, then even though it’s a horrible season, it also could be—and I don’t want to make light of it or be religious about it—it also could be a wonderful season. It could be. Again, if you’re going to go through it, don’t waste it.
I was talking to a father recently. He said, “We have had a succession of miscarriages and it’s devastating because we want to be parents.” A lovely couple. He said, “But the fact that God is a Father and Christ is mentioned as the Son of God, and that he died, and that our Father lost his Son,” he said, “I’ve never felt that like I do now.” He’s growing through his suffering.
I had a woman come up to me recently holding a small child and holding the hand of another, crying. “Pastor Mark, my husband left us.” I mean, she is terrified. She said, “I don’t even know where he’s at.” She said—it’s very interesting, though—she said, “And in the middle of it all, I just realize how evil it is that we turn our back on God and walk away from him.” She said, “I’ve never felt how horrific that is until I’m the one that’s walked away from.” She said, “But I’ve walked away from him.” She’s growing through her suffering.
I was talking to someone recently and they said, “Cancer is highly evolved and I only have a short time to live, and there’s nothing left that can be done. Apart from a miracle, my life is near its end.” And he said, “You know, I always heard that Jesus died, and now that I’m facing my own death, I realize what a massive sacrifice and gift that was that God would come, knowing that he would die, and emotionally, as I head into death,” he said, “I appreciate that Jesus died for me more than ever in a way that I’ve never understood before.” In his suffering, he’s maturing. In his suffering, he’s maturing.
So, my question for you, friend, is: how could your affliction help you to grow spiritually? How could it cause you to appreciate Jesus more, because he’s been through either what you’re going through or something very similar? Knowing that not only was Christ afflicted for us, Christ was afflicted by us. When he died on the cross, he died for our sins. That means that we’re responsible for his affliction. We hurt him, we abandoned him, we betrayed him, we abused him, we murdered him. And he loves us, and he forgives us, and he rises to embrace us.
How could your affliction cause you to appreciate Jesus more, and then become more like him? Become more like him as you go through something like what he went through. And so affliction can be for your growth. This is why sometimes when you talk to people, and I don’t know about you, sometimes I sort of cringe. They say, “Oh, it was hard, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything.” Like, really? But when you talk to honest saints who’ve been through real hardship, they will say things, sincerely, like, “I never wanted it, I would have never chosen it, I don’t want anyone else to go through it, but I wouldn’t trade it because I learned so much about Jesus and I became more like Jesus, and so I cherish whatever it is that I have gone through because of what I have learned and how I’ve changed.”
Is that true for you? It beats bitterness, it beats wasting your suffering. I mean, if you and I would keep these two things in mind, God could actually use the hardest parts of our life to be the sweetest parts of our life, to use the most painful parts of our story to be the most encouraging parts of our story for someone else.
And man, it’s just hard for me to deliver this because I don’t know what your circumstances are. I don’t know what it is you’re going through. For Paul, I know he’s in prison because he serves Jesus. I don’t know what your affliction is or what your circumstances are. I know that there is a lot of suffering that happens in this church and I know that people who walk into this church are not just walking in from some pain-free, simple existence. They’re coming in with very difficult circumstances that they are struggling through.
And so Paul’s two questions are: is there a way that you could use what you’re going through to help others and to grow personally so it’s good for them and it’s good for you?
AFFLICTED FOR GOD’S GLORY
And then his third point is that we can be afflicted for God’s glory. I want you to see what he does here. He says affliction could be good for you, it could be good for them, and it could be good for him, that God could use even the worst things to do these wonderful things.
Here’s how he says it in Ephesians 3:10–13: “So that through the church,” that’s us together, “the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in him.” That’s it right there. “So I ask you to not,” what? “Lose heart.”
Is he saying, “I don’t want you to grieve”? Is that what he’s saying? No. Is he saying, “I don’t want you to be sad”? Is that what he’s saying? No. Is he saying, “I don’t want you to talk about it”? Is that what he’s saying? No. What he’s saying is, “Please don’t lose heart.”
Would you please not lose heart. I see it in the faces of people who they have lost heart. They’re not going to fight for their marriage, they’re not going to fight for their kids, they’re not going to fight for their health, they’re not going to fight for their joy, they’re not going to fight for their future. They lose heart. There’s something worse than being afflicted, and that’s being afflicted and losing heart.
You know the number one category of prescription medications in the U.S. is anti-depressants? And others self-medicate with food, and drugs, and alcohol, and gambling, and shopping, and extreme sports, and adrenaline highs, and all kinds of things. Much of our life is spent trying to live after we have lost heart. And so what happens, then, is we get motivational speakers, right? They just get you excited. And we have a Christian version of the motivational speaker. They say the same things that the regular motivational speaker does, but they use verses that don’t really apply, but they say them confidently and loudly, and so most Christians think it’s close enough. And then the goal is to get a bunch of people together and turn it into a huge pep assembly, and my job is just to pump you up full of joy and happiness. We’re not going to pretend that everything’s okay. We’re not going to pretend that everybody’s okay.
