Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The Advantage of Suffering

For some, the idea that suffering is advantageous might seem novel or even morbid. My reaction would be such that I would respond with, "how on earth can you say that me going through what I'm going through is an advantage?"

I like the simple, straightforward definition of suffering offered by the Dictionary of Bible themes, "The experience of pain or distress, both physical and emotional."1

Suffering is a physical or emotional response to something that, to be candid, hurts. Reading this blog post, can you relate? An illness. Physical pain. A loved one lost. Emotional pain. Persecution for your beliefs. The despair that sin creates in your life. Depression in general. You know these things, and probably more.

From here, we all are wondering, "given the gravity of those aforementioned forms of suffering, why has the title not been changed? Why would someone hold to the concept of suffering as an advantage?"

Allow me to explain.

"For our limited, temporary affliction is producing in us an eternal weight of glory, beyond all comparison." (2 Corinthians 4:17)

Given the nature of 2 Corinthians 4:7-11, we know one thing Paul isn't communicating here. He is not saying your suffering is insignificant. He knows it's a big deal. The urgency of your situation is not removed. The severity of your situation is not diminished. The pain of your situation is still acute. The biblical writers have never placed a concept of suffering minimalism upon the necks of God's people.

Instead, what they do is maximize the life that you have with Christ. Both now and forever. What you will experience can be no clearer than what is meantioned Revelation 21:4. These words are meant to minister to you as you endure:

“He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; those former things have passed away.
And He who sits on the throne said, 'Behold, I am making all things better.'"
(Revelation 21:4–5)

The God who commanded oceans (Job 38:8) and told waves to stop (Job 38:11) now—more than capably—bids the tears of His beloved people cease in the future life. As He has said before to the waves, "Thus far you shall come, but no farther; And here shall your proud waves stop" God commands our tears as such. Those moments where you felt more like the Psalmist, I am weary with my sighing; Every night I make my bed swim, I dissolve my couch with my tears” (Psalms 6:6 NAS95) God Himself with the same storm-calming power but with the tender care of a Father, will wipe away your tears. No more death. No more grieving. Crying. Pain. Those are done away with. Even if it doesn't happen in this life, it will get better.

As breath-taking as that is, you may still be wondering, what is the advantage of suffering now? The starting point of the advantage of suffering is found in the removal of our sin through the suffering of our Savior:

“For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps, WHO COMMITTED NO SIN, NOR WAS ANY DECEIT FOUND IN HIS MOUTH; and while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously; and He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed.” (1 Peter 2:21–24 NAS95)

The first advantage of suffering is found in the greatest Sufferer, who suffered under the wrath of God, Jesus Christ. His suffering gave us the Gospel, and therefore salvation. But Christ suffered so as to leave us an example for us to follow, that is, that we too should suffer; and in fact, suffer as our Savior did. How marvelous a privilege to follow in the foot steps of the most valuable person in our lives? No wonder it is a gift of grace, "For to you it has been granted for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake." (Philippians 1:29 NAS95) The fact that suffering produced the removal and forgiveness of our sins is a monumental advantage.

Even still, we may ask, "but what about my suffering?" And with that,

“But even if you should suffer for the sake of righteousness, you are blessed. AND DO NOT FEAR THEIR INTIMIDATION, AND DO NOT BE TROUBLED.” (1 Peter 3:14 NAS95)

How many of us have asked for moments in which we would have "favorable" circumstances? "If I could just get rid of this suffering, my life would be better." No one expects this to be an easy embrace, but since this is what God wants us to know, it must be stated: if you are suffering, according to the word of God, you are in a favorable circumstance. The word for "blessed" in 1 Peter 3:14, means that. It means "privileged" or "fortunate". Peter's reason? It's found in 1 Peter 4:1,

“Therefore, since Christ has suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same purpose, because he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin.” (1 Peter 4:1 NAS95)

The most favorable circumstance that a person can be in, is the cessation of sin. Of course, we're not talking about sinless perfection—such is impossible this side of heaven—but rather, a life that devalues sin, and values Christ. Suffering, particularly the suffering of Christ, is a weapon that we can arm ourselves with to find obedience (what some call victory) over sin. How many have foolishly attempted to run away from the suffering, or difficulties of situations for something that looks so much better, only to miss out on the advantage of suffering?

Peter tells us further,

“Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you [the suffering you're experiencing], which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you.” (1 Peter 4:12 NAS95)

Too many people do the exact opposite of this. We know contextually to 1 Peter, that he does inform us of suffering that we add due to sin, and that is to be avoided, but the suffering that is because of Christ isn't something to run away from. 1 Peter 4:13, states that it is something to rejoice in. How many of us have stopped in our moments of suffering and instead of thinking, "this is because God doesn't like me" or "this is because God has forgotten about me" or "this is because I've done something wrong" that maybe if you are suffering it's because you're walking in a manner that is glorifying God? Maybe it's because you're doing something right.

We can't miss that perspective; suffering for Christ, means we're right where we need to be, and we're on the right road. In a lot of ways, those who are suffering shouldn't look to those who aren't with envy; in fact, maybe it needs to be the other way around. Those who are suffering are experiencing such a significantly valuable, quality of life that it's no wonder the Author of Hebrews could say the world isn't even worthy to have such people in their midst (Hebrews 11:36-40).

And Peter's not even done yet.

