2 Timothy 1:8-12
“Therefore, do not be ashamed of the testimony of our Lord or of me his prisoner; but join with me in suffering for the Gospel according to the power of God . . . For this reason also I suffer these things, but I am not ashamed.”
Our topic today is one in which we all ought to be experts. Every life in this room has experienced, and will experience, a measure of pain, suffering, tragedy, and affliction. Our culture pictures life as an endless series of Stroh-Light Nights culminating in Weekends Made for Michelob, but deep in our hearts we know it is not so. The happiest and most successful of us knows from experience the meaning of words like loneliness, fear, disappointment, rejection, failure. If we live long enough, we will add to that list the death of loved ones, betrayal, ill health, the feeling of uselessness. You cannot avoid suffering. You can muddle thought it blindly; you can make it worse by rebelling against it futilely; or you can understand it biblically and bear it redemptively. Some men suffer bitterly; some pitifully; some grievously; some needlessly; all men suffer inevitably. One of Paul’s concerns in 2 Timothy is that the Christian experience the joy and privilege of suffering for the Gospel. To do this, we must understand the biblical view of suffering in the Christian life, which has at least three elements:
I. THE PLACE OF SUFFERING IN THE CHRISTIAN LIFE
We would prefer to think there isn’t any. Our favorite verses are all about abundant life and joy unspeakable, understandably so. But the view they give of the Christian life is not so much false as incomplete. A biblical view must also include 2 Timothy 1:8: We are to join with the Apostle Paul in suffering for the Gospel. Instead, the theology of success and prosperity, health and wealth (“Name it and Claim it” – or, perhaps more accurately, “Blab it and Grab it”) continues to grow in popularity and, in subtle and less blatant forms, to infect even those who think they reject it. While God does sometimes reward his faithful with material wealth, there is no blanket promise of this type of blessing; there are many biblical examples counter to it; and there is explicit teaching that contradicts it. We do have joy unspeakable and full of glory, a foretaste or earnest of heaven – but we are not going to be in heaven until we get there. To deny the biblical place of suffering is simply to make the real suffering that does come harder to bear.
Let me share then three ways of saying the same thing about the place of suffering in the Christian life. First, it is part of our calling (2 Timothy 1:8-9, 1 Peter 2:20-21). Paul asks Timothy to join with him in suffering for the Gospel. This is to be done according to the power of the God who has called us with a holy calling. Peter reminds his readers that suffering for what is right finds favor with God, for they “have been called for this purpose.” Second, it is part of our identity (2 Timothy 2:3-6, 1 Peter 4:15-16). Timothy is to suffer hardship because he is a good soldier of Christ Jesus, and Peter’s readers are to suffer as a Christian rather than as a murderer or thief. And third, it is part of God’s will for us (James 3:17). It is better, if God so wills, that we suffer for doing right.
We want to say that a God of love would not will any such thing. But he did: think of Joseph, Moses, Jeremiah, John the Baptist, Stephen, Peter, and Paul, all of whom suffered as part of God’s plan for them, not in spite of it. And we might as well add Jesus himself, delivered up by the predetermined plan and counsel of God for our redemption (Acts 2:23). Does God love us differently than he loved them?
All these saints suffered for a higher purpose; not all of them knew what it was. So this raises the question of why God allows suffering as part of his plan for his people. And that leads us to the next element.
II. THE PURPOSE OF SUFFERING IN THE CHRISTIAN LIFE
Suffering in God’s plan is always for a purpose. But while the particular purpose is often not revealed for individuals, a number of general principles are revealed, purposes which suffering can always be made to serve whatever its ultimate rationale. It is, first, an opportunity for growth in spiritual strength and maturity. 1 Peter 4:12 speaks of it as a test. One sign of a good teacher is that his tests will be, not just ways of measuring and evaluating students, but a learning experience in themselves. No one likes to be put under the pressure of studying for exams, but we know that a good bit of that studying would never take place unless they were going to happen. Then, the exam itself can be set up to crystallize in the student’s understanding the lessons being learned. God sometimes uses suffering in precisely the same way.
Second, suffering is an opportunity to draw closer to Christ by identifying with Him in His suffering (1 Peter 4:13-14). Peter says that when we suffer, we “share” the very sufferings of Christ. Once when some trusted friends had betrayed me much like Judas did our Lord, I looked at Him with new understanding: “You went through that for me? Now I understand.” I don’t think I could have gotten that appreciation for the Savior in any other way. The scars from those knife-wounds in my back were thus transformed into a great blessing – but it was not a blessing that could have come cheaply.
Third, it can be an opportunity to please God (1 Peter 2:19). Peter says it finds favor with Him if we do it for the sake of conscience. Fourth, all this means that suffering can be an opportunity to glorify God. And finally, in 2 Tim. Paul gives a purpose which is an effect of the first four: it can lead to the salvation of God’s people (2 Timothy 2:9-10Paul endures suffering “for the sake of those who are chosen, that they may also obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus.” This leads to the third element:
III. THE POWER OF SUFFERING
The point needs only to be made to be understood. There is no more irrefutable, undeniable testimony to the truth of the Gospel and the reality of God than the Christian who bears affliction joyfully, without bitterness, with love. For only God could produce this kind of spiritual reality, and without suffering it could never be seen.
History is replete with illustrative examples. Think of Paul and Silas singing in the Philippian jail, leading to the jailer’s conversion. Think of Corrie and Betsy ten Boom in the concentration camp being asked, “Why has your God of Love put you here?” Betsy replied quietly, “To obey him.” Think of Elizabeth Eliot and Rachel Saint returning with love, forgiveness, and the Gospel to the Auca Indians who had savagely murdered their husbands. Think of Joni Eareckson Tada, the quadriplegic, sitting in her wheelchair with a paintbrush clenched between her teeth, bringing beauty out of her pain and signing it “PTL” – “Praise the Lord.”
Bring the most hardened and sophisticated atheist in the world into the presence of such redemptive suffering, let him experience firsthand such faith, and I defy him to deny the reality of the God whose Son suffered for sin with any conviction in his voice. Redemptive suffering is powerful.
Why does preaching lack power today? Why does revival tarry? Why is the American Evangelical church, in spite of its numbers, so impotent to make any real impact on our society? Because by and large God’s people are not willing to suffer for the Gospel. We prefer the theology of prosperity and success, even if it is in the milder and more subtle forms that do not so loudly betray their heretical origins. We prefer to think that God’s love for us involves his intention of pampering us with an endless and uninterrupted series of successes, blessings, and victories for which no price has to be paid. But is this not an open invitation, tempting the Devil to accuse us as he did Job 1:9-11And why should God exempt us from the task of proving Satan wrong, any more than he exempted his servant Job?
I pray that God will grant us continued peace and prosperity as a nation. I pray that He will protect you from all unnecessary suffering. But I also pray He will help us to accept the affliction He does send us, understand it biblically, and bear it redemptively.
Donald Williams is Director of the School of Arts and Sciences at Toccoa Falls College, Toccoa Falls, GA.