Suffering cannot derail God’s plan for your life. It can be very, very difficult, but it does not have to be evil. In fact, the best thing that ever happened for humankind came about through suffering. It came not in spite of Jesus’ suffering, but because of it. Ultimate suffering was the means of bringing about ultimate good. If this tremendous good (our salvation) came through suffering, is it possible that our own suffering might bring also bring about some good?
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Download Suffering Part 1
I’m not quite ready to launch into another long book-of-the-Bible-series. Instead, I’d like to do something that I don’t do very often – preach on a topic, with various scripture passages as support for the topic. In general, this is not the best way to learn the Bible, but at times, it can be an appropriate way to teach about some part of the Christian faith. I want to spend a few weeks talking about the topic of suffering.
As I write this, I am battling a chronic pain condition that often severely affects me, and limits what I can do. I may not be able to finish one sermon each week. I do appreciate your patience with me as we go through this. If you check for a sermon and don’t find one, maybe you could use that as a reminder to pray for me.
You may think it ironic (depending on how you use that word) that I want to speak about suffering while I am suffering from chronic pain. I’m not so sure. I think the fact that my life is not all rosy right now might be a good place from which to consider the issue.
Before I go any farther, however, let me say this. I do think I’ve suffered a little bit. I haven’t known an entire day without pain for more than two years. A significant amount of my time and energy goes into managing my pain every day. I’ve suffered enough to learn some practical things about the topic. But I don’t think I’ve suffered more than anyone else. I know many, many people who have undergone suffering that, from my perspective, looks much worse than my own. I don’t pretend to know what those other types of suffering are like. I wouldn’t dream of suggesting that I have suffered as much as many people I know. But I do know that the same Lord who is with me in my pain can be with you in your pain – whether that pain is physical, emotional, relational, or something else. I am not an experiential expert on suffering. But the main thing I have to offer is to teach and apply what the Bible says about the topic. That’s why I’m taking on this sermon series.
Within the past sixty years or so, people in North America, Western Europe, Australia and New Zealand (“Western culture”) have entered into a unique period in human history. Many of us who live in these places have come to look upon suffering as some sort of an aberration. What I mean is, we think suffering is an interruption to “normal life;” we picture it as something unusual, something that is not meant to happen. People in other parts of the world (and probably most people in my grandparents’ generation and earlier, in Western culture), understand that suffering is a normal part of life.
I grew up in a third-world country. A school-mate of mine always had to use crutches, because he had polio when he was little. Another acquaintance of mine died from tetanus. I had malaria nine different times. One of my closest friends nearly died from dengue fever. In Western Cultures, no one gets polio or tetanus anymore, because everyone is vaccinated for it. No one gets malaria in those cultures, and most have never even heard of dengue fever. Where I grew up, malnutrition was common. In America, the biggest “nutrition problem” among the poor is obesity.
Because Western cultures have reduced physical suffering, and increased life expectancy so dramatically, we can be lulled into thinking that suffering of any kind should be unusual. When suffering comes, we are surprised, and we often find ourselves in a spiritual crisis because of it. It doesn’t help that many Christians have been ensnared by the false teaching that if we follow God, things will go well for us in our lives. Christian author Tim Keller writes:
“Within the western secular view of things, suffering is seen as an interruption of the freedom to live as makes you happiest. The circumstances that cause suffering and the emotions that go with it must be removed and minimized or managed.” (Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering, pg188)
However, the shocking truth is that Jesus taught the opposite:
24Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 25For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. (Matt 16:24-25, ESV2011)
27 Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:27, ESV2011)
The cross in the time of Jesus was a symbol of intense suffering and death. Clearly, he was saying that to follow Him means to deny ourselves, and submit to suffering, and even perhaps death, along the way. Clearly, that is exactly what happened to many of the first generation of Christians.
I realize that many Christians are unsure about this. Is suffering really supposed to be part of the Christian life? Consider these verses also:
33I have told you these things so that in Me you may have peace. You will have suffering in this world. Be courageous! I have conquered the world.” (John 16:32-33, HCSB)
12Dear friends, don’t be surprised when the fiery ordeal comes among you to test you as if something unusual were happening to you. 13Instead, rejoice as you share in the sufferings of the Messiah, so that you may also rejoice with great joy at the revelation of His glory. (1 Peter 4:12-13)
19For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. 20For 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. 21For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. (1Pet 2:19-21, ESV2011)
Now, some people might say, “Ah, but Tom, those verses are only talking about persecution. If we live in a time and place without persecution, we should not expect to suffer.” Really? The Greek word in John 16:33, above is “thlipsis.” The literal meaning is “pressure.” It is translated variously as: tribulation, affliction, distress, and pressure. The Greek word for persecution is quite distinct from this: diogmos (diokos for the verb). Jesus very clearly did not say “persecution,” here. Likewise, in the verse above, Peter does not use the word diogmos, but rather the most common New Testament word for suffering (patho, and various forms of it), which is far more general than just persecution.
