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A Realist, an Optimist and an Activist Once Met

*Robert J. Morgan
*March 25, 2007

I read this week about some men I can identify with. They came to the psychiatrist and the first one said, “Doctor, you gotta help me. I think I’m a bridge.” The doctor said, “Well, what’s come over you?”   The second man said, “Doctor, I think I need help, too. I keep thinking I’m a curtain.” The doctor replied, “Well, why don’t you pull yourself together?”  The third man said, “Well, doctor, I think I’m a bell,” to which the doctor said, “Take two aspirin, and if it doesn’t help give me a ring.”

Maybe we all feel like those men from time to time. We have so many pressures in life that if we can’t pull ourselves together, we’re going to end up ding-a-lings. Virtually every day of my life, someone talks with me, either in person or by e-mail, about deeply personal and troubling issues they are facing in life; and we all have those. Well, that’s one of the reasons God gave us this book of 2 Corinthians, because here the great apostle Paul opened up and told us about the pressures that bore down on him and how he handled them. That has been our study for the last several weeks, and today we are coming to 2 Corinthians 6:4-10:

“As servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses; in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger; in purity, understanding, patience and kindness; in the Holy Spirit and in sincere love; in truthful speech and in the power of God; with weapons of righteousness in the right hand and in the left; through glory and dishonor, bad report and good report; genuine, yet regarded as impostors; known, yet regarded as unknown, dying, and yet we live on; beaten, and yet not killed; sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything.”

Paul crams a lot of material into these verses, and I have counted nearly forty different characteristics or attributes that he listed here to describe himself. What if I gave each of you a blank sheet of paper and we took about ten minutes to write out the forty terms that best describe us. What words or series of words best describes you? Well, in a sense that’s what Paul is doing here, and he divides his list into three categories. These categories provide a great deal of understanding into the way the Lord wants us to look at life, and from them we can extrapolate three great rules for dealing with pressure.

1. Be a Realist: Accept the Difficult (vv. 4-5)

First, verses 4 and 5 tell you and me to be a realist and to accept the difficult. Paul doesn’t flinch from his problems. He begins by saying: /As servants of God we commend ourselves in every way. /In other words, Paul is still answering his critics in the Corinthian church, not so much because he wants to defend his own reputation, but because he wants his message and his Gospel to be respected and received. So he said here, “I want to demonstrate for you our integrity. In every way, I want to be commendable in your sight.” And now, he goes on to tell us what he has borne and is bearing:

In great endurance. This is a very important New Testament trait of Christians. The Greek word, ὑπομονή, occurs 31 times in the New Testament. It means pressing on despite pressure and difficulty. What are you having to endure right now? Don’t quit. Don’t falter. Keep one foot in front of the other, and keep going. Persevere.

In troubles. The word here is θλῖψις, which literally means pressure, especially pressure brought on by affliction and pain and suffering. This is very often translated “tribulation” in the New Testament, and this is the word Jesus used in Matthew 24 to describe the Great Tribulation. A day of Great Tribulation is soon coming on the world, but all of us face θλῖψις now.

...and distresses. The Greek word here literally meant “narrow places.” We once had a house with a crawl space under the floor and once in a while I had to crawl under there for one thing or another. It’s not easy, to crawl on your elbows and shins through dirt and cobwebs in a narrow place. That’s the idea behind this word /distresses. /We find ourselves in the crawl spaces of life.

In beatings, imprisonments and riots…. /Here Paul was speaking literally of the beatings he endured at the hands of Jewish and Roman officials who pulled out their rods or their whips and applied pain to his body. There were times when he was roughly shoved into prison cells, and times when he was caught in riots and nearly pulled limb from limb. None of us knows when we’re going to experience a time of physical pain or suffering or a time of great limitation or of criticism and unpopularity. But those times come in life, and we have to accept them.

In hard work…. /Sometimes our pressure comes from our workload.

Sleepless nights… Nothing is harder than losing periods of necessary sleep. The Apostle Paul wasn’t always able to get his eight hours every night. Some nights he was traveling through the night. Other nights he was preaching until the midnight hour or even all the way through the night. Other nights he was counseling, or perhaps he was so burdened by the day that he couldn’t rest at night. Sometimes he was caught in storms at sea or in cloudbursts on land. When we don’t get our sleep, our bodies labor under the weariness of the flesh and our emotions become much more difficult to control. The apostle Paul experienced all this, too.

