For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them. (John 13:15-17, ESV)
We in America and many in the western world have a society that is built around ease and the avoidance of suffering. We have insurance policies to cover almost any calamity that might head our way. We have labor saving machines that simplify our lives and make them more enjoyable and it seems that we have a pill for every physical ailment we might encounter. When an ailment comes upon us, we who call ourselves “Christians” rarely ask God what it is for in His eyes, or if He wants it to be cured before we head for the medicine cabinet or the phone to make an appointment with our doctors. Some of us take the time to pray, but what do we do when He is silent or the answer is “No!”? The following quote about suffering is from T. Austin-Sparks:
Take the problem of suffering. That may include many things; physical, circumstantial, spiritual. It may relate to ourselves or to others. Almost countless are the ways of God’s dealings with us, which are most trying and hard to bear. The most acute form of suffering is that which relates to God Himself: His silence; hiding Himself; seeming to have neither knowledge nor care. Prayers seem to be unheard, and are, apparently (we would say positively) unanswered.
What is the explanation? Well, the Word of God has made very clear that such an explanation exists.
There is one all-comprehending, all-embracing, all-governing purpose to which God has committed Himself, by creation, by redemption, and by union. That purpose is the conformity of a race to the image of His Son. This is man’s chief end and chief good. What more satisfied and ‘happy’ person is there – even amidst suffering and sorrow – than he or she who is most perfect in patience, love, faith, and the other ‘fruits of the Spirit’? If our requests regarding things were granted, while we were left the same people, unchanged in disposition and nature, it would not be long before we should be in the same unhappy condition over other things. There is possible for us some inherent quality that wears out circumstances and reigns above them. Some of the most radiant people have been the greatest sufferers in infirmity, poverty, or other forms of adversity; whilst the most ‘privileged’ are often the most discontented.
The solution to the problem of suffering does not lie in being philosophical; it is not in fatalistic resignation – ‘This is my lot; I suppose I must accept it’. It is not in passive or active suppression of desire. It is far removed from self-pity, bitterness, cynicism, or envy, and the rest of their wretched family of wilderness-makers and wanderers.
We may have to let go the particular occasion of our trouble, and first recognise, and then embrace with our heart, the fact that in the affliction there resides the immense eternal potentiality of an increase of the image of God’s Son, which is to be the one and the only character and nature of the eternal kingdom. We have too much visualised the ‘Heaven’ that is to be, as geographical and pleasurable, without giving sufficient weight to the fact of a [heavenly] nature to be inculcated and perfected [in us]. (1)
I know that when I was young in my walk with the Lord, I didn’t like His chastening nor did I clearly see what He was after in me. The evangelical mindset I was familiar with was that if we would just get saved we could have the best of both worlds, prosperity (if we were good tithers) and healing as we needed it in this life and perpetual happiness in the hereafter.
The word “sonship” and its significance didn’t get my attention until many years later when it was pointed out to me in the scriptures that the goal of the gospel was not just to take away my sins and get me into heaven, but that God had a much higher purpose in mind for those who are His. He desires many sons and daughters to be conformed into the image of His obedient and loving Son, Jesus Christ, and that conformity includes (and necessitates) suffering. Consider this passage,
But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. In bringing many sons to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering. Both the one who makes men holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers. (Heb 2:9-11, NIV)
We are of the same family as the Son of God and also are of the same perfecting process that He had to suffer through by the will of His Father. We see Jesus being tempted by the devil, rejected by His own earthly family and nation, misunderstood by His own followers and disciples and finally left alone by them to suffer and die. Paul understood this process belonged to Christ’s followers as well when he wrote to the Philippian believers.
That I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. (Phil 3:10-11, ESV)
Just as Christ’s Father did not leave Him to suffer and be alone forever, but raised Him from the dead, so He will do for all His children who have been purchased from the grip of the devil with His Son’s precious blood. Are you a member of God’s family? If so, dear saint, it is a “full meal deal.” We don’t get to pick and choose what parts of this life we are willing to accept because God knows that it is all necessary. Life is not all ice cream. We have to eat our vegetables, too. Paul wrote,
For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. (Rom 8:14-18, ESV – emphasis added)
Paul, if anyone, knew about suffering and rejection as he followed Christ…
Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one—I am talking like a madman—with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. (2Cor 11:23-28, ESV)
Then after all that and more he had to suffer being deserted by those whom he invested his life in at the end. To Timothy he wrote,
Do your best to come to me soon. For Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica. Crescens has gone to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia. Luke alone is with me… At my first defense no one came to stand by me, but all deserted me. May it not be charged against them! But the Lord stood by me and strengthened me, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion’s mouth. The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen. (2Tim 4:9-18, ESV)
But, he was not deserted by Jesus. Trying to find true fellowship among the saints of God can be a lonely business the further we go on this journey. It seems that we must all learn to find Christ alone as our sufficiency, but what a joy when we do.
Father, please bring us into a mature spiritual understanding that we can accept and embrace the sufferings of this life and that they are not worthy to be compared with the fullness of the sonship and glory you have in store for us as we are conformed into the image of your Son. Amen.