SUFFERING FOR THE GOSPEL
Every life reading this essay has experienced, and will experience, a measure of pain, suffering, tragedy, and affliction. Our culture pictures life as an endless series of Stroh-Light Nights culminating in Weekends Made for Michelob, but deep in our hearts we know it is not so. The happiest and most successful of us knows from experience the meaning of words like loneliness, fear, disappointment, rejection, and failure. If we live long enough, we will add to that list the death of loved ones, betrayal, ill health, the feeling of uselessness.
Some people suffer bitterly; some people suffer pitifully; some people suffer grievously; some people suffer needlessly; all people suffer inevitably. You cannot avoid suffering. You can muddle thought it blindly; you can make it worse by rebelling against it futilely; or you can understand it biblically and bear it redemptively. Therefore, we need to learn the joy and privilege of suffering for the Gospel.
What is the place of suffering in the Christian life? We would prefer to think there isn’t any. Our favorite verses are all about abundant life and joy unspeakable, understandably so. The view they give of the Christian life is not so much false as incomplete. A biblical view must also include 2 Tim. 1:8 and 3:12: “Join with me in suffering for the Gospel. . . . All who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” Instead, the theology of success and prosperity, health and wealth (“Name it and claim it”–or, perhaps more accurately, “Blab it and grab it”) continues to grow in popularity and, in subtle and less blatant forms, to infect even those who think they reject it. We do have joy unspeakable and full of glory, a foretaste or earnest of heaven–but we are not going to be in heaven until we get there. To deny the biblical place of suffering is simply to make the suffering that does come harder to bear.
A certain measure of suffering in this life is God’s will for us. We want to say that a God of love would not will any such thing. But he did: think of Joseph, Moses, Jeremiah, John the Baptist, Stephen, Peter, and John, all of whom suffered as part of God’s plan for their lives. They all had ministries that would have been impossible without it. And what of Jesus himself, delivered up by the predetermined plan and counsel of God for our redemption (Acts 2:23)? Does God love us differently than he loved them?
There is great power in suffering; great power for good if we can receive it. There is no more unignorable, irrefutable, and undeniable testimony to the truth of the Gospel and the reality of the God of all comfort than the Christian who bears suffering and affliction joyfully, without complaining, without bitterness, with love. For only God could produce this kind of spiritual reality, and without suffering it could never be seen. So and not otherwise, as those comforted by God in our own affliction, can we learn to comfort one another with the comfort wherewith we ourselves are comforted (2 Cor. 1:3-4).
I pray that God will grant us continued peace and prosperity as a nation (though we manifestly do not deserve it). I pray that He will protect you and yours from all unnecessary suffering. But I also pray He will help us to accept the affliction He does send us, understand it biblically, and bear it redemptively. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, amen.
Dr. Donald T. Williams, R. A. Forrest Scholar and Professor of English at Toccoa Falls College, is the author of ten books, three with Lantern Hollow Press: Stars Through the Clouds: The Collected Poetry of Donald T. Williams (2011), Reflections from Plato’s Cave: Essays in Evangelical Philosophy (2012), and Inklings of Reality: Essays toward a Christian Philosophy of Letters (2012). They can be ordered ($15.00 each, + shipping) at http://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/. And check out his newest book from Square Halo Books, Deeper Magic: The Theological Framework Behind the Writings of C. S. Lewis!