Is There a Point to the Last Minutes of Suffering Before Death?

Is There a Point to the Last Minutes of Suffering Before Death?

I’m still thinking about Ronnie Smith’s death in Libya, followed by Christians and the mainstream media alike.

Two days before he died, my mind turned, at it so often does, to the reasons for suffering. This time the thoughts were triggered by the difference between suffering that refines in this life and suffering that leads to death.

Suffering That Refines

Often, when counseling people who are walking through suffering, I lean on Bible passages that describe the effects of suffering in this life — passages like, James 1:2–4.

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.

The point here is that our suffering will be like the pain of weightlifting: It will make us stronger to bear things that might otherwise destroy us.

Or Romans 5:3–5:

We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces tested 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.

Here the effect of suffering is that it produces a “tested character” (Greek dokimen). In other words, the branch was bent so close to breaking that the next time it will be even more unbreakable and will give greater hope for endurance.

Suffering That Leads to Death

But what do we say about suffering that results in death? None of these texts work in that situation. There will be no life on earth that will be stronger because of suffering. There is suffering, and then there is death.

God has not left us without specific help in this suffering. For example, James 1:12:

Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.

Or Revelation 2:10:

Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.

In other words, faithfulness, or steadfastness under trial, may lead to death. And if it does, that suffering is rewarded with the crown of eternal life. This is unspeakably comforting and emboldening.

No Suffering Wasted

But there is even more comfort — even more courage-increasing truth. Those two verses do not say that our final suffering actually makes the crown of life greater. It seems to be the same crown that every Christian gets after death. So someone might ask — I ask — does the suffering itself that ends in death make a difference? Is there a point to it?

The answer is yes. One of the most precious promises for final suffering is 2 Corinthians 4:17:

This light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.

This says more. It says more than affliction is followed by glory. It says affliction prepares glory. Literally, suffering produces — effects, brings about, works — a peculiar glory for those who suffer.

What this means is that no suffering is meaningless. None of it is wasted. The last cry of pain, leading to death, is not merely followed with glory, but rewarded with peculiar glory — a special glory prepared for the sufferer and by the suffering.

Join in the Reward

Therefore, nothing that Ronnie Smith endured in his last moments was wasted. No sacrifice — whether painful and joyful — went unrewarded. Not even the last ones. There are no wasted Christian sufferings in the path of love. None.

And so it will be with you, the living. Which is why I say again: Join him. Join him in his vision for the nations and for the King. Join him in life for the sake of the nations. And then, at the appointed time, join him in the Reward.


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John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books.