Suffering

‘Two others, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And they cast lots to divide his garments. And the people stood by, watching, but the rulers scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”

One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”‘

[Luke 23:32-43]

When thinking about how we should view suffering, it is worth considering first the responses of those who witnessed the suffering of Jesus when he was crucified. I am indebted to Carl Trueman whose own thoughts I found particularly helpful in this regard and which form the basis of the first part of this blog..

As you’ll be aware crucifixion was a particularly unpleasant way to die. The Roman orator Cicero described it as ‘a most cruel and disgusting punishment’ and suggested that “the very mention of the cross should be far removed not only from a Roman citizen’s body, but from his mind, his eyes, his ears.” The Gospel accounts are, however, remarkably light on the details of crucifixion. Luke in our reading this evening is far more concerned with the four different responses of those who witnessed Jesus’ death. Three responses were wrong – each tempting Jesus to use his status as the son of God to escape suffering. The fourth was fundamentally different – and absolutely right.

First then we have the religious rulers who in v35 scoffed at Jesus saying:

He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!’

One can understand the thinking of the religious leaders. Jesus hadn’t exactly endeared himself to them. Take the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. What Jesus had said in that parable was truly shocking. That God considered a truly repentant tax collector acceptable but not a Pharisee, who tithed and fasted so diligently, was hardly the stuff to win him friends in religious circles. Jesus had made the lives of the religious leaders a misery and, as a result, they had plotted for his death. Now, at last, it seemed they had won.

They didn’t get everything wrong though. In fact they got something very right. They realised that Jesus had claimed to be the Christ, the chosen one of God. Indeed, it was these claims of his that were the fundamental problem they had with him. It was why they sought to have him put to death. They were also right to understand that the Christ’s coming was to bring about salvation and the coming of the kingdom of God. The fact that Jesus was now dying on the cross was, to them, proof positive that his claims were exaggerated for, surely, the Christ would not suffer and die in such a way. It seemed, to them, that as Jesus hung dying, their rejection of him as Messiah was being vindicated.

This however was their big mistake – a mistake they made because they couldn’t see what was happening on the cross in any other terms than their own. They didn’t understand the kind of salvation that Jesus would secure or the type of kingdom that the Christ would bring in. They mistakenly thought that that salvation would be a salvation from death.

The next response that we see is that of the soldiers. They too mocked Jesus saying:

If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!

Soldiers bring about the ends for which they are employed by force. They looked at the cross – and saw nothing but overwhelming defeat. Powerful men wield that power by force. If one thing is certain, it is that power is not epitomised by a man dying on a cross. But, like the religious leaders, they too were aware that Jesus had claimed something – that he was the King of the Jews – and they understood that his claims had something to do with salvation and a bringing in of a kingdom. ‘If you are the King of the Jews’ they said, ‘save yourself!’ But again, like the religious rulers, they too, could not see the cross in any other terms than their own. Death in such a dreadful way was, for them, unquestionably, defeat.

The next voice we hear is that of the first thief. He is in just about as bad a position as one can imagine. He knows he is going to die soon – and in the most unpleasant of circumstances. And yet he chooses to add his sneers to those that have gone before saying:

Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!

On the verge of death he tragically makes the same mistake as the religious rulers and the soldiers before him. Like them he understands that Jesus has made claims about being the Christ and about salvation – but he too can only think of God on his own terms – that salvation is a salvation from death. Tragically he dies without an understanding of what is really going on right next to him.

So all three responses thus far rightly understand that Jesus has made claims about being the Christ and about bringing salvation. But they all make the same mistake – believing that salvation is a salvation from death. Consequently they see Jesus as fraudulent, weak and pathetically defeated.

But there is one more response for us to consider – that of the second thief. Often he is considered as an example of somebody with a simple faith – a simple faith which is, none the less, sufficient to save. But if we look carefully at the details of what he says we’ll see that his is a very profound theology.

Firstly, in v40 he asks of the first criminal:

Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation?

This second thief is in the exact same predicament as the first. Though experiencing the worst sort of torture, his focus is not on his present suffering, but rather, what is going to happen to him after his death. Being crucified is nothing compared to falling into the hands of a holy, fearsome and just God. Such a God should not be treated lightly. Such a God should be feared.

Do we, I wonder, appreciate our predicament as vividly as this thief did? We should.

