Suffering for the Sake of the Body
The Pursuit of People Through Pain
- God's Sovereignty Over Suffering
- What Is the Meaning of Global Suffering?
- The Necessity, Nature and Purposes of Christian Suffering
- How Shall We Joyfully Endure the Measure of Suffering Appointed for Us?
- Appendix: How to Minister in Response to the Littleton, Colorado Shooting
The great aim of Satan is to prevent and weaken and, if possible, destroy faith. In 1 Thessalonians 3:5 Paul says, “For this reason, when I could endure it no longer, I also sent to find out about your faith, for fear that the tempter might have tempted you, and our labor would be in vain.” If he can do this, he can destroy the mission of the church and the people of the earth. Jesus said in John 8:44, “He was a murderer from the beginning.” Destroy faith. Destroy missions. Destroy people. And thus dishonor God. That is his aim. Satan uses pleasure and pain to do it. Pleasure: to make us doubt God’s satisfying greatness. Pain: to make us doubt God’s sovereign goodness. To triumph over Satan (in pleasure and pain) we need to know the Word of Truth that teaches God’s sovereignty over Satan. By the Word of God we will triumph. “I have written to you, young men, because you are strong, and the word of God abides in you, and you have overcome the evil one” (1 John 2:14). May God teach us now his Word, that we might triumph for our own souls and for the sake of our neighbors and the nations.
What follows are the texts that form the skeleton of discussion when I teach the seminar on suffering as part of The Bethlehem Institute at Bethlehem Baptist Church. This is not a book on suffering. It is a collection of Biblical passages with some occasional comments. The interpretation of these texts happens orally in the presentations that I make as I use overhead transparencies of the Scriptures. I hope that, even if you are not able to take this course, these passages from God's Word will help you forge your own strong convictions concerning God's wise and gracious sovereignty in our suffering. I pray that God will make us all better ministers of mercy and truth in times of affliction.
2. God’s Sovereignty over Suffering
Ten Aspects of God’s Sovereignty over Suffering and Satan’s Hand in It
1. God’s Sovereignty over Satan’s Delegated World Rule
Now judgment is upon this world; now the ruler of this world will be cast out.
And he led Him up and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time. And the devil said to Him, "I will give You all this domain and its glory; for it has been handed over to me, and I give it to whomever I wish. "Therefore if You worship before me, it shall all be Yours."
Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God.
Daniel said, "Let the name of God be blessed forever and ever, for wisdom and power belong to Him. It is He who changes the times and the epochs; he removes kings and establishes kings.”
The Most High is ruler over the realm of mankind, and bestows it on whom He wishes, and sets over it the lowliest of men.
1 Chronicles 21:1
Then Satan stood up against Israel and moved David to number Israel.
2 Samuel 24:1
Now again the anger of the LORD burned against Israel, and it incited David against them to say, "Go, number Israel and Judah."
The king's heart is like channels of water in the hand of the LORD; he turns it wherever He wishes.
And they observed the Feast of Unleavened Bread seven days with joy, for the LORD had caused them to rejoice, and had turned the heart of the king of Assyria toward them to encourage them in the work of the house of God, the God of Israel.
The LORD nullifies the counsel of the nations; he frustrates the plans of the peoples. The counsel of the LORD stands forever, the plans of His heart from generation to generation.
2. God’s Sovereignty over Satan’s Angels (Demons, Evil Spirits)
Then he said to me, "Do not be afraid, Daniel, for from the first day that you set your heart on understanding this and on humbling yourself before your God, your words were heard, and I have come in response to your words. But the prince of the kingdom of Persia was withstanding me for twenty-one days; then behold, Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me, for I had been left there with the kings of Persia.”
They were all amazed, so that they debated among themselves, saying, "What is this? A new teaching with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey Him."
Matthew 8:29, 32
And they cried out, saying, "What business do we have with each other, Son of God? Have You come here to torment us before the time?” . . . And He said to them, "Go!" And they came out and went into the swine.
