Built Strong Through Hardship

Dr. Silas McCormick - 5/23/2021

One very, very, long year ago, I became the 8th President of Lincoln Christian University. While that is a tremendous honor, and a tremendous

responsibility as well, I have to confess, that I’m not really up to it. And though it is perhaps impolite to say, I’m not convinced anyone else is either. Oh I realize

there are plenty of people out there who are thoroughly convinced of their brilliance, but the older I get, the more convinced I am that such confidence is

usually misplaced.

If you led anything at all this past year, and didn’t learn humility, I doubt you ever will. I was repeatedly confronted with my shortcomings – sometimes via

that little voice in my head; other times via email. I was frequently reminded of one of my professor’s favorite lines, “the only room for Grace here is at the

organ.” And so my mantra this year was the reminder that one of the uniquely Christian ideas of leadership, and indeed, discipleship, is that our own weakness is

purposeful. Many of those God chose to lead knew – and lived right down to – their weaknesses: Abraham, Moses, David, there are plenty of examples. And Paul

too. Indeed, this is how he begins our text today. He says, “we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.”

In Paul’s time, the clay jar would be roughly the equivalent of our plastic Wal-Mart sack. Or Target. Or County Market. Look, I don’t know your life, but the

odds are, it has plastic sacks in it – probably in the pantry.

The clay jar was useful, but it had little value by itself. It was disposable; nothing special. No, in the ancient world it was what was inside the jar that was

important. Those of us who have believe walk around with the knowledge that despite being entirely unworthy, God has redeemed us. And we know that this

redemption is equally available to others. But it isn’t alone that this good news, this Gospel, is accessible. More than that, it is powerful. This is the treasure.

But the obvious question becomes why would something so valuable – so powerful – be entrusted to a Wal-Mart sack? Now sometimes across time and

language it can be a real challenge to grasp the meaning of a biblical text, but Jon was gracious enough to let me choose my text, and so this is not one of those

times. Look at verse 7: “we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.”

Pretty clear, isn’t it? It represents a long-standing practice too. When God called Moses, what was Moses’ response? Do you remember? It was “who am I

that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” And who came after Moses? Right? Joshua. Remember how that went down? Three times God

said to Joshua, “be strong and courageous.” For years I thought, “man, why does God always pick these unprepared people?” I’m embarrassed to say that it took

way too long for me to realize that everyone is unprepared.

And it took even longer for me to realize that’s okay. It’s not about us. We are but the Wal-Mart sack, and the wise among us know it. The power of the

Gospel we carry about with us is what really matters. This purposeful weakness is the foundational principle of this text. Without it, what follows is nonsense,

because whether 1,000 years or 1,000 miles away, every culture has valued strength over weakness.

Think about it. Why did the Philistines laugh at David when he came out to fight Goliath? Why did a fledgling America choose the bald eagle as its mascot

rather than a turkey? Why is there a whole movie about just one speech that was given by King George VI during WWII? The answer to each of these questions is

that we love to exude strength and we move heaven and earth to hide weakness. We see weakness – or even the appearance of weakness – as inviting abuse. And

listen, it’s a real temptation. I’m no advocate of either Marxism or critical race theory, but I do think it’s fair to say that across history, there is a tendency for

those in power to work to keep it, and a tendency to use it for themselves rather than the weak or vulnerable. And in Paul’s time, Christians could hardly be

considered strong by human standards. In fact, they are frequent targets of those in power. In verses 8 and 9, Paul specifically talks about how Christians can expect

to be treated. He says, “we are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but

not destroyed.”

More years ago than I care to acknowledge, I was an intern at Southern Illinois University in the Office of the President. In that capacity, I would

occasionally fly with my boss to Springfield for meetings. We would fly with what I jokingly referred to as the Saluki Air Force. You see, SIU had an aviation program,

and part of the reason we were able to fly to Springfield was because the students needed to log hours. Win-win, right? Well, the first time I flew, I was

pleasantly surprised to see that our pilot was the stereotypical pilot. White dress shirt, short sleeves, epaulettes, and mustache. Shortly thereafter, a similarly

dressed, apparently twelve-year-old kid showed up. He was at least three to five years away from a serviceable mustache. He was also our pilot. Turns out “Sully”

was the instructor.