And hunger. Paul traveled on a shoestring, and there were some days when he didn’t have adequate food. Most people go through times in life when we have trouble meeting the basic necessities of our lives. We are needy people, and sometimes our greatest life-pressures come from unmet needs within us.

So life is very hard. This was brought home to me recently when Katrina and I read a book on the lives of America’s first ladies, beginning with Martha Washington. I didn’t know very much about the wives of the presidents, and as I read the accounts of their experiences, I was overwhelmed with the tragedy and difficulty and sadness and hardship that many of them faced. I’ll just give you one example. Franklin Pierce was the fifteenth President of the United States. His wife, Jane, had grown up in a wealthy New England textile family, and her father was a college president and Congregationalist minister who, from all reports, was rather severe and morbid. Jane was the third child in the family, and she grew up without much self-confidence, and she suffered from anxiety, bronchial problems, and tuberculosis.

She met Franklin Pierce when he was a member of the United States House of Representatives from New Hampshire, and he was a very heavy drinker who bordered on alcoholism. The two of them dated for eight years, but Jane was so frustrated by the political attacks on Franklin that she came to utterly despise politics and wanted nothing to do with it. She married him, but seldom traveled with him to Washington, preferring to stay in New Hampshire.

In 1836, they had a little boy, but he died within days. Franklin was elected to the United States Senate, but Jane was so unhappy that he resigned and moved to Concord and opened a law practice. Except for Franklin’s drinking, things calmed down. Then they had another child, but he died with typhus at the age of four.

They had another child named Benjamin, and Jane tried her very best to protect him because she didn’t think she could endure another loss. But meanwhile, unknown to her, Franklin was planning to run for President of the United States. He told her nothing about it, deceived her about it, and when she finally learned of his presidential bid she fainted. When he won the election, she had no choice but to move to Washington. As the family traveled by train through New England, somehow the train jumped the tracks and right in front of her own eyes, eleven-year-old Benjamin’s head was torn off by flying debris.

The damage to Jane’s emotional equilibrium was enormous. Her three sons were all dead, one right in front of her eyes. Her husband had deceived her. And now she was suddenly in the unwanted role of America’s First Lady as the nation was hurtling toward Civil War.

She turned the White House into a living tomb, covered with black bunting. She dressed in black, turned all hosting duties over to an aunt, and sat upstairs alone in deep depression writing letters to her dead son asking his forgiveness and awaiting for her presidential husband to come in from his drinking forays. She became known as the “Shadow of the White House.” Franklin Pierce only served one term in office, and shortly after they left the presidency, she died of tuberculosis.

This story just illustrates that everyone in the world, no matter how powerful or well-known, faces incredible hardships in life. I once heard of a father who told his daughter, “I tried to provide a great childhood for you, but in the process I didn’t let you know how hard life is. It would have been easier for you know if you had known earlier that life is hard.”

Paul didn’t flinch from life’s hardships. He was a realist. We have to be realists and accept the fact that life is hard. Jesus Himself said, “In this world you will have tribulation.”

*2. Be an Optimist: Accentuate the Positive (vv. 6-7)*

But thank goodness the passage doesn’t end there. The next two verses (verses 6 and 7) tell you and me to be an optimist and accentuate the positive. Look at verses 6 and 7. Paul continues listing the attributes of his life and ministry, but the tone suddenly changes: /In purity, understanding, patience and kindness; in the Holy Spirit and in sincere love; in truthful speech and in the power of God; with weapons of righteousness in the right hand and in the left./

Now, if you are just reading this without a lot of thought, you might not realize what an enormous change of tone occurs in these two verses. But think of it in this way. Go to the prison, the hospital, the funeral home, or just about anywhere else in this world, and ask people, “Tell me about the stresses and pressures in your life.” You’ll probably get a list of problems, and the longer people talk the worse their problems will seem to be. When we begin reviewing our trials and tribulations, we tend to feel sorry for ourselves and very grateful for someone to listen to them. We just keep on in the same downward direction.