3. God’s Sovereignty over Satan’s Hand in Persecution
1 Peter 5:8-10
Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. But resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same experiences of suffering are being accomplished by your brethren who are in the world. After you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself perfect, confirm, strengthen and establish you.
1 Peter 4:19
Therefore, those also who suffer according to the will of God shall entrust their souls to a faithful Creator in doing what is right.
1 Peter 3:17
For it is better, if God should will it so, that you suffer for doing what is right rather than for doing what is wrong.
When I was with you day after day in the temple, you did not lay hands on me. But this is your hour, and the power of darkness are yours. (See also Hebrews 12:3-11)
4. God’s Sovereignty over Satan’s Life-taking Power
You are of your father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father. He was a murderer from the beginning . . .
Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to cast some of you into prison, so that you will be tested, and you will have tribulation for ten days. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.
See now that I, I am He, and there is no god besides Me; it is I who put to death and give life. I have wounded and it is I who heal, and there is no one who can deliver from My hand.
1 Samuel 2:6
The LORD kills and makes alive; he brings down to Sheol and raises up.
Come now, you who say, "Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit." Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away. Instead, you ought to say, "If the Lord wills, we will live and also do this or that." But as it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil.
1 Corinthians 11:29-32
For he who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself if he does not judge the body rightly. For this reason many among you are weak and sick, and a number sleep. But if we judged ourselves rightly, we would not be judged. But when we are judged, we are disciplined by the Lord so that we will not be condemned along with the world.
Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives.
Lazarus, come forth!
Young man, arise!
5. God’s Sovereignty over Satan’s Hand in Natural Disasters
The LORD said to Satan, "Have you considered My servant Job? For there is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, fearing God and turning away from evil." Then Satan answered the LORD, "Does Job fear God for nothing? Have You not made a hedge about him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. But put forth Your hand now and touch all that he has; he will surely curse You to Your face." Then the LORD said to Satan, "Behold, all that he has is in your power, only do not put forth your hand on him." . . . [A messenger to Job:] "The oxen were plowing and the donkeys feeding beside them, and the Sabeans attacked and took them. They also slew the servants with the edge of the sword, and I alone have escaped to tell you." While he was still speaking, another also came and said, "The fire of God fell from heaven and burned up the sheep and the servants and consumed them, and I alone have escaped to tell you." While he was still speaking, another also came and said, "The Chaldeans formed three bands and made a raid on the camels and took them and slew the servants with the edge of the sword, and I alone have escaped to tell you." While he was still speaking, another also came and said, "Your sons and your daughters were eating and drinking wine in their oldest brother's house, and behold, a great wind came from across the wilderness and struck the four corners of the house, and it fell on the young people and they died, and I alone have escaped to tell you." Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head, and he fell to the ground and worshiped. He said, "Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked I shall return there. The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away. Blessed be the name of the LORD." Through all this Job did not sin nor did he blame God.
Out of the south comes the storm. . . . [God] disperses the cloud of His lightning. It changes direction, turning around by His guidance, that it may do whatever He commands it on the face of the inhabited earth. Whether for a rod . . . or for lovingkindness, He causes it to happen. . . . Stand and consider the wonders of God!
The LORD is great. . . . Whatever the LORD pleases, He does, in heaven and in earth. . . . He makes lightnings for the rain, and brings forth the wind from His treasuries.
Praise the LORD from the earth, sea monsters and all deeps; fire and hail, snow and clouds; stormy wind, fulfilling His word
There arose a fierce gale of wind, and the waves were breaking over the boat . . . And Jesus got up and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Hush, be still.” And the wind ceased and there was a great calm.
There’s not a plant or flower below,
But makes Thy glories known;
And clouds arise, and tempests blow,
By order from Thy throne.
(“I Sing the Mighty Power of God”)
6. God’s Sovereignty over Satan’s Sickness-causing Power
You know of Jesus of Nazareth, how God anointed Him with the Holy Spirit and with power, and how He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with Him.
And this woman, a daughter of Abraham as she is, whom Satan has bound for eighteen long years, should she not have been released from this bond on the Sabbath day?