In v41 the thief goes on:

And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds

He acknowledges the justice of his earthly punishment. He makes no excuses for his crimes but instead accepts his guilt and that the punishment he is receiving is deserved. Quite an admission.

Do we, I wonder, admit the same? We should.

In v41 the thief continues with the words:

But this man has done nothing wrong

He may not have understood that Jesus was totally without sin but he does appreciate that there is a fundamental difference between the two thieves and Jesus. He understands that Jesus is not on the cross because of anything that he had done wrong. He understands that Jesus doesn’t deserve to be there.

Do we, I wonder, understand similarly the reality, beauty and importance of Jesus’ sinlessness? We should – for if Jesus had sinned even once in his life, then his death could not have atoned, could not have paid for, our sin.

Then comes the thief’s remarkable statement in v42 – the moment he doesn’t make the same mistake that everybody else has been making. He says:

Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom

These words cast doubt on the idea that his is a minimal faith. Do you see their significance? Like everybody else that day, he sees Jesus suffering and dying on a cross but, unlike the others, doesn’t see defeat. He continues to speak of Jesus coming into his kingdom. For him Jesus’ death doesn’t mean an end to all the kingdom and salvation talk. All the others understood salvation as being a salvation from death, but this man sees that the salvation Jesus brings is a salvation THROUGH death – primarily the death of Christ. Jesus’ death isn’t the end of Christ kingdom – rather his death brings in his kingdom.

Do we, I wonder, understand so clearly such profound truth as this thief did? We should.

The faith the thief displays is why we should not be surprised by Jesus’ response when he says:

Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise

Jesus sees in the second thief somebody who gets it! Somebody who trusts the power of God despite seeing that which to unspiritual eyes is nothing but weakness. Somebody who sees victory where most would see defeat.

Do we, I wonder, get it too?

And so the second thief witnesses, at close quarters, Jesus’ substitutionary death on a cross that takes the punishment the thief, and we who also put our trust in Christ, deserve and which thereby spares him and us from Gods just wrath at our sinfulness – and secures for us a place in paradise with him.

So what about ourselves – how do we view the world? By nature, we think differently to the way that God thinks and, as a result, if we are not very careful, we will make all kinds of mistakes. Romans 12 reminds us – we need to change our way of thinking:

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

God thinks differently to us (Isaiah 55:8)

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord

We must learn to think more like God if we are to understand the Cross.

For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

The fact that God thinks differently to ourselves should challenge the way we think about our lives. Do we, like the Pharisees, soldiers and first thief, expect to escape suffering as Christians and live lives of comfort and ease. Or do we, like the second thief, expect suffering, perhaps great suffering, in our lives – and even see the need for it. And if so are we ready to accept it when it comes as part of God’s good plan for us?

As I have said, God thoughts are not our thoughts. We make a mistake if we think God is bound to act the way we think he should. Luther would have said that we are all prone to be theologians of glory – or as we might term it today, purveyors of a health, wealth and prosperity gospel. However much we may say we disapprove of such a gospel, we are all prone to think that God wants for us what we think is good for us. We need to be, as Luther would have said, Theologians of the Cross and understand not only that Jesus had to suffer – and ultimately die – as an atoning sacrifice for our sins, but that we are called to suffering too.

I’ll consider our suffering under four headings.

So firstly: We suffer because all suffer – Christians and non-Christians alike

There is vast suffering in the world – one only has to look at the news to realise that. And we all know something of what it is to suffer – some of you all too well. Fundamentally we suffer because we are living in a fallen creation. Suffering exists because of the reality of sin and, though we should guard against the inference that one’s individual suffering is a result of one’s individual sin, the fact remains that, were there no sin in the world, there would be no suffering.

I spent a brief time in hospital a year or two ago but more significant than my relatively trivial suffering was that of those around me. As I recovered and got to know the nursing staff better, I learned of the one whose niece died of breast cancer in her 30s, days before my admission, of the one whose son had died a few years previously, aged two; of the one whose mother died during my inpatient stay, and of the one whose husband had just been diagnosed with lymphoma.

