WHEN WE COME TO UNDERSTAND GOD'S PURPOSE IN SUFFERING FOR CHRISTIANS, (AND, IN FACT, EVERYONE), NOT ONLY DOES IT FIT INTO AND COMPLEMENT OUR UNDERSTANDING OF HIS AWESOME PLAN OF SALVATION FOR US, BUT IT GRANTS US A DEEPER COMPREHENSION OF "CHRIST IN US" AND THE MYSTERY OF HOW WE ARE BEING CHANGED FROM GLORY TO GLORY.
Suffering is not an optional extra for Christians. It "comes with the turf". However, don't get discouraged by that. Understood on the natural (carnal) level that would be a negative thought, but understood with spiritual comprehension it is the opposite.
Christians seem to swing to two extremes of view on this important subject.
Because Christ suffered we must too. Suffering is redemptive and therefore the more we suffer the better Christians we are. Suffering is understood to bring us closer to God and therefore believers will even have themselves crucified or beaten or they will endure multiple privations in order to cause the flesh to suffer.
This is not restricted to Christians. It comes naturally to human beings to desire to earn their salvation. Many religions involve "works" that the faithful must perform in order to achieve their ends. For example the Hindu practice of "PARIKRAMA" practiced in the region of Kathmandu involves devotees crawling 15 miles on their bellies, pulling themselves along by their hands towards the shrine of the god of destruction. Only the most determined make it the whole way.
Christians who believe that it pleases God if they "mortify their flesh", will engage in a variety of physical punishments in order to grow spiritually. Such activities are borne out of a false dualistic theology that looks at flesh as being evil (or at very best weak) and spirit as being good (or at very worst willing).
Some Christians have been taught that the New Covenant involves Jesus receiving all the bad while we receive all the good. It's the "divine exchange". Consequently it is believed to honour God the most by believing for health, wealth and happiness at all times and in all circumstances.
This particular extreme of viewpoint has become very prevalent in some Christian circles today and is causing much confusion to young believers. The "name it and claim it" teaching (or "blab it and grab it") involves "works" just as fully as the "cross-tianity ethos", but in a different way. Here, all our works are directed towards living the victorious Christian life through our faith in the Scriptures. "God said it, I believe it, that settles it" is the slogan. Anyone not living the "abundant life" is living below their destiny and not honouring Christ's sacrifice. The subtle inference is that those among us, who are not winning souls, are perhaps sick, unemployed, in debt or for whatever reason not full of joy and peace are in some way not pleasing God in their lives.
Because so many people have been converted under a gospel of "Come to God and get all your problems solved", many Christians spend their efforts on achieving satisfaction, fulfilment and spiritual experiences through their Christian efforts. They perhaps have been granted times of deep spiritual joy by the Father and spend their time trying to recapture this golden feeling. Some will go to endless meetings or follow charismatic "apostles" and "prophets" to experience wonderful manifestations in order to touch God afresh. They believe that unless they are "every day in every way, getting better and better" then they are backsliding.
Neither of the above extremes are God's will for his children. Ultimately, our understanding of suffering will depend on our concept of God. Is he either a remote "Father Christmas" figure up in the clouds whose only contact with us is to hand out goodies or a wrathful angry God waiting to punish us for each misdemeanour?
The truth is that God is love. His purpose in making all of creation is that he might pour out his love towards us human beings whom he has made in his image to be his children. He wants our very best and nothing will prevent him from giving that to us, the objects of his divine love. Everything in creation is working towards that end.
God is in control of the cosmos. Nothing has happened or ever will happen that God has not specifically allowed and ultimately caused to happen. The buck stops with God. And everything is working for our good.
Okay, if God is in total control and he is perfect love, why are we suffering? If I love my children, I don't make them suffer. Why should God be any different?
Good questions and the very ones I will now answer.
We need spiritual minds to understand spiritual truths. This isn't a cop out to say, "If you don't agree with me it must be because you're not as spiritual as I am". It's just the truth. But, don't worry, if you are a Christian you have a spiritual capacity to understand by the Holy Spirit who lives in you. All I am saying is this. Recognise that it is God who gives us spiritual understanding and wisdom. He also enables us to preserve it. Without his Holy Spirit our spiritual understanding leaves us.
