(aside: I am no masochist. I don't write about suffering because I like it. I write about suffering because I think there is a lack of solid Christian teaching on the subject--not that I am claiming to be solid, but an attempt at teaching is better than no teaching in an area that most people don't care to broach. I write about suffering because Christians who are suffering need to know that it is a normal part of life on a fallen earth and does not mean that God doesn't love them. I write about suffering because some Biblically uniformed people seem to think that the existence of suffering is somehow a proof against the existence of God. But I don't write about suffering because I like to. I don't like suffering any more than anybody else.)
One theme of the Bible is this: you will be refined through suffering and trials. It's stated over and over. Off the top of my head, I can give you Romans 5:3-5, 1 Peter 1:6-7 and James 1:2-4.
This may not be our favorite or most marketable truth, as Christians. But the Bible clearly tells us that we will suffer. Jesus himself said, "In this world you will have trouble, but take heart, I have overcome the world." (from John 16:33)
Honestly, I have not met many people who are worth knowing who have not suffered. Suffering tenders people, deepens their ability to have compassion. God uses suffering to make our spirits beautiful. When we suffer, we learn things we could never learn in any other way.
I have always dreaded suffering, good results notwithstanding. I am a Big Chicken. I do not like pain.
Philippians 3:8-10 (ESV) says,
Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith—that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
It does exhilarate me to think of casting aside "all things" as rubbish for the greater good of knowing Christ. I am not sure how to do this, and I am quite sure that apart from the power of the Holy Spirit I am utterly unable to accomplish it. Still, the idea appeals to me.
However, sharing in His suffering, becoming like Him in His death... that scares me a great deal.
Suffering for Jesus makes me think of Christians in countries where it is illegal to be a Christian. It makes me think of being thrown into prison, starved, beaten, tortured. Because I have a pathologically vivid imagination, I will spare you the details of all the things it makes me think of. Suffice it to say, it scares me to death.
I may be called to suffer like that. Some people are, and some people are not. But we are all called to suffer for Christ, and there are other, more every-day ways that God accomplishes this in us.
For instance, the other day I was reading and thinking about Ephesians 4: 32 (ESV),
Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.
Forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. What does that mean? How did God in Christ forgive me?
In Christ, God forgave me by bearing the consequences of my sins Himself, in His own human body that He indwelt in order to accomplish the task (see Philippians 2:5-11). He did not simply say, "Whooops! You made some mistakes, but no big deal. I'll just forgive you, and you can start over with a clean slate, don't worry about it. It's no big deal. It doesn't matter."
It does matter. Our sins are a very big deal, an offense against the perfect, holy, almighty Creator of the Universe. Our sins do not just vaporize and blow away in a gentle breeze. It was not, could not be, that easy. To free us from the consequences of our sins, Jesus had to bear the consequences Himself.
Forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.
This means that we forgive others, as Christ did, by suffering the consequences of their sins. We bear the brunt. We suffer what the person who hurt us should rightfully suffer. And we do it because it's what Jesus did for us; it's the pattern He laid down. We, like Jesus, must hold out mercy and self-sacrifice to our enemies, rather than demanding vengeance. We must suffer, like Jesus, and entrust our souls to God, believing with all the faith He has given us that God Himself will take care of the ending.
This is very hard. It is unpalatable. But it is what the Bible says.
It is hard, but we have opportunities all the time. We don't have to wait for the government to make Christianity illegal and throw us into prison. We can share in the suffering of Christ every time someone wrongs us and we choose to absorb the hurt with forgiveness.
And as we trust God, He will make all things right. As He raised, restored and glorified Christ, so He will raise, restore and glorify all of His children after we have struggled to learn, to trust, to take up our crosses and follow Him.