If You Fail – Have You Failed?
A sermon on 2 Corinthians 1:1-10 by Coty Pinckney, Desiring God Community Church, Charlotte, NC, 10/5/03
In 1816 20-year-old John Williams sailed to the South Pacific with the support of the London Missionary Society. During the next 23 years he labored mightily to spread the Good News to the peoples of many islands, returning to England only once, to oversee the publication of his translation of the New Testament into a South Pacific language. Convinced that he was called to continue the expansion of missionary efforts to those who had never heard the gospel, in 1839 he left his wife on Samoa and traveled to the New Hebrides (now called Vanuatu). On the island of Erromanga, just minutes after coming ashore, he and his colleague James Harris were clubbed to death, then cooked and eaten by cannibals. John Williams was 43 years old.
Did John Williams fail?
Go further back in time almost 1800 years. The apostle Paul goes to the city of Lystra in what is now Turkey to preach the Gospel. He heals a lame man – whereupon most of the people praise him as a god! Paul barely is able to stop them from offering sacrifices to him. But the fickle crowd turns upon him after some of Paul’s enemies arrive from the cities of Antioch and Iconium. These enemies stir up the citizens of Lystra, who now drag him out of town and begin to throw large rocks at him. Paul collapses before them, unconscious. Thinking he is dead, the citizens of Lystra return to their homes. The believers find him, and to their surprise he wakes up. Paul then continues on his journey, preaching the Gospel.
Was Paul’s trip to Lystra a failure?
What about you? When you don’t succeed in your plans, when it looks to all outsiders that you have failed – have you failed?
Where was God when John Williams was clubbed to death? Where was God when Paul was almost killed? Had these men simply not prayed enough for safety? Was God unable to prevent these evil acts?
Where was God when you failed in your plans?
Speaking as one of God’s people, in Psalm 23 David tells us, “Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life.” Did God show goodness and love to John Williams? To Paul? To you? If God shows mercy to you – will He keep you from failing? Is failure a sign of God’s displeasure?
Today we begin a series of sermons on Paul’s’ second letter to the church at Corinth. We raise these questions not only because they are relevant to our lives today, but also because the recipients of Paul’s letter were asking similar ones. For Corinth at the time of Paul was much like the US today. At this point in history, Corinth was the third most important city in the Roman Empire, after Alexandria and Rome itself. Corinth had a larger population in the first century than it does today. It was a prosperous city, and, unlike Athens or Sparta, a young city. The Romans had destroyed it at one point, and then rebuilt it. So it wasn’t governed by an old, powerful aristocracy, but by those who had become rich through success in business. For this reason, many in the city had the attitude, “Anyone can be successful if they’re smart enough.”
The city was also defined by an entertainment mentality. Athletic events, theater, and great oration were prominent forms of entertainment. Sexual immorality was rampant; indeed, at the Temple of Aphrodite sacred prostitutes offered sex as an act of devotion to the goddess. Thus, even religion was seen as a way to success, a way to gain pleasure.
As Acts 18 tells us, Paul spent at least eighteen months in this city. At one level, he had much success. Even a ruler of the synagogue came to believe in Jesus. But from the beginning, he faced considerable opposition, tempting Paul to quit speaking. So God encourages Paul in a dream:
9 And the Lord said to Paul one night in a vision, "Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, 10 for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people."Acts 18:9-10
Why did Paul face such strong opposition? The defining characteristics of the city give us insights:
First, they wanted religion to fit in a box; they wanted it to make them more successful. They viewed religion as a source of power, a source of pleasure. And that is not what Paul is preaching.
Second, Paul himself is singularly unimpressive. He is not a great orator; furthermore, he keeps getting imprisoned and shipwrecked! He keeps failing! So some argued that Paul clearly does not have favor with the gods. If he did, they wouldn’t let such things happen to him.
Paul wrote this letter to address these issues. Consequently, this is one of the hardest letters for Paul to write. How would you respond with humility when those in a church you founded are saying, “You’re really unimpressive. We think we’ll follow someone with a bit more flair – someone with more evidence of God’s favor!”
Do you see how this situation is similar to what we find in the US today? Do you hear people talking like this?
