Letters of the Faith: Christian Suffering

Dear Sis. Melinda,

Greetings to you in the Name of God the Father and His Son, our Lord Jesus.

I give thanks to God for the faithfulness that you and your family have manifested over the years. I also appreciate you offering yourself to receive the first of my “letters of the faith.”

After careful consideration, I have decided to share my thoughts on “Christian suffering” with you. I do pray that the Lord will touch my mind and guide my pen in this most important endeavour. My only intention is to correctly represent the mind of the Lord on this subject to every one of God’s children.

The Misconception

To begin with, I know that you would agree with the fact that no one likes to suffer, whether it be emotionally, physically, economically or otherwise. As a result of this mindset, the majority of the Christian community has concluded that suffering is evil and originates from the Devil, while good health, wealth, and happiness come from God. To a certain extent this is true, and the word of God does say that “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights…” (Js. 1:17). Yet, we must not overlook the fact that the very existence of the Devil is a part of God’s eternal purpose. For “Who is he that saith, and it cometh to pass, when the Lord commandeth it not?” (Lam. 3:37).

However, the concept of health and prosperity does sound appealing and has proven to be good ‘bait’ used in evangelism by many evangelical movements.

Let us consider for a moment a few verses of Scripture, such as 3 John 2 which states, “Beloved, I wish above all things that thohu mayest prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospereth.” Or, Proverbs 10:22 which states, “The blessing of the Lord, it maketh rich, and he addeth no sorrow with it.” Also, in Psalm 1 David likens a blessed man to a tree that is planted by the rivers of water that brings forth his fruit in his season. His leaf does not wither and whatever he does prospers.

These are just a few of the many verses of scripture that could be used to promote the idea that health and prosperity are indications of God’s blessings in the lives of His children. Of course, we should never ignore the fact that tangible blessings will result from adherence to God’s law.

To be honest, I am never comfortable with isolating verses of scriptures from their context and then craftily using them to promote a misguided hope to the simple-minded child of God. You see, Sister Melinda, scripture does say that in our day people would love to be entertained from the pulpit. The statement made by the apostle Paul was, “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; and they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables.” (2 Tim. 4:3-4). The prophet Jeremiah encountered a similar attitude among the people in his day and declared, “The prophets prophecy falsely, and the priest bear rule by their means; and my people love to have it so…” (Jer. 5:31).

If you are questioning the possibility of God’s people enjoying the preaching of misconceptions then we must not overlook the words of the prophet Isaiah who said, “this is a rebellious people, lying children, children that will not hear the law of the Lord: which say to the seers, See not; and to the prophets, Prophesy not unto us right things, speak unto us smooth things, prophesy deceits.” (Isa. 30:9-10).

When the hearts of God’s children are desirous of listening only to pleasant messages, preachers are pressured to either comply or be rejected. Men in the ministry who were never called of God would, without hesitation, submit to the demands of their congregations in anticipation of church growth and popularity. As a result, the misguided ‘health and wealth gospel’ is often promoted without reservation.

Should I follow suit for the sake of growth and acceptance and ignore the reality of biblical examples? To pursue this path, I would have to close my eyes to the whole volume of scripture and develop techniques of misappropriating the Word of God. Then, contrary to the Apostle Paul, I will not renounce the hidden things of dishonesty but rather walk in craftiness and handle the Word of God deceitfully. (See 2 Cor. 4:23). By following this course of action, I would surely become popular and acceptable. My church would indeed grow rapidly and I would provide a larger group of hypocrites for the final resurrection.

So, guess what? I choose to remain the way I am: an unpopular preacher with a small group of faithful saints whose main goal in life is to please God in all things. We should pray that, like the church in Smyrna, the Lord might help us to be willing to suffer as Christians in the midst of our poverty and be faithful even unto death. (Rev. 2:8-11).

Suffering With Purpose

My dear sister, I am fully persuaded that suffering is a part of the Christian life and whether it be chastening, trials or suffering the loss of things during the process of discipleship, every child of God must experience suffering in some form. This will result in humility and modify our attitude towards other sufferers.

In speaking on the necessity of suffering as sons of God, the Apostle Paul wrote, “The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God: and if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ: if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together. ” (Rom. 8:16-17).

Suffering according to the will of God develops the stability that is required for kingdom leadership, and as such becomes easier to endure in the light of its intended rewards.

The Apostle Peter wrote, “But the God of all grace, who hath called us unto his eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after that you have suffered a while, make you perfect, stablish, strengthen, settle you.” (1 Pet. 5:10). James also supports the idea of spiritual growth that results from trials by stating, “My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into divers [trials]; knowing this, that the trying of your faith worketh patience. But let patience have her perfect work, that ye may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing.” (Js. 1:2-4).

