Tag Archives: suffering

Why Must Christians Suffer?

Why do I share Christ in my writing and in conversations with people who claim that God does not exist? I do it “to complete what is lacking in the affliction of Christ” (Colossians1:24). Christ’s suffering is completely sufficient to rescue every person from sin and death, but it is an incomplete sacrifice until every person has heard the good news. When I share the good news, I enter into the completion of Christ’s suffering by assuring that it is made available to everyone. I may suffer, because I do this work, and to suffer for sharing the faith is normal. I do not seek to suffer, but the suffering that befalls me because I am sharing the good news of Christ is as normal as the working of the law of gravity. My suffering is not redemptive, but when I suffer because I share Christ, I am join the church around the world in bringing the redemptive suffering of Christ for all people to its completion, its natural ultimate purpose.

We American Christians truly believe that Christ suffered for us in order for us to be comfortable. The most common thread in Christian devotional writing is that real Christians feel good about thems elves and fulfill all their dreams. We believe that suffering is an occasional intrusion in our lives designed to make us stronger, a spiritual workout plan that will make us look better to God and man. This attitude is an outrageous perversion of God’s truth. In the words of John Piper, “God intends for the afflictions of Christ to be presented to the world through the afflictions of his people.” God never meant for us to think that being a Christian meant improved self-esteem.

Many American Christians feel that Christians are threatened by the Obama administration in many different ways. Some Christians interpret Donald Trump’s victory as an answer to prayer, and they predict that Christians will be more free to act like Christians under his administration. This prediction may even come true.

If so, wise Christians will not take it as the end of Christian suffering for the faith in the USA. That would not be God’s purpose for us. We may have been granted a reprieve, a temporary truce in the battle for the kingdom of God that will allow us to catch our breath. We may wish one another “Merry Christmas” without looking around to see who is taking offense. Nevertheless, our suffering is not complete until “the world [is] filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters that cover the sea” (Habakkuk 2:14 KJV).

I am glad that Hillary Clinton did not win the presidency. I truly believe that it will not be as difficult to speak and act our faith under the Trump administration as it would have been under a Clinton administration. Nevertheless, I do not think Christians should assume that every barrier to Christian faith and life has now disappeared. The cultural forces which gave Clinton more popular votes than Trump received are not going anywhere. The culture classifies many behaviors that are integral elements of the Christian life as ”extreme,” and powerful groups in both government and culture will continue to attempt to suppress behaviors such as public prayer, evangelism, and display of Christian symbols, to name a few. While the Constitutional design of our government may have “saved the day,” the forces of opposition to Christ and his followers are not diminished by a Trump victory. Like any foe who feels cornered, the forces that resist Christ and his message will only become more aggressive under what they perceive to be adversity. It remains to be seen what the attitude of government under Donald Trump will be toward Christians, but his election will not reduce the cultural pressure to suppress Christianity.

When we experience that cultural pressure, we must respond as Jesus did. When confronted by the choice between suffering and testimony, we must not allow ourselves to believe that a loving God would not permit his beloved children to suffer. Such a notion is promoted by secular thinkers as an argument against the existence of God. God does not promise to spare us from suffering. He only promises to go with us though our suffering. Christ suffered abandonment on the cross, but we will not be abandoned. His grace sustains us, as it sustained the apostle Paul. Paul asked for relief, and God answered, “My grace is sufficient for you” (2 Corinthians 12:9).

Suffering is not fun. It does not make us feel good about ourselves. However, when we suffer as Christ did, and when we experience his grace in the midst of our suffering,  Paul says that we participate in the completion of Christ’s suffering. We must recognize that our suffering is in the plan of God for the salvation and blessing of all people, because “God intends for the afflictions of Christ to be presented to the world through the afflictions of his people.”

Pray for America, that Christ’s redemptive suffering may bring her people to salvation. Pray for Christ’s body on earth to be made ready to complete the afflictions of Christ as we share the good news in word and deed.

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What does Love do about Unjust Suffering?

In the beautiful thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians, Paul writes a paean to love. When I was fifteen, I memorized that chapter, and even though my old age makes my memory foggy, that chapter remains a treasure in my heart. I learned it in the King James Version, and that is the version that is most often quoted, even when the teachings are abused, because of its poetic qualities.

The King James Version, however, is not an all-purpose translation. As I learned to understand the archaic language that challenges any contemporary reader, I learned that there was value in using a variety of translations. One reason is the complete impossibility of a “word for word” translation from any language to any language. The “word for word” concept relies on the denotative meaning of a word, but anyone who ever looked up the definition of an English word knows that the denotation of a word may include a long list of varied definitions.

