June 10, 2007
What is God’s purpose when pain and illness threaten His followers? In this message, Alistair Begg shares from personal experience some of the benefits that sickness can produce in the lives of those who trust in Christ. Facing our frailty should cause us to look to God, who comforts His children in times of trials so that we can in turn comfort others and become more like Jesus.
Sermon Transcript: Print
What I’d like to do is read a few verses from 2 Corinthians chapter 1. And it’s difficult when I haven’t been preaching to say I’m going to speak just briefly, but I will speak briefly, and the way that I’ll do that is I’ll tie myself almost entirely to the notes that I have here, and I will read far more of them than I would ever do, and that saves me from any kind of tangential journeys that might prove to be counterproductive and elongated.
Two Corinthians 1:1:
“Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother,
“To the church of God in Corinth, together with all the saints throughout Achaia:
“Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God. For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows. If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer. And our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort.”
And if you want a phrase to mark our brief meditation, it would be the bridge between verse 3 and verse 4: “the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received.”
One of the benefits of these past weeks has been that I have been able to do what I love to do just about as much as anything in the world, and that is to read, and to read unfettered by the constraints of time—to be able to start to read and to read almost uninterrupted—because I’ve been absent the normal deadlines, especially of Sunday-by-Sunday preparation. And if you love to read, then you know what an immense luxury it is to be able just to start a book and, apart from the details of life, to be able to pursue it and to enjoy it and to luxuriate in it and to learn from it. And as a result of the kindnesses, as I say, of so many people, I’ve been introduced to books that I might not otherwise have read, and that also has been one of the treats.
One couple, who are Truth for Life partners from Oregon, sent me a large volume entitled The Life and Labors of Charles H. Spurgeon. And in the course of that volume, in a series of editorials that he had for one of his magazines, there is a section which he entitles, “Sweet Fruit from a Thorny Tree.” “Sweet Fruit from a Thorny Tree.” And as he introduces this concept, he writes as follows: “I, who have of late been a prisoner of the Lord in the sick chamber, would witness my confession as he enables me.” And he then goes on to say that his experience of darkness and of depression and of physical difficulty has yielded in him certain things, has pointed him in certain directions.
Spurgeon would have been the first person to say that what he went through paled into insignificance in comparison to many who were members of his flock. And, of course, I’ve tried to say that on every occasion that I’ve made any allusion to the circumstances of life for me in these last few weeks, and I would want to reinforce that again in making the comments that I make. I have the privilege of making them. I have, in a sense, a responsibility to make them. But I recognize that I do so given the fact that many of you have endured far more and will face difficulties as such as will not be my lot in life. But to the extent that this has been, then let me share with you these things, which are an amalgam of lessons from Spurgeon with sort of color commentary by Begg.
Number One: “Pain teaches us our nothingness.” “Pain or sickness teaches us our nothingness.” When we’re healthy, it’s real easy for us to think we have the world by the tail. When we’re healthy and we’re not facing the uncertainties of biopsies and of tests, it’s possible for us to enlarge our sense of self-esteem. When we’re sick, our feebleness becomes immediately conspicuous. When we are sick, when we face surgery, when the impact of it is known to us, and when we deal with that in the middle of the night in the bathroom by ourselves in front of the mirror, it is impossible for us to deny the fact of our abject uselessness and our total helplessness. And sickness thwarts any ability that we might seek to cultivate to kid ourselves or to kid anybody else. Because when we see ourselves, we know. And if anybody else gets a chance to see us in that predicament, they know too.
Writes Spurgeon, in this experience of limitation and weakness, we discover what we really know about patience. And in this experience of weakness, we discover that what we thought we knew about peace when we were standing up, as it were, on the balcony looking down on the people walking on the pathway is an entirely different experience when one gets down on the pathway with those who are tested by sickness. And I was struck by a number of Spurgeon’s honest sentences like this: “How [often],” he writes, “have I felt dwarfed and diminished by pain and depression!” And he writes, “The preacher to thousands could creep into a nutshell, and feel himself smaller than the worm which bored the tiny … hole by which he entered.”