The LORD said to him, "Who has made man's mouth? Or who makes him mute or deaf, or seeing or blind? Is it not I, the LORD?
As He passed by, He saw a man blind from birth. And His disciples asked Him, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he would be born blind?" Jesus answered, "It was neither that this man sinned, nor his parents; but it was so that the works of God might be displayed in him.”
The LORD said to Satan, "Have you considered My servant Job? For there is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man fearing God and turning away from evil. And he still holds fast his integrity, although you incited Me against him to ruin him without cause." Satan answered the LORD and said, "Skin for skin! Yes, all that a man has he will give for his life. However, put forth Your hand now, and touch his bone and his flesh; he will curse You to Your face." So the LORD said to Satan, "Behold, he is in your power, only spare his life." Then Satan went out from the presence of the LORD and smote Job with sore boils from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head. And he took a potsherd to scrape himself while he was sitting among the ashes. Then his wife said to him, "Do you still hold fast your integrity? Curse God and die!" But he said to her, "You speak as one of the foolish women speaks. Shall we indeed accept good from God and not accept adversity?" In all this Job did not sin with his lips.
Then Job answered the LORD and said, "I know that You can do all things, and that no purpose of Yours can be thwarted.”
2 Corinthians 12:7-9
Because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me - to keep me from exalting myself! Concerning this I implored the Lord three times that it might leave me. And He has said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness." Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.
"Get away from among this congregation, that I may consume them instantly." Then they fell on their faces. Moses said to Aaron, "Take your censer and put in it fire from the altar, and lay incense on it; then bring it quickly to the congregation and make atonement for them, for wrath has gone forth from the LORD, the plague has begun!" Then Aaron took it as Moses had spoken, and ran into the midst of the assembly, for behold, the plague had begun among the people. So he put on the incense and made atonement for the people. He took his stand between the dead and the living, so that the plague was checked. But those who died by the plague were 14,700, besides those who died on account of Korah. Then Aaron returned to Moses at the doorway of the tent of meeting, for the plague had been checked.
7. God’s Sovereignty over Satan’s Use of Animals (and Plants)
And the great dragon was thrown down, the serpent of old who is called the devil and Satan, who deceives the whole world; he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.
And the LORD appointed a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the stomach of the fish three days and three nights.
Then the LORD commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah up onto the dry land.
So the LORD God appointed a plant and it grew up over Jonah to be a shade over his head to deliver him from his discomfort
But God appointed a worm when dawn came the next day and it attacked the plant and it withered.
8. God’s Sovereignty over Satan’s Temptations to Sin
Acts 2:23 - This Man, delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death.
Luke 22:3-4 - And Satan entered into Judas who was called Iscariot, belonging to the number of the twelve. And he went away and discussed with the chief priests and officers how he might betray Him to them.
Acts 4:27-28 - For truly in this city there were gathered together against Your holy servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose predestined to occur.
Luke 22:31-32 - Simon, Simon, behold, Satan has demanded permission to sift you like wheat; but I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.
9. God’s Sovereignty over Satan’s Mind-blinding Power
2 Corinthians 4:4
In whose case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.
2 Corinthians 4:6
For God, who said, "Light shall shine out of darkness," is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.
For I do not want you, brethren, to be uninformed of this mystery – so that you will not be wise in your own estimation – that a partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in.
[Christ sends Paul] to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the authority of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who have been sanctified by faith in Me.
10. God’s Sovereignty over Satan’s Spiritual Captivity
2 Timothy 2:24-26
The Lord's bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will.
The Final Removal of Satan Altogether
Then He will also say to those on His left, “Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels . . .”
And the devil who deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are also; and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.
God’s General Sovereignty over All Things
We have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will.
But at the end of that period, I, Nebuchadnezzar, raised my eyes toward heaven and my reason returned to me, and I blessed the Most High and praised and honored Him who lives forever . . . All the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, but He does according to His will in the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of earth; and no one can ward off His hand or say to Him, “What have You done?”
Remember the former things long past, for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is no one like Me, declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things which have not been done, saying, “My purpose will be established, and I will accomplish all My good pleasure . . .”