In considering these rewards and benefits of suffering, the Apostle Paul wrote “For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.” (Rom. 8:18).

In the book of Hebrews it is suggested that we look unto Jesus as an encouraging example of suffering with purpose. The scripture states, “Looking unto Jesus…who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame…” (Heb. 12:2).

Our Lord Jesus is indeed the remarkable example for us to follow. He who was made “[complete] through sufferings” is indeed the [leader] of our salvation. (Heb. 2:10). Scripture states that, “though he were a Son, yet learned he obedience by the things which he suffered; and being made [complete], he became the author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey him…” (Heb. 5:8-9).

I give thanks to God that this wonderful Saviour — the Captain of our salvation and the Author and Finisher of our faith — is also our High Priest. Unlike the Levitical priesthood, Jesus is “touched with the feelings of our infirmities.” (Heb. 4:15).

It is encouraging to know that the Lord Jesus, who understands the agonies of Christian suffering, has offered His companionship and assistance to every suffering child of God. Jesus said, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart… For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matt. 11:29-30). As we relinquish our independent human attitudes and submit to the ‘yoke of Christ’ we will discover that the purpose and rewards of suffering alleviates the agonies of our trials. Like the Apostle Paul, we too will glory in our infirmities. (2 Cor. 11:30, 12:5). Paul declared with all confidence, “Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong.” (2 Cor. 12:10). In Philippians 3:10 he said, “That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death…” This is an important aspect of what the Lord meant when he said, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me…” (Matt. 11:29).

Paul’s letter to Timothy stated “For if we be dead with him, we shall also live with him: if we suffer, we shall also reign with him…” (2 Tim. 2:11-12).

However, there is an aspect of suffering which every child of God should avoid — suffering for ones own presumptuous rebellion. Peter refers to this by warning, “But let none of you suffer as a murderer, or as a thief, or as an evildoer, or as a busybody in other men’s matters.” ( I Pet. 4:15).

Sister M, I trust that you can be patient with me as I further address the concept of Christian suffering.

Categories of Suffering

I would like to briefly focus on three categories of Christian suffering: chastisement, trials and discipleship. There is another category of suffering that relates only to Jesus. Hebrews 2:10 tells that he was made perfect or complete through suffering, and in chapter 5:8-9, that He learned obedience by the things He suffered. When reading these scriptures, the assumption should never be made that Jesus was imperfect or incomplete in his spirituality, and as a result had to be perfected by suffering. As far as spirituality was concerned, our Lord “did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth…” (1 Pet. 2:22, Heb. 4:15, 1 Jn. 3:5).

The Lord’s obedience was tested in the face of death. He, who never disobeyed even a single command of His Father, was tried while suffering in Gethsemane. Jesus knew He was dying in the garden prior to His appointed time on the cross and prayed that the cup of death would pass from Him. Dying in Gethsemane would offset His death on the cross as the Lamb of God slain for the sin of the world. His prayer to allow the cup to “pass” was not to avoid death, but rather to avoid death prior to the time foreordained by God. And, he would have indeed died but God sent angels and strengthened Him. (Lk. 22:41-43, Heb. 5:7-8). The truth is, our Lord was obedient even unto death. (Phil. 2:8).

Chastisement

First, let us not misunderstand what chastisement is and inadvertently interpret this act of God’s love to be a punishment for our sins.

The Bible describes judgment against sin as the wrath of God which is executed only against the ungodly. But, for the ‘elect’, who are offered forgiveness and cleansing in Christ, God’s judgment is described as chastisement. While the ‘wrath’ of God is a destroying judgment, ‘chastisement’ is a saving judgment. It is not intended to punish the children of God for their transgression but cleanse them from the source of their rebellion. As Paul wrote, “For God hath not appointed us to wrath, but to obtain salvation by our Lord Jesus Christ”. (1 Thess. 5:9).

In the book of Hebrews we are told that every transgression and disobedience will receive a just recompense of reward. (Heb. 2:2). But, the Apostle John emphasizes the grace of God in all of this by saying, “the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin…If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 Jn. 1:7 & 9). It is therefore suggested by James that when a child of God is sick, the elders of the church should be called to pray for that person and “if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him.” (Js. 5:14-15).

In the book of Job, Eliphaz concluded that a man should be happy or count it a privilege that God is correcting him. As such he should not ignore chastisement, for though he is chastised six times, the seventh may never touch him if the cleansing process is completed. (Job 5:17-19).

