For what Purpose, Suffering?1
Let me pick up where I left off in the previous post by trying to make sense of this strange reality by mentioning the three primary reasons why God orchestrates life in such a way that his children suffer persecution and trials and opposition from the enemies of the faith.
First, give thanks for suffering because of what it accomplishes for you personally. In particular, I have in mind what it accomplishes for your faith and for your future.
As for your faith, consider these texts:
“Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:2-4).
“Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 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).
As for your future, we read:
“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:11-12).
“So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:16-18).
“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 8:18).
“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. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ's sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed” (1 Peter 4:12-13).
Second, give thanks for suffering because of what it accomplishes for others.
We see in 2 Corinthians 1:3-5 that it equips you to encourage them:
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ's sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too” (2 Corinthians 1:3-5).
Paul also points out that suffering equips you to evangelize them:
“I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear” (Philippians 1:12-14; see also 2 Cor. 4:7-11).
Third, and by far and away the most important reason of all, give thanks for suffering because of what it accomplishes for the praise and honor of Christ.
Look closely again at v. 29. Did you notice how Paul boldly declares that our suffering is “for the sake of Christ” and then again “for his sake”? How can that possibly be true? What benefit could come to the name and fame of Jesus because his people bear up patiently under persecution?
That our suffering serves the greater glory of Christ is clear from 2 Corinthians 1:8-11. There Paul writes:
“For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again. You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many” (2 Corinthians 1:8-11).
Or consider how it magnifies his greatness:
“Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this [thorn in the flesh], that it should leave me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:7-10).
All our sufferings, all our trials, all our discomfort, all the pain inflicted by an unbelieving world, whether it be emotional, physical, or financial, are designed by God to magnify the beauty of Christ’s all sufficient-grace.
I recently read the remarkable book, The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert: an English professor’s journey into christian faith (Crown and Covenant, 2012), by Rosaria Champagne Butterfield. Butterfield was in her own words a radical feminist, a lesbian, and a professor of English literature at Syracuse University. She regularly taught courses in postmodern deconstruction, gay and lesbian studies, and what is known as “Queer” theory. And then she met Jesus. When she turned her back on her lesbian lifestyle and radical feminist politics, the persecution she endured from former colleagues, friends, and students was almost unimaginable. In her book she tells the story of one profound encounter:
“My lesbian neighbor . . . was dying of cancer. She approached me one day and said, ‘I didn’t give a damn about who God was to you in your happiness. But now that you are suffering, I want to know: who is your God? Where is he in your suffering?” (60; italics mine)
I’ll close with one final comment by John Piper. Listen closely:
“We do not choose suffering simply because we are told to, but because the One who tells us to describes it as the path to everlasting joy. He beckons us into the obedience of suffering not to demonstrate the strength of our devotion to duty or to reveal the vigor of our moral resolve or to prove the heights of our tolerance for pain, but rather to manifest, in childlike faith, the infinite preciousness of His all-satisfying promises” (Desiring God, 287).
Will you then join with me, together with Paul and the Philippians and countless other Christian, both ancient and modern, and give thanks for the gift of suffering?