On this particular day, we arrived at the airport in Carbondale for our flight to Springfield. The twelve-year-old and his instructor showed us the weather

radar and warned us that we should expect moderate turbulence if we decided to proceed. My boss looked at me, and moderate being a relative term that didn’t

sound too terribly scary, I just shrugged my shoulders. And so we boarded. There were five seats on that plane, and the last person on pulled the door shut behind

them. It was normally a quick flight, but with a ferocious tail wind behind us, it was much quicker than usual – and way bumpier. I spent most of the flight

praying and trying purge my mind of Buddy Holly songs.

Once safely on the ground, I decided perhaps I should learn the turbulence scale. In the event you ever need it, here it is:

Light turbulence causes momentary, slight, erratic changes in altitude or attitude. Moderate turbulence causes more intense erratic changes in altitude or attitude,

and usually additionally causes variations in airspeed. And what I didn’t realize was that the very next category is Severe Turbulence,

which occurs when these changes reach an intensity that can render the plane momentarily out of control. Extreme turbulence is actually quite rare and occurs

when these changes become sufficiently violent that the plane is at risk of structural damage and virtually uncontrollable.

Upon further reflection, I reached the conclusion that mine really wasn’t an adequately informed shrug. Now, I tell you this story to highlight the varying levels of

turbulence Paul points out in these verses. Listen again: “hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck

down, but not destroyed.” Notice that neither smooth sailing nor light turbulence make an appearance. I point this out, because there are a lot of people who treat

Christianity as a good luck charm, thoroughly convinced that faith leads to prosperity and security. In fact, Paul points out that the norm is more like

moderate to severe turbulence.

Now I’m the first to admit that hardship is not a cultural value. Most of us see adversity as the result of mistakes and avoidable with better decisions. Paul

reminds us here that we are purposefully weak to show God’s strength, and that a life of faith is more likely to be one of struggle than of security.

Case in point; listen to what Paul describes as his credentials as an Apostle in verses 10 through 12: “We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus,

so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may be

revealed in our mortal body. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.”

Many were skeptical of Paul’s authority. And truth be told, he’s kind of a mess. Virtually homeless, he is constantly traveling. Dude even has a rap sheet.

He is frequently arrested, jailed, beaten, and run out of town under threat of death. He relies on the generosity of others for basic needs, and he lives largely

without anything that isn’t basic. Men of authority simply don’t live like Paul. But as Paul points out, he lives like Jesus. Paul is a walking illustration of how very

different the power of the Gospel is. It appears weak. And turbulent. But Jesus too appeared weak, and his life and ministry were turbulent. Of modest means,

from a town of no reputation, of suspicious parentage and lowly (if any) education, men of authority simply did not look like Jesus. And yet, just as Jesus’

suffering ultimately led to new life for all who will accept it, so does Paul point out that his own suffering has led to new life for the believers in the church at

Corinth.

And it is here that we turn to what is, I think, probably the most critical part of this passage for us today. Beginning in verse 13, it says: “it is written: ‘I

believed; therefore I have spoken. With that same spirit of faith, we also believe and therefore speak, because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus

from the dead will also raise us with Jesus and present us with you in his presence. All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and

more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God.”

Now here Paul references something that we are to imitate, but doesn’t tell us what or where it is. Now I would hope that when you come across something

like this in Scripture you do the homework to determine what is meant – and if you’re not sure how to do that, let me know afterward, because I have a course

or degree I can sell you that will help.

In fact, this line is a direct quote from Psalm 116. If you turn there, beginning with verse 8, this is the mindset Paul would have us imitate: “For you, O

LORD, have delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling, that I may walk before the LORD in the land of the living. I believed

therefore I said, ‘I am greatly afflicted.’ And in my dismay I said, ‘all men are liars.’ How can I repay the LORD for all his goodness to me? I will lift up the cup of

salvation and call on the name of the LORD. I will fulfill my vows to the LORD in the presence of all His people.” While believing is enough for salvation, it isn’t

enough for discipleship. Discipleship spurs us to action.