Who is there who speaks and it comes to pass, unless the Lord has commanded it? Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that both good and ill go forth?
If a trumpet is blown in a city will not the people tremble? If a calamity occurs in a city has not the LORD done it?
In the day of prosperity be happy, but in the day of adversity consider – God has made the one as well as the other so that man will not discover anything that will be after him.
As for you, you meant evil against me, God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive.
The mind of man plans his way, but the LORD directs his steps.
Man's steps are ordained by the LORD, how then can man understand his way?
I know, O LORD, that a man's way is not in himself, nor is it in a man who walks to direct his steps.
The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD.
Many plans are in a man's heart, but the counsel of the LORD will stand.
And Moses summoned all Israel and said to them, "You have seen all that the LORD did before your eyes in the land of Egypt to Pharaoh and all his servants and all his land; the great trials which your eyes have seen, those great signs and wonders. Yet to this day the LORD has not given you a heart to know, nor eyes to see, nor ears to hear.”
For if He causes grief, then He will have compassion according to His abundant lovingkindness. For He does not afflict willingly or grieve the sons of men.
And the ten horns which you saw, and the beast, these will hate the harlot and will make her desolate and naked, and will eat her flesh and will burn her up with fire. For God has put it in their hearts to execute His purpose by having a common purpose, and by giving their kingdom to the beast, until the words of God will be fulfilled.
3. What Is the Meaning of Global Suffering?
It is, in part, God’s judgment on the world for its sinfulness and the portrayal in the physical world of the moral and spiritual horror of God-belittling sin.
A Downward Spiral of Depravity
Romans 1:18, 24, 26, 28
For the wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness ... Therefore God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, so that their bodies would be dishonored among them ... For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions; for their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural ... And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer, God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper...
Romans 5:12, 15, 17-19
Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned ... By the transgression of the one the many died ... By the transgression of the one, death reigned through the one ... Through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men ... For as through the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous.
Futility and Groaning
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now. And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body.
Yet Mingled with Many Mercies
Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and tolerance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance? But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God.
But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.
In the generations gone by He permitted all the nations to go their own ways; and yet He did not leave Himself without witness, in that He did good and gave you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.
A world of horrendous suffering should not cause us to think of God as a horrendous God, but of the magnitude and depth of the ugliness and heinousness of God-belittling pride and unbelief and indifference and scorn. This is what hell will mean for all eternity – a witness to the heinousness of God-demeaning pride (2 Thessalonians. 1:7-9; Matthew 25:41, 46; Revelation 14:11).
It is God’s message of warning and awakening that the world should take seriously their desperate moral condition and repent.
The rest of mankind, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent of the works of their hands, so as not to worship demons, and the idols of gold and of silver and of brass and of stone and of wood, which can neither see nor hear nor walk; and they did not repent of their murders nor of their sorceries nor of their immorality nor of their thefts.
Men were scorched with fierce heat; and they blasphemed the name of God who has the power over these plagues, and they did not repent so as to give Him glory.
And they blasphemed the God of heaven because of their pains and their sores; and they did not repent of their deeds.
These texts show that the plagues and catastrophes, even when they are designed for judgment in general, also have in them a call for repentance so that anyone who will wake up to the ugliness of his sin and repent and turn to Christ, could be saved.
Satan is not obliterated but permitted to torment the world because it is God’s purpose to glorify the power and beauty of sacrificial, sin-forgiving grace through defeating Satan progressively through the death of Christ and through its application by the Spirit in Christians’ lives.
The “devil and his angels” are irredeemable. Jesus implies this when He says that “the eternal fire . . . has been prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41). And Jude confirms it when he says that the fallen angels are being “kept in eternal bonds under darkness for the judgment of the great day” (v. 6). Therefore, the reason Christ withholds His judgment from them now is not to give them a chance to repent and be saved.
The key is that Satan is defeated by the death of Jesus. Paul puts it this way, referring to the death of Christ: “When He had disarmed the rulers and authorities [by the death of Christ], He made a public display of them, having triumphed over them through Him” (Colossians 2:15).