But the apostle Paul did a sudden about-face in verse 6 and started going positive on us. In verses 4 and 5, he is a realist, and in verses 6 and 7, he is an optimist. The two are not mutually exclusive. I believe that God wants us to be realists because we live in a real world with real problems; but He wants us to be optimists because we have all His promises and resources on which to base our lives.

So the apostle goes on to say:

/…in purity. /In other words, I may have problems on the outside, but thank God I’m a single man who has been in terrible places, yet the Lord has enabled me to maintain my personal purity.

/…in understanding. /I have an understanding of God’s plan for my life and knowledge of Him and His Word.

/…patience and kindness. /These pressures haven’t made me hard and bitter, but patient and kind. I’m not a patient man by nature, Paul might have told us. I’m not kind by nature. Look at the way I once persecuted the church. But these trials have had a salubrious effect on my personality.

/…in the Holy Spirit. /My life and ministry is lived in the power of the Holy Spirit who lives within me. The Holy Spirit indwells me as a deposit or down-payment guaranteeing the riches that await me in heaven.

/…and in sincere love. /I’m motivated by love just like a fire is kindled with wood or a car is fueled by gasoline. The love of Christ compels me.

/… in truthful speech. /When I open my mouth, I’m confident of the truthfulness of what I’m saying. I have the truth and the facts on my side.

/…and in the power of God. /I know that my results will count for eternity because I’m not depending on the power of my oratory or of my personality; this work is being done by God Himself through my puny efforts.

/…with weapons of righteousness in the right hand and in the left. /The pressures I feel are largely external ones, but I’m striking back with spiritual weapons—the Word of God, the Gospel of God, the Power of God, the Spirit of God, and all the resources of heaven itself. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.

In these verses, Paul is a great biblical example of what is sometimes called “positive thinking.” A lot of what purports to be positive thinking, even by Christian writers or preachers, is shallow thinking because it isn’t based on sound and clear biblical theology. But there is foundation in the Bible for optimism, cheerfulness, and maintaining a positive attitude—and Paul is demonstrating that here.

Last year, I had a wonderful conversation with a man named Michael Guido, who is a pioneer radio and television evangelist who lives in Metter, Georgia. He was 91 years old at the time of our interview, and I couldn’t believe what an exuberant attitude he had. He sounded like a teenager, telling me about his life and ministry, and how God had blessed him and was still using him. He told me about a Muslim girl from Damascus who had recently awakened him with a phone call at 2:30 a.m., Georgia time. She had heard one of his broadcasts and had become a Christian. He said that she called him for seven nights in a row at 2:30 a.m. to thank him for helping her find Christ. He said that he had learned the secret of turning scars into stars and of letting things make us better instead of bitter. I was so impressed with his youthful and positive attitude. After awhile, I asked him, “Dr. Guido, have you always been so enthusiastic? Were you born with this attitude or is it something you’ve learned and developed over time.”

“Oh,” he said, “I think it’s been cultivated. I work hard on it.”

I believe that’s the key. Maybe some people are born with a natural optimism; but most of us have to cultivate it and work hard on it. But what a blessing to those around you and what an asset it is in our personal lives and ministries—to be an optimist and accentuate the positive.

*3. Be an Activist: Accomplish the Impossible (vv. 8-10)*

In the last triad of his list in verses 8-10, the apostle tells us to be activists and to accomplish the impossible. Here he launches into a series of paradoxes that mark the Christian life. He gives us nine statements about the paradoxical or conflicting nature of our lives.

/(We commend ourselves)… through glory and dishonor. /In effect, Paul is saying:/ /I’m dealing with the most glorious truths of the universe, and I’m a representative of the glory of Christ and I’m headed to glory; but sometimes I’m treated ignobly, and I face insults and dishonor.

/…bad report and good report. /Some people commend my work, but others just say bad things against me.

/We are genuine, yet regarded as imposters. /The Greek here becomes very terse, and our English translators have added some words to make a series of separate sentences. But literally, Paul is saying, “…as impostors, yet true.”

/Known, yet regarded as unknown. /People may know my name, but they really know very little about my heart, my motives, or even my message. My name is known around the empire, yet most people have a misconception about me and sometimes I feel lonely.

/Dying, and yet we live on. /I’m never quite sure I’m going to survive another day, yet I’m sure I’m going to live forever. What a paradox!

