Suffering and the Christian Life

My heart has been very heavy lately with a sickening trend that is sweeping through Christian circles. Perpetrated by Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer, Marilyn Hickey and the like, this message coined Prosperity Gospel has infiltrated the lives of even the most dedicated Christians. From their pulpits in their arena sized churches these slithering serpents twist scripture to suit their own ambitions. This disturbs me because I’ve seen these tactics used before: in the Garden of Eden and the temptation of Christ. Thousands of people have bought into the lie that if they only have enough faith, pray hard enough, wish long enough, God will give them whatever their heart desires. Thousands of years of church doctrine and history has been undone in one fell swoop. In short, Christians of today have forgotten how to suffer.

Even invoking the word “suffer” is enough to make most people’s teeth stand on edge. After all, we are modern humans. Modern comforts are available to us. We need not have a hard life. When we are in pain, we take tylenol. When we are hungry, we throw something in the microwave. When anything remotely bad happens to us, we fall to our knees and beg God to take it away. This is what we have been taught to do. But scripture paints a whole different picture for us. While we try to avoid suffering at all costs, Holy Scripture tells us that not only is suffering unavoidable, it’s actually beneficial. It’s a radical idea, but one that I believe is supported firmly by sound doctrine.

To examine the beneficial role of suffering, we need only look to the life of Christ Himself, specifically the Passion story. I have taken the narrative from the Gospel According to Saint Luke Chapter 22, beginning in verse 39.

After the Passover meal, Christ takes His disciples to the Mount of Olives, a place He frequently prays. But tonight is different. Tonight He takes only His most trusted friends, Peter, James and John to pray with Him. Saint Matthew and Mark record here a message that Christ gave His disciples before He withdrew to pray: “I am very sorrowful, even until death. Remain here and pray.” Saint Luke then records that Jesus goes to beg His father to please, let the cup of this suffering pass from Him (Luke 22:42). It is recorded here also: “And being in agony He prayed more earnestly and His sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground” (Luke 22:44).

Jesus prays so hard for suffering to pass that He begins to sweat blood. This is no metaphor or analogy. Remember, Saint Luke was the physician. There does exist a condition which occurs when a person is under such emotional stress that that the capillaries in the blood vessels burst, causing them to literally sweat droplets of blood. Jesus is in such emotional turmoil that his blood vessels are exploding.

In the Garden of Gethsemane, Christ knows what will happen to Him in the coming hours. He will endure great physical agony. He will be tortured for hours in the most brutal ways imaginable. He will be flogged and whipped beyond recognition. He will be stripped naked and nailed to a cross. He will hang for hours, slowly suffocated by the weight of His body. He will bear the weight of the sin of the entire world for all time upon His shoulders. For the first time in His life, since the beginning of time, since before time, He will experience total separation from His father. His lungs will fill with fluid, and He will eventually drown. Jesus will die completely alone. Jesus will suffer. He will suffer beyond anything we can possibly imagine. Mel Gibson could not possibly, if he worked his whole life, produce a film that depicts the actual reality of how much Christ suffered. And why did Jesus do this? He did it because the punishment for our sin was too great for us to bear. So He did it for us. For the forgiveness of sin. The suffering of Jesus Christ brought about our salvation.

The truth is, without the suffering of Christ, there would be no gospel message. Even assuming that Jesus was divine, His purpose on earth would still be pointless. History would remember Him as a man who said some good things about how we should live our lives and be nice to each other and then he disappeared around the age of 33. The entire mission of Jesus would be pointless. God would still be just as unreachable as before. We would still be killing goats and pigeons, trying desperately to earn the grace of Almighty God. There is no gospel without suffering, and their is no grace without the gospel. If we are to be imitators of our Lord, and He suffered for the good of others and our faith, what makes us think that we get to escape suffering? Christ Himself surely didn’t think so. If you read through the gospels, Christ tells His disciples numerous times about the suffering they will endure. He says:

“In this world you will have trouble. But take heart, for I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

“If the world hates you, know that it hated me first.” (John 15:18)

