There are few mysteries as confounding as that of suffering. We encounter it regularly. Whether it be the natural sort, by means of sickness or bodily pain, or even the more sinister sort when we consider the atrocities people commit willingly against one another. Suffering seems to be as common as birds of the air, or the breeze around us. What do you do with that reality?
Does being a Christian help us explain suffering? When we consider the Christianity presented in the Bible, suffering is understood to be a norm of life. We learn this lesson chiefly from Christ who himself was a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. We see this as well in the various martyrs and abuses that befall the early church in the book of Acts. It is only a monstrous aberration of the Christian faith which would presume suffering to be absent in this life.
Why is this the case? There are some lessons that we can only learn when we are wandering through the valley of the shadow of death. Jesus even taught us “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” (Matt. 5:11 ESV) We may be tempted to see this abstractly, but this was a regular literal lesson for the early church.
If we consider Luke’s historical account of the missionary work of the Apostle Paul we’ll find that he was no stranger to suffering. In one account we learn, that upon entering the city of Philippi the Apostle Paul, along with his fellow preacher Silas, were punished by the town for exorcising a demon from a young girl. They did everything right and what was their reward? According to Acts 16:19-24 the men were publicly shamed, seized, dragged, attacked by a mob, beaten repeatedly with sticks, thrown into jail, and tightly secured with iron chains. As you can see, only a fool claims that your best life is available now.
What would have been your immediate response if you too received such a “reward” for acting like a Christian? Be honest with yourself. What would be your response to this sort of suffering? Would you thank God for the opportunity to suffer like Christ? Would you sing Him praise? Would you instead become bitter? Gossip? Fight even? Our suffering will do one of two things: 1) We will either cling to Christ; 2) We will flee from Him as promptly as we are able.
The great Reformed Baptist preacher of London, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, wrote, “I have learned to kiss the waves that throw me up against the Rock of Ages.” What men like Paul, Silas, and Spurgeon make clear is that we must not deny our suffering by pretending everything is fine.
Scripture has no category for vague optimism. There is real evil in this world. The Psalms model for us that it is right and fitting for us to complain to the Lord about injustice and the horrors of this life. But it does not stop there. What is modeled for us time and time again is that in our suffering we are given an opportunity to turn toward the Lord right in the midst of our suffering. This is what we find in the Apostle Paul in Acts 16.
After all these atrocities fell upon Paul and Silas, we read these words “About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God,” (Acts 16:25 ESV) What was their response to this gross act of injustice, to this very real suffering? They praised God in the midst of it.
How could they do this? They knew that to suffer in this way was not a mark of shame. They remembered Christ’s words. They weren’t rethinking their evangelism strategy. They weren’t wondering if they need a more seeker-sensitive approach. They faithfully did their jobs as preachers, and their reward were fists and irons. May that remind us that our reward is not always found on this side of heaven. There was never a more faithful and gifted evangelist than the Lord Jesus, and what did they do to Him?
We are reminded by the lives of the Apostles, and even most clearly Christ, that our suffering does not get the right to determine our responses; only Christ does. Your circumstances do not get to determine your actions. Instead, what you believe about Christ will be demonstrated in your response to your suffering. Suffering does that in ways few things can. It shows us our need for Christ.
We must be reminded then that suffering is not part of the original order, it was a result of sin’s entrance into the world. Nevertheless, suffering is not without purpose. Paul writes, “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.” (Rom. 5:3-5 ESV) In turn, our suffering leads us closer to Christ who is the Supreme Sufferer. And it is through Him, we are reminded that suffering never has the last word for the Christian. By means of our suffering we are made more like Christ, and reminded that even the cross must give way to glory.