“I’ll go to your church if it’s useful to me, if it meets my needs – that is, if it will ease my life, make me more successful, or help me to be a good parent. But, hey, if you’re gonna talk about my giving up my career, my SUV, my lifestyle – forget it! I’ll go to a more reasonable church.”
That’s what the Corinthians were saying: “We’ll follow this other guy instead of Paul – he’s a lot more successful. He doesn’t keep getting thrown into prison, and no one’s ever tried to stone him. I’d much rather be like him than like Paul!”
Today we’ll look at verses 1 to 10 of the first chapter. After the first two verses set the stage, we’ll consider the remaining eight verses under three headings:
Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, To the church of God that is at Corinth, with all the saints who are in the whole of Achaia: 2 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, 4 who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. 5 For as we share abundantly in Christ's sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. 6 If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer. 7 Our hope for you is unshaken, for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort. 8 For we do not want you to be ignorant, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. 9 Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. 10 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. 11 You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many. 2 Corinthians 1:1-11
Given the questions they were asking, how would you expect Paul to open the letter? How does he open it?
What does he do? He establishes who he is, and who they are. He is “an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God.” He is saying, “Christ Jesus Himself has sent me. God Himself appointed me through Christ Jesus.” And they are the church of God at Corinth and in the surrounding regions. Thus, he says, “I am God’s representative. You are God’s people. Whether you like this or not doesn’t matter. As an apostle, I am responsible for you, and I am God’s gift to you. This is not a matter of a democratic vote. Unlike the governor of California, I can’t be recalled.”
Verse 2 establishes that, despite their questioning of his authority, he only wants good for them, as he asks God to send them grace and peace.
Notice all the references that Paul makes to his sufferings and afflictions in this passage:
Paul has been through the ringer. We can see why some in Corinth could be questioning, “Do I really want to be like Paul?”
But note that even as he cites his difficulties, he does not give details. For he does not want the Corinthians to focus on the details of his suffering. Later in the letter he will provide some details to make a point, but Paul never exalts his story. His point is not primarily, “I’ve suffered!” Rather, Paul exalts God’s comfort. He tells just enough about his suffering to magnify the greatness of God’s comfort. We should follow his example when telling others of our own sufferings.
Once again, note Paul’s many references to God’s comfort in this passage:
Note three aspects of God’s comfort:
Now, consider: Paul calls God “the Father of mercies” and proclaims, “He will deliver us again.” This is a powerful promise of future comfort. But does this promise imply that God will keep us from suffering in the future? Clearly not! In Paul’s last letter, he knows he faces execution shortly. He tells Timothy, “I am already being poured out as a drink offering” - an apt image for the flow of blood that will follow his beheading. But then he says,
The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen. 2 Timothy 4:18
Do you see how this sounds like 2 Corinthians 1:10 - “He will deliver us again”? But in 2 Timothy Paul cannot possibly mean, “God will keep me from being killed.” Instead, he clearly means that God will be with Paul even in his death; that God will be his sovereign comforter even through the execution, and bring Paul to Himself for all eternity. Paul does not fail – even when he is executed.
Why does God do this? Why let his apostle go through such pain and suffering? Is He really “the Father of mercies”? Wouldn’t a merciful father keep his beloved child from such pain?
These are the questions the Corinthians are asking. These are the questions people naturally raise today.
Paul highlights two results, two purposes of his suffering, which explain why God brought this suffering into his life.
1) Benefits to Others
Paul sees that the Corinthians benefit because of His sufferings. Do you see the irony? The very people who were ready to ditch him because he was suffering are benefiting from it! In verse 4 Paul says that the same comfort that he received in his affliction works for the comfort of the Corinthians. Then in verse 6 he says that both his sufferings and his comfort work toward their comfort. In effect, he is saying,
“When you Corinthians bear up under the sorrows facing you, you will know that we suffered the same sorrows. God brought us through those sorrows, and even used that suffering for His good and wise purposes. So you can have confidence that God will act for similarly wise purposes when you suffer.”
The author of Hebrews talks about the “great cloud of witnesses” of those who have gone before us in the faith. They have suffered. Some lost their lives. But they are in the stands, as it were, calling out to us as we run the race of faith, “You can do it! We did it by God’s help – you can too! He is faithful!”
