Rejoice in the Midst of Suffering?
March 14, 2015
We only need to read the headlines in the morning paper or turn on the evening news to have confirmed what we already know to be true, suffering is an ever-present companion in this world. As a result of the Fall, every individual throughout the history of humanity has known suffering and Christians are not exempt from this experience. Rather, in many ways the suffering Christians are called to endure can even be greater (John 15:20) than that which the unbeliever endures in this world.
As we face this truth, I have found that nothing is as realistic about suffering as the Bible. The Scriptures do not follow the path of eastern mysticism and deny the reality of suffering. Rather, they treat it as very real. Neither do they make the error of accepting suffering as something that is real, but dismiss it as insignificant. No, much of the suffering in this world is far from trivial. The Scriptures are honest about the trials of the saints of God and about the severity of those same trials. From Abraham to Job to David to Paul, they all suffered and suffered greatly. We could even say that many of them endured some of the worst afflictions that this life has to offer. The life of Job is a monumental testimony to this fact.
However, the Scriptures do no leave us there. Even as there is nothing as honest about suffering in this life as the Scriptures, so there is nothing as comforting in the midst of these trials. The Bible attends to the soul like a physician's balm. There is healing in its pages, comfort in its words, and hope in its exhortations. Maybe the most surprising, yet comforting, aspect of the Scriptures in the midst of our trials is what they expect from the Christian as we experience these "dark nights of the soul."
It is not what many Christians will advise and counsel one another, let alone believe themselves, that suffering must merely be endured. Make no mistake, the Bible teaches the need for endurance in the midst of trial (Romans 5:3), but it does not let us stop there. The Lord calls us to approach suffering in a unique and wholly uncommon way. As Christians, we are exhorted to rejoice in the midst of our suffering! Paul says in Romans 5:3, "More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings..." He says in Colossians 1:24, "Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake..."
We may be tempted to think that Paul was a little confused on this point. Maybe the suffering he experienced was superficial and therefore it was easy for him to pen such lofty words. If only he was accustomed to what we have been forced to endure, he may have sung a different tune. But then we read of the miseries the Apostle Paul experienced (2 Corinthians 11:23-28). He was imprisoned, beaten, lashed, shipwrecked, stoned, and in constant danger. He was subjected to hunger, thirst, extreme temperatures, and the mental anguish of worrying about the churches under his care. He was no stranger to suffering and his afflictions were anything but minor. The Apostle Peter, who also knew suffering by experience, exhorts the distressed churches in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, "But rejoice insofar as you share Christ's sufferings..." (1 Peter 4:13).
Why would the Scriptures encourage the Christian to rejoice in their suffering? And how is this of comfort to the burdened and besieged soul? The Bible expects the Christian to rejoice in their sufferings because of the benefit it provides to us, to others, and the glory that it ascribes to God.
Benefits Our Own Soul
Dear Christian, as you experience suffering in this life, remind yourself that it is not a reason for complaint, but rather for rejoicing. That may seem counterintuitive, but we can rejoice because our suffering is of benefit to our own soul. Whatever trial we are enduring is only a "slight momentary affliction preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison" (2 Corinthians 4:17). Suffering prepares us for the next life (Romans 8:17). It refines us, molds us, and shapes us into the image of Christ (1 Peter 2:21). It tests our faith (1 Peter 1:7) and confirms to us that we are truly the children of God. It matures us in ways that could never be realized apart from trial. It is no overstatement to say that advanced degrees in the Christian life are obtained in the school of suffering. Christ, Himself, learned obedience through suffering (Hebrews 5:8), how foolish to think our life would be void of this school.
With this knowledge, we can joyfully endure the anguish of suffering, because we have a greater horizon in mind. Our earthly aim is to be as conformed to the image of Christ as we possibly can in preparation for meeting Him (1 John 3:2); and suffering is the well-travelled path of every mature disciple of Christ. We are picking up our cross, following after Him, and being conformed to the image of our Suffering Savior (1 Peter 2:21). He walked the path before us and as we walk in His footsteps we become more like Him (John 15:18).
