Why are we so surprised when we suffer?
I am not going to be looking at how the Bible, or the Christian faith for that matter, addresses the suffering of others. What I want to look at is what the Bible describes when it comes to the way that a Christian should suffer. Please understand that I understand suffering to be an expected reality as did many of the writers of the scriptures, including Jesus. I think that one of the more difficult thoughts that we have to overcome is that as Christians we can fall for the often told, or implied, lie that as Christians suffering will no longer be a part of our lives. And if it is, it is because of some moral failure, some lesson that we have to learn, or that it is something that just happens and God is somehow going to make things all right. I think that when we frame suffering in this way we are left with a deficient theology of suffering and in many ways we undermine God’s character. Not only that, but all are terrible alternatives to a Christian’s response to or understanding of suffering. I think that they are shallow, hurtful and inconsistent with the what the bible says. What makes matters more amazing is that we have not investigated deeply enough what God, Jesus, and the writers of the Old and New Testament have to teach us about suffering.
I have come to realize that many believer’s have a theology of suffering that is inconsistent with what the bible teaches. What this leads to is a self-centered view of suffering, avoidance of difficult circumstances and an unwillingness to be instruments of God’s glory regardless of what happens to us and in our lives.
The question becomes this: What does the bible say about how a Christian should suffer? I will not attempt to capture the whole of the scriptures witness on the issue of Christian suffering, but I would like to provide a representative sample so that we can begin to understand how Christian’s are supposed to accept, receive and understand suffering. And then, after entering into suffering how we should respond.
Joseph is standing in a position of power and his brothers, the ones that sold him into a life of misery are now standing before him. There would be no greater opportunity to exact his revenge. But that is not how Joseph sees the situation. Joseph has come to understand that God’s purpose for his life far different from what even his brothers could have known. Joseph looks at them and says, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it all for good. He brought me to this position so I could save the lives of many people” (Genesis 50:20, NLT). How could Joseph had said this? Joseph had come to understand that the circumstances of his life were the necessary steps of God will and glory to be seen in the world. For some, this is a very difficult pill to swallow. I can understand and appreciate that.
18 “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. 19 If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. 20 Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours. 21 But all these things they will do to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me. (John 15:18-21, ESV)
If there is anyone in the scripture that understood what Jesus meant about the animosity that the world would have toward Christians it was Paul. I want to share a few passages that are just mind-blowing odd, not because of what he describes, but in the way that Paul thinks about the suffering that he is enduring.
3 More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Romans 5:3-5, ESV)
16 The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. 18 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. (Romans 8:16-18, ESV)
Who talks like this? Seriously! How can you look at the suffering that you are enduring and not become bitter or hardened by it. Paul had become convinced of EVERY word that Jesus taught. There were no reservations. There was no doubt. There was nothing that could distract this apostle from the task that was laid before him. Peter in his first letter provides us with two helpful passages that put suffering for Christ in their proper context.
12 Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13 But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. 14 If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. … 16 Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name. … 19 Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good. (1 Peter 4:12-14, 16, 19, ESV)
9 Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world. 10 And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. (1 Peter 5:9-10, ESV)
Suffering as a Christian is one of the marks and one of the evidences that we are pressing into the enemy’s territory. When we are satisfied with the way things are; when we are comfortable with the events that are taking place around us, we have not fully grasped the power and intensity of the Gospel. Why do I make such a statement? I say this for one simple reason, a reason that Paul himself offered up for his devotion and single-minded tenacity in spreading the message of Jesus: he believed that Good News was worthy of being spread to as many as would receive it.
3 For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh. (Romans 9:3, ESV)
We have just hit the twilight zone of bible verses. I had read this verse so often and I had missed the full weight of what Paul was saying here. Paul is saying that when he looked at his countrymen, the Jews, his love for them was so strong that he was willing to forsake the single most precious thing that he had. To say it another way, Paul is saying that he would chose to endure the fires of hell and eternal torment “for the sake of” his countrymen! The longing of his heart; the depth of his love; the tenderness of his ministry was always for one thing, that others might come to know Jesus. If that meant being jailed, beaten, stoned, almost drown or chased out of town. The Gospel was such Good News to Paul’s soul and mind that anything and everything was worth enduring so that Jesus would be proclaimed.
Here are several other passages that continue to put suffering not in the category of a curse, but rather the blessed opportunity of every believer to make Jesus known.
7 But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 8 Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ … 10 that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death… (Philippians 3:7-8, 10, ESV)
20 I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20, ESV)
8 Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God, … 12 which is why I suffer as I do. But I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard until that Day what has been entrusted to me. ( 2 Timothy 1:8, 12, ESV)
19 For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. 20 For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. 21 For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. 22 He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. 23 When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. 24 He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. (James 2:19-24, ESV)
One of the thoughts that runs through my mind is wondering how many opportunities have I wasted, where I was faced with a difficult situation, and rather than turning to God to sustain me through it I blamed him for what I was dealing with. When we don’t know what to do we do what feels right. The danger with this approach to life is that our feelings are never fully informed of all that is happening around us. So, when we rely on such an unreliable source of information we make decisions and entertain thoughts that are not congruent or consistent with God’s word and plan for us.
Suffering, not pleasure, strengthens our faith. Suffering forces us to depend upon God to sustain us. Pleasure drives all of our attention and affections inward. When this happens we lose sight of almost everything around us. I guess the question becomes this: Why do we run from suffering so quickly? I am not advocating that we wallow in misery. What I am wondering is why don’t we see, or maybe we just can’t see, how God could use what is happening for his glory. The underlying assumption here is that God would allow this to happen. God will protect us from the world and its influences. I think that John’s words are a fitting end to this discussion. When we are convinced of this simple truth we will be driven to the Gospel, into the arms of our Savior, and we will no longer find our satisfaction in the small and dissipating pleasures this world offers.
13 Do not be surprised, brothers, that the world hates you. (1 John 3:13, ESV)
Additional Passages to Consider: 2 Corinthians 1:5-6; Galatians 6:17; Philippians 1:21, 29; Colossians 1:24; Hebrews 5:8; James 1:2-3; 1 Peter 3:14-17