Most of us, and not least of all pastors, are far too great in our own estimation. And often God must choose to use sickness and disappointment and heartache in order to confront us with what everybody who is perceptive actually knows. Spurgeon says, “A soap bubble has a scant measure of material in it for its size, and most of us are after the same order; it is greatly for our good to be reduced to our true dimensions.”
And when I thought about it, it made me think of 1 Corinthians 3, you know, where Paul says to the Corinthians, “I wish I could write to you as mature people, but I can’t, because you’re starting to split into factions. One of you says, ‘I’m a Peter guy’; one of you says, ‘I’m a Paul guy’; one of you says, ‘I’m a somebody else guy.’” He says, “That’s no way to think! To think that way is to miss the point entirely.” And remember how he says classically, in 1 Corinthians 3:7, he says, “Neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.” How did Paul get to know his nothingness? Probably by his experience of sickness and pain. He didn’t learn it in a book. He learned it in life.
That’s the first observation: pain shows us our nothingness.
The second observation is that sickness forces us to cast all of our cares upon the Lord—all the things that we can no longer do anything about. So, for example, you think about the congregation: “What can I do for the congregation or about the congregation?” Absolutely nothing! Then you realize that the only real custodian of the congregation is the Great Shepherd himself, even Jesus. And Jesus is well able, in the company of one’s colleagues in ministry, to take care of everything, and absolutely without your help, Alistair Begg. Witness the pastors’ conference: a great disappointment to me not to be able to do anything other than show up for about fifteen minutes! And how encouraging to realize how fabulous it was without me. And how humbling to realize how fabulous it was without me.
You see, sickness reminds us that everything has to be left. Spurgeon, again, in his amazing style, in the nineteenth century, says, “The reins drop from the driver’s hands; the ploughman forgets the furrow; the seed-basket hangs no longer on the sower’s arm.” And this experience, he says, cuts us “loose from earthly shores” and provides us with a dress rehearsal when our life’s work will be ended and we will be no more.
Thirdly: “Pain, if sanctified, creates tenderness towards others.” “Pain” or sickness, “if sanctified, creates tenderness towards others.” Without grace, pain, disappointment, heartache, sadness, sickness may simply harden our hearts and make us resentful—may make us the kind of people that are going around saying, “Nobody has ever experienced what I’ve experienced. Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen.” But when grace sanctifies pain and sickness to us, then our aches and our pains may become the occasion of the softening of our hearts and may in turn yield within us genuine sympathy.
I got great sympathy now for every lady that’s had a C-section, because this is the closest I think a man can come to having a C-section—especially where they put the incision! And any temptation that one would ever have to say, “Oh, come on! Sit up in the bed. It can’t be that difficult…” I will never say that to anyone when I remember the effort that was involved and how pathetic I was in trying to succumb to the promptings of these dear nurses as they just tried to make me this position from this position.
I crossed the road in Chagrin Falls a few weeks ago, and I know the fellow that was waiting for me, ’cause I could tell from his eyes, was saying, “I don’t know what this joker thinks he’s doing walking as slowly as that across the road. Why is he messing with me? Why doesn’t he just get across the stinking road?” And I was going as good as I could go. And when I got to the far end, I said to myself, “What’s that guy on… ?” Then I said, “Oh no, that’s you in that car, Begg. You’re the one who’s always saying, ‘Why doesn’t that person hurry up? Why’s that person taking so long?’” And we don’t know why they don’t hurry up and why they’re taking so long. But aches and pains and sickness sanctified to us may engender sympathy.
If our hearts learn sympathy they have been in a good school, though [our teacher] may have used the rod most heavily, and taught us by many a smart [or many a sting]. To those who are teachers of others this is of the first importance, for none can bear with the infirmities of others if they have not been made compassionate, and filled with a fellow-feeling for the faint and the trembling.
Two Corinthians 1:4: the comfort that you have received becomes the comfort which may flow from you to others. But if we have never been in need of the comfort and never known it, we will never have it overflow from us.