Spiritual understanding isn't like natural (human) understanding. It is comprehension of a truth by our spirits as the Holy Spirit enlightens them. This level of understanding does more than enlighten us mentally to any particular truth. More importantly it empowers us. That is why Paul was able to write,
"So I say, live by the Spirit and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature." (Galatians 5:16)
When we begin to live "by the flesh" our spiritual wisdom begins to leave us and we fall into sin. The wisdom that teaches us to say "no" to temptation is no longer present with us. (We still have the "natural wisdom" so we know it's wrong but we don't have the strength in us to resist. It is inevitable because in us, that is, in our flesh, there is nothing that can empower us to do good.
If only we had a revelation of how totally helpless we are without Jesus.
Ask him to give you the understanding you need. He is completely willing to give it. The next bit I am going to write is spiritual truth. If you are spiritually minded you can understand it. It is capable of being totally misunderstood otherwise.
Because most people don't comprehend this truth, they fail to see the difference between Christianity and every human religion (including Judaism which, although instigated by God, does not share the unique nature of Christianity.)
All other religions take man as a given. i.e. "man" is the way he is. He has problems and weaknesses etc. and the religion is there to guide him in ways of conduct that will be for his ultimate best. This may be in a life after death, nirvana or any other sort of ultimate destiny.
Essentially religions are there to make man better. One way or another they are about what people do.
Christianity doesn't try to make men better. Christianity recognises that man is unable to please God ultimately because his nature is evil. Christianity is about the death of the individual selfish ego rather than its improvement or enhancement. Christianity is, at heart, a sovereign work of God in an individual's life, rather than any work of man.
It is naturally illogical and unfathomable to the intelligent human mind. There is no way that one can acquire this understanding by human effort. Unless it is revealed to a person it will remain forever a mystery. However, God has a plan and a timetable to reveal this truth to everyone who draws breath.
Christianity teaches that man's ultimate and highest destiny is to serve God and please him forever. It isn't a "man centred" philosophy that primarily seeks our ultimate bliss. The truth is that serving God with all that we have and are is what we have been created for and will actually be the very thing that does give us ultimate fulfilment. However, if we try to go that way for that reason it doesn't work.
Christianity is impossible without the Holy Spirit empowering us moment by moment. Understanding suffering and the place it holds in Christian life is illustrative of this truth.
Christians are not the same as "natural" people
"...If anyone is in Christ, she is a new creation. The old has gone the new has come." (2 Corinthians 5:17)
This is vital to grasp. We are actually different.
This can seem at first to be a terrible thing to say, but it is true, nevertheless. As a human being, Jesus suffered.
"Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted." (Hebrews 2:18)
While his Son was suffering on earth, surely you don't imagine the Father was unaffected? Why should he be any different today? God cares about every single human being and he feels our pain.
God's plan of salvation for all mankind required that Jesus be the "Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" (John 1:29).
This was God's plan before the creation of the world (1 Peter 1:20) and shows that he intended to experience suffering in seeing that his purposes were fulfilled.
Suffering, therefore, is a part of the divine lifestyle. And yet, God is almighty, all powerful, all knowing and the omnipresent one. How can this be possible? Surely if God is all these things he could stop himself from having to suffer, couldn't he?
Yes he could, but there's another way out of the problem. His divine nature enables him to suffer joyfully. Yes, really! Moreover, Jesus, because he walked in the Spirit and received that Holy Spirit in his fullness continually, was able to live this same life of suffering with inner joy.
"Who for the joy set before him endured the cross." (Hebrews 12:2)
God is love. That is "totally unselfish desire for the other's good". There's human love, but that is only a shadow or type of God's love and it is conditional and often selfish (although positive and godly.) For example, a mother's love is something that God puts into a mother. It's beautiful, but it has its limits. God's love doesn't.
"Love suffers long. "Love is patient, love is kind. It always protects always trusts, always hopes always perseveres" (1 Corinthians 13:4,7)
Because God IS love, he is able to suffer long with us. He gladly suffers with us because we are his children.
"To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps." 1 Peter 2:21
Again, don't start to feel bad. Jesus was the most fulfilled joyful person who ever lived, even though he was, "A man of sorrows and familiar with suffering," (Isaiah 53:3).
That's because he was able to receive the divine nature. Just like you are...
Jesus was 100% man and 100% God because he had a human mother and a divine father. He didn't retain his all-knowing, all-powerful abilities when he became Mary's son. He emptied himself of all his divine power and glory and became a humble human being. He was made mature (Greek "perfected") through the things that he suffered.
"In bringing many daughters to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering." Hebrews 2:10
Jesus suffering and death on the cross was real. He really suffered physical, mental, and emotional agonies. But worse that all of these, he suffered spiritually. God abandoned him, who had known intimacy with God throughout his life, when he took all of our sins upon himself.