We’re not going to tell you to go to Community Group and do this: “How are you?” “Fine, how are you?” “Fine.” “Good.” I mean, that’s the answer, right? And let’s say your dog died that week, and you got hit by a car, and your mom died. You’d say, “I’m okay.” That’s how we answer the question. It’s okay to say, “Hard season, hard life, hard week, tough times,” so that we can know one another, so that we could love one another, so that we could serve one another, so that we could help one another not to lose heart. Have you lost heart? Are you losing heart? Are you giving up? Are you giving in?
He says, “So I ask you.” So apparently it’s a decision that you and I have to make. It’s a decision that we have to make. “So I ask you not to lose heart over what I am suffering for you, which is your glory.” So back in Ephesus, all the people are losing heart. “Oh no, our pastor loves Jesus, and he’s in jail far away in Rome, and we don’t know if he’ll live or die. Maybe they’re abusing him. Who knows what they’re doing to him?”
Jail in that day, friends, it was a horrible thing. Some think they have found Paul’s jail cell in Rome. I’ve not been there but I’ve seen the photos. It’s a hole—literally a hole in the ground; cramped, dark, cold, wet, dirty quarters. Some of the Roman jail cells, they stacked prisoners one on the other with a grate between them, which means when you go to the bathroom, you go to the bathroom on the guy underneath you. I mean, these are horrific ancient conditions. I don’t know where Paul is at, but let’s say he’s in a hole like that, with a little bit of daylight, trying to scratch out on whatever piece of paper has been made available to him.
And this is a guy who’s walked twenty miles a day. He’s been shipwrecked, homeless, beaten, left for dead, marks the beatings all over his body, and he’s down on his knees, and he can’t be near his church. And he knows far away in Ephesus, his church is struggling, and people are losing heart. And he tells them, “Please don’t lose heart.” See, Paul has not lost heart.
He says, “I am suffering.” I want you to know it’s okay to say that. It’s okay, Paul does. He says, “I am suffering.” He says, “But it’s a glory.” You can suffer for the good of others, for your own growth, and the glory of God. He’s suffering for the glory of God.
We learn something about the heart of God through the suffering of Paul. We see some reflection of Jesus. See, glory means to reflect. So, Jesus comes, and lives, and dies, and suffers for us, and then we see some of that reflected in the life of Paul. Huh, he doesn’t hate his enemies, he loves them. He’s not complaining, he’s worshiping. He’s being honest, but he’s not lost heart. Paul, here, is reflecting a little bit of Jesus. See a little bit of Jesus in Paul, see a little bit of Jesus through Paul.
That’s what it means to be in Christ and for Christ to be in you. So, his identity is secure. Now, his freedom’s not secure, his health is not secure, his future’s not secure, his reputation’s not secure, but his identity’s secure. “Jesus loves me, I love him. I’m suffering because he loves me and I love him, and that is a glory.” What a great honor it is to suffer for the name of Jesus. What a great honor it is to be able to suffer by the grace of God like Jesus so that others would receive good, that you might grow, and that God might be glorified and others might see something of the character of Jesus.
What he’s saying is this: that as we’re suffering, we need to remember that many are watching. He gives us a list. He says, “Satan and demons are watching.” They’re watching the afflictions of the children of God. He tells us, as well, that angels are watching. He talks about the heavenly powers and such. Angels are watching to see how God’s people respond to affliction and suffering.
In addition, that others are watching. I mean, here it’s those who are in Rome. I don’t know who it is in your life. Here it’s the church in Ephesus. It is people in our church as well. Those who are family and friends of Paul are watching, and here it is your family, and friends, and neighbors, and coworkers who are watching.
And what he says is sometimes when we are afflicted, and life is hard, and we are frustrated, and it hurts, and we’re losing heart, and we want it to stop, and we want it to be over, and we want to be done, and, “Am I finished now?” and, “God, do you care? Will you show up?” and, “Will it ever end?” and, “Are the promises true?” and, “Are you even listening?” He says, “Remember, a lot of people are watching.” And this is an enormous opportunity for you to glorify God, and so it’s okay to say, “I’m suffering,” but don’t lose heart. God can be glorified. We can learn more about Jesus, we can become more like Jesus, and we can react and respond in a way that is like Jesus.
Who’s watching you? Children, spouse, family, friends, coworkers, neighbors, Community Group, Redemption Group, enemies, critics, people you don’t even know are watching. When you talk about it in social media, we have an opportunity to have more people watching what we’re doing than at any time in history. Who’s watching? God is watching. God is watching. He loves you, he grieves with you, he’s been where you are, and he’s in the place where you are going.