Suffering is everywhere – I could tell you of a husband who lost a wife aged 40 and is left, himself with a crippling disease, to bring up his 11 year old son, of a mother who within a year lost two prematurely born children hours after birth and whose first child had previously lost her legs to meningitis, of a married couple who within weeks both received bad diagnoses – he of Parkinson’s Disease, she of inoperable cancer. I could tell you of colleagues and friends whose children died tragically young, who gave birth so prematurely that life was unsustainable, who delivered a baby whose stomach contents herniated into their chest compromising their ability to breath. I could tell you of those with crippling anxiety and hope destroying depression.

Some of the above are Christens – others are not. But we must not think that, as Christians we deserve better than those who don’t believe. We do not have a right to a healthy life without pain disability and bereavement? It’s normal for Christians to suffer – but we do not suffer without hope.

‘We know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the spirit grown inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved.’ Romans 12:22-24

Consider this illustration of John Piper. If, whilst walking through a hospital, you heard somebody screaming in pain – how you felt about what you heard would differ greatly depending on whether you were on an oncology ward or a labour ward. Our cries of anguish in our suffering are not unto death but rather they are unto life – and life eternal at that.

Heading number two – we will suffer because of the very fact that we are Christians. The Christian is called to a life of suffering.

We may not like the idea but it is one that is in the scriptures. In Acts, God, speaking of Paul, says

‘…I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name’ Acts 9:16

Paul himself writes to the Philippians

‘For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake’ Philippians 1:29

And to Timothy he says

‘… share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God, who saved us and called us to a holy calling.’ 2Timothy 1:8-9a

Most well known of all, Jesus calls us to take up our cross daily and follow him – ‘for whoever would save his life will lose it,’ he says, ‘but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.’

The suffering may be great. The writer to the Hebrews doesn’t pull any punches when he describes some of the suffering endured by Christians.

‘Others suffered mocking and flogging and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted and mistreated – of whom the world was not worthy – wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.’ Hebrews 11:36-38

As Christians, we must not demand a decent standard of living, fulfilling relationships, rewarding jobs and all that goes to make up what the world considers a good life. We have no right to health, wealth and prosperity. That is not normal Christian experience.

But surely you say, God wouldn’t want to deprive us of these things. We might like to think not. But remember, God thoughts are not our thoughts. Would God want Jesus to be beaten and tortured and left to hang on a cross? Well it seems He would. For the joy set before Him Jesus endured the cross despising the shame – we too are called to suffer.

So we must ask ourselves some tough questions – as to why we are Christians. Most fundamentally, we should ask ourselves are we Christians because Christianity is true – or because we see it as a means to personal fulfilment. Do we accept the scriptures as true because they are the word of God – or only so far as we agree with it? Do we know God to be good because we know that that is what He is – or do we only consider him good when he gives us what we want?

Paul learnt what it was to submit to God’s way of thinking – and so must we. He would dearly have loved the thorn in his flesh to have been removed, requesting three times for it to be taken from him. Paul no doubt believed that it would have been good if God had acceded to his request but God said ‘No’. Instead God simply told him ‘My grace is sufficient for you’. And so it is for us.

So then, God chooses for us to sometimes suffer. But how that suffering is perceived distinguishes the Christian from the non-Christian. The unbeliever looks on suffering and concludes that God must be either non-existent, or, alternatively, that He is not powerful or loving enough to prevent it. But to the one who believes, suffering doesn’t suggest any of these things. Rather, suffering reveals a God who thinks differently to us. Suffering ceases to be something to be avoided at all costs but rather, trustingly accepted for the sake of Christ.

Yes we are all called to suffer. But know two things – know your place in heaven will not be dependent on how well you endure that suffering – how patiently you bear it. If you, like me, can lose it over even the most trifling of hardships, take heart. Only Jesus ever endured suffering the way he should – and for Christians, for those ‘in Christ’, the way Jesus bore his suffering will, by God’s grace, be the way that God looks on as us as having suffered. Praise God that we are saved by grace. Know too that however great the sufferings of this present time may be, they are light and momentary compared to the glory that is to be revealed to us. Our suffering is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look, not to the things that are seen, but to the things that are unseen.

The call to us to embrace suffering is an offensive one – the gospel was ever thus – offending before it comforts. We are called to suffer and it will not be pleasant for any of us but we must accept that God works through suffering even as he worked through the suffering of his son. We are called to be like him – to join him in his suffering.

Rather than be offended that we are called to suffer, perhaps we should be amazed we are not called to suffer more. We have no rights – we are not our own – we are slaves of God – called to obedience. But remember – even as we are called to suffering we are caused to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled and unfading, kept in heaven for us, who, by God’s power, are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.