The movie Saving Private Ryan was released in 1998 – which I realize makes it ancient for a sermon illustration but bear with me. I watched it in the theater.

Like most other people who saw it, I was horrified by the violence, but I was even more horrified by the end of the film. The movie tells the fictitious story of 8 Army

Rangers who, upon surviving the invasion of Normandy, are ordered to find Private James Ryan and bring him back from the front. His three brothers have

died and General George Marshall wants to spare Ryan’s mother the loss of all four of her sons. As the story unfolds, each and every one of the 8 rangers are

killed, the last using his dying breath to whisper to Private Ryan, now the lone survivor: “earn this.” I remember walking out of the theater thinking, “what could

anyone possibly do to earn that.”

Of course, the answer is nothing. Nothing James Ryan could ever do could give him certainty that his life was worth exchanging for the 8 of those who saved

him. It wasn’t long before I realized how desensitized I had become to the fact that I too had quite undeservingly allowed another’s life to be exchanged for my

own. I had accepted Christ’s gift of life everlasting, but my actions hardly reflected the kind of urgent obedience that my gratitude really should have inspired. This is

what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.”

According to Bonhoeffer, “cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion

without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”

In our passage, Paul calls us to die to ourselves, over and over again, for a lifetime. And to be clear, he wasn’t talking about giving up Instagram for lent.

Many of us worship a God who expects nothing from us – but this is a false God of our own creation. One who blesses what we’ve already decided we want. The real

God expects absolutely everything from us. We are to die to ourselves becoming less and less like us and more and more like Christ.

Every year at LCU we enroll students who have views on lots and lots of topics that are far more formed by our culture than Scripture. One of these –

though by no means the only one – is human sexuality. Do you want to know where young people got the idea that a loving God would want them to be happy

and not expect them to deny themselves their desires? I’ll tell you: they got that from their parents, who used the exact same rationale to leave unhappy

marriages in droves. Most of our societal ills are attributable to a fundamental disdain for the core tenet of discipleship: that we need to change. We don’t like

to be told what to do, who to be, or that there’s any room for improvement in our beliefs or actions. And what’s really wild about this cultural conviction is how

many Christians accept it even though it is easily disproved by Scripture.

We tend to blow past it, but it’s one of the most important parts of Jesus’ story. Hopefully you all remember this: It’s toward the end of his ministry. The

crucifixion is on the near horizon. Jesus is praying on the Mt. of Olives, and He explicitly asks God to spare Him his fate. In Luke 22:42, He says, “Father, if you are

willing, take this cup from me.” And of course God the father says in response, “absolutely, Son, I would never dream of asking you to do anything that you

didn’t want to do, like giving sacrificially of your time, talents, or treasure, or leading a small group that interferes with your investment in youth sports, golf, or

gardening, and I certainly wouldn’t dream of asking you to be stripped half naked and beat to death in front of your friends and family.” Is that what God says? No,

of course not! Fortunately for all of us, this loving God leaves him – and I quote - “in anguish.”

If you think that God cares more about your happiness and comfort than your faithfulness and obedience, or worse, you can’t tell the difference, then you

don’t know Jesus very well. Discipleship means I become more like Christ and less like me, and that is better for everyone – but it is hardly a comfortable

experience. And it certainly can’t be relegated to one hour on Sunday every two weeks or so. It’s an all day, every day, lifetime commitment.

In our culture, strength looks like the assertion of legal rights, or moral outrage, or refusing to change who we are to accommodate what other people

think we should be. Just as was true in Corinth so many years ago, it is not what our culture sees as strength that allows us to be disciples, but precisely the

opposite. Loving one another even if it gives up power or legal rights, giving grace and permitting redemption instead of trolling, canceling, or owning those who

disagree with us, and recognizing that the only identity available to any of us is found in Christ and lived by a life of transformation into His image looks weak,

and it attracts hardship, but it is what we are called to, and that’s all that matters.