The weapon of soul-destroying sin and guilt is taken out of Satan’s hand. He is disarmed of the single weapon that can condemn us – unforgiven sin. We see this in 1 Corinthians 15:55-57, “O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting? The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Now without sin and law to condemn and accuse and oppress us, Satan is a defeated foe. He is disarmed. Christ has triumphed over him, not by putting him out of existence, but by letting him live and watch, while millions of saints find forgiveness for their sins, and turn their back on Satan because of the greater glory of the grace of Christ.
It was a costly triumph. But God’s values are not so easily reckoned. If God had simply terminated Satan, then it would not have been so clear that God is both strong and infinitely more to be desired than Satan. God wills for His glory to shine forth not only through acts of physical power, but also through acts of moral and spiritual power that display the beauty of His grace with lavish colors. To take sinners out of Satan’s hands by virtue of Christ’s sin-bearing sacrifice, and by His law-fulfilling obedience to the Father, was a more glorious victory than mere annihilation of the enemy.
If Christ obliterated all devils and demons now (which he could do), His sheer power would be seen as glorious, but His superior beauty and worth would not shine so brightly as when humans renounce the promises of Satan and take pleasure in the greater glory of Christ.
4. The Necessity, Nature and Purposes of Christian Suffering
The Necessity of Christian Suffering: Must Christians Suffer?
And He summoned the crowd with His disciples, and said to them, "If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel's will save it.”
If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple.
So then, none of you can be My disciple who does not give up all his own possessions.
He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it to life eternal.
Remember the word that I said to you, “A slave is not greater than his master.' If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you; if they kept My word, they will keep yours also.
It is enough for the disciple that he become like his teacher, and the slave like his master. If they have called the head of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign the members of his household!
So Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you; as the Father has sent Me, I also send you."
1 Peter 2:20-21
For what credit is there if, when you sin and are harshly treated, you endure it with patience? But if when you do what is right and suffer for it you patiently endure it, this finds favor with God. For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps . . .
1 Peter 4:12-14
Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you; but to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing, so that also at the revelation of His glory you may rejoice with exultation. If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you.
After they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying, "Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.”
1 Thessalonians 3:2-3
We sent Timothy, our brother and God's fellow worker in the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you as to your faith, so that no one would be disturbed by these afflictions; for you yourselves know that we have been destined for this.
The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him. For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us.
2 Timothy 3:12
Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.
The Nature of Christian Suffering: Is There a Difference Between Plague and Persecution? Cancer and Conflict?
In choosing to follow Christ in the way he directs, we choose all that this path includes under his sovereign providence. Thus all suffering that comes in the path of obedience is suffering with Christ and for Christ – whether it is cancer or conflict.
All experiences of suffering in the path of Christian obedience, whether from persecution or sickness or accident, have this in common: they all threaten our faith in the goodness of God and tempt us to leave the path of obedience. Therefore, every triumph of faith and all perseverance in obedience are testimonies to the goodness of God and the preciousness of Christ – whether the enemy is sickness, Satan, sin or sabotage.
Therefore, all suffering, of every kind, that we endure in the path of our Christian calling is a suffering “with Christ” and “for Christ.” With him in the sense that the suffering comes to us as we are walking with him by faith, and in the sense that it is endured in the strength that he supplies through his sympathizing high-priestly ministry (Hebrews 4:15). For him in the sense that the suffering tests and proves our allegiance to his goodness and power, and in the sense that it reveals his worth as an all-sufficient compensation and prize.
Not only that, the suffering of sickness and the suffering of persecution have this in common: they are both intended by Satan for the destruction of our faith (1 Thessalonians 3:4-5), and governed by God for the purifying of our faith (Hebrews 12:3-11; 2 Corinthians 12:7-10).
