Suffering is God’s scholarship grant endowed to the believer for the school of life. Philippians 1:29 says, “For to you it has been granted on behalf of Christ, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake.”1 The word “granted” (G5483) means to show favor or kindness; it derives from the word translated “grace” (G5485) in Ephesians 2:8: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God.” These verses reveal that both the believer’s salvation and the suffering we experience in life are gifts from God, a manifestation of His grace.
The Source of Suffering
Sometimes the Lord may directly bring trials into our lives, to discipline us as a loving Father (Heb 12:5-11), or to prune us for spiritual growth (John 15:2). Other times His permissive will allows hardships through the normal experiences of life. Still other times He allows our adversary, the devil to touch us, sometimes directly, other times via surrogates like governments, religious groups, or individuals in a world that hates Christ. The Lord may even allow the devil to touch our health, financial security, and family (e.g. Job, Paul). Persecution for our identification with Christ has been the lot of believers throughout church history. Many have died for the faith, some have suffered professionally having their careers held back, others have been ostracised by family and friends. Still others have had their businesses targeted, being sued in court, and suffering great financial harm.
When tribulations intrude into our lives we should not consider them to be unusual, or be caught off guard by them (1 Pet. 4:12). Since we are loved by Christ, fruitful, effective, godly Christians can expect to become the target of the evil one (2 Tim. 3:12). However, we can take comfort that God is in control and anything that He allows will be for our ultimate good and for His glory (Rom. 8:28).
Paul speaking specifically about Ephesus, and Asia Minor in general said “For a great and effective door has opened to me, and there are many adversaries.” (1 Cor. 16:9). He saw God opening up opportunities for him to spread the gospel but there were many resisting him. Though authorities, religious groups, and false teachers opposed him he recognized the source as spiritual. In his letter to the Ephesians he wrote: “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12).
This invisible spiritual battle (Dan. 10:13) is still being waged today. The devil has an army of evil fallen angels to influence governments, religious groups, and others to oppose the work of Christ. They attempt to hinder, delay, and raise up opposition against God’s servants. As many missionaries can attest: “with great opportunity comes opposition.” Yet, it is God’s grace that empowers to triumphantly endure all things, enabling us to value life’s trials for their spiritual benefits.
Spiritual Benefits of Suffering
1. Preventative Against Pride (2 Cor. 12:7-10)
A humorous story illustrates our susceptibility to sinful pride: “In a certain pond, there were two ducks and a frog who were neighbors and the best of friends…But as the cold drew near and the water dried up, the ducks realized they would have to move. This would be easy for them, but what about their friend the frog? Finally, it was decided that they would put a stick in the bill of each duck, and then the frog would hang onto the stick with his mouth and they would fly him to another pond. And so, they did. Just then, a farmer looked up and said to his wife, “What a great idea! I wonder who thought of that?” Proudly, the frog said, “I did…””2
Paul had been given a revelation of heaven, a glimpse of what was in store for all those in Christ. To prevent him from being filled with pride, the Lord gave him a thorn in the flesh, “a messenger of Satan” to harass or torment him. Paul prayed three times for it (likely a health issue) to be removed from him. Each time the Lord answered: “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.”
In response Paul testified: “Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” From the devil’s viewpoint this was his opportunity to hinder Paul’s work for the Lord. Instead, in chain-like fashion, Paul’s suffering led to increased dependence upon Christ, God responding with limitless power, resulting in Paul’s fruitful service, bringing glory to God. Paul’s acceptance of his God-given affliction gave him a greater effectiveness in service he would not have had otherwise. He boasted (gloried, rejoiced) in it because it ultimately magnified Christ.
Second Corinthians 10:17 says: “But he who glories, let him glory in the Lord.” Serving in the power of our resurrected Lord, let us boast of Christ: His power, His wisdom, His work in and through us. When someone commends us for our service, let us “lift it up as a bouquet to the Lord” using the occasion as an opportunity to praise the Lord.
2. Testimony to a Lost World (1 Pet. 2:11-12)
The word “devil” means the accuser, the slanderer, a liar. Part of his strategy is to stimulate others to attack believers through blasphemy, railing, slander, and other forms of evil speaking. 1 Peter 2:11-12 says: “Beloved, I beg you as sojourners and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul, having your conduct honorable among the Gentiles, that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may, by your good works which they observe, glorify God in the day of visitation.”
When tragedy strikes, many people have asked the question: “how could a loving God allow this to happen?” Our character and behavior in response to extreme duress (e.g. tragic loss, character assassination, health issues, loss of employment, death of a loved one, persecution, etc.) bears witness to a watching world so that when God convicts some of their sin (their day of visitation), they may by our witness trust in Christ, glorifying God.
The story is told of a powerful force of Roman soldiers known as the “Thundering Legion.” They were expected to bow to Caesar and acknowledge him as Lord. However, forty Christian soldiers refused to do so. So, they took the 40 soldiers to a frozen lake in the middle of a terrible winter storm. They stripped them of all their clothing and left them to freeze to death. Their general said, “Simply bow down to the emperor and save your life?” But all refused to deny Christ.
As they bravely walked barefoot onto the icy lake, these believers prayed and began to shout “Here die 40 men for Christ.” Eventually one gave up and ran to the warm fire on the shore. Later, one of the Roman soldiers sitting by the fire, having watched the courage and faith of the remaining 39, stood up and said to the general: “I will take that man’s place; I will be a Christian.” As the general watched in amazement, the Roman soldier removed his clothing and walked onto the icy lake to join the other 39. As the Roman soldiers sat by the fire all night long, the last thing they said they could remember hearing through the howl of that terrible freezing winter storm was 40 Christian men shouting “Here die 40 men for Christ.” In the morning, there were 40 frozen bodies; men who had died for their faith in Christ.3
The faithfulness of the 39 led to the salvation of the Roman soldier observing them. Similarly, our Christ-like response to suffering testifies of a loving God who empowers us to live victoriously above our circumstances.
To be continued…
1. All verses quoted from the NKJV
2. Paul Lee Tan, Encyclopedia of 7700 Illustrations: Signs of the Times (Garland, TX: Bible Communications, Inc., 1996), p.1100
3. Various sources
by George Ferrier