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Joy in Suffering?! (1:23)

"Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake" (Col. 1:24a). Does that strike you the way it does me? Who in their right mind would ever "rejoice" in their "sufferings"?

I suppose people who take a perverse pleasure in pain for its own sake might conceivably utter such words (minus the "for your sake," of course). But why would a Christian, like Paul, say it?

The New Testament perspective on suffering is truly unique. In Matthew 5:10-12, Jesus pronounced a blessing on those "who are persecuted for righteousness' sake" (v. 10a) as well as those who are reviled or slandered "falsely" on his account (v. 11). "Rejoice and be glad," said Jesus, "for your reward is great in heaven" (v. 12a). Jesus saw no benefit or profit in suffering for suffering's sake, far less in suffering that is the consequence or penalty of some wrong or crime or sin you may have committed. But suffering for his name's sake was altogether something else.

After being beaten, the apostles left their persecutors "rejoicing" (Acts 5:41). The beating hurt. It was undoubtedly quite painful, perhaps permanently debilitating. But they rejoiced that they had been "counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name [of Jesus]."

In Romans 5:3, Paul again declares, "we rejoice in our sufferings." Why? Because we know "that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope," and this hope is not the sort that disappoints or puts us to shame. In and of itself, suffering is senseless. But Paul saw it as a means to a higher and spiritually superior end: the development of Christ-like character and despair-defeating hope.

Paul goes so far as to describe suffering "for his sake" as something we should acknowledge as a divine gift (Phil. 1:29)! Peter gently rebuked his readers for being surprised that they suffered, describing it as a blessing and an indication that "the Spirit of glory and of God rests" on them (1 Peter 4:12-16).

Suffering for sin (1 Peter 4:15) is a reproach. Suffering for suffering's sake is perverted. Suffering for the sake of Christ and his people is grounds for joy (1 Peter 4:13,16).

The only way to account for this perspective is on the assumption that there is something spiritually and morally superior, both here and in the age to come, that can only be attained by means of willing and joyful submission to suffering. This was certainly Paul's point in 2 Corinthians 1:8-9 where he acknowledged the providential design in his having been "so utterly burdened beyond" his "strength" that he "despaired of life itself." It was orchestrated, so he says, "to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead" (v. 9).

To suffer "for Christ's sake" is to endure hardship because of one's loyalty to him, or with a view to the advancement of his kingdom, or to demonstrate his incomparable worth. We rejoice in suffering because we believe that something is more important and more precious and more valuable than physical comfort and convenience. It may be the spiritual welfare of other Christians (hence Paul's "for your [the Colossians'] sake"). It may be the proclamation of the gospel. It may be the declaration that the treasures of the age to come infinitely exceed those of the age that now is (cf. Romans 8:18; Hebrews 10:34; see especially Hebrews 11:25-26).

In any case, if we do not look beyond suffering to the greater spiritual goal that it achieves, it will breed bitterness and resentment rather than joy. If we regard suffering as an end in itself, that is to say, if we fail to take "the long view" and see it in the light of its eternal consequences (cf. 2 Cor. 4:14-16), God will appear cruel and life meaningless.

But this is by no means all that Paul says about suffering in Colossians 1. We must reckon with the stunning statement in the second half of v. 24 – "Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church."

What is meant by "Christ's afflictions"? How can it be said that something is "lacking" in them? And in what way can Paul or any Christian be described as "filling up" this alleged deficiency? These questions will be our focus in the next lesson.

Taking the long view,

Sam