In most instances, chastening is not pleasant and may manifest itself in various forms of sickness or hurtful situations. Elihu described God’s dealing with his rebellious children in anticipation of them changing and conforming to his will. He said “For God speaketh once, yea twice, yet man perceiveth it not. Then he openeth the ears of men, and sealeth their instruction, that he may withdraw man from his purpose, and hide pride from man…He is chastened also with pain upon his bed, and the multitude of his bones with strong pain…” (Job 33:14-19). The scripture goes on to say that if, during chastisement God is gracious enough to send a messenger to explain His purpose, it may assist in the spiritual recovery of that individual.

David, a man after God’s own choosing, told of his own chastening in many of the Psalms. My favorite is Psalm 6 in which he first asked the Lord not to rebuke him in anger or chasten him in His “hot displeasure.” He then went on to describe the agonies of chastisement as he groaned and wept for many sleepless nights.

The book of Hebrews describes the unpleasantness of chastening by stating, “Now no chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous: nevertheless afterward it yieldeth the peaceful fruit of righteousness…” With this in mind, the Hebrews were told not to despise chastisement or “faint” when rebuked by God, “for whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth… But if ye be without chastisement, whereof all are partakers, then are ye bastards, and not sons.” (Heb. 12:5-17).

Paul exhorted the Corinthians to examine themselves so as not to defile or bring reproach to the body of Christ. Failure to examine themselves and make corrections would have brought the chastening judgment of God in their lives which was intended to cleanse them and prevent them from being condemned with the ungodly world. Paul wrote, “For if we would judge ourselves, we should not be judged. But when we are judged, we are chastened of the Lord, that we should not be condemned with the world.” (1 Cor. 11:31-32).

It is sad that because many Christians are convinced that sickness and similar negative situations are of the Devil, they go through a chastening process without self examination and changes are never made. This lack of understanding will necessitate the process to be repeated until the lesson is learned.

King Nebuchadnezzar is a perfect example of an individual who was hesitant to change. If he had judged himself and ‘broke off his sins by righteousness and his iniquity by showing mercy to the poor’ as he was admonished by Daniel, he would not have come under the chastening judgment of God. But, like many of us, he was set in his ways and too proud to submit to God. As a result, he became insane for seven years until he was willing to yield to God’s hand of saving judgment. Chastening will continue in the lives of the elect until submission to God is achieved. (Dan. 4:27:37).

May God give us the grace to endure and wisdom to understand the purpose of our chastisement.

If chastisement is successful as to its intended purpose, there will be remarkable evidences of change in the lives of those who have completed this process. It is sad that many go through a process of chastening without ever understanding the purpose of God and as a result changes are never made.

Trials

When it comes to fiery trials I wish I could tell you that Jesus bore it all and God wants you happy and free from troubles. But I dare not misrepresent the path of true discipleship and thereby condemn the stalwarts of the faith by making a statement of ignorance. The truth is, there is nothing like a stress-free Christian life for the elect.

The statement that John made that he wished that Gaius would prosper and be in good health, even as his soul prospered, is an indication that Gaius was unhealthy and poor. (2 John). But he was a good Christian whose soul prospered.

If I were to hold dogmatically to the scripture in Proverbs that says that the blessings of the Lord makes rich and adds no sorrow with it, I would be condemning everyone mentioned in Hebrews chapter 11, as well as every martyr of the faith including the majority of Old Testament prophets. Worst of all, I would condemn the Lord Jesus Himself, “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” (Isa. 53:3). The life of Jesus was one that was filled with disappointments. His birth was humbling, his boyhood was obscure and his ministry rejected. Yet I love Him dearly for the simple Saviour He is. I pray that I would be yoked with Him and be given the privilege of learning about Him. As the Apostle Paul declared, “That I may know him…and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death…” (Phil. 3:10).

Earlier in the same epistle Paul exhorted the Philippians saying, “For unto you it is given in the behalf of Christ, not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for his sake…” (Phil. 1:29).

From the writings of the Early Church apostles it is apparent that Christian suffering was viewed as an honourable and necessary aspect of the believer’s life. It is no wonder that James declared, “My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into diver [trials]; knowing this, that the trial of your faith worketh patience.” (Js. 1:2-3). Peter also suggested that the saints should rejoice in the face of trials by saying, “But rejoice, inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ’s sufferings…” (1 Pet. 4:13).

To understand the writings of Peter, we cannot ignore the fact that he was one of the twelve disciples of Christ. He understood more than any of us what was offered to the followers of Christ. Let us consider a few more statements in the epistle of this man who was recorded in history as being crucified upside-down because he thought he was not worthy to die like his Lord.