A couple of things in closing, just practical things from your pastor. Number one, I encourage you to be honest. True or false: Paul’s honest? “I’m in prison and I’m suffering.” Pretty honest. It’s good to be honest. I would encourage you to be honest. Be honest with the Lord, be honest with the Lord’s people.
Number two, talking about it helps. It helps you and it helps others. True or false: knowing Paul’s circumstances and situation, do you love him more or less? Do you love him more or less? Love more, why? Because you know him, because he reveals who he is, he tells you who he is. Some of you don’t burden anyone with anything. You don’t share anything. You think, “Well, I need to be self-sufficient.” Look, you don’t need to be any holier than Paul, okay? You don’t need to be any tougher than Paul. You don’t need to be any more godly than Paul. If Paul talks about his suffering, his affliction, it’s okay for you to talk about your suffering and your affliction.
Some of you have things you’ve never told anyone; they’re your secrets. You need to talk to the Lord about those things and somebody you trust: spouse, parent, biblical counselor, church leader, Community Group, Redemption Group, after-service prayer. You’ve got to talk to somebody. That’ll help them not lose heart, it’ll help you not lose heart, it’ll allow you to be known and loved, it’ll give them an opportunity to know and love you. That’s what Paul’s doing.
Number three, sometimes comfort is better than an answer. Paul isn’t giving them an answer. He’s not saying, “But I’m—you know, my trial will go well, and I’m sure that I will win, and then I shall be released, and I will go preach another church.” You know, no, he doesn’t know what the future holds, and he’s not looking for an answer for his suffering, and he’s not providing an answer for their suffering. He’s saying, “Well, God can be glorified, we can grow, and we could do good for others. So, that’s what we do know.”
Where I have erred as a father, and a pastor, and a husband is on the occasions where I’ve tried to provide answers and I should have just provided comfort. That sometimes people don’t need an enormous syllogism, they need somebody to put an arm around them, and to pray for them, and to just be there with them. Just to be there.
I was going through a hard season about, I don’t know, a couple years ago, and my best friend, Grace, she comes up to me and she says, “What can I do for you?” I said, “Just be with me.” I said, “Could you just be with me?” She says, “Well, do you need to talk about anything?” I said, “I don’t think there’s an answer or a solution, I just need a friend.” Just her holding my hand and sitting with me, that’s what I needed. See, God doesn’t always give us an answer, but he gives us his presence. He says he’ll never leave us nor forsake us. And as God’s people, sometimes we can’t provide an answer, but we can provide a comfort. We can just be there, just be there. I think I’ll leave it at that.
If you’re not a Christian, I want you to bring your sin and your suffering to Jesus. I want you to be forgiven and I want you to be served by him. If you are a Christian, I invite you to be honest with Jesus and people you trust to say things like Paul did. “I’m suffering, hard season, hard life.” And my hope for you, my pleading with you, my affection toward you is the same as Paul’s. I ask you to not lose heart. And I hope that as you examine your own afflictions, you would simply ask these questions: how could this be used for others’ good, how could this be used for my growth, and how could this be used for his glory? And I believe that’s the way that we prevent the losing of hope.
Father God, I thank you for an opportunity to teach the Bible. God, I thank you that we have an opportunity to go through books of the Bible, and as we do, sometimes we hit things that maybe we wouldn’t have chosen to study, like a godly man, sitting in jail, suffering, writing a letter talking about it. But Lord God, we believe that all Scripture is inspired and profitable. We thank you, Holy Spirit, that though the Apostle Paul was sitting alone in a jail cell, you were with him.
Holy Spirit, I invite you to come and be with us, and to sit with the lonely, and the lowly, and the broken-hearted, to give hope to those who have lost hope, to give hope to those who are losing heart. God, I pray for us as a people.
And God, I feel inclined to just pray for us. I know that sometimes when we are hurting, we overlook others who are hurting and we become very selfish, the world gets very small. Father, we thank you for the example of the Apostle Paul. Though he was in prison, he was keenly aware of the sufferings of others, and so he writes to them, and he speaks to them, and he loves them, and he serves them. May we do both. May we be honest about our own sufferings, but may we have a presence of mind to be available to serve and to help others who are suffering.
And Lord Jesus, we thank you that in a world that is filled with affliction, that we do not worship a God who is immune to it, who stayed far away from it, who wanted in no way to be around it or to endure it. Lord Jesus, we confess that you suffered and were afflicted for us, and you were afflicted and suffered by us. And so we thank you, and we thank you, Lord Jesus, that you rose from death, and we thank you for the promise that there is a kingdom coming, and we thank you that there is a day when our faith shall be sight. There is a day coming when all our questions will be answered and every tear will be wiped from our eyes, and this life as we know it will be no more, and eternally we’ll get to enjoy you and the world as you intended it before sin corrupted it. In the meantime, let us endure by grace and serve others by grace. In the strong name of Jesus we ask, amen.
Note: This sermon transcript has been edited for readability.