THE PURPOSE OF SUFFERING IN CHRIST
1. God brings good out of what is evil
2. The Necessity of Suffering in Christ
3. The Purpose of Suffering in Christ
If I were to ask the question to any congregation of the Church as to whether they would want to be overcomers in Christ, fearlessly pursuing the works of darkness and putting to rout the dominion of darkness, I’m sure that there would be a loud ‘amen’ heard - even if it were only silently in their hearts - and, if asked for a show of hands, the vast majority would vote in favour of the proposition.
It would be an altogether different proposition, however, if I were to ask them how many would want to suffer for Christ. The desire just wouldn’t be there to find pain in their stand for the cross and for the sake of the Gospel. The problem, though, is that you cannot isolate one phenomenon from the other as the two go hand in hand - indeed, it is sometimes only through suffering that victory is ever achieved and the idea that we can wave a few guns in the air (spiritually speaking) and expect satan to back off or run away is inaccurate and deceitful.
The early Church found that the two went hand in hand and that it was often only when they were willing to lay their lives down and die for the Truth (an event which always looks as if a defeat has been achieved rather than a victory) that they found the effectiveness of the Gospel was demonstrated through the lives of many individuals who wouldn’t otherwise have come to know Jesus and His work.
These notes are presented, therefore, to safeguard us from ever thinking that victory will be cheap and that the cost to ourselves will be negligible. Though the provision for victory is solely in the cross of Christ, there needs to be some part of ourselves that must be exercised and employed if we, the Church, will ever be found to progress ‘from victory unto victory’.
1. God brings good out of what is evil
Romans 8:28 records for us the statement that ‘To the ones loving God, He works together all things for good...’ This verse has been the subject of much discussion over the years but, simply, the bottom line is that all our mistakes (that is, our weaknesses and failings as opposed to our rebellious acts of disobedience), God has already foreseen and has already sown them into His plan for our life so that, far from being unnecessary hiccups on the road to fulfilment, they become the means whereby His purpose is realised.
The phrase used - ‘to the ones loving God’ - speaks of a continuous experience and has to do with obedience to what we know the Father would have us do. Notice John 14:21 for instance which tells us that ‘He who has My commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves Me’ and I John 5:3 which says that ‘...this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments’
Loving God has to do with obedience and, even though our weaknesses and mistakes, we feel, may detract from the move of God in our lives, they are actually used by God to bring about His purpose for us and those around us.
Yet, God goes one step further in His dealings with us - and with man in general - and uses what is total rebellion and sin to be woven into the outworking of His purpose. The phrase ‘all things’ in Romans 8:28 does not exclude anything - that is, everything will work for the advantage of those who love God (that is, those who obey Him). God will use both sin and suffering to be an integral part of the outworking of His will and purpose for us.
Ephesians 1:11-12 records for us the statement that ‘In [Christ] according to the purpose of Him who gives power to/works in all things according to the counsel of His will, we who first hoped in Christ have been destined and appointed to live for the praise of His glory’ This phrase ‘all things’ is, transliterated, ‘ta panta’ and means ‘the totality’ and is used frequently with this meaning in mind in the passage Col 1:15-20.
Nothing, therefore, is left outside His control - including sin - so that He ‘gives power to’ and ‘works in’ situations that are opposed to His will in order that what He purposes will come about. God works even in the ‘evil’ situations to bring about His will for the sake of mankind but especially (as in both passages quoted) for the fulfilment of His purpose for the saints.
This raises a few interesting possibilities that we need now to address in order to safeguard what we have been saying here:
a. God does not cause sin (that is, evil) so that He can fulfil His purpose
In the long-standing debate between Calvinism and Armenianism, one of the ‘bones of contention’ has often been whether God predestines one to be saved and predestines another to be cast into hell.
With regard to the second part of the question, the answer is an emphatic ‘No!’ - God does not make men sin but, when He created the universe, He gave man the ability to choose sin and, in His foreknowledge, knew man would sin.
b. God does not want us to sin so that He can bring about His purpose
Paul asks the question in Romans 6:1-2 ‘Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?’ and answers emphatically ‘By no means!’