/Beaten, yet not killed. /They can slow me down but they can’t keep me down.

/Sorrowful, yet always rejoicing. /I’ve got reasons to feel sorrowful, but I’ve got better reasons to rejoice.

/Poor, yet making many rich. /I don’t own a home, and I don’t hve a horse to ride or a wagon to carry my suitcase. Yet I’m in the business of making others rich beyond belief by introducing them to the riches of Jesus Christ and His abundant life. In a couple of chapters, Paul is going to say something similar about Christ: Though He was rich yet for our sakes He became poor, that we through His poverty might become rich. What was true for Christ was true for the servant. Paul said, “I certainly don’t have much money; but my message is giving the infinite riches of eternity to vast numbers of people.”

/Having nothing, yet possessing everything. /I don’t have a house to live in or a bed to sleep in, but the whole world is mine along with all of eternity.

These are the paradoxes of the Christian life, and it’s quite perplexing to those who don’t know the Lord. One of the things that frustrates the world is their inability to figure out Christians. They don’t know what to do with us. It’s like the man long ago who was hauled before the emperor. “If you don’t give up your faith,” threatened the emperor, “I’ll throw you in prison.”

“That’s all right,” said the man. “Then I’ll have a whole new audience there for my message.”

“I’ll kill you,” said the emperor. But the man said, “You can’t possibly kill me, because I have eternal life through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.”

“I’ll have you tortured,” said the emperor, to which the man replied, “Then I’ll be following in the steps of my Lord, for He, too, was tortured, and in the process He redeemed the whole world.”

“I’ll drag you through the streets as a slave,” said the emperor, to which the Christian replied, “I glory in shame, and besides, I’m already a slave to Christ.”

The emperor said, “I’ll feed you to the lions or burn you in the flames.” But the man replied, “The lions can’t eat my soul. And as for the flames, well, you threaten me with flames that will burn for only a moment, but you are in danger of the flames of eternal hell.”

Finally the emperor just shook his head and released the Christian. “What do you do with a man like that?” he said.

Jesus said that when we’re born of the Spirit we’re as mysterious as the wind. No one can tell where we came from or where we’re going; there’s a mystery about us that is incomprehensible to the world. So we are activists, changing the world one person at a time, spreading the message of Christ, and doing the impossible through His strength and energy.

In closing, I’d like to read you something that was written over a hundred years ago by a man named John Culpepper. It was entitled, “Why I Like Holiness People,” and by “Holiness People,” he meant Christians who were sold out and excited about their faith. In this little article, Culpepper describes what it is about Christians that intrigues him. He wrote, in part:

Why I like Holiness People: I like their aim. They aim high. If they miss, nevertheless, they have scored one good point. They are uncompromising. They are against sin and wrong. They are agitators. They make and distribute tracts. They circulate books.

They have a catching degree of spirituality. They are in for everything that is good. They say “amen” out loud. They shout as I feel. They [root] for a fellow as he's preaching.

If a load is heavy, they jump out and push.

Wherever you meet one, he is already organized and ready for work. If they are scared they pray and shout, and work and move, so that it can't be detected.

They always want to dig deeper, climb higher and know and do more.

They are long-winded in the closet, and nearly out of breath in a testimony service. Every one of them will pray if you call on them, and if the fuse seems damp, they will pray, call or no call.

They are God's globe-trotters. They don't ask how many are the enemy, but where are they.

They can shout in the cemetery. They actually use the Bible in their work. They will go to China or Africa as cheerfully as to the market.

It is not a money question with them. They know the Holy Spirit. They love you hard. Their experience throws up a highway I'd like to die on. They've come to stay.

They are unpopular with dirt, dignity and the devil. They are not in ruts.

They cry and run as if they had jumped the fox. That makes me spur on in the chase. Whenever I meet or hear one of them, it makes me want to quit something, or do something, or go somewhere, or be somebody. They are my kinsfolk.

Do some of those items describe you and me?

Don’t be afraid to be a realist. Accept hardship, because life is hard. Don’t fail to be an optimist. Accentuate the positive, because we have all the promises of God at our disposal. Don’t be afraid to be an activist. Do the impossible, and live in such a way that your very example makes others want to quit something, or do something, or go somewhere, or be somebody.

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