Peter wrote, “That the trial of your faith, being much more precious than of gold that perisheth, though it be tried with fire, might be found unto praise and honour and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ.” (1 Pet. 1:7). He further stated, “For he that will love life, and see good days, let him refrain his tongue from evil… let him eschew evil, and do good… For the eyes of the Lord are over the righteous…But and if you suffer for righteousness’ sake, happy are ye…For it is better, if the will of God be so, that you suffer for well doing, than for evil doing.” (1 Pet. 3:10-17).

In chapter 4:1,12-13 Peter continued, “Forasmuch then as Christ hath suffered for us in the flesh, arm yourselves likewise with the same mind…Beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened unto you: But rejoice inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ’s sufferings; that, when his glory shall be revealed, ye may be glad also with exceeding joy.”

As we examine these statements there should be no doubt in our minds as to the Early Church’s concept of Christian suffering. It is no wonder that the Apostle Peter encouraged the saints to appreciate Christian suffering.

The suffering and the trials in the lives of God’s children is a purging process which is intended to eliminate inherent spiritual dross. This process is likened unto the purifying of gold by a goldsmith’s fire.

As a child of God, I really would prefer not to suffer and do sincerely pray that God would transform my negative desire for suffering. Then, as a pastor I do sometimes wish that my ministry would flourish economically and numerically in spite of the scriptural examples to the contrary. I therefore conclude that it is the grace of God that prevents me building another Laodicean church.

Sister Melinda, it boggles my mind when trying to understand the full reality of Paul’s boasting about his sufferings and infirmities. It appears that the concept of Christian suffering was such an accepted fact within the Early Church that even the credibility of a minister was viewed accordingly.

In comparing his credibility as a minister of the Gospel against the false preachers of his day, the Apostle Paul seemed to have suggested suffering and rejection as criteria by which a minister was approved. In 2 Corinthians 11:23-30 he described a series of sufferings which he associated with being approved as a minister. He said, “Are they ministers of Christ?…I am more; in labours more abundant, in strips above measure, in prisons more frequent, in deaths oft…” After highlighting many aspects of his sufferings he concluded, “If I must needs glory, I will glory of the things which concern mine infirmities.” (II Cor. 11:23,30). Again, in chapter 12:10 he declared emphatically, “Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak then am I strong.”

In 2 Corinthians 6:3-10 Paul again speaks of the credibility achieved by the ministry through suffering. He wrote, “Giving no offence in any thing, that the ministry be not blamed: but in all things approving ourselves as the ministers of God, in much patience, in afflictions, in necessities, in distresses, in stripes, in imprisonments, in tumults…as chastened, and not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing all things.”

It is rather difficult for me to read these amazing statements of reality and still anticipate ministerial notoriety. As I see it, the greatest men in the Bible were men who were continually tried by God’s purging flames. The life they offered to others was only a result of the process of death they experienced. The apostle Paul who seemingly suffered more than any of the other apostles wrote, “We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed; always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our body. For we which live are alway delivered unto death for Jesus’ sake, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our mortal flesh. So then death worketh in us, but life in you.” (II Cor. 4:8-12).

Discipleship

Finally, I must briefly touch that aspect of suffering which is achieved by one’s voluntary submission to God’s will. It is called discipleship.

Though interwoven with chastening, trials and other aspects of divine intervention, discipleship is achieved by personal choice. It is the act of sacrificing one’s personal desires in preference to the demands of God. It allows men to submit to trials, chastening and any other workings of God in spite of their demands.

Jesus made it clear that to be a disciple one must deny oneself of all selfish goals, take up one’s cross (submitting to a continuous slaying of the carnal nature), and follow the Lord’s direction for the remainder of one’s life.

Moses was a great example of discipleship. Scripture stated, “By faith Moses, when he was come to years, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter; choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God, than to enjoy the pleasure of sin for a season…” (Heb. 11:24-25).

A true disciple is a taught one who submits to the instructions of his teacher. God is never served at a disciple’s convenience but is rather placed on the highest pedestal in his life. As the Apostle Paul puts it, “But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ. Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things…” (Phil. 3:7-8).

Sister Melinda, I do not know what else could be written on this most important subject, especially in a time when there is such a great misconception of the scriptures as it pertains to God’s divine purpose.

Thanks again for offering yourself for this endeavour.

“Therefore seeing we have this ministry, as we have received mercy, we faint not…” (2 Cor. 4:1).

God bless you and your family.

Pastor Desmond Singh