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.'"
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).