Unwillingness to delve into the usage, the definitions and the clouds of connotation around words may lead some readers of that beautiful chapter astray when they try to apply it to daily life.

Furthermore, we all learned in high school about the difference between the connotation and the denotation of a word, and that connotative cloud makes things even more complicated. Look up the word love for example, and think about the connotative cloud around every possible denotative definition of that word. Right away you will begin to see why even the most faithful, dedicated, and conservative scholars have long conversations when they share the work of translating the ancient manuscripts of the Bible.

This discussion explains why it is valuable to use a variety of translations when studying the deep meaning of any passage. The thirteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians is one of the most beloved passages in the Bible, but unwillingness to delve into the usage, the definitions and the clouds of connotation around words may lead some readers of that beautiful chapter astray when they try to apply it to daily life.

Take 1 Corinthians 13:5, for example.

The English Standard Version, today’s direct descendant of the King James Version, says, “[Love] is not irritable or resentful” (1 Corinthians 13:5).

The most conversational translation around is The Message, and it not only takes a few liberties with precise language, but it also suffers from the problem of being the work of one man. Nevertheless, it does a good job of helping a contemporary reader see the word resentful more clearly. Peterson translates the final clause this way: “[Love[ doesn’t keep score of the sins of others.”

How is God Like a Refiner’s Fire?

You have probably heard someone say of a leader who jarred a complacent organization into efficient productivity, “He really put their feet to the fire.” That statement indicates that the leader imposed some pain on the group, pain that motivated change. The first acts and thoughts of the group may have been pain avoidance, but in the end, the group matured in purpose and productivity because the leader created some pain.

But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, and they will bring offerings in righteousness to the LORD. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the LORD as in the days of old and as in former years. (Malachi 3:2-4 ESV)

This text speaks of a time when God causes pain. Ever since the time of Job people have asked why God lets bad things happen to good people. It is very common for people to say things such as, “a good God should not let bad things happen.” The very fact that bad things happen, that people do suffer, that pain and sickness and death exist, is used to argue against the existence of God, or, if God is seen to be allowing evil to conquer, then that fact is used to argue against worship of God.

Malachi says that there are absolutely times when God causes pain.

God doesn’t cause evil. Evil is the work of Satan in opposition to God’s purpose. God doesn’t cause evil, but he does apply fire to a dirty, ugly rock in order to get the gold out. When God applies his refining fire to the ore of a corrupt human life, it hurts. Yet, like human leaders who must put someone’s feet to the fire, God must sometimes inflict pain in our lives in order to help us shed the dross that pollutes the gold of God’s creative work in us.

As a consequence, there come times when we feel pain, and we say that bad things are happening to us. We may even wonder how God could let such a thing happen. Yet in the end, we may discover that the things we perceive as bad are actually God’s work, and they actually are not evil.

Job knew how it felt. God stood back and let Satan take everything from Job but his very life. His own wife thought things were so bad that she told him to curse God so he could go ahead and die.

9 Then his wife said to him, “Do you still hold fast your integrity? Curse God and die.” (Job 2:9 ESV)

Job would have appeared to be justified in the eyes of the world if he had, indeed, cursed God and died. The world constantly curses God. The latest reproach is to say that because God declares homosexual behavior to be sinful, God is a homophobe and should apologize to the world. Job’s wife had that same attitude. Like today’s social activists, Job’s wife thought she had a right to judge God, and she wanted Job to do the same thing.

It is obvious where Job’s wife and today’s social commentators acquired their ideas. When Satan and God were discussing Job, Satan asked, “Does Job fear God for nothing?” implying that God’s gracious care for Job was the only reason Job served God. After Satan had ravaged Job without touching his body, God confronted Satan again, and Satan said, “Skin for skin! … Strike his flesh and bones, and he will surely curse you to your face.” Satan encourages and promotes the idea that God owes people something in return for their worship. Satan wants people to believe that if trouble comes their way, God is behaving badly.

One lesson from Job’s story is that God does not exist to make us feel good. Satan wanted to prove the point that God only matters if he is making things easy for human beings. Satan rejected God’s sovereignty, and Milton vividly portrays the battle between Satan and God that resulted in Satan’s ejection from heaven. Job’s story points out how Satan never stops fighting against God’s sovereignty. He chose Job as the fulcrum of his argument that God has no right to assert his sovereignty. Job could not see the forces arrayed in battle around his life, and he suffered terribly as the battle raged. Until Jesus hangs on the cross, the Bible has no other image of a person so desperately alone and abandoned as Job. Even the friends who kept Job company were no friends to him, because they kept probing to find out what Job had done to deserve such punishment. They could allow that God would do such things, but the only reason they understood was to make God vindictive. They did not understand how God was putting Job’s feet to his refining fire, even as God showed Satan his place in the universe. In Job’s life, God demonstrated that he does not exist to make anyone feel good, but rather to accomplish his divine purpose in creation. Secular thinkers search for truth, and when they find something that makes them feel good, they say, “This is truth.” Job’s story shows that good vibes are not the measure of truth.

