Dale Johnson: Today on the podcast, I’m delighted to welcome Brad Brandt. He is a familiar voice on this podcast. He’s one of our Board Members here at ACBC. He’s been an ACBC member for quite some time. He’s a pastor at Wheelersburg Baptist Church in Wheelersburg, Ohio. I love sitting down with Brad and hearing wisdom that the Lord has taught him through His Word as he lives life as a pastor, using pastoral wisdom the Lord has given him through the many years.
Today he’s going to help us to understand a little bit about suffering, and how we think properly and biblically about this issue of suffering. Sometimes we internalize suffering. We look inward with suffering. You’re going to talk about this today, Brad, in a way of stewardship. Now, I find that interesting. Most people, when they encounter suffering or trials or difficulty, they don’t think about it as being a stewardship. What do you mean when you say stewardship in relation to suffering and how do we see that as a stewardship?
Brad Brandt: I think stewardship is a word that we probably don’t initially associate with suffering. First Corinthians 6:19 says we’re bought with the price, we’re not our own. First Corinthians 4:1-2 talks about how we’re stewards. We typically think of stewards as a managers of our time, of our talents or treasures, experiences. But if Romans 11:36 is true, and it certainly is, that all things are from Him, through Him, and to Him, that would include suffering. Everything then in our lives, including the hardships, the difficulties, the pain, is something that God’s allowed into our life for a purpose—multiple purposes—but He wants us to see it from that perspective. It’s not just something to get through. It’s something that He intends for His glory, our good, the good of others.
I think, and I’ve seen this so many times in my own life and in others I work with, when you get ahold of that principle (or it gets a hold of you), it just changes your perspective. It’s a very hope-giving principal. Suffering really is a stewardship. One of the passages that’s really helped me a lot is 2 Corinthians 12. In verses 7-10 Paul says these familiar words, “to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
I see the stewardship of suffering all over this passage as Paul’s talking about to keep him from becoming prideful because of the revelations he was privileged to see. He talks about them in the first part of the chapter. This messenger of Satan, this thorn. I actually entitled a recent workshop on this topic, “Learning to see Thorns as God Sees Them.” And of course there’s a hermeneutic that we might want to talk about; we’re not saying that everybody has a thorn. Paul did, but Paul goes on to say that because of that thorn, he viewed all of his weaknesses (plural) differently. He embraced them. That’s where we’re heading with this thought of the stewardship of suffering.
Dale Johnson: Paul talks about this thorn, which I think is an important concept and I’m glad that you made the clarification on the hermeneutical issue. We’re not describing every point of suffering as some sort of thorn. However, it is a realistic ideal that God is granting Paul this thorn for a purpose and we should not miss that. I think what’s unfortunate sometimes in biblical counseling is folks will say, “Well, you want to spiritualize everything. You just want to dismiss that people are struggling or suffering with certain things.” That’s not really the concept at all. It’s just the way in which we see the suffering that’s happening. We’re not dismissing that people have feelings, emotions, deep dark trials and difficulties that they wrestle with in life. All of that is absolutely true—this passage testifies to it. So what do we mean when we say that we need to see thorns in a different way? We need to see thorns in the way God sees them, not bound by earthly terms and earthly ways of seeing those. How do we see those thorns as God sees them?
Brad Brandt: There’s a lot of directions we could go with that question. Paul, first of all, says that this particular thorn was given to him—he refers to it as a messenger of Satan. Satan was the mailman, but he’s not the author of the package. God is the one that designed this, and he says He did it for his good. Of course, we could spin that off and think about how it was his suffering that resulted even in people coming to know Christ. In Galatians he talks about that it was because of his illness that he ended up there. We don’t know exactly what he means by that, but the gospel comes to that region because of this affliction.
Seeing then this whatever it is in our lives—for Paul it was this thorn—whatever we have, this affliction, weaknesses, seeing them as sovereignly designed in this intent that God has for our good and the advancement of His kingdom just changes our perspective. It’s not something I need to get rid of. It’s something I need to maximize. I’ve experienced that in my own life. I’ve talked before on the podcast about the battle with migraines. Fifteen a month is what I was dealing with. I’m thankful for a medicine that’s been helping me now.
I thought it was interesting, Barclay, in his commentary, asks the question, “What is this thorn?” He says that Paul suffered from chronically recurrent attacks of a certain virulent malarial fever, which haunted the coast of the Eastern Mediterranean. He talks about one who suffered from it describes the headache that accompanies as being like a red-hot bar thrust through the forehead. Another speaks of the grinding, boring pain in one’s temple like a dentist’s drill. I remember reading that, as I was battling my own head pain, thinking, “I don’t know if that’s what it was,” but it really caught my attention. When Paul says “there was given me a thorn in the flesh,” this wasn’t some minor thing. It really cost him and was intense agony—so much so that he pleaded with the Lord to take it away.