“You will be hated by all because of me but the one who perseveres to the end will be saved.” (Matthew 10:22)

“Then they will hand you up for persecution, and you will be put to death, and hated by all nations because of My name.” (Matthew 24:9)

“Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues.” (Matthew 10:17)

“If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” (Luke 9:23)

This last one is especially poignant, considering the suffering of Christ on the cross I just outlined. Jesus is clear: If anyone is to follow Him, truly follow Him, they must be prepared to suffer. Anglican Bishop Dr. N.T. Wright says it perfectly: “Jesus never said ‘God has an awesome plan for your life.’ What He said was: ‘If anyone wants to follow me, he should deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.’ Whenever God is at work, there will be a cost. Whenever we are called to follow Jesus, there will be a cross. Whenever we seek to serve God instead of ourselves, there will be pain.”

True faith cannot exist without suffering. This is what is so disturbing about these prosperity gospel peddlers. It’s not just that they preach a bad sermon, it’s that they are leading people away from following Christ. Jesus says that if anyone truly wishes to follow Him, to truly be His disciples, they must share in His suffering. Saint Paul talks about the necessity of suffering for faith. He says:

 

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. –Romans 5:1-5

 

I would like to point out that I once saw one of those prosperity gospel preachers reference this passage. Except his version looked like this:

 

…and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.

 

Notice here how he twists scripture. Those convenient and easily ignored ellipses change the entire meaning of the passage, and thwart the point Saint Paul is trying to make. He conveniently skips over the suffering part, because no one likes to hear that. He twists scripture to suit his own purpose, exactly as Satan and the Pharisees did in the Gospels. He takes away the very thing Saint Paul says gives us hope: our suffering.

Paul says here that we should rejoice in our suffering with the same fervor that we rejoice in the grace offered us through Christ. Why should we do this? Because suffering produces endurance, endurance character, and character hope. All these false teachers, they want to preach hope to people. There’s nothing wrong with that. We should have hope. But what they and their followers cannot understand is right here where Saint Paul tells us: We cannot have hope without suffering. If we’ve rubbed our magic Jesus lamp and prayed hard enough, if our lives are great and we have a great big house and we have the high-paying job and the fancy cars and all the little things our wicked heart desires WHAT IS THERE TO HOPE FOR?! By preaching this message of “hope” these charlatans are actually robbing God’s people of the only hope they have. This world is broken and foul and wretched and the hearts of men are twisted and rotten and disgusting and the one hope we as believers have is that this world will someday END. This putrid, sinful existence will come crashing down around the glory of the returning Christ and God will rip our souls from our rotting corpses and glorify them to His vision of perfection that Christ gives us through His suffering on the cross. But the prosperity gospel people won’t get to experience that. Why? Because they’re living their best life now. Jesus is very clear about that. If you have your riches and rewards here on earth, what reward is there for you in Heaven? None. The only way you get to live your best life now is if you’re going to Hell when you die.

The real tragedy is, not only are these people robbing the people they preach to of God’s grace, they’re robbing every unsaved person who comes in contact with those people of the same gift. People are drawn to Christ through us because we are different from the world. If we are no different, how are we drawing the unsaved? If I have a big house exactly like the atheist executive down the street who just works really hard at his job, how is that different? If I’m caught up in the things of this world like the newest iPhone, how can my mind be on the things of Heaven? Jesus talks about this. He says:

 

“You are the salt of the world. But if the salt loses its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is good for nothing except to be thrown out and trampled by men.” –Matthew 5:15

 

The people that buy into this fantasy that God wants them to be rich and prosperous are like salt that has lost its saltiness. They are no longer of any use to God and on the last day, He will throw them out to be trampled. The truth is God cares way less about your happiness than He does your obedience. The only way we can be salt is if we are different. How are we different? Go back to Romans 5. Saint Paul says to have joy in our suffering.

What does it mean to have joy in our suffering? Look at Polycarp. Polycarp was an early church father and a disciple of Saint John the Beloved. When he is being burned at the stake for preaching the gospel, Polycarp says a prayer.