Finally, suffering from persecution and sickness are often indistinguishable. Suppose that the apostle Paul got pneumonia from all this work and exposure. Would that pneumonia have been “persecution”? Paul did not make a distinction between being beaten by rods or having a boating accident or being cold while traveling between towns. For him any suffering that befell him while serving Christ was part of the “cost” of discipleship. When a missionary’s child gets diarrhea, we think of this as part of the price of faithfulness. But if any parent is walking in the path of obedience to God’s calling, it is the same price. What turns sufferings into sufferings “with” and “for” Christ is not how intentional our enemies are, but how faithful we are. If we are Christ’s, then what befalls us is for his glory and for our good whether it is caused by enzymes or by enemies.
When we speak of the purposes of suffering in the following section, we mean both persecution, and the accidents and sicknesses that befall us in any path of faith.
The Purposes of Christian Suffering: Why Does God Permit and Order the Sufferings of His People?
To Promote Deeper Faith and Hope and Holiness of Life
2 Corinthians 1:8-9
For we do not want you to be unaware, brethren, of our affliction which came to us in Asia, that we were burdened excessively, beyond our strength, so that we despaired even of life; indeed, we had the sentence of death within ourselves so that we would not trust in ourselves, but in God who raises the dead . . .
For consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. You have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood in your striving against sin; and you have forgotten the exhortation which is addressed to you as sons, "My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor faint when you are reproved by Him; for those whom the Lord loves He disciplines, and He scourges every son whom He receives." it is for discipline that you endure; God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline? But if you are without discipline, of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Furthermore, we had earthly fathers to discipline us, and we respected them; shall we not much rather be subject to the Father of spirits, and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but He disciplines us for our good, so that we may share His holiness. All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness.
And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope . . .
Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.
1 Peter 1:6-8
In this [promised salvation] you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials, so that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ; and though you have not seen Him, you love Him, and though you do not see Him now, but believe in Him, you greatly rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory . . .
To Increase the Joy of Our Experience of Our Reward in Heaven
2 Corinthians 4:16-18
Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.
The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him. For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us.
Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
To Awaken Others out of Indifference and Make Them More Radical and Bold for Christ
Now I want you to know, brethren, that my circumstances have turned out for the greater progress of the gospel, so that my imprisonment in the cause of Christ has become well known throughout the whole praetorian guard and to everyone else, and that most of the brethren, trusting in the Lord because of my imprisonment, have far more courage to speak the word of God without fear.
To Present to Unbelievers Tangibly in Our Suffering the Kind of Compelling Sacrificial Love that Christ Extends to Them from the Cross
1 Thessalonians 1:5-6
Our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake. You also became imitators of us and of the Lord, having received the word in much tribulation with the joy of the Holy Spirit.
Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I do my share on behalf of His body, which is the church, in filling up what is lacking in Christ's afflictions.
Receive [Epaphroditus] then in the Lord with all joy, and hold men like him in high regard; because he came close to death for the work of Christ, risking his life to complete what was lacking in your service to me.
From now on let no one cause trouble for me, for I bear on my body the brand-marks of Jesus.
2 Corinthians 4:10-12
[I am] always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. For we who live are constantly being delivered over to death for Jesus' sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death works in us, but life in you.
2 Timothy 2:9-10
I suffer hardship even to imprisonment as a criminal; but the word of God is not imprisoned. For this reason I endure all things for the sake of those who are chosen, so that they also may obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus and with it eternal glory.
To Reposition the Troops of Christian “Soldiers” into Places They Would Otherwise Not Have Gone
Saul was in hearty agreement with putting him to death. And on that day a great persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles.
So then those who were scattered because of the persecution that occurred in connection with Stephen made their way to Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except to Jews alone. But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who came to Antioch and began speaking to the Greeks also, preaching the Lord Jesus. And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a large number who believed turned to the Lord.
To Magnify the Power of Christ in Our Weakness, and the Sufficiency and Surpassing Value of Christ over All Worldly Comforts and Pleasures
2 Corinthians 12:9-10
And He has said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness." Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ's sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong.
I know that this will turn out for my deliverance through your prayers and the provision of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, according to my earnest expectation and hope, that I will not be put to shame in anything, but that with all boldness, Christ will even now, as always, be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. But if I am to live on in the flesh, this will mean fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which to choose. But I am hard-pressed from both directions, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better.