Individual sin will take a person out of God’s will for His life as an individual and within the body of believers. If I sin, God has to bring me into a place of true repentance before He can effectively use that sin for my benefit, and, a person who sets his heart into the way or lifestyle of sin may find that he becomes hardened (like Pharaoh) and will not choose to repent when given opportunity by God to do so.
c. God does not want us to accept every situation as being ‘from the Lord’
It is right for us to seek the Lord to change the situation and pray accordingly - Jesus went around changing situations that were opposed to the Father’s will and we are called to do the same.
But, like Paul the apostle found (II Cor 12:1-10), it is not possible to change every situation because God may have chosen it as a vessel that will fulfil His purpose for His people.
There also remains the possibility that, before God grants us a change of situation, we must live obediently to Him and be victorious over the situation so that it is not affecting our walk with God. After all, we can feel victorious when things go well for us, but can we maintain our walk with and complete trust in God when there is war raging all around us?
Having given those safeguards, we now need to go on and consider some examples from Scripture of where God brought good out of what was evil:
a. The Genealogy of Christ
Mtw 1:3, 6
Judah and Tamar’s union to produce Perez and David and Bathsheba’s union to produce Solomon/Nathan came about as a result of sin (David was certainly judged in this life for his sin but, had it not been for the initial adulterous relationship with Bathsheba, Solomon would never have been born), but God took hold of the situation and used it to bring the Messiah to earth to fulfil His ultimate purpose for mankind.
Out of man who is spiritually dead, God brought Christ who is the source of all spiritual Life. Sinful acts were used to bring about the lineage and birth of Christ.
b. The Cross of Christ
Acts 4:25-28 Cp 2:23, 3:18
When the Pharisees and Sadducees plotted to murder Jesus (John 11:45-53 - esp v.53) and Pilate delivered Him up to be crucified (John 19:16, Mtw 27:24-26), God was allowing man’s rebellion to manifest itself in their rejection of the Son yet all the while using it to put Christ on the cross and fulfil His ultimate purpose for mankind.
Note Acts 4:25-28 here which comments on the Passion narrative. It was not that God overruled their sin, but that He used their sin to be a part of the means whereby His will was accomplished. Jesus allowed the sinful actions of men to put Him on the cross - He did not resist their will for He knew that to do so would be to resist the Father’s will (Mtw 26:42, Mtw 5:39-40).
In both the above, we see examples of where sin caused God’s will to be done. In the following four, however, we see examples of where sin led to suffering which consequently caused God’s will to be done.
‘It all went horribly wrong for Silas and Paul at Philippi’?
When they demonstrated the victory of Christ by overcoming satan in the life of a local slave girl, they were persecuted, were beaten (16:22-23) and thrown into prison with their feet in the stocks (16:24). But, through their imprisonment, the jailer and his entire household were saved.
Sin (the persecution of God’s people) was the means whereby God got His servants into the right place so that His will was done. Overcoming the situation and being victorious through it meant having to suffer.
d. The martyrdom of Stephen
Acts chapter 7 and 8:1, 4
The first seven chapters of the book of Acts cover a period of a number of years and the Church in that time had done little to preach the Gospel outside Jerusalem.
But, when the persecution fell upon the Church, the believers were scattered all over the place and, wherever they found themselves, they spoke the word of Christ (Acts 8:4).
It was through the martyrdom of Stephen and the resulting persecution that God got His servants into areas where the Church had not at that time been established. God used tribulation and the sin of Stephen’s murder to bring about His will.
Notice here that the believers didn’t contemplate the philosophical question ‘I wonder if God wants me to be a martyr for Christ in Jerusalem?’ but, very spiritually, they turned tail and ran - it was the right time to flee, not to stand and fight.
e. David’s flight
I Samuel 19:11
Saul’s jealousy and his attempted murder (both of which are sin), caused David to flee for his life into the wilderness away from Saul and, seemingly, away from the presence and promises of God. But, like Moses before him, it was there that God was preparing his man to take over from Saul when God finally removed him in battle in judgment (I Sam 28:17-18). It was in the wilderness, also, that David wrote many of his psalms (Psalms 18, 34, 52,56, 57, 63, 142) and, without the experience, they could not have been written.
f. Joseph sold into slavery
After Joseph had been sold into slavery by His brothers, he had been punished by Potiphar even though he had done nothing wrong and had been forgotten by the butler and left in prison. After all this ‘unnecessary’ suffering, Joseph was able to say concerning the original act by his brothers ‘...you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive...’
The ‘dark years’ were how God did it - sin was a part of the way of the fulfilment of the dream (Gen 37:5-11).
