Grace for the trial

Prosperity and Reality

I was privileged to travel to the states in my teens as my dad was preaching on a Christian TV station called PTL. The studio was on a massive complex which contained an Olympic size swimming pool, shopping mall, and we were put up in a super luxury hotel. One afternoon we were picked up in a stretch limo so that one of the organisers could take us out on his boat on the lake. We didn’t have to travel far from his house to the boat as his gated detached mansion was on the edge of the lake itself. Whilst caught up in that environment, and with great people around you in a state of the art TV studio, it’s easy to understand the mindset: only the best for the King of Kings.

I want to gain a sound biblical view on prosperity. But right from the start, I’d like to look at prosperity from what might be considered the other end of the spectrum.

Prosperity has had a bad rap from a lot of us in the Christian world because we associate it with American TV evangelists who peddle a message that if you come to Jesus you won’t have any more problems and if you give, give, give you’ll get, get, get.

So let’s start this journey of prosperity and reality with one of the heroes of the New Testament, the Apostle Paul. If anyone should have lived a prosperous life, surely it was him. He preached all over the place, planted churches and continually spread the good news of Jesus. He saw miracles, converted many and exercised spiritual gifts. Surely he lived the blessed life.

We’ll pick our reading up where Paul is addressing the Corinthians about some false apostles who had been leading the Corinthians astray.

If we don’t see the balance that this passage provides we will have a skewed vision of reality that will only lead to disappointment, anger or bitterness later on.

2 Corinthians 11:24-33

24 Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashesminus one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, 26 I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. 27 I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. 28 Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. 29 Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?

30 If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. 31 The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, who is to be praised forever, knows that I am not lying. 32 In Damascus the governor under King Aretas had the city of the Damascenes guarded in order to arrest me. 33 But I was lowered in a basket from a window in the wall and slipped through his hands.

Mmm. Really prospering! Where’s the stretch limo, the boat and the mansion? There’s nothing wrong with any of those things by the way and we know of godly men and women who have all those things. But we’ll come on to that in a later session. But for now, let’s stop and think about what it is Paul was going through. Paul the Apostle who had a vision of Jesus and wrote half the New Testament!

Forty Lashes, beaten with rods… Where’s the limo?

Re-read verse 24. According to the Law of Moses a maximum of forty lashes could be given as a punishment (Deut 25:3). The number was lowered to thirty-nine to keep the flogger from accidentally miscounting and thus becoming a lawbreaker himself. In preparation for flogging, the person’s hands were bound to a pillar, and his clothing was torn to expose the chest and back. The lashes were administered with a strap consisting of three leather thongs. Twenty-six blows were given to the back and thirteen blows to the chest. You don’t need to know that but just in case you hadn’t realised the level of Paul’s suffering.

What about verse 25 (Compare Acts 16:22-23)? Being beaten with rods was a Roman form of punishment. The rods were like a truncheon made of birch wood. Technically a Roman citizen could not be publicly beaten and imprisoned the way Paul and Silas were.

But I thought Christ took all our suffering for us! And here is Paul, suffering unjustly like Jesus did! What’s the deal here?! In fact, the problem gets worse if you dig a little deeper…

Look at verse 26:

I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers.

The style of these verses reminds me (and I’m pretty sure Paul would agree this is not a coincidence) of Deuteronomy 28, particularly verse 3:

If you fully obey the Lord your God and carefully follow all his commands that I give you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations on earth. 2 All these blessings will come on you and accompany you if you obey the Lord your God: 3 You will be blessed in the city and blessed in the country 6 You will be blessed when you come in and blessed when you go out…

The chapter goes on to list all the blessings that people will receive if they obey God. It then turns a dark corner and lists all the curses that will come for disobedience, including,

16 You will be cursed in the city and cursed in the country… 19 You will be cursed when you come in and cursed when you go out. 20 The Lord will send on you curses, confusion and rebuke in everything you put your hand to, until you are destroyed and come to sudden ruin because of the evil you have done in forsaking him.

And as Christ has fulfilled the Law perfectly for us and as we are in Christ, the blessings are now all ours. He has taken the curse and removed it from our vocabulary. We are the New Israel and in Christ we are blessed like a Jew who has obeyed God perfectly. Paul himself expounds this idea in the book of Romans. You don’t have to be Jewish and you don’t have to fulfil the Law to be blessed. Faith in Jesus Christ is the key. And such faith leads to blessing. Elsewhere Paul writes,

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. (Ephesians 1:3)

So why did Paul suffer so much? We can’t say it was lack of faith. I mean, this is Paul! And what are we to make of this when we ourselves suffer? Here are three points I have found helpful.

1 Know that you are not cursed

Paul was not cursed, and neither are you! Look at some of those curses in Deuteronomy 28. Everything you do turns out wrong! Some days you might feel like that but if you are in the will of God there is a longer game to be played. You are not cursed. Paul was not cursed. He might mimic the wording of Deuteronomy 28 but he has replaced the word ‘blessed’ or ‘cursed’ in the city, country, etc. with the words, ‘in danger’. God’s promise to you is that you are safe from the enemy’s hands. But he does not promise to keep you out of danger. When you know that you can enter a lion’s den, defeat a giant or face the destruction of your livelihood and still declare God’s praise, knowing you are loved and protected. Hardship is not a sign that God is not blessing you. Danger might just be a sign you have just stepped out into an exciting adventure in God.

2 Have a passion that outweighs your need for comfort

Paul was willing to suffer, Just like Jesus. He knew what it meant to be willing to suffer for something greater than physical earthly things.

Paul had a passion that outweighed his need for comfort. That’s when God’s grace floods into our situations and gives us everything we need for life and godliness. This might or might not include a new car or bigger house.

In fact the word, passion, which we use to denote the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus, actually means suffering. So when you say you are passionate about something you are really saying you are willing to suffer for it. That’s why Jesus’ passion was the ultimate. He was willing to suffer. He went through all those things Paul described. But he had something greater in mind – the salvation of humanity.

Let God’s grace in

Let’s go back to the passage where Paul speaks of all his suffering. Let’s read on a little more into the next chapter:

Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited [about great revelations he has received from God], I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. 9 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 about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Cor 12:7-10)

In that suffering which God would not take away, God gave him grace. Something greater.

In your suffering, when you feel hard pressed on every side, whatever you are going through, there is a grace from God that is enough. There is a sense in which you can know his prosperity, his blessing in the city and in the country. You can learn to be content in all circumstances. You don’t want to hear this. Your non-spiritual self wants me to say that God will take away all your suffering and make your current reality turn into a heaven on earth. But this is not what I see Paul saying. See what he said to the Philippians:

11 I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. 12 I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.13 I can do all this through him who gives me strength. (Phil 4:11-13)

So how do you find grace in the trial?

How did Paul? Here are some pointers:

  • Be assured that the Lord will provide all your needs. You have every spiritual blessing in Christ. “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.” (Eph 1:3) “And the Lord will provide all your needs, according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus” (Phil 4:19) That’s every need: physical, spiritual, emotional, relational, financial.
  • Know that he will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you can bear. “No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.” (1 Corinthians 10:13)
  • Keep your eyes fixed on things above. “Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.” Read scripture, quote scripture, wake up with a verse ready. (Colossians 3:2)

Put God’s Kingdom first!

Matthew 6 teaches us the antidote for unclear thinking about prosperity:

31 So do not worry, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?” 32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

Put God’s Kingdom first. Then and only then pray for prosperity for one sole purpose: to further the kingdom by a) blessing his people and b) financing his purpose.

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