But first, I’m afraid, suffering. Only then is there glory. That is God’s way.

But why does God chose to allow us to suffer? This is mysterious ground and we should step carefully. The answer may never be ours to know and the wisest counsel may be to keep silent when asked to give a reason for a persons suffering – there is certainly no easy, concise, one size fits all answer. God’s answer, from out of the whirlwind, to the questions Job asked of his suffering was

“I will question you” (Job 38:3)

G.K. Chesterton writes:

…God comforts Job with indecipherable mystery, and for the first time Job is comforted…Job flings at God one riddle, God flings back at Job a hundred riddles, and Job is at peace. He is comforted with conundrums. The riddles of God, Chesterton writes, are more satisfying than the solutions of men’

In the prologue to the book of Job we see that Job was tormented, not because he was the worst of men, but because he was the best. There is a sense, therefore, in which Job points us towards Jesus. Job is not told that his misfortunes were due to his sins, or part of any plan for his self improvement – but we are, none the less, told that he was allowed to suffer under God’s sovereign care. That a good man should suffer at the hands of a loving God is a paradox. Chesterton calls it ‘the very darkest and strangest of … paradoxes’ which is, none the less, ‘by all human testimony the most reassuring’. The truth is that the infinite mystery of God is enough to inspire our trust in his sovereign goodness, even when the specific reasons to why we suffer remain a mystery.

So why do we suffer – we will never fully know the answer to that question. But, having hopefully stressed the mystery inherent in the question, and the foolishness of trying to give specific reasons for our specific suffering, God isn’t, I believe, totally silent as to some of the reasons why we might suffer. At least part of the answer comes in our third and fourth headings the first of which is:

When we suffer for the sake of Christ’s and the gospel – we glorify him

If you were to ask yourself : ‘Where, in all of history, has God most glorified himself ?’ the answer you would be right to come up with would be: ‘At the cross of Jesus Christ’. And it wasn’t by delivering Jesus from the cross that he was glorified – rather it was by his being crucified that Jesus was glorified.

What was true for Jesus is also true for ourselves. Paul writes:

‘Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, that is, the church.’ Colossians 1.24

Paul is not saying here that Christ’s sufferings were not sufficient for our salvation – but, for the sake of the church being reached, for the sake of the gospel being spread, suffering on the part of those who share it, is necessary.

Peter makes clear that we glorify God as we suffer for his sake. He writes

‘…if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name.’ 1 Peter 4:16

Jesus, speaking after his resurrection, told Peter of how, when he was old, he would stretch out his hands, be dressed by another and be carried to where he did not want to go. This he said to show by what kind of death Peter was to glorify God.

Faith is not believing in a God who provides health wealth and prosperity – there is nothing in such a belief that makes the world sit up and take notice – who wouldn’t want to follow such a god. The truth is that those who embrace a prosperity gospel do not honour God – rather they honour that which their imagined god can give. True faith is trusting in the God who is there – the God who has revealed himself to us by his Spirit, through His word and in His son Jesus Christ. And when we suffer for what we believe about that God, for the sake of Christ and the gospel, and yet still continue to hope in Him – well then the world looks on and wonders why. And it concludes that we must value this God very highly if He is more valuable than the earthly comforts the rest of the world chases after. Surely he must be great to warrant such devotion.To pinch a phrase from John Piper, ‘God is most glorified in us in our suffering, when we are most satisfied in Him, in our suffering.’

And this is also true when we continue to hope in God in our every day, non-gospel related suffering. And the reasons for our hope? Those reasons we should be ready to give to those puzzled folk who, looking on, enquire of them? Well here are just three!

First Peter gives us this:

‘Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world. And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen and establish you. To him be the dominion forever and ever. Amen’ 1 Peter 5:9-11

Secondly Jesus himself says

‘Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother of father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.’ Mark 10:29-30

And then thirdly he says in Revelation:

‘Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.’ Revelation 2:10

And so to our last heading – another reason why God may choose to allow us to suffer.

