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The Christadelphian | September 2011

In the magazine this month:

  • Editorial Turbulent times
  • Letters to the Editor
  • Sunday morning “Dealing with adversity” | Alan Watkins
  • Questions Jesus asks “… about my Father’s business?” | Paul Aston
  • The word of God | Geoff Henstock
  • Praise the Lord | Paul Cresswell
  • “Fire came out …” | D.C.
  • Moabite daughter of Abraham 5 – Boaz of Bethlehem | Michael Ashton
  • Grace and gratitude | Trevor A. Pritchard
  • A world heading for disaster? | Andrew E. Walker
  • Signs of the times Europe on the brink | Stephen Whitehouse
  • Israel and their land Durban revisited
  • The brotherhood near and far

A sample article from this edition:

Sunday morning

“Dealing with adversity”

WHILST we acknowledge that much of our understanding of Christian teaching and its practical application derives from the writings of the apostles, it is interesting to reflect on the fact that often this teaching arises out of problems, difficulties and even hardship, or out of situations which we would think of as far from ideal.

The example of Paul

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the letters which the Apostle Paul writes to the believers at Corinth. The issues which the apostle addresses – both those which he himself observes and those which are brought to his attention for clarification and guidance – amount to a substantial list, ranging from a charismatic approach to faith (“I am of Paul; and I of Apollos; and I of Cephas; and I of Christ” [1 Corinthians 1:12]), to abuse of the Lord’s supper (11:20), and even denial of the resurrection (15:12). Yet despite the number and nature of the problems, the response of the apostle is never impatient or dismissive. On the contrary, the Corinthians are the “church of God” (1 Corinthians 1:2); he feels for them as a father (4:14,15); and he looks upon them in love (2 Corinthians 2:4). It is a wonderful approach to people who have problems.

It is particularly commendable when we consider that the apostle had many problems of his own. Perhaps we find it surprising that early in the first letter he admits that his first visit to Corinth had been “in weakness, and in fear, and in much trembling” (1 Corinthians 2:3). It quickly becomes apparent that there was opposition and that personal criticism was being directed against him: so much so that by chapter 10 of the second letter Paul feels it necessary to launch into a vigorous defence of his apostolic authority and integrity. Early in the second letter we get a glimpse of some of the risks which he accepted, the hardships which he faced and overcame in the work of the Truth. This is elaborated in his catalogue of perils and life-threatening experiences in 2 Corinthians 11:23 and onwards, in which we are made aware that the apostle is overcoming a natural reticence and embarrassment in speaking about his own circumstances: “That which I speak”, he says, “I speak it not after the Lord, but as it were foolishly, in this confidence of boasting” (11:17). Although this list of the apostle’s experiences is awesome indeed, some parts of it are remarkably understated. “Beside those things that are without, that which cometh upon me daily, the care of all the churches” (verse 28), is a small statement which conceals a huge responsibility.

It is not merely external difficulties and challenges which he acknowledges. His own personal problems are highlighted memorably in 2 Corinthians 12:7,8: his thorn in the flesh, which was sufficiently painful and troublesome to make it the subject of anguished and repeated prayer. Here the letter not only makes us aware of the apostle’s problem; it also records for us the equally memorable response of God: “My grace is sufficient for thee” (verse 9). This is a powerful reminder that we cannot always receive the answer that we look for in our prayers, or at least not in the way we expect. Equally importantly, the experience of Paul helps us to remember that, whatever we are going through, although God may not remove the problem for us, He never deserts us. His grace is always sufficient; His strength compensates our weakness.

Our personal challenges

Few of us would claim that the difficulties which we face in our everyday lives compare with those experienced by the apostle, but we may recognise some of them in kind, if not in extent and intensity. The things that people say to us or about us within the fellowship of the Truth are encouraging and supportive – or at least they should be. The everyday experiences of life, however, can be very different. Uneasy relationships can be wearing. Nothing is more discouraging than when actions performed conscientiously and with the best of motives are not appreciated or attract criticism. Equally burdensome are the hardships which we undergo, the stresses of working life, and the disappointments which come our way.

Perhaps our health and state of personal well-being are not all that we would wish them to be. It may be that we have a particular problem which we have taken to the Lord in prayer, not once but many times, and it seems that He is not hearing us. Or perhaps the tasks of life are weighing heavily. The daily care of bringing up children, of looking after the elderly or the chronically sick: these are the most rewarding but also the most demanding of responsibilities.

To add to this, many of us are very good at borrowing trouble. As a community we look eagerly for the coming of the kingdom, and, although we profess no interest in purely worldly affairs, we are apt to look keenly at world events for indications of the imminence of our Lord’s return. In doing so we are made aware through press and television of problems from distant parts of the world: we share in them and are touched by them.

“To suffer for his sake”

It is helpful and salutary to remember that all of Paul’s experiences and the adversities he faced were in the Lord’s service. By comparison many, perhaps most, of us have not yet experienced seriously the dimension of hostility and persecution, and though our adversities are real and at times painful enough, they are apt to seem but a light affliction compared with those of the apostle.