“but if anyone suffers as a Christian, he is not to be ashamed, but is to glorify God in this name.” (1 Peter 4:16 NAS95)

The Greek for "ashamed" mentioned in verse 16 above means to not feel defeated. It means to not feel shame, or be disappointed. Don't be disappointed for suffering as a Christian ought to. Instead, recognize you're right in the best way to maximize the glory that God is to receive. You have reason to rejoice instead.

Still, Peter isn't finished.

“AND IF IT IS WITH DIFFICULTY THAT THE RIGHTEOUS IS SAVED, WHAT WILL BECOME OF THE GODLESS MAN AND THE SINNER? Therefore, those also who suffer according to the will of God shall entrust their souls to a faithful Creator in doing what is right.”
(1 Peter 4:18–19 NAS95)

Are you having difficulty in this life as a believer? Please don't be taken off guard here, but that causes significant reason for rejoice because that's how the righteous are saved. Now you've been given occasion for something that so many people long for: assurance. The basic conclusion here is that those who suffer and are experiencing immense difficulties as believers are those who are being saved, and are on the right road, doing what is right, by the power of their faithful Creator. So much, considerably so much, is the ministry of suffering in the lives of believers.

Take heart, dear sufferer. God is more with you than you can imagine. And you yourself are being fashioned into a phenomenal vessel, well crafted and full of quality, and God is receiving what He desires from His people, His glory.

— Jeremy Menicucci

1). Martin H. Manser, Dictionary of Bible Themes: The Accessible and Comprehensive Tool for Topical Studies (London: Martin Manser, 1999).


Deb said...

Does the suffering of which the Bible speaks include such things as childhood abuse, or is it only pertinent to the suffering believers sometimes undergo because of their faith?

Calvary Santa Fe said...

Hey Deb,

This is a pretty intense topic that I doubt I can fully or satisfactorily answer in a comment. So if you need further clarification let me know.

The Bible does mention how to positively treat children and create positive environments (Proverbs 13:24, 31:28, 2 Tim 2:15, 3:4, 5:4; Titus 2:4; Ephesians 6:4 Col 3:21, 2 John 1). It would seem then that the Bible would give these verses as a means of avoiding child abuse without having to specifically mention it. Salvation is also promised to children in Acts 2:38. In that respect believing children go through suffering like every believer and we can include child abuse in that. I think there is an exhortational difference in child abuse and suffering that believers go through in the fact that the verses that mention raising children, instruct that the children be raised in an environment that is shown to be without abuse, and that should be our goal.

Children should be raised in an environment of love, protection, discipline, and salvation. So technically speaking the Bible instructs in such a way that child abuse is to be avoided since that would be antithetical. Believing children go through suffering, but I believe God in the context of believing children applies 1 Corinthians 10:13, where temptation and trial mean the same thing. So God won't give children a trial that they wouldn't be able to endure, but will provide the way of escape. Also, there's no doubt then that the blog post applies to abused, believing children.

There is suffering or harm that every believer goes through that is abuse from other persons and that would then include believing children. The thing we have to keep in mind, is that God is sovereign over that, but also that those who are the abusers and cause that type of suffering will be paid back by God (2 Tim 4:14, Rom 12:19). All the more reason why child abuse should be avoided. I believe children who go through abuse give a rise for God to be glorified, however, we have to keep in mind God will glorify Himself either in the salvation of those who believe, or the just condemnation of those don't. Therefore, the abusers either need to turn to Christ for their salvation in order to glorify God, but God's justice is still enacted for the crime committed against the abused... just on Jesus Christ on behalf of the elect abuser, or suffer both the judgment of all their sins, and the vengeance God enacts upon them for their abuse in hell. In the case of the latter, God's justice upon them is a cause for glory. God is also glorified in the lives of the abused as He heals them and conforms them to the image of His Son Jesus. I do believe it is important for the abused to recognize that the crime against them never goes unpunished. God is Just. So with that above qualification, believing children who go through child abuse suffer for the glory of God, as other believers do. Having said that, we still need to abide by creating environments of raising children that the Bible instructs us, and the Gospel is always the answer for children. We don't just simply throw up our hands and say, "well any child who's abused should continue to be abused then." Ultimately though, the believing abused children can say, "As for you, what you intended for evil, God intended for good" (Gen 50:20).

I hope this helps.

Deb said...

I accepted Christ at the tender age of 5, and shortly after that the abuse began. All my life I've been so confused about the Bible's teachings regarding sufferings and how the believer is to perceive them.

I've wanted to avoid praising God for the abuse I went through, for that would seem to be siding with the devil. On the other hand I know He can work through even the worst sin and filth to bring glory to His name, and light to others.

You spoke of God not giving children a trial they can't endure. Because of the extreme sexual abuse I suffered my mind fractured and I became a multiple, with many different personalities to cope with the pain, shame and terror. I don't know why exactly but it shames me to have Dissociative Identity Disorder. Some say God created it to help children survive the unthinkable, and in that case it would be a gift from a loving Father. But I keep thinking it's something I have to hide for the sake of not causing His name to be sullied: something along the lines of if people know I have this they'll think God abandoned me by letting me go through the abuse. So I feel the need to try to live and act normal. It would be a relief to simply be me, brokenness and all!

Your response to my question did help me a lot. I still have some confusion, but I think there are some aspects of what I'm dealing with that I won't be able to understand this side of Heaven.