What I Learned about Suffering from Reading the Christian Post3
When I read Paul’s words in Colossians 1:24, “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake,” I shake my head. It isn’t because I don’t believe what he says. It’s because I struggle to identify with his experience. I’ve lived a rather sheltered, comfortable, and safe life here in America. I honestly have no idea what my brothers and sisters in Christ on the other side of the globe have endured for the sake of the gospel.
This disparity between my experience in the U.S. and that of millions of Christians elsewhere on the earth was brought strikingly to my attention by taking note of something strange on the website, Christian Post. I read the Post most every day. It is a helpful place to keep up with current events and conversations in the Christian community.
There are five categories on the Home page of the Post. The first should probably be called “News” as it provides a link to numerous articles on current events in the Christian world. This is followed by “U.S.,” then “Church and Ministries,” and “Entertainment.” The fifth and final category is simply labeled “World.”
The difference between the first four of these categories and the fifth is massive and unmistakable. It is also extremely unsettling and convicting.
Typical of the news items carried under the first four are things like:
Survey reveals fewer millennials are attending church on Sunday
Pastors debate whether they should praise or criticize President Trump
Transgender debate on university campuses
Facebook – is it liberal?
Evangelical sex scandals: the latest pastor to fall into immorality
Hollywood actress overcomes depression
STD outbreak in U.S.
Should black pastors have attended the WH dinner last week?
But when it reports world events, they take on an entirely different tone:
Pastor, his wife, and their three young children burned alive
95 homes in Nigeria town razed to the ground / nothing left
Pastor in India killed by gunman who stormed into church service
Little girl forced to flee her home in Iraq – forgives ISIS
Christians dragged from their homes and savagely beaten in town square
Mother of 4 imprisoned for life for converting from Islam to Christianity
Then there is the genocide of the Rohingya people / the military in Myanmar has forced more than 700,000 to flee into neighboring Bangladesh; systematic murder, rape, and sexual enslavement are commonplace.
Do we in the west even know what it means to suffer for the sake of Christ and the gospel? Probably not. Our lives are consumed by so much that that is petty and trivial. I’ve never been threatened with imprisonment. My children were raised in relative safety and never faced the threat of being displaced from their home. I haven’t been forced to witness rape, murder, far less genocide.
But our brothers and sisters scattered throughout the earth who live in indescribably dangerous places, where merely being a Christian puts one in threatening circumstances, regularly witness such events, often being the target of anti-Christian hatred and violence. It is with this in mind that I come back to Paul’s statement in Colossians 1:24.
“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 does not disappoint. 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 to physical peace and prosperity, 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). In other words, the blessing and joy of learning to depend wholly on God was more important to Paul than the comfort and safety of remaining untouched and unafflicted.
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, more precious, more valuable than physical comfort and convenience. It may be the spiritual welfare of other Christians. 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.
I don’t know if I or my family or my church will ever suffer as did Paul or as do so many millions of Christians around the world. But should that day come, I pray that my perspective will be informed by biblical truth and that I will be enabled by the Spirit of God to declare that “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom. 8:18).