And here, I think, was the most striking of all of Spurgeon’s sentences: “The keys of men’s hearts hang up in the narrow chamber of suffering, and he who has not been there can scarcely know the art of opening the recesses of the soul.” “The keys of men’s hearts hang up in the narrow chamber of suffering.” Quite a thought, isn’t it? And then, remember, the Bible says, “Who knows the thoughts of a man except the spirit of a man that is in him?”
The last thing is this: sickness may cause us to become all the more focused and diligent when we have been favored—if we have been favored—to return to the place of our service. God may choose not to return us to the place of our service. Our sickness may lead us to heaven. But if our sickness is temporal and marked by a period of time, it may prove to return us to our place of service with a far greater sense of focus and diligence.
You see, those of you who’ve gone through this know that in the night you get a perspective that you don’t get during the day. And in the night, I’ve discovered that I’ve seen things in a way that I’ve never seen them before, and I’ve found myself resolving and saying, “By God’s enabling, I will throw myself, if given another opportunity, far more wholeheartedly into the primary tasks and far less to that which is secondary, far more to the callings of pastoral ministry and far less to the exigencies and the extraneous bits and pieces which are there.” So that these months, which one might be tempted to regard as wasted months—insofar as “How long can you sit around and read books?”—the “wasted” months may turn out to be an economy of life if in the years that God then gives us we’re more earnest, more careful, more prayerful, more dependent upon God, more passionately committed to doing the work of the gospel than ever before we went in the chamber and found the keys hanging on the hook.
Spurgeon says, “Falling leaves enrich the soil about the forest trees, would that God our weeping [autumn] would yield us fairer springs, and larger growths. … If but one or two of his people shall profit by [our afflictions, we then] will thank him [most] heartily.” And that’s the real question, isn’t it? First of all, if we will profit by our afflictions. That’s the beginning of James. ’Cause it’s not determined that we will profit by them. And God gives us all kinds of wee encouragements along the way.
One anecdote and I’m done. We’re going to sing a song.
One night, in the brief stay that I had in the hospital, one of the nurse’s aides was coming in to do the usual routine and all the bits and pieces that they do. And in the course of talking to one another during the night, this Black lady told me that she was going to come back in the morning and sing me a church song. And so I said, “Okay, I look forward to that.”
Well, as it turned out, Sue was down pretty promptly that morning, and by the time the nurse’s aide came in, it was just Sue and I who was there. And so she came in, and she said, “Now, I told you I’m going to sing you a church song, and I’m going to do that.” And then she went, and she closed the door to my room, and she came back, and she just stood within about four feet of Sue and I, and she just started to sing. She said… I’m not trying to be funny or anything here, but this is kinda like how she did it. She said, “We come this far by faith, oh yeah. We come this far by faith.” And then she just took off.
And it was… It was… I mean, Sue said, “It was like God just picking you up and giving you a hug,” you know. Here’s this lady who doesn’t know me from a hole in the ground or anything else. She’d been to her choir practice. That’s the song they’d been singing. She figured I needed a song. She came back the next day, and she sang this a cappella. Fabulous! And then she just stopped, and she said, “And I’ll have you know that I don’t this for everybody in here.”
And so, really, she sang, and she sang the summary of it, the summary of all of our journey together. We have come this far by faith, and we go a step at a time by faith, and to the extent that God uses experience to grant to us comfort and enable us to learn lessons that otherwise we wouldn’t learn. And then when we think about our hope, it’s all in Jesus. You know, when we think about all that we need, it’s all wrapped up in Jesus.
 C. H. Spurgeon, “Sweet Fruit from a Thorny Tree,” in The Sword and the Trowel (November 1880), 541.
 Spurgeon, 541.
 Spurgeon, 542.
 Spurgeon, 542.
 1 Corinthians 3:1–5 (paraphrased).
 1 Corinthians 3:7 (NIV 1984).
 See 1 Peter 5:7.
 Spurgeon, “Sweet Fruit,” 542.
 Spurgeon, 543.
 Spurgeon, 543.
 Spurgeon, 543.
 1 Corinthians 2:11 (paraphrased).
 Spurgeon, “Sweet Fruit,” 543.
 Albert A. Goodson, “We’ve Come This Far by Faith” (1965). Lyrics lightly altered.
Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.