The Lost Doctrine of Suffering

When I read the Scriptures, I can’t help but notice a common theme throughout that seems to be lost in American Christianity today. The theme is “the necessity of suffering.” I might have also said, “the benefits of suffering.” No matter how you state it, it’s very clear that Jesus and His Apostles taught clearly that suffering is an expected part of the Christian life. Now, before I write another word, I want to mention something very important here. Some have taken this concept of suffering in Scripture and become almost obsessed with the notion, even going so far as to inflict pain upon themselves in order to somehow increase God’s blessing. The entire idea of purgatory that is taught in some circles is based around some similar thoughts. The idea is that we are purged of sin and uncleanness through suffering. Therefore, if we have not suffered enough in this life, more suffering for sin will be required before we can enter the next life. I want to say up front that I do not subscribe to any of these notions, nor do I believe that these thoughts can be found in Scripture.

Having said this, the problem I see today in American Christianity is not that we are obsessed with suffering. Our issue is that we refuse in any way to suffer for the sake of Christ or His Gospel. In fact, many traditions (and it really varies from group to group and pastor to pastor) have abandoned teachings on suffering altogether and have basically defined any and all suffering as necessarily evil or as an attack of the enemy. But is this the way Scripture depicts suffering? Not at all. In fact, Jesus and the Apostles speak in one voice as they speak about the necessity of suffering.

Romans 8

16 The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him.

Philippians 1

29 For to you it has been granted for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake, 30 experiencing the same conflict which you saw in me, and now hear to be in me.

1 Peter 2

19 For this finds favor, if for the sake of conscience toward God a person bears up under sorrows when suffering unjustly. 20 For what credit is there if, when you sin and are harshly treated, you endure it with patience? But if when you do what is right and suffer for it you patiently endure it, this finds favor with God.

1 Peter 4

12 Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you; 13 but to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing, so that also at the revelation of His glory you may rejoice with exultation. 14 If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. 15 Make sure that none of you suffers as a murderer, or thief, or evildoer, or a troublesome meddler; 16 but if anyone suffers as a Christian, he is not to be ashamed, but is to glorify God in this name. 17 For it is time for judgment to begin with the household of God; and if it begins with us first, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? 18 And if it is with difficulty that the righteous is  saved, what will become of the godless man and the sinner? 19 Therefore, those also who suffer according to the will of God shall entrust their souls to a faithful Creator in doing what is right.

James 1

2 Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, 3 knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. 4 And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.

James 5

7 Therefore be patient, brethren, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious produce of the soil, being patient about it, until it gets the early and late rains. 8 You too be patient; strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near. 9 Do not complain, brethren, against one another, so that you yourselves may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing right at the door. 10 As an example, brethren, of suffering and patience, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. 11 We count those blessed who endured. You have heard of the endurance of Job and have seen the outcome of the Lord’s dealings, that the Lord is full of compassion and is merciful.

Jesus said it this way: Matthew 5

10 “Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 “Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. 12 “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Perhaps we should define what Scripture means when it speaks of suffering. Some folks, it seems, have a martyrdom complex of sorts and always see themselves as suffering some kind of burden. We must be careful about these things. The Apostle Peter, in the passage I quoted above, spoke about the difference between suffering for doing what is sinful or merely from our own poor choices versus suffering for our faith. The simplest way I know to explain the difference is this: any time a believer endures attacks (physical, spiritual, mental), insults, hardships, pain, persecutions, or anything like this for the sake of Christ and His Gospel, this is the kind of suffering Scripture speaks about as a blessing. Scripture also teaches that God sends particular sufferings into the lives of His children, such as sicknesses, stresses, and hard times in general, for their own good. These are not always due to some attack from people or due to standing for Christ, but are sufferings sent from God. The pruning of the branches that Jesus speaks about in John 15 could be an example. The Apostle Paul spoke of a thorn in the flesh that was given him to keep him from becoming conceited because of the amazing revelations and works God did in and through him. Others had sicknesses, trials, hard lives, problems in churches, and etc. These are all examples of suffering, though I’m certain there are many other specific examples in the lives of saints throughout the ages.