God often incorporates sin into the outworking of His plan so that, without it, it would not come to pass. He does not make men sin but knows that they will, so He can anticipate it before it ever happens - it does not take Him by surprise. God does not always overrule sin but He will use sin to be a part of the means whereby His will is accomplished. God uses the imperfect, even the totally rebellious, to bring about the purpose of His will while still upholding individual human responsibility.
Today, we may look at situations in which sin is dominant and seeks to overwhelm us (though we should be reminded of Romans 8:38-39 which tells us that ‘nothing can separate us from God...’). We may even be in circumstances where another person’s sin is causing an effect upon our own lives, bringing suffering, tribulation and even persecution. It is not always the correct action, however, to remove ourselves from the situation (though sometimes it is - otherwise there is no choice in the matter) but we need always to be obedient to Jesus as we go through the trial, knowing that He will fulfil His purpose for us not in spite of the sin but because of the sin. If we are obedient to God, then others’ sin will only bring about a fulfilment of God’s purpose for us - it cannot make us lose what God has for us.
When even what is opposed to God brings about His will, you know that in anything and everything, you can’t lose!
2. The necessity of suffering in Christ
Before we go on to look at the purpose of God in suffering (that is, how it affects us as individuals positively), let us remind ourselves of a few Scriptures that point us to the inevitable conclusion that suffering is part of the christian’s life and not an optional extra:
Acts 14:22 - ‘...through many tribulations we must enter the Kingdom of God’
This was one of Paul’s exhortations to the church that had already been established (that is, to believers and not the unsaved). Though none of us would look forward to times of suffering, we must arm ourselves with the expectation that suffering is part of our lot as christians. That doesn’t mean that our lives should be consumed totally by suffering and that we should experience no times of joy and great happiness but that, as christians, we cannot be expected to be immune from all forms of tribulation.
II Tim 3:12-13 - ‘...all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted while evil men and impostors will go from bad to worse...’ The inference here appears to be that godliness is not compatible with the ways of the world and will therefore reap its rewards from a society that is set upon achieving their own ends at any cost. There will be things that christians cannot be participants in and will, therefore, find that they are rejected by men and women who are intent on doing such things.
Hebrews 12:1-11 - Verse 4 reads ‘In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood...’ and verse 7 reads ‘...it is for discipline that you have to endure...’ The writer speaks of the ‘struggle’ against sin and parallels it with the possibility that one’s blood might have to be shed in the future.
John 16:33 - ‘...in the world you have tribulation...’
John 16:2-3 - ‘...whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God...’
Revelation 12:11 - ‘...[the saints] have conquered [satan]...for they loved not their lives even unto death’ This is more than expecting satan to flee with a few prayers spoken with conviction! Overcoming the evil one may sometimes require laying down our lives that the victory might be achieved.
I Thess 3:3-4 - ‘...no one be moved by these afflictions. You yourselves know that this is to be our lot’
See also Mk 10:29-30, Mtw 7:14, John 15:20, II Cor 4:8-12, I Peter 5:9
In our own minds we often equate suffering with the curse of God - the phrase ‘what have I done to deserve this?’ is a phrase used by the world and which sometimes affects our own way of thinking.
Indeed, the Jewish leaders could not perceive of a ‘Christ’ that suffered for this very reason and so missed God’s plan for their lives. There failure should serve as our warning.
3. The purpose of suffering in Christ
or ‘How God uses suffering for our own advantage’
[NB - I Peter 4:15-16 - Suffering out of God’s will can only lead us to obedience to God’s will and is purposeless for advance in Jesus. If we sin, we suffer as a consequence - if we do not sin but find ourselves in a situation where we suffer (often because of another’s sin), we will grow in Christ. Suffering in God’s will brings a blessing in Christ (Mtw 5:10-12)]
Why, then, must we suffer, experience tribulation or be persecuted? What is its purpose in our lives? What changes does it bring about for our benefit? Why are we better with it than always without it?
The story of Shadrach, Meshech and Abednego (SMA) in Daniel 3 illustrates three points concerning God’s purpose for us as individuals. SMA had refused to worship the god that Nebuchadnezzar had set up in the province of Babylon (3:1), they were brought before him and ordered to bow down (3:13-15). Their position was completely clear - they were servants of the God of gods and would not serve the idol (3:16-18). Notice that SMA did not know whether God would save them (3:18), only that he could save them (3:17). Likewise, we know that God can save us from trials but not necessarily that He will.