Job is rightly honored for his faithfulness under fire. Christians who find themselves in Satan’s crosshairs can learn a lot from Job, but they would be well-advised to read the whole story. They should not stop with pithy quotations such as “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” (Job 1:21 ESV) or even “Shall we accept good from God and not trouble?” (Job 2:10 NIV84) They need to go all the way to Job’s cry “Oh, that I had someone to hear me! …Let the Almighty answer me.” (Job 31:35 NIV) and then they need to read the answer God gave to Job.

Then the Lord spoke to Job out of the storm. He said: “Who is this that obscures my plans with words without knowledge? Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me. Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?” (Job 38:1-4)

At Job’s darkest hour, the Lord did not come to Job, give him a hug and make him feel good. God put Job’s feet to the refining fire, because he wanted Job to be something grander than good ore. When miners find good ore, ore that has gold in it, they don’t bag up the ore and sell it in jewelry stores and banks; they crush it and cook it and apply the refiner’s fire to it. It is the gold within that they treasure, and that is what God treasured in Job and in you and in me. God wants the gold that he has put in each of us to stand out and be visible in our lives. That is why he must apply the refiner’s fire.

Was Job proud of himself for standing up to God and calling him to account? Job’s final words in this conversation were:

“My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:5-6 NIV)

After going through God’s refining fire, Job stopped holding on to the common rock and dirt in his life. Much of the book of Job is his justification of his own righteousness before God, but after the fire, he lets go of his sense that he can justify himself. The gold can finally be seen when he “repent[s] in dust and ashes.” The refining fire is not evil; it is God’s power to purge out evil and purify the good and make you what you always wished you were, even if you didn’t know what that is. God doesn’t let bad things happen to good people. Job discovered that even though he could make a strong case for his own goodness as the world defines it, he was not “good people” before God’s righteousness. Each person must discover that same truth in order to let go of the dross and impurity in his life. Each person must “repent in dust and ashes.” Every person created by God is good ore. Every person is polluted by his own desire to justify himself before God; in other words, every person would rather be his own god. Only when God’s refining fire burns away all the “stuff” that isn’t gold can anyone’s gold shine through. That is the purpose of God’s painful, disintegrating, miserable, blistering refiner’s fire.

A Verse for Meditation

If we have died with him, we will also live with him. 2 Timothy 2:11

Paul wrote from prison to Timothy, a young pastor. Read what the experienced missionary said in verses leading up to this statement:

8 Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, descended from David. This is my gospel, 9 for which I am suffering even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But God’s word is not chained. 10 Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they too may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory. 2 Timothy 2:8-10

  • What two things are key to Paul’s teaching about Christ in this passage? Are these things important to your faith? How important is it that God kept his promise to Abraham and to David?
  • What is Paul’s situation? How does he explain his own ministry in this adverse situation? Have you personally experienced suffering or chains, or have you endured misery or pain for the sake of the gospel? Do you know anyone who has suffered for the faith?
  • What is one of the important reasons Paul endures and stands fast in the faith?
  • When Paul says, “we have died with him,” to what is he referring?
  • How will we live if we have died?

12    if we endure,
we will also reign with him.
If we disown him,
he will also disown us;
13    if we are faithless,
he will remain faithful,
for he cannot disown himself. 2 Timothy 2:12-13 

  • Today’s verse is the first of a list of promises. Read the promises. What happens to Christ’s work if we are faithful? What happens to Christ’s work if we disown him? What happens to Christ’s work if we are faithless? Who loses if we fail him and disown him rather than persevere and testify faithfully?

A Verse for Meditation

Torah ScrollFor he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well.   Philippians 1:29

  • What is special about the “privilege” of believing in Christ? What is do you receive as part of the privilege of believing in Christ that nonbelievers do not receive simply by living in the beautiful created order of things?
  • Do you agree that it is a privilege to suffer for Christ? Why?
  • In what way do you suffer for Christ? What do you think you might be required to suffer for Christ in the future?
  • A few verses before this one, Paul said, “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” Clearly, in the verse above, he is saying something similar about our lives as well. What does he mean when he says, “to live is Christ?”