There are a few other words used of suffering in the New Testament. I won’t bore you with them all, but they are all quite distinct from the word for persecution.
For instance, James writes of “trials”:
12A man who endures trials is blessed, because when he passes the test he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love Him. (Jas 1:12, HCSB)
2Consider it a great joy, my brothers, whenever you experience various trials, 3knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. 4But endurance must do its complete work, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking nothing. (Jas 1:2-4, HCSB)
Though the words for suffering might include the possibility of persecution, they can, like in English, encompass all sorts of different pain, distress and hardship. If the Holy Spirit had meant us to believe that the only suffering Christians should face is persecution, then all these verses would have used diogmos, not the words that are actually there.
Here are a few more verses:
14For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. 15For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” 16The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17and 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. (Rom 8:14-17, ESV2011)
3Praise the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort. 4He comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any kind of affliction, through the comfort we ourselves receive from God. 5For as the sufferings of Christ overflow to us, so through Christ our comfort also overflows. 6If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation. If we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which is experienced in your endurance of the same sufferings that we suffer. 7And our hope for you is firm, because we know that as you share in the sufferings, so you will share in the comfort. (2Cor 1:3-7, HCSB)
How about this one:
29For it has been given to you on Christ’s behalf not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for Him, 30having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I have. (Phil 1:29-30, HCSB)
I could do this all day. Excluding the word for persecution, suffering is mentioned literally hundreds of times in the New Testament, most often in the context of the lives of Christian believers. Paul describes his sufferings for Christ in 2 Corinthians:
23Are they servants of Christ? I’m talking like a madman — I’m a better one: with far more labors, many more imprisonments, far worse beatings, near death many times. 24Five times I received 39 lashes from Jews. 25Three times I was beaten with rods by the Romans. Once I was stoned by my enemies. Three times I was shipwrecked. I have spent a night and a day in the open sea. 26On frequent journeys, I faced dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my own people, dangers from the Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the open country, dangers on the sea, and dangers among false brothers; 27labor and hardship, many sleepless nights, hunger and thirst, often without food, cold, and lacking clothing. (2Cor 11:23-27, HCSB)
Paul does mention persecution, and suffering imposed upon him by sinful people. But he also mentions natural dangers (the sea, rivers) the suffering that comes with hard labor, travel, sleepless nights, lacking food and clothing. Later on, in the same letter, he mentions physical illness. All of it is “suffering.” All of it might be expected in the life of a believer.
Some people seem think, particularly about illness, that Jesus promised to heal every physical illness of all of his followers, even here on earth (before heaven), if they just have enough faith. Not only is there no such all-encompassing promise anywhere in the Bible, but these dozens and dozens of verses about suffering contradict such an idea. It is no lack of faith to say that true and faithful Christians suffer in a variety of ways – it is a core teaching of the New Testament. To argue otherwise is to claim that the apostles did not have enough faith. It would also cast condemnation upon every Christian who suffers from an illness.
Now, I don’t think that all this means that we are supposed to deliberately seek out suffering. I believe that would be foolish. But all of these verses about suffering are actually good news. If we are in the middle of suffering, it is good news to know that we are not alone, that Jesus and the apostles expected that we would encounter such things in this life, as they, themselves, did. In other words, suffering cannot derail God’s plan for your life. Suffering does not mean that somehow, something has gone horribly wrong. I want you to consider this carefully: Suffering can be very, very difficult. But it does not have to be evil.
God can work wonderful, amazing things through suffering. In fact, the very best thing that ever happened for humankind came about through suffering. It came not in spite of Jesus’ suffering, but because of it. Ultimate suffering was the means of bringing about ultimate good. If this tremendous good (our salvation) came through suffering, is it possible that our own suffering might bring also bring about good?
This is a big topic, and there is a lot more to say. I encourage you to write to me, and ask questions about it. At the same time, please be patient – I will try to cover some of the most obvious issues connected to suffering.
Let’s close with more words from Tim Keller:
“So suffering is at the very heart of the Christian faith. It is not only the way Christ became like and redeemed us, but it is one of the main ways we become like him and experience his redemption. And that means that our suffering, despite its painfulness, is also filled with purpose and usefulness.” (Tim Keller, Walking With God through Pain and Suffering)