His exhortation to the Corinthians is helpful to us all. From the very outset of the second letter he expresses thanksgiving to God, “the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort” (2 Corinthians 1:3). This is not comfort in the modern sense of ease or relaxation: it has its root meaning in strength and making strong. In Christ we are not overwhelmed by issues and tribulations, but the consolation and encouragement which we receive from our Heavenly Father enable us to support and encourage others. This is the positive and purposeful response of the apostle. Problems are seen as opportunities; and as the sufferings of Christ flow over in measure into our lives, so our capacity to comfort and to strengthen also overflows. For it is God “who comforteth us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort them which are in any trouble, by the comfort wherewith we ourselves are comforted of God. For as the sufferings of Christ abound in us, so our consolation also aboundeth by Christ” (verses 4,5).

Paul is at pains to record the “trouble which came to us in Asia, that we were pressed out of measure, above strength, insomuch that we despaired even of life” (verse 8). His conclusion is “that we should not trust in ourselves but in God, which raiseth the dead” (verse 9). In one respect he regards his recovery as tantamount to being raised from the dead, and again it is that key principle in this letter that God’s grace is all-sufficient, and our weakness is precisely the opportunity for His power to be displayed.

“In earthen vessels”

The great theme is again evident in chapter 4 of the second letter. Following that sublime word picture in which the apostle describes the privilege and blessing which we have in the revelation of God Himself through his Son – “For God who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6) – he reminds us that this great treasure has been entrusted to us as to earthen vessels, “that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us”; or, as the NIV puts it, “we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us” (verse 7). The frailty of “earthen vessels” is depicted in the list which follows: it speaks specifically of the hazards of Paul’s life as an apostle, but by implication it speaks also of our sort of experiences, the stresses and strains of our everyday lives, the personal issues which can leave us troubled, perplexed, cast down. Yet the treasure contained in our frail earthen vessels is so perfect, so precious and so inspiring that we are not distressed, and never in despair.

In Paul’s case the frailty of the earthen vessel is seen in the constant hardship and opposition with which he is buffeted in the cause of the Gospel, and through which in effect he shares the sufferings of the Lord Jesus: so much so that the sharing in the life of the risen Lord is assured. Again we are reminded that the weakness of the human situation provides occasion for the triumph of divine power. Paul’s faith becomes complete conviction, tantamount to knowledge, “that he which raised up the Lord Jesus Christ shall raise up us also by Jesus, and shall present us with you. For all things are for your sakes, that the abundant grace might through the thanksgiving of many redound to the glory of God” (2 Corinthians 4:14,15). No wonder Paul goes on to say in verse 16, “for which cause we faint not”. We do not lose heart. This is the statement with which the chapter opens, and which reminds us that there is a constant and daily process of renewal taking place which mirrors the resurrection itself.

Thus we come to the climax of this beautiful and reassuring part of the letter. It is a double paradox which becomes a kind of text to carry us through the perplexities and vicissitudes of life. In the context of the resurrection and the certainty of the things to which he has been alluding, the strains and burdens of everyday life diminish in importance. They are described by Paul as a “light affliction”, to be viewed as relatively brief in duration and comparatively painless. It is not simply that the eternal glory far outweighs them, that by comparison the glory of eternity is far greater than all the problems we may face in life. It is much more than that: the light affliction which is transient actually works for us; it produces a weight of glory, incomparable and eternal, if only we keep our gaze on the unseen things of eternity. In other words, that we give our full attention to the evidence of things not seen, and are not weighed down by our burdens which, though very real, are transient. And the glory of which the apostle speaks, is to be like our Lord in the sharing of the divine nature. As our hymn puts it:

‘“We shall be like him.’ O how rich the promise;
What greater could our Father’s love prepare?
‘We shall be like him’ – raised above all weakness,
For ever past all weariness and pain …”

If sometimes, in our longing to see the kingdom and to be like him, we share the apostle’s desire “to be clothed upon with our house which is from heaven … that mortality might be swallowed up of life” (2 Corinthians 5:2,4), we know that this is our ultimate destiny, because the God whose grace is all-sufficient for us has made it so: “Now it is God who has made us for this very purpose and has given us the spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come” (5:5, NIV).

“My grace is sufficient for you”

We may reflect upon the stresses and problems of our own lives. We may wonder at those experienced by the Apostle Paul in the Master’s service. But as we prepare to take bread and wine, we come to the supreme manifestation of God’s all-sufficient grace, the giving of His only Son; and our thoughts are concentrated on all that Jesus suffered in service to us. We remember that he was “despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3); we look to him as “the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame” (Hebrews 12:2), and we are invited by the apostle to “consider him that endured such contradiction of sinners against himself, lest ye be weary and faint in your minds” (verse 3).

Alan Watkins


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