I write this with a sort of heaviness and seriousness. As I observe the Church and the Christian community by which I am surrounded, I have noticed a serious problem. Though there are (probably many) exceptions, it is obvious that the modern western church has consistently neglected the Christian teaching on suffering. Popular Christianity in the West seems to have almost completely ignored this fundamental biblical theme.
What I mean is this: We have become very proficient at preaching a “gospel” that promises Eternal Life if we simply are willing to surrender our lives to Christ, but have almost completely failed to explain what that surrender involves. Almost nothing is said about repentance; we mention it as we lead in prayer—“Lord, right now, I repent of my sins; please forgive me”—but we have not explained the great cost associated with that repentance. Often, the first mention of it when we present the Gospel is during that prayer. We have not explained what repentance really is supposed to be like, what its consequences are, that it involves a dramatic reorientation of our lives. One of the best biblical examples of true repentance is the Apostle Paul, whose life had changed so dramatically that he who was once a persecutor and hater of Christ would go on to live a life characterized by being persecuted on behalf of Christ. He had repented.
So almost nothing is said of repentance. But probably even less is said in our western congregations about suffering. Can you remember the last time you heard a sermon on the role of suffering in the life of a Believer? You may not have noticed any imbalance at all in this area simply because it is talked about so infrequently. We address it so rarely that we don’t even consider it to be a biblical theme, much less a neglected one.
But it is a biblical theme, one that the New Testament emphasizes throughout. With the following words, I desire to show the importance of suffering in a Believer’s life from a New Testament perspective. The authors of the New Testament considered suffering and persecution to be an inevitability for Believers—and they were only reiterating the words of their Master, who taught that all of His followers would be hated for their faith.
I am certainly not an expert on this topic, but the Scripture is so clear on this issue that expertise is not required to get a handle on it. For that reason, I intend to present the Scriptures and draw some simple conclusions. Please open your heart to the Word. Take it at face value.
Jesus blessed the persecuted in Matthew 5:10-12. He said, "Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you."
Throughout this list of Beatitudes, Christ blesses those the world tends to discard and despise—the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful. The world tends to resist these positions, considering them to be examples of weakness. For instance, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are those who consider themselves in need of something more than what they can provide for themselves—it’s a state of need and desperation. The world resists such a position. But Christ blesses it. And He goes on to bless those who are insulted, persecuted, and slandered on behalf of Christ. But we tend to resist that position; and even though Christ tells us to rejoice and be glad, we avoid persecution. We often do so at the expense of our obedience to Christ.
In John 15, Jesus promises His Disciples persecution. He says, "If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember what I told you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also. They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the one who sent me."
Don’t we understand the implication of not being persecuted on account of Christ? Christ taught that the world would hate His followers; what can be said if we are embraced by the world? If the world loves us—if the world has embraced you and me—can we really be considered followers of Christ? For the world hated Christ; it resisted Him and rejected Him. How arrogant is it that we should consider ourselves good followers of Christ while the world embraces us? Have we identified with Christ at all at that point—Christ who was “despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain” (Isaiah 53:3)? How can we claim Him? How can we claim to emulate Him?
Paul also believed and taught that to identify with Christ implicitly involved identifying with Him in His suffering. In Philippians 3, Paul so profoundly states that he considers nothing of value compared to simply knowing Christ. “But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ” (verse 7). Then, in verse 10, he bares his heart: “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death (emphasis mine)”. Have you ever considered those last few words? Paul wanted to know Christ completely, not only the power of His resurrection but also the fellowship of sharing in His sufferings, becoming like Him in His death. We preach the former but not the latter. We embrace Christ’s resurrection but resist His suffering. And we must not forget how this desire of Paul’s was fulfilled in his life, for he was also a man familiar with suffering. The descriptions of his persecution and suffering in 2 Corinthians 11:16-33 are impossible to ignore. And even while he wrote Philippians, he was confined to some form of imprisonment (Philippians 1:12-14).
In Galatians, Paul is attempting with all his efforts to turn the Galatian churches back to the Truth, for certain Jews had infiltrated the churches and were seeking to persuade the Believers to be circumcised. Paul considered this an affront to the true Gospel, which is by faith alone. In 3:3, he writes, “Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?” He is distraught, deeply frustrated, over this perversion of the Gospel. At the end of the letter, he writes, “Those who want to impress people by means of the flesh are trying to compel you to be circumcised. The only reason they do this is to avoid being persecuted for the cross of Christ” (6:12; emphasis mine). These people were apparently attempting to convince the Galatians to be circumcised so that they could avoid being persecuted by fellow Jews who would have demanded that all followers of Christ be circumcised in order to be considered true converts. Paul condemns this avoidance of persecution. Then, in verse 17, he points to his own sufferings: “From now on, let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus (emphasis mine).”
These Jews were preaching a “gospel” that was more palatable to their fellow Jews out of fear that they would be persecuted otherwise. My brothers and sisters, don’t we often preach a “gospel” that is more palatable to the world and even other Believers because we fear the weight of the True Gospel, a Gospel that promises sufferings and demands our very selves? It is certainly possible that these Jews who were disrupting the Galatian churches effectively avoided persecution. Should we consider ourselves safe because we have also managed to go unscathed? To be persecuted for preaching the True Gospel—complete with its difficult parts—would identify with Paul, who “bore on [his] body the marks of Jesus.” To make it through unharmed would identify us with those who preached another “gospel”.
Peter also understood that Believers would suffer. He wrote, “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed” (1 Peter 4:12-13). Again, to suffer on behalf of Christ was to “participate in the sufferings of Christ,” allowing us to identify with our Lord. Earlier in the chapter, the Apostle says, “[S]ince Christ suffered in his body, arm yourselves also with the same attitude, because whoever suffers in the body is done with sin” (verse 1). Peter says that suffering for Christ helps us to overcome sin.
Why are we so silent about this? Why do we fail to prepare ourselves or anyone else that suffering is inevitable for true Believers? I fear for my brothers and sisters who are unprepared concerning the truth that suffering and persecution will come. In the Parable of the Sower, Jesus says this of rocky ground: “The seed falling on rocky ground refers to someone who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away” (Matthew 13:20-21). Don’t we see how foolish we are to believe and preach a message that is silent about the weight of the cross Christ gives us to carry? We seem to prepare no one. And it breeds shallowness, rocky ground that is incapable of sustaining deep roots.
Hebrews 5 says that, though Christ was a son, "he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him" (verses 8-9). Suffering cultivated obedience in Christ that prepared Him for the work accomplished through His death and resurrection. "He became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him." Suffering will produce in us that obedience and, ultimately, the maturity of Christ, who was "made perfect." When persecution comes, may we have the same attitude of the disciples, who "rejoiced because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name" (Acts 5:41).