Now, here is the really difficult part for us and involves counting the cost of our faith. Scripture clearly teaches us that suffering is a definite for every Christian. Now, each believer’s suffering is his/her own and it may not look exactly like the suffering of others, but it is clear from Scripture that all believers will endure suffering of some kind. You may not face death as a martyr, but you will endure hardships. It is as Jesus Himself taught us in John 15-  “If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, because of this the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A slave is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you; if they kept My word, they will keep yours also.” If you are a new creature, no longer of this world, and you are living according to your new nature, you WILL suffer in this world.

If that were not clear enough, look again at the verse from Philippians 1:29: For to you it has been granted for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake…” That is about as clear as it can be. It has been granted that you will suffer. That seems a strange way to say it, especially if you view all suffering as a negative. But then again, Scripture doesn’t view all suffering as a negative and neither should we. James said that we “consider it pure joy when we face trials.” Jesus said we are blessed when suffering for His sake. Paul said in that same text that it is for the sake of Christ that we suffer. Another way to say that is that it gives glory to God when we endure suffering for the sake of our faith.

Many Christians throughout history have suffered to the point of death for their faith. Others, even today, face the threat of death on a daily basis. Others face imprisonment or the loss of property or rights because of their faith. Here in America, we don’t face many of these things, but there are still sufferings we endure. The entire system of this nation and world goes against everything our faith tells us. I am convinced that it is impossible to truly live out your faith without enduring persecution. I’m equally convinced that many who call themselves Christians don’t face persecution or suffer for their faith because they are unwilling to endure it. That is, at the first sign of resistance, many simply back down and try to not make waves of any kind. They just try to blend in. Yet, if the salt has lost its saltiness, what good is it? If the light is hidden, all men continue to walk in darkness. So, many don’t speak of their faith and they dare not share the message of the Gospel for fear of upsetting someone. Friends, I have serious doubts about that person’s faith, I must say.

So, what is the American approach to suffering? Many ignore it completely. Many popular preachers, teachers, and evangelists preach the exact opposite of what Scripture says. Instead of speaking about the sufferings of Christ and His followers, they speak only of health, wealth, and prosperity. They speak only of blessing, implying that it is God’s will that they enjoy the temporal blessings of this life to the fullest. They teach that every sickness should be seen as from Satan and all disease will be healed if a person only has faith. They will teach that God wants you to have that new house, that new car, that promotion, and the American Dream. It is blasphemous, in my opinion. But this is what people today want to hear. It should not surprise us, given the fact that it was prophesied by Paul to Timothy when he said, “For the time time will come when men will not endure sound doctrine… but will gather around teachers who say what their itching ears want to hear.” You can fill a stadium with a message of prosperity. Is it any wonder, in a “church culture” that lusts for “positive messages” of God’s blessings, that a message regarding suffering would be neglected or absent? In this system, a message speaking of suffering would be seen as sent from Satan- as an attack, and as something which should be actively avoided.

So, should we avoid all suffering at all costs? Not according to Scripture. Should we go looking for suffering where it is not? No. We certainly shouldn’t develop a martyrdom complex, finding suffering in every hang nail or crying “woe is me!” every time we face the least resistance to our faith. But when suffering does come, we should accept it willingly and even embrace it with joy. God has purposes for our lives that we have yet to see, the greatest of which is that He would be glorified in us fully. He teaches us patience and endurance. He teaches us to love as He loves. He teaches us to be gentle, to be humble, to be faithful, to be obedient, and so on. In addition, He has designs in mind for your holiness and for your usefulness to His Kingdom. He has plans that you would be salt and light in this dark world. He has plans that you would be His ambassador and that you would live to help reconcile others to Him with the glorious Gospel of His blessed Son Jesus Christ. His design for you is to persevere in faith, even through the difficulties of life. And then you will be able to say with the Apostle Paul, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” (Romans 8:18)

One final word- why is teaching about suffering so critical? We are facing a world today that is increasingly becoming hostile to Christianity, yet we also have been given a task to take the Gospel to every nation. Who is going to do it? Will those who have been told God intends only to prosper them with temporal blessings in this life go and take a stand for Christ and His Gospel when it could cost them everything? Not likely. Those who won’t endure even slight criticism for the sake for the Gospel won’t face torture or the loss of their lives. I submit to you that we must teach these things because people need to understand the gravity of our mission and the cost of being a disciple of Jesus Christ. The Kingdom of heaven will be carried forward by servants who are obedient, even in the midst of suffering.

Grace, mercy, and peace to you.

D. Courtney Hill

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