Do you see why this is so? Do you see how the suffering of others can work to your benefit? Consider this illustration: Have you ever jumped off a high cliff into a lake? You walk to the edge of the cliff and look down. It looks so far! So you think, “No way! I’m not jumping from here!” But then one of your friends moves by you and jumps! He survives, and swims back – and does it again! You return to the edge – it still looks frightening, but you now have more confidence. He did it. You can too. So you jump.
Or think of a two-year-old in an eight-foot tree house. His father is right below him, calling out, “Jump to Daddy!” He’s frightened, and doesn’t want to jump. But when his five-year-old brother jumps safely into Daddy’s arms, he becomes more confident and takes the plunge.
So the first purpose and result of our suffering is the benefit of others.
2) To Make Us Rely on God
The second purpose is closely tied to the first. As Paul says in verse 9, this happened to “make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.” Think about this:
Think of that two-year-old again: His father shows himself reliable, strong, and faithful when he catches the older brother. So the two-year-old now acknowledges the father’s character. He believes in him. So he jumps.
Just so with us and God. The ultimate purpose of our suffering is to display God’s character. He raises the dead! He comforts us no matter how great the sorrow! He is mighty, and His power is shown most clearly when we are weak!
Last week we talked about finding your greatest joy (see sermon). We show that God is our greatest joy when we have lost everything except Him, and nevertheless are filled with joy inexpressible.
Ultimately, all suffering leads to God’s glory – God displaying His character for all to see. All suffering has a purpose – and this is the most important purpose of all.
So, my friends: Never judge the success of any endeavor by the results that you can see. This was the error the Corinthians made in judging Paul. God may very well have other purposes in our supposed failures. These purposes could include the comfort of others through our suffering, and His own glory.
Verse 7 is the key:
Our hope for you is unshaken, for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort.
Paul says: “When I hear of your suffering, I do not lose hope in you – for I know you will share in my comfort too.” He thus implies: “When you hear of my suffering, don’t lose hope in me! Instead, have confidence that God is in control, and that I am indeed His servant.”
So, did John Williams fail at Erromanga? Did Paul fail in Lystra? Have you failed when you step out in faith and don’t see the results for which you hoped?
No. Failure is not the same as not seeing the planned results.
Consider John Williams. Sixty years after his murder, 95 percent of the population of Erromanga believed in Jesus as Savior and Lord. God used that death for the glory of His Name.
Consider Paul: Lystra was Timothy’s hometown. Timothy probably witnessed that stoning. And Timothy is a joint author of this letter, a key leader in the next generation. Furthermore, Paul returns to Lystra a few weeks after his stoning, and tells the believers, “It is necessary that we enter the kingdom of God through many tribulations” (Acts 14:22).
My friends, stepping out in faith and failing to achieve your intended purposes is not failure.
God gives us no guarantee of “success” when we step out in faith. But He does guarantee His presence. He does guarantee His comfort. He does guarantee His use of this step in His overall, sovereign plan, whether we succeed or seem to “fail.”
Thus, in our vision and values statement for Desiring God Community Church, we say:
We are not timid. We value a strong confidence in God’s sovereignty, freeing us to take risks for Him in joyously giving of self, time, and money.
Paul was not afraid of failure – because He knew the God of all comfort. And all His seeming failures were not failures at all, but God showing His own character, God glorifying Himself in Paul’s weaknesses, so that all might know that it was God who brought about Paul’s “successful” church plants, and not Paul himself.
Are you willing to step out in faith? Every one who has become a member of this church plant has taken a risk. Indeed, every one takes a risk who goes to Jesus and says, “Yes, Lord! I believe that you died for me. I believe that you are the source of the greatest joy!I believe that you are worth far more than everything else in the world! Let me have you – and use me in any way you choose!” That person is stepping out in faith. That person is taking risks.
Are you willing to do the same – so that God might be glorified? Are you willing to do the same – so that you might find your greatest joy?
This sermon was preached at Desiring God Community Church in Charlotte, NC on 10/5/03. Scott Hafemann’s The NIV Application Commentary: 2 Corinthians (Zondervan, 2000) was helpful. The statistic concerning Christians on Erromanga is taken from http://renewalfellowship.presbyterian.ca/channels/r01171-7.html .
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