We can also rejoice in suffering because of the benefit it has for others. One of the most curious texts in the Scriptures is Colossians 1:24 when Paul says, "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..." Paul is rejoicing in his suffering, because it is not only a benefit to himself, but also to others. Paul is alluding to the fact that the Church must endure a certain measure of suffering before the return of Christ. This suffering has been appointed by God and He has determined its breadth and depth. It appears to be a set and fixed amount and Paul is fulfilling some of this appointed suffering. And any suffering that he can endure lessens the amount left for the rest of the body of Christ. I have often found this truth to be comforting in the midst of trial. My suffering is not just for me, it is also for others. There is an unseen benefit that is accruing for the entire body of Christ. The rest of the Church will suffer less as I endure this trial for the glory of God.
In addition, there is an empathy and wisdom that we gain through suffering that is a benefit to others. We are told that as we are comforted in our afflictions, we are enabled "to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God" (2 Corinthians 1:4). Upon reflection, how often has this proven to be the case in our own lives? We were able to come alongside the grieving widow, because we knew the searing pain of loss. We were moved to wrap our arms around the child who had been rejected by a friend encouraging them from the depths of our own experience of betrayal. In the body of Christ, we don't just live for ourselves; in fact, we can't. The Lord has united us into one body and the Head has dispensed His mercy, grace, love and comfort upon us. And as it is poured out upon us, it is to overflow our finite souls and splash upon those around us. You and I have been given such a rich treasure and we are invited by the example of Christ to give it to one another.
It is also true that our suffering impacts others, especially unbelievers, as they watch us endure our afflictions with joy. People may be quick to ignore our words of faith and belief in Christ, but it is hard for them to turn a blind eye to a life lived in holiness, joy, and thanksgiving, especially as they witness its testimony in the midst of suffering.
Ascribes Glory to God
Finally, we are able to rejoice in our sufferings because of the God whom we serve. Our afflictions are not by chance. They are not the result of chaos, or even fate. They are appointed by the sovereign hand of God. In a fallen world, a sovereign God's providence is one of the surest comforts we have. He does not allow suffering for our ill, but for our very good. In only a way that a sovereign God could orchestrate, the sufferings of the body of Christ give Him glory. And God's glory and our good are an interwoven garment. One cannot pick at the seam and discard one or the other. Though we may not understand every reason for the sufferings we endure in this life, it is ultimately aimed at His glory and our good (Romans 8:28).
Our minds may race with questions of how this could not be the case. The suffering we are experiencing seem too great, too severe, and too relentless for it to be for our good, but He is greater than all our contemplations, all our knowledge, all our ability to even dream of the heights of His majesty; and He has chosen to tie together our good and His glory. Therefore, as the Captain of the ship, He will never allow anything, though it may seem otherwise, to dash us against the rocks. Our voyage may be choppy, but we are never in ultimate jeopardy. The great God of the Heavens and the Earth has appointed it for our good, so we can rejoice with confidence and this gives Him glory that is due His name (Psalm 29:1-2).
Always remember, dear Christian, that in the face of trial, His face is not turned away (Psalm 121:4); when gripped with fear, you are still in the palm of His hands (John 10:28); when experiencing loss, you have all things in Him (Romans 11:36). When you are in the midst of trial and doubt creeps in and joy is fleeting, which we all experience at times, look back at God's faithfulness through the years and even generations. Looking back at His faithfulness grants peace in the present and fixes hope for the future. It is firm ground on which to stand with joy even when the waters are raging around. And as we look back, we need look no further than the cross of our Savior. The cross clearly shows us that God is for us and can turn the worst of afflictions for good. Then our mind's eye must run to the resurrection for it boldly proclaims that in the end He has all victory and everything will be set right. Therefore, we can rejoice in this present and momentary slight affliction.
Suffer well, dear Christian. Endure the suffering that comes your way, but do more than even that--rejoice in the midst of it. The world may not understand, but you do. This suffering can be endured with rejoicing because it is of benefit to you, to others, and gives glory to God. Let us weep and mourn--but always with rejoicing.
Jason is the Assistant Pastor at University Reformed Church in East Lansing, Michigan. He is the author of A Neglected Grace: Family Worship in the Christian Home (Christian Focus, 2013)