When he cried out "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Mark 15:34) Jesus wasn't just quoting the appropriate Old Testament scripture. He was calling out in spiritual torment and darkness such as only someone who had (until that moment) lived his entire life in the full light of God's presence, could understand.
To all appearances, Jesus died on the cross as a total failure. The kingdom that he had come to introduce died with him. Not one disciple stood with him. They all denied him (not just Peter). They all fled. The powers of darkness seemed to have completely won. Apparently, the kingdom, which consisted of the men he had spent so long training and putting so much of himself into, was destroyed.
Except that he was the kingdom and he remained faithful. All was not lost. All was won! By his suffering he smashed the power of darkness over all of mankind. This is what our God does. Not because he's powerful or all-knowing or omnipresent but because he is love, pure unpolluted love and in his weakest state love is more irresistible than every other force in the cosmos.
"His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine natureâ€¦ ( 2 Peter 1:3, 4)
This doesn't just happen as we sit back and watch our favourite soap opera on TV. It happens as we turn to God in prayer and he infuses us with his Holy Spirit. As God's children we are called to follow Jesus' example. Jesus knew that without the Father he could do nothing and so he turned to God in prayer for the strength to live in the Spirit continually. We can and must do the same. We will stumble and fall and we will need to receive grace daily, but we are, nevertheless, heirs of God.
"Now if we are children then we are heirs - heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory." (Romans 8:17)
It is through the very pains of life that we turn to God and receive his divine nature. So Christian suffering is a blessing from God.
"If you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God." (1 Peter 2:20)
"For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him but also to suffer for him." (Philippians 1:29)
The correct response of a Christian to suffering should and can be rejoicing. We can only do this through the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit. It isn't natural to rejoice when you suffer.
"Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed." (1 Peter 4:12-13)
"We put no stumbling block in anyone's path, so that our ministry will not be discredited. Rather, as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses; in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger; in purity, understanding, patience and kindness; in the Holy Spirit and in sincere love; in truthful speech and in the power of God; with weapons of righteousness in the right hand and in the left; through glory and dishonour, bad report and good report; genuine, yet regarded as impostors; known, yet regarded as unknown; dying, and yet we live on; beaten, and yet not killed; sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything." (2 Corinthians 6:3-10)
That was quite a long quote but think about what he was saying. How many self-styled apostles or "televangelists" in our western nations today follow such a lifestyle? "Hunger", "dying", "beaten", "sorrowful", "poor", "having nothing"â€¦ And yet somehow full of joy in the Holy Spirit. There is a dimension to Christian living that escapes the natural understanding. It's miraculous. It is God at work in his children.
Paul was able to suffer for doing right through the power of the Holy Spirit in him. He urged Timothy, a younger man in the ministry with him to follow suit.
"So do not be ashamed to testify about our Lord, or ashamed of me his prisoner. But join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God..." (2 Timothy 1:8)
Was this power of God working inside them something that just apostles and evangelists had back then? Apparently Paul thought it was for all the Church.
"Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any troubles with the comfort we ourselves have received from God. For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows. If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer. And our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort." (2 Corinthians 1:3-7)
We can't live this way in our own strength. Jesus said, "Apart from me you can do nothing." (John 15:5)
This is still true today. We need to go to him daily so that we can receive the strength that only the Holy Spirit imparts. Only then will we do the will of the Father. Only then will we walk in the Holy Spirit. Only then will we have living faith that will empower us to live holy thought lives. He can do it in us. We can't! By the Spirit we can endure suffering, (yes it will still take enduring) but with joy in the Holy Spirit.
Listen to the prayers at so many Christian gatherings in the West. They thank God for all his love and the blessings they already have and then they start to ask for more, for health, protection, security, for prosperity. They ask for their churches to grow larger, for their families and friends to get saved. They pray for their children to do well in their exams. They ask for God to be present in their meetings (as if he isn't!!!) and by this they really mean that they want him to reveal himself in miraculous ways to the lost and to them by saving people and healing them and doing signs and wonders among them.
Listen to the prayers of the suffering church. They give thanks and adoration to God in the middle of their sufferings. They pray for the grace to remain faithful. For the strength to endure. For courage and for love for their persecutors. They cry out to God in their emptiness and he fills them.
I am not trying to criticise any person, group or denomination. I want you to see the truth. Can you see the prayers that God answers? He doesn't answer prayers that ask him to take away all our sufferings. He answers prayers that ask for his strength to endure sufferings and to know fellowship with him in them and to experience joy in the trials.