Our suffering is for our own good

Again this is counterintuitive. How can suffering be for our good? But we must not lean on our own understanding but believe God’s word that assures us that suffering is indeed good for us. First Paul:

‘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 5:3-5

And Peter writes:

‘But rejoice insofar as you share in Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you’ 1 Peter 4:13-14

This is counter cultural and counter intuitive stuff – but true none the less. Suffering should not surprise us. Rather than shaking our confidence in God when it comes our way – if we have an understanding of the way God uses it, we will trust that he sends it our way for our good.

The truth is we grow through suffering. Jesus, the book of Hebrews teaches us, was made

‘…perfect through suffering’ Hebrews 2:10

and amazingly.

‘…learned obedience through what he suffered. Hebrews 5:8

It will be no different for us.

A couple of years ago, as I mentioned, I had a brief spell in hospital. In the early days of my hospital stay, I was pretty crook and there was a concern, as doctors undertook tests, that I had an underlying malignancy. I remember lying in my hospital bed conscious of the fact that I might die. I would like to have been sure that God would heal me and I never doubted that he could. But I do not believe I had a right to assume he would. I had to face the fact that God may have chosen for me to die. If that was his will – then I had to be OK with it – for if he loves me, then he loves me even as he calls me to die. And had that been his will, it would have been for my good. Why he chose to bring that tricky time my way I do not know, and in all probability, not for me to ever fully understand. But I do believe it was for my good. If nothing else, suffering is an effective way to break our love affair with all that the world tells us we should want. If nothing else suffering helps us to fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfect or of our faith – and that is always a good thing for us to do.

J.C. Ryle, the 19th century Bishop of Liverpool, had it right when he said this:

“Let us mark this well. There is nothing which shows our ignorance so much as our impatience under trouble. We forget that every trial is a message from God and intended to do us good in the end. Trials are intended to make us think, to wean us from the world, to send us to the Bible, to drive us to our knees. Health is a good thing. But sickness is far better, if it leads us to God. Prosperity is a great mercy. But adversity is a greater one, if it brings us to Christ”

In suffering, our comfort doesn’t come from false assurance that in this life all will end well in worldly terms. Rather our comfort comes from knowing that our suffering is in the sovereign hands of our loving Heavenly Father who wills it for our good. If we, by God’s grace, are able to grasp something of his wisdom in our suffering then, perhaps we too may be able to respond like Paul who wrote:

‘For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith – that I may know him and the power of his resurrection and may share in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.’ Philippians 3:8b-11

And

‘For the sake of Christ then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.’ 2 Corinthians 12:10

We must learn to embrace suffering – we cannot look forward to eternal glory without giving up all rights now. It is not all about us and our fulfilment in this life. As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15,

if Christ was not raised, and we have hope in this life only then we are of all people most to be pitied.

Christian faith may well, in worldly terms, make things worse for us in this life – not better. If Christianity is not true then eat drink and be merry for tomorrow we die – go for maximum pleasure today for to behave in any other way makes no sense whatsoever. But Jesus WAS raised from the dead and Christianity IS true. As such we should be different from the world around us – in it and all its suffering – but not of it. We should stop living for this life only, for our own fulfilment and comfort today. Instead we must live according to the truth – valuing above all else the spiritual blessings we already have in Christ and accepting suffering when it comes, as come it shall, confident that the God who loves us has ordained it for our own good.

J.C. Ryle again:

“The Lord Jesus makes no mistakes in managing His friends’ affairs. He orders all their concerns with perfect wisdom: all things happen to them at the right time, and in the right way. He gives them as much of sickness and as much of health, as much of poverty and as much of riches, as much of sorrow and as much of joy, as He sees their souls require. He leads them by the right way to bring them to the city of habitation…He mixes their bitterest cups like a wise physician, and takes care that they have not a drop too little or too much. His people often misunderstand His dealings; they are silly enough to fancy their course of life might have been better ordered: but in the resurrection-day they will thank God that not their will, but Christ’s was done”

So let’s be like the second thief who hung on that cross alongside Jesus. Let’s not see suffering as a contradiction of what Christianity should be – rather let’s see suffering as a necessary means to our eternal hope, lovingly ordained for us by our Heavenly Father for our good and his glory. And above all else let us hope in Christ alone – whose perfect sacrifice on the cross for us is what guarantees for us a place in the eternal holy city, the new Jerusalem, where God will dwell with us. We will be his people and God himself will be with us as our God. Then he will wipe away every tear from our eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things will have passed away.


For some tentative thoughts on why bad things sometimes happen to good people, click here

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