And so, because of their faith in God, they refused the easy way out and chose the path of tribulation, suffering and persecution. The fiery ordeal that awaited threatened to destroy them utterly, but God caused them to experience that, far from being a place of cursing, the furnace was a place of blessing in three specific areas:
a. The furnace was a place where they found release
3:23 - ‘...these three men...fell bound into the burning fiery furnace...’
3:24-26 - ‘...I see four men loose and walking in the midst of the fire...’
As the apostle Peter wrote (I Peter 4:1-2) ‘...whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin so as to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer by human passions but by the will of God’
Whatever seeks to bind us, restricting us from living the way that God intends us to live in Christ, is consumed in the flames of the fiery trials that we experience.
We become more like Christ for we die to part of the old life that still clings to us. It is Jesus’ way and not our own that effects the reality of the crucifixion of the cross in the old nature even though the way of the cross is more painful than the way we would choose.
Hebrews 12:11 tells us that ‘For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant; later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it’
Discipline (the context of verses 1-10 indicates that suffering is to be associated with the Lord’s discipline) is a ‘training ground’ where we become people who live more in accordance with the character of Christ, displaying more of a depth in the fruit of the Spirit after the time of discipline than before (Gal 5:22-24).
Changing us in the situation is often the way God chooses rather than changing the situation around us - getting Israel out of Egypt was the easier part of the Exodus for God but, what followed in the wilderness, showed that the ways of Egypt had not yet been taken out of the hearts of Israel.
See also Malachi 3:2-3.
b. The furnace was a place where they grew in power
3:30 - ‘Then the king promoted SMA in the province of Babylon...’
As the apostle Peter wrote (I Peter 5:9-10) ‘And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace...will Himself restore, establish and strengthen you’
The trial is only for ‘a little while’ - when we enter a time of ‘testing’, when the enemy attacks us in order to destroy God’s work in us, we may initially not be experiencing God’s power to overcome him immediately and so we get knocked about. But, after a short time, God strengthens us and causes us to be more steadfast in Him (James 1:2-4) so that we become, in reality, ‘more than conquerors’.
Though the storm may be fierce, we end up more powerful, more able to cope, than when we entered into it - if we continue our obedience to Christ throughout.
Notice that SMA were promoted (3:30) probably above many of those who accused them before the king (3:3) - they received authority over the enemy that had attacked them and sought to destroy them.
Revelation 12:11 states that ‘[The saints] have conquered [satan] by the blood of the lamb, and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death’ The ultimate sacrifice for Christ is to lay one’s life down for Christ literally and die as a result of persecution or tribulation on account of Him.
Although the attitude of ‘loving not your life’ is necessary in every believer’s life, those that die for the Lord and not just in the Lord, seal the faith they have with their own blood. This unity with Christ in death cannot be fought against by satan and he is always defeated by it. The moment satan has to remove a saint by death because of the threat they pose to his dominion, is the moment that he has sealed his own defeat if the Church is willing to press on with the work that is at hand regardless of their brother’s martyrdom.
The Church is One - a believer’s victory in death is a victory for the Church still alive.
c. The furnace was a place where God became more real to them
3:25 - ‘...I see 4 men...and the appearance of the fourth is like a son of the gods’ (NB - many believe that this fourth person was none other than Christ; others that it was an angel. Whichever we believe, the point is the same - God became more real to them).
And God spoke through Isaiah (43:1-2) saying ‘...when you walk through the fire, you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you...I will be with you...’
Far from being a place where we ‘lose’ God’s presence, the fiery ordeal is a place where God draws near to us. Personally speaking, we may not feel His presence, but He will always be with us with more resources available for us, for He knows that our need is far greater in that time than at any other.
God does not always deliver us out of the situation, therefore, even though He can do this if He so purposes, but He works for our own good by changing us in the situation and then, after He has ‘restored, established and strengthened us’, He will move us on into another where we can grow to be more mature in Christ.
Suffering, then, is a means towards an end - the end that we will become more like Christ - and, provided we remain faithful and obedient to Him throughout that time, we will find our lives transformed and liberated from those things that have dogged and hindered us.
I have heard it said that suffering should be welcomed as a friend but no suffering is pleasurable.
However, the end result of suffering ‘in Christ’ is only ever for our benefit.