Sanctification and Suffering

There is a lot of talk in the church about sanctification, about following Jesus and being His disciple. There is not a lot of talk about suffering. But the two go together. The Bible describes the Christian life as a life of suffering. The TV preachers describe the Christian life as a life without suffering. Which is it?

The “Health and Wealth” teachers and the “Prosperity Gospel” take this to the extreme. Sickness, poverty, too many red lights on the way to work are signs of a lack of faith, a lock of God’s blessings. If you are suffering then you show yourself to be a false disciple of Jesus. This is a horrible and disastrous false teaching.

But there is a subtle “sanctification-means-less-suffering” doctrine in all of us, and inner Buddhist that thinks that our suffering means that we are far from Jesus, our troubles are indications of God’s abandonment. Which is why, I suspect, troubles always stir up questions about God’s location. “Where is God in the midst of trouble?” We ask the question because we think (without thinking) that God must keep suffering at arm’s length, and if we’re suffering, God must keep us at arm’s length.

This is wrong, totally wrong.

First, God is not a stranger to suffering. The cross shows us this. The prophet Isaiah even gives the name “Man of Sorrows” to Jesus (Isaiah 53:3). No one suffered like Jesus suffered in the garden and on the cross. There all the sins of all humanity and the wrath of God that goes with them is piled on Jesus. When we see Jesus crying out on the cross, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” then we ought, at least, to know that God is not a stranger to suffering.

Second, Jesus teaches us that the Christian is also not a stranger to suffering. When Jesus is calling His disciples, He doesn’t bid them “take up your Lazy-Boy and follow Me,” but “take up your cross,” adding “daily” to the command (see Luke 9:23 and then Luke 14:27). The yoke of Jesus is an easy yoke (Matthew 11:28-30) not because it lacks suffering, but because it doesn’t lack Jesus, it doesn’t lack forgiveness.

Our following Jesus is a following of suffering. The only Bible passage that teaches us to follow Jesus example gives us the example of Jesus suffering.

For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. (1 Peter 2:20-24)

Wozers. WWDJ? He would suffer. If we are following the example of Jesus then we are suffering, silently, patiently suffering. In a terrifying way, our sanctification is simply getting better at suffering.

This difficult realization opens up all the Bible passages about suffering and the Christian life. The uncomfortable realization that almost every time the Bible takes up the topic of my life it talks about my suffering begins to make sense. I’m supposed to suffer. I’m supposed to be troubled and tempted and weak. I’m a Christian.

Our Christian life, then, is not Jesus removing suffering from us, but rather Jesus being with us in the midst of suffering, and this is our comfort, not the lack of trouble, but the promise of Jesus that He, the one who suffered in our place, will never leave us or forsake us (Matthew 28:19-20, Hebrews 13:5).

Third, we see, now, a purpose in our suffering. Martin Luther taught that three things made a theologian: prayer, meditation on the Lord’s word, and tentatio, temptation or suffering. Luther wrote this in his introduction to Psalm 119, the great “Torah Psalm.” In Psalm 119 David said, “This is my comfort in my affliction, that your promise gives me life” (119:50), and “Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep your word” (119:67), and “It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes” (119:71). Affliction, tnetatio, suffering is good, it teaches us the Lord’s Word. In fact, in our suffering we are being shaped by God.

Consider Paul’s treatise on suffering for God’s Word, 2 Corinthians.

But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. (2 Corinthians 4:7-11)

Jesus life is manifest in our dying. Jesus’ kindness is manifest in our suffering. So…

So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)

In Christ our suffering is a preparation, a renewal, an instruction, a gift. “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake” (Philippians 1:29).

Fourth, knowing that Jesus is with us in suffering, and that suffering is a gift from the ascended Jesus to show us His mercy and prepare us for the resurrection, we, then, joy in our suffering.

Acts 5:41: Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name [of Jesus].

To rejoice at a beating seems strange to the world, a little crazy, but these disciples know Jesus.

Romans 5:3-5: Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.

We rejoice in the Gospel (Romans 5:1-2), so we rejoice in suffering. Paul loves to talk about this.

2 Corinthians 12:10: For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

Colossians 1:24: 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…

The other apostles teach the same. They knew the suffering of Jesus; they knew the suffering of the Christian, and they knew the joy of it all.

James 1:2-3: Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.

Peter values our suffering more valuable than gold, a badge of honor.

1 Peter 1:7: …so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.

1 Peter 4:13-16: But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. But let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler. Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name.

Christians don’t go around looking for suffering, but we don’t have to wait long. The world and the flesh and the devil hate you with the rage they have for Jesus, and they are after you. Suffering will come. Crosses will come. Temptations and agony and loss will come. But Jesus has already come, already died, already risen, and He is with you in suffering. He suffered for you, and now He suffers with you. He promises it, and He promises joy in the midst of it.

Jesus says, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:10-12)

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