Dale Johnson: You’re exactly right. I think we can relate to that, where we have issues in our own life and we plead with the Lord consistently, because from our perspective from a human disposition, it seems wisest to us to take away. We think, “Man, I could do a lot of good in life if I could just move through this or remove this thorn.” But instead of removing it, the Lord actually gave Paul a promise. Can you describe what that promise was and how that relates to even us who are struggling?
Brad Brandt: It’s a two-part promise. Jesus says to Paul there in 2 Corinthians 12:9, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” The first part of the promise is sufficient grace. Whatever you’re going to face, Paul, my grace will be sufficient. My unmerited help. Now again, Paul was made knowledgeable to that from his conversion. He was told how much he would suffer and Paul embraced that. I’ve been preaching through Acts recently at the church. We just went to Philippi, and Paul had the opportunity to put his Roman citizenship trump card to get out of the situation, but he chose not to.
He really saw that this suffering would be means by which the gospel would go forth. Christ Himself embraced the cross, and then the crown, of course, comes later. Paul saw it that way. You’ve got sufficient grace and then the promise that Jesus’ power, literally, we’ve made perfect in our weakness. We perfected it. It will come to its fullness. When I’m working with counselees that’s such a hope-giving concept. The Lord doesn’t need our strength, what He chooses to work through is our weakness.
And when we lean into that promise, it is a pillow for us to put our heads on. He knows what He’s up to. And certainly we can all testify, when we stop and think about how God has used our weaknesses for His honor in ways we never anticipated.
Dale Johnson: That’s so good. As we talk about the text, I want to encourage our counselors to think about the applications and implications like we’re about to do here. It’s proper for us to consider the truths from Scripture, the promises from Scripture, the commands of Scripture, and meditate well on the Scripture as we study the Word. Then we move into asking, “What are some of those implications? What does this mean in the way that I apply the truth of God’s Word in my own life and as I’m counseling to others?” What are some of those implications for the promises that we can use as biblical counselors?
Brad Brandt: You know, Dale, one of the things that just jumped out of this passage at me was when Paul says, “I asked the Lord three times to take it away.” The implication is he never asked a fourth time. Once that promise was given, it was enough for him to know God intends to use this thorn for Paul (and then extends it to the other weaknesses) for my good and the advancement of His glory in the salvation of people. I think one real practical implication is how we view the problem. How we pray about our problems. There’s certainly nothing wrong with praying, “Lord, would you help me to find a solution to whatever this affliction is?” It may be a doctor’s help, and so forth. I’ve seen 15 different doctors over the years, but at some point it’s important to just lean into the promise and say, “Lord, you can take it away. If you choose not to, I will trust you with this. I trust your sovereign wisdom, this promise. I’ll put my weight into it and make much of you in this affliction.”
On a real practical note, I encourage listeners to get a hymnbook out and sing the hymns. The particular Hymns of Grace hymnbook, put out by the Master’s University I believe. I went through that, just singing a couple of hymns a day. It took several months to go through it. I marked in the back how many hymns talk about pain and suffering—and there are dozens and dozens. What the person is writing is just applying this principle we’re talking about, looking at the cross, Christ’s sufficiency, God’s sufficiency, being very honest about facing this trial, but tying those two together. God has a purpose in my life, and of course we’re living for the life to come. That’s a practical thing that I think is a takeaway. Make it a point to sing to the Lord these great songs of the past that help us internalize these principles we’re talking about.
Dale Johnson: That’s so helpful Brad, and there’s a lot more certainly that we could say, but I think the point still remains: We should see opportunities that God gives us in suffering, and affliction, and trial, in difficulties. They are a stewardship. It’s not to be internalized—to look inward-focused. Think about how uncomfortable it is. It is for the purpose of stewarding what God enrusts to us for the sake of His glory. That’s quite an investment, quite an entrustment from the Lord, but we can find hope and peace, just as Paul did, in the grace and the promises of Christ.
Brad Brandt: I just know that someone is going to be listening to this who is in deep pain themselves right now and I would just encourage you, you need heroes you can look to. The Apostle Paul is many things for us, but he’s a hero in terms of how he dealt with this pain. Become a student of great men and women in the past. Read their biographies. How did they deal with their pain?
I just worked through again recently last week a Richard Wurmbrand biography and what he went through, and his wife Sabina. Their works are very helpful, the suffering they endured. Both of them talked a lot about the promises of God and how they sustained them. I encourage you to be a student of the past. Biographies are helpful. Memorize the promises of God, if you’d like some help in that go to wheelersburgbaptist.com. We did a 10-part series on Promises to Live by in the Crucible of Suffering. This is one of the promises, the 2 Corinthians 12 passage, but learn the promises of God and put your weight into them.
Dale Johnson: Thank you, Brad. This has been so helpful.
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