Recently I read the book of Philippians. I was particularly struck by Chapter 3 v 10 where Paul writes of how his desire is
‘that [he] may know [Christ] and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death’
It was challenging for me to read of how Paul wants to become like Jesus in his death. I don’t know about you but I have, over the years, found it easy to say how I want to be like Jesus. But when I have, I have always meant it in the sense of wanting to be like him in his moral perfection. I have never thought of it in terms of wanting to be like him in his death. Even so, that is what I am called to be.
As a result of reading Christopher Ash’s superb commentary on Job, I have been pondering of late the issue of suffering. God is sovereign over all things, but if God is sovereign, the question that is often asked is why does he allow bad things to happen to good people? Given that the Bible tells us that there is no one who is truly good [Romans 3:10-12], a better question might be, ‘Why does God allow bad things to happen to his people, to those whose sin is forgiven and are counted righteous and who, in that sense at least, suffer undeservedly?
God’s ways are frequently shrouded in mystery and so we may never fully know the reasons behind his actions. Nonetheless, without simplistically suggesting that it is the whole answer to the question, one reason why bad things sometimes happen to good people might be so that good things can happen to bad people.
We live in a world where grace and redemptive suffering go hand in hand. The very bad thing that happened to Jesus on the cross opened the door to a very good thing happening to us – the forgiveness of our sins, our adoption into God’s family and the assurance of eternal life with God. Without Christ’s redemptive suffering on our behalf, there would be no grace.
When as Christians we continue to suffer it is never as a punishment for our sins. Since all our sin was dealt with on the cross when Jesus bore there the punishment we deserved, there is now no punishment left for us to endure. The price has been fully paid, there is therefore, now no condemnation for those who are in Christ. [Romans 8:1]
Even so there is much that we need to learn if we are to be transformed into the likeness of Jesus. And so the Lord lovingly disciplines those he loves just as a Father disciplines his children. Sometimes the lessons will be painful, sometimes they will involve suffering. ‘For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.’ [Hebrews 12:11]. If, as the writer of the letter to the Hebrews tells us, Jesus was made perfect through suffering [Hebrews 2:10], we should not be too surprised when God sends it our way to make us more like Christ. Sometimes, rather than being silent in our suffering, it is through our suffering that God speaks. ‘He delivers the afflicted by their affliction and opens their ear by adversity’ [Job 36:15].
But there is another reason why we sometimes suffer. Sometimes it is for the sake of the gospel. Such suffering, as Paul tells us in Colossians 1:24, is ‘filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church’. Paul is not suggesting here that Jesus’ death wasn’t fully sufficient for salvation but rather that more suffering will be required to bring the news of that salvation to those who do not yet know of it. Sometimes, therefore, our suffering is for the sake of others, the means by which grace comes to those who do not yet know the good news.
Paul doesn’t want to suffer for his sin, to do so would be to reject all that Jesus did for him at Calvary, but he does, I think, want to share in the sufferings of Christ and to be like him in his death, so that not only may he become more like Jesus, but also so that he might be used by God to bring the gospel to others.
The question I must ask myself is do I really want to know such suffering too?
If we do suffer for the sake of the gospel, whether as a direct result of our witness or by testifying to the beauty of the gospel as we continue to hope in it as we suffer, we can draw comfort from knowing that such suffering isn’t meaningless, that it has purpose, that it is for the sake of others. Furthermore, knowing that we have been considered worthy to suffer dishonour for the sake of the name of Jesus, we may even, like the disciples in Acts 5, find ourselves able to rejoice in our suffering even though that same suffering will bring with it great sorrow.
This isn’t to suggest that we should masochistically go in pursuit of suffering. Rather it is, perhaps, to suggest that there should sometimes be an acceptance that, when God lovingly sends suffering our way, that which we lose and which we are prone to value so highly is, in reality, often so much ‘garbage’. [Philippians 3:8]. Furthermore, we can take comfort that the suffering we do experience now is not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us [Romans 8:18], and that, however painful it genuinely is today, this light, momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison [2 Corinthians 4:17]. If we understand this we will, perhaps, be a little more like Jesus in his death, in the way we accept the suffering that God allows us to experience – not that we will ever suffer to the degree that Christ did.
Sometimes bad things happen to good people, so that good things can happen to bad people. We rejoice that the worst possible thing happened to Jesus, the best of all persons, so that good things might happen to sinners like us. Let us pray, therefore, that like Paul we too might be prepared to share in the sufferings of Christ so that we might be used by God as a means of his grace by which his good news is brought to those who still need to hear it so badly.
And that wouldn’t be a bad thing, in fact it would be a very good thing indeed.
Because to suffer in such a way, seemingly undeservedly, far from being evidence of injustice on God’s part would, in fact, be evidence of his grace, both to those he reaches as a result of our suffering, and to we ourselves who, as well as being made more Christlike by it, can also what it is to experience the joy of being counted worthy to be used by Him in such a way.
For some further thoughts on suffering, click here