Paul concludes our passage with this, beginning in verse 16: “Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are

being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So, we fix our eyes not on what

is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”

We started with decidedly average jars of clay contrasted with the inestimable treasure that was carried in them. Here Paul again uses a dramatic

contrast to make a point. After all of his discussion of suffering like Christ, he now turns and characterizes those sufferings as “light and momentary troubles.” Why?

Because he knows how brief they are in the context of eternity.

As it happens, I have in my life, had quite a few very good friends who are quite a bit older than I am. Though there is great wisdom in such relationships,

there is also a fair amount of sadness. I have learned a great deal about aging and death. I have seen what Paul is talking about when he says we are outwardly

wasting away.

But the treasure inside is another story. Bob Kurka was one of those friends I referenced a few moments ago. I first met him when my youth minister took me

on a campus visit to what was then Lincoln Christian College. I had just met with the admissions staff and one of them asked if I played soccer. Looking not much

different at the time from how I do today, I said “no” but then began turning over in my mind whether that was a dumb question, a desperate question, or a box on

a list to be checked off. Anyway, as I walked into the hallway, I met Bob. As we were introduced, my youth minister explained that we had just been to

admissions, and Bob, with a glimmer in his eye and a smirk said, “oh, and do you play soccer?”

Not too long after I graduated, Bob was called to serve as President of St. Louis Christian College. Shortly before starting, Bob learned that he had severe

heart problems – so much so that he was actually placed on the heart transplant list. Bob had to pass on the Presidency at St. Louis, and over the following years

he was actually able to be removed from the transplant list, but his heart condition required very careful monitoring. When I returned to LCU as an

employee in 2012, most people had relatively little idea who I was. In fact, I’m fairly certain only two people even remembered having me as a student – and

only Bob’s memories were positive. At least from what I could tell, Bob had been the only faculty member to see much potential in me, and it wasn’t until we had

the opportunity to work together that I realized that Bob saw potential in everyone – so much so that you really couldn’t trust a reference letter from him.

Not long after my return in 2012, Bob was diagnosed with an extremely rare form of skin cancer. He had to travel all the way to Northwestern University

in the Chicago area for medical care. And that care was brutal. He lost weight, he lost hair. I remember one summer the treatment basically resulted in him looking

like he had sat in the sun for about 30 hours straight. Even blinking looked painful. In the midst of the skin cancer, they tried to manage his heart with medication

that was destroying his kidneys. When the kidneys got too bad, they’d stop the heart meds for as long as they could. Back and forth they’d go leaving the heart

plate spinning then dashing over to the kidneys to spin that plate for a bit and then back to the heart again. Bob wasn’t even retirement age when his body

finally gave out. The outer Bob wasted away in what seemed like a particularly long and cruel way. But the inner Bob – the glimmer in his eye, the smirk, and the

ability to see potential in anyone was largely unfazed.

This same thing happens when Americans travel to countries like Haiti and are surprised to see their fellow believers who have little in the way of resources

or comforts live out their faith with far more joy, passion and commitment than we do. But it shouldn’t be a surprise: the treasure on the inside has the same

capacity to save and redeem regardless of the clay jar on the outside.

Paul could not be any clearer in our text today that this life isn’t about us. Our identity is in Christ, and choosing Him means ever becoming more like Him

and less like who we were before Him. And that is a turbulent process. We find our strength in hardship. If you can’t think of one thing that God has called you to

believe or do that you’re uncomfortable with, then you are almost certainly doing it wrong. Would you pray with me?

Scripture Verses

2 Corinthians 4:7-18; Psalm 116; Luke 22:42

Worship Playlist

In Christ Alone by Passion

Spirit of the Living God by Vertical Worship

Fade Away by Passion

Study Questions

  1. Spend some time using the gospel prayer guide at www.persecution.com/ to pray for your brothers and sisters in Christ who are suffering for their fiaith around the world.
  2. When have you experienced growth in Christ due to hardship, difficulties, stress, etc.? Thank God that He works through every hardship to transform us into the image of Christ.

Apply It!

Resources