"We also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character. Hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us."Â (Romans 5:3-5)
The apostle Paul suffered beyond his natural ability to suffer. It forced him to rely on God. He asked for prayers from the brethren, but not for more money for his evangelistic association. Listen to what he wrote to the Church at Corinth.
"We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about the hardships we suffered in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us, as you help us by your prayers. Then many will give thanks on our behalf for the gracious favour granted us in answer to the prayers of many."Â (2 Corinthians 1:8-11)
Paul wrote from his prison cell to the church at Colossi to say that he rejoiced in his sufferings. He recognised that it was "Christ in him" that enabled him to suffer this way.
"Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ's afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church." (Colossians 1:24)
This was a lifestyle he embraced gladly. He actually wanted to know Jesus more and more and recognised that deep fellowship with him comes from "being about his Father's business" with him. And that involves suffering.
"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, and so, somehow, to attain the resurrection from the dead." (Philippians 3:10-11)
Christian suffering isn't about God taking us in the Spirit off somewhere where we don't really feel the pain. As a man, Jesus felt suffering. When he died on the cross he experienced the physical pain, the mental and the emotional pain, the rejection, the hatred, the total loss of all his family and friends and disciples as well as the separation from his Father as the full weight of our sins came onto his shoulders.
God didn't insulate Jesus from real suffering. But he did empower him to go through it without sin. Jesus went through "hell on earth" yet without compromise.
Jesus promises never to leave his people. He will give us grace to live through any trial without sinking into sin as long as our eyes are fixed on Jesus. It will hurt like hell at times. It will feel like God is a million miles away at times. Those are aspects of some trials that Christians have to face. But he is faithful.
In the Old Testament Job said, "Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him." (Job 13:15)
God is looking to bring many sons and daughters to glory. The masterpiece of his creation is - us. Not as we were, but as he has transformed us by his Holy Spirit. He loves faith. Faith and love are the gifts of his Spirit. All our works (even the very best) are futile. Only as Christ is formed in us are our thoughts and actions pleasing to God as Christians.
This is the work of God on earth today. This is the kingdom. It is all God. If we believe it when men tell us to come to Jesus to expect him to give us freedom from all fear and want and sickness and lack, we are deceived. He hasn't come to make you comfortable, successful, fulfilled, healthy, prosperous and respected. He has come to form Christ in you. It is the narrow road.
The disciple that Jesus loved and who was perhaps the most intimate with him as a man wrote.
"I John, your brother and companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that are ours in Jesusâ€¦" (Revelation 1:9)
This is your lot and destiny too. It is the highest calling.
You may well believe what I have written about suffering and realise that there will be times in your life when you just can't understand what God is up to. Circumstances will arise that will make you feel that God is nowhere near you and doesn't hear your heartrending cries for help.
You might determine in your mind that when you face such trials that you will remain firm in your faith and trust God with that "Though he slay me yet will I praise him" approach.
But our trials are spiritual, not mental.
Believe me, there will be times when no amount of mental effort will get you through. It is only faith that will see you through and that will be a gift from God. Your faith will be tried in the fire and you will be brought to a place where you come to the end of yourself.
I cannot say that I have acquitted myself well in such times of testing. All I can say is that even when I have given up on God, he has not given up on me. It is by grace I have been saved.
The author of the "Cloud of Unknowing" well understood this phenomenon. Spiritual maturity comes through realising how weak we are and how much we are totally sustained by God.
Through our failures we come to know his victory.
Self knowledge is painful but precious.
The deeper revelation that comes to us as we seek God for himself and realise our utter inability to find him by our own efforts is that he is ourÂ Father.
Through every moment of my life he has been with me. He has experienced every pain, every sorrow, every fear. He was there when as a six year old I watched some bigger boys bullying my older sister and out of fear, ran away rather than stand up for her and get bullied myself. I went home full of shame and self loathing and he felt it all.
He was there when my wife miscarried and we cried out to him for a miracle (claiming the promises of God) and yet the heavens seemed to be like brass.
He was there each time I have fallen into old habits and sins and grieved his heart through my selfishness and carnality.
He was there when I have lost my temper, hurting those that I love more than I ever realised at the time.
His heart of compassion has always been towards me. He understands all my motives and emotions and hopes and fears and his very bowels are full of compassion for me. He believes in me. There is no way that he could ever give up on me.
He is my Father.
This is spiritual knowledge.
He is yours too.