 

“Father of Your beloved and blessed son Jesus Christ, through whom we have received the knowledge of You, I bless You that You have counted me worthy this day and at this hour, that I might be in the number of your martyrs. Among these may I be recieved before You today in a rich and acceptable sacrifice, as You have beforehand prepared and revealed. Wherefore I also praise You for everything; I bless You; I glorify You, through the eternal High Priest Jesus Christ, Your Beloved Son, through whom, with Him, in the Holy Spirit, be glory unto You both now and for the ages to come. Amen.”

 

Polycarp is literally roasting alive and what does he do? Does he ask for a shinier car? Or a better job? No. He lifts a prayer of praise to God! “I praise you for everything” he says. Not only does he praise God but he actually thanks God for the opportunity to burn alive for the sake of the gospel! He actually compares himself to a burnt offering. He says may my burning flesh be an acceptable sacrifice to you. This is joy in suffering.

When you walk around with an attitude of dissatisfaction and selfishness, you are not being a light for God. You are preventing the people around you from seeing the life-changing joy that you should have because of the grace of Christ. Because joy in suffering isn’t just about you. It’s about everyone else around you.

In Philippians chapter 1, Saint Paul is writing to the church in Philippi, one of his most beloved churches. He is writing to them because they are greatly grieved that their founder and spiritual father is imprisoned. Not only is Paul imprisoned, but he is imprisoned in Rome which is under the rulership of the emperor Nero. You may remember that Nero hated Christians. He would light them on fire as human torches for his garden parties. The Christians in Philippi are worried about Paul. And Paul writes this to strengthen them:

 

I want you to know brothers, that was has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard that my imprisonment is for Christ. And most of all the brothers, having become more confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear. –Philippians 1:12-14

 

Look what Paul says here! He says “Brothers! Guess what?! Because I’m suffering for Jesus, the ENTIRE imperial guard has heard the gospel!” Now the imperial guard under Nero numbered between 13 and 14 thousand men. Saint Paul says that the ENTIRE imperial guard knows he is imprisoned because of his faith. 14,000 men know that Paul is man of great faith. 14,000 men know that Paul loves Jesus so much that he is willing to go to prison and even death rather than reject Christ. And you have to bet that some of those 14,000 men were curious as to what kind of man could inspire such faith in Paul. Not only that, but because of Paul’s imprisonment, the Church in Rome has been inspired and is preaching the gospel more boldly! Paul get’s an amazing missional opportunity because of his suffering. He get’s an opportunity to share the gospel he would not have otherwise had if he was not suffering. Just like God used the suffering and death of Christ to bring grace to the entire world, so God uses the suffering of His faithful to bring the lost to Himself. There is no gospel without suffering and there is no grace without the gospel.

Jesus said “If anyone is to come after me, he must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.” If you truly want to follow Jesus, you must be prepared to suffer. Does that mean we should go looking for ways to suffer? Dress in sackcloth and dump ashes on our heads? No. But we must be prepared to do what is necessary for the glory of God. I know I keep referencing Saint Paul but he’s one of my favorite biblical characters. He says that because Jesus humbled Himself to suffer death on the cross, God made his name greater than all other names, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:8-12).

The same goes for us as His followers. Our suffering and humility points others to Christ. Does this mean that we should walk around all dreary and sad all the time because we have to suffer? Of course not. Remember Saint Paul says we should have the same joy in our suffering that we have in the gift of grace through Christ. Dietrich Bonhoeffer says it this way: “To endure the cross is not a tragedy; it is the suffering which is the fruit that comes from the exclusive allegiance to Jesus Christ.” Saint Augustine said: “God had one son on earth without sin, but never a son without suffering.” The message from Scripture, theologians, church fathers, and Christ Himself is very clear: If we are truly to be called the children of Holy God, we must be prepared to suffer to further His kingdom, and bring glory to His name. My prayer for all of you is that you remain wise in the truth of God. That you recognize the truth from lie. That you be able to distinguish between false teachers and true. That you keep Scripture as the sole source of Truth and compare everything else you hear to it. Grace and Peace to you all.

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