5. How Shall We Joyfully Endure the Measure of Suffering Appointed for Us?
But remember the former days, when, after being enlightened, you endured a great conflict of sufferings, partly by being made a public spectacle through reproaches and tribulations, and partly by becoming sharers with those who were so treated. For you showed sympathy to the prisoners and accepted joyfully the seizure of your property, knowing that you have for yourselves a better possession and a lasting one.
By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh's daughter, choosing rather to endure ill-treatment with the people of God than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin, considering the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures of Egypt; for he was looking to the reward.
Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.
So, let us go out to Him outside the camp, bearing His reproach. For here we do not have a lasting city, but we are seeking the city which is to come.
6. Appendix: How to Minister in Response to the Littleton, Colorado Shooting
(I wrote this as a help to the elders of our church as they minister in this and other similar calamities.)
April 22, 1999
At about 11:30 A.M. on Tuesday April 20, the anniversary of Adolph Hitler’s birth, two students of Columbine High School in Littleton, a suburb of Denver, entered the cafeteria and opened fire on students with guns and with homemade bombs. They moved through the school and into the library where, after killing at least 13 (the death toll may go higher because of the seriously injured), they killed themselves.
What shall we say about this in order to honor God and minister to people for their good?
That will depend on how they are affected and how close they are to the event. But I have felt constrained to put together some thoughts that may serve as a Biblical resource for you to draw from for the various situations you may face in circumstances like this. I pray that the Lord will strengthen your hands and heart in this crucial moment of need.
Pray. Ask God for his help for you and for those you want to minister to. Ask him for wisdom and compassion and strength and a word fitly chosen. Ask that those who are suffering would look to God as their help and hope and healing and strength. Ask that he would make your mouth a fountain of life.
May my teaching drop as the rain, my speech distil as the dew, as the gentle rain upon the tender grass, and as the showers upon the herb.
Feel and express empathy with those most hurt by this great evil and loss; weep with those who weep.
Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.
Feel and express compassion because of the tragic circumstances of so many parents and brothers and sisters and other relatives and friends who have lost more than they could ever estimate.
Soon afterwards He went to a city called Nain; and His disciples were going along with Him, accompanied by a large crowd. Now as He approached the gate of the city, a dead man was being carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow; and a sizeable crowd from the city was with her. When the Lord saw her, He felt compassion for her, and said to her, "Do not weep." And He came up and touched the coffin; and the bearers came to a halt. And He said, "Young man, I say to you, arise!" The dead man sat up and began to speak. And Jesus gave him back to his mother. Fear gripped them all, and they began glorifying God, saying, "A great prophet has arisen among us!" and, "God has visited His people!" This report concerning Him went out all over Judea and in all the surrounding district.
Take time and touch, if you can, and give tender care to the wounded in body and soul.
Jesus replied and said, "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among robbers, and they stripped him and beat him, and went away leaving him half dead. And by chance a priest was going down on that road, and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. Likewise a Levite also, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, who was on a journey, came upon him; and when he saw him, he felt compassion, and came to him and bandaged up his wounds, pouring oil and wine on them; and he put him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn and took care of him. On the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper and said, “Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I return I will repay you.” Which of these three do you think proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell into the robbers' hands? And he said, "The one who showed mercy toward him." Then Jesus said to him, "Go and do the same."
Hold out the promise that God will sustain and help those who cast themselves on him for mercy and trust in his grace. He will strengthen you for the impossible days ahead in spite of all darkness.
The LORD is near to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.
Fear not, for I am with you, be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.
2 Corinthians 1:3-4
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, 4 who comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.
2 Corinthians 1:8-9
We do not want you to be unaware, brethren, of our affliction which came to us in Asia, that we were burdened excessively, beyond our strength, so that we despaired even of life; 9 indeed, we had the sentence of death within ourselves so that we would not trust in ourselves, but in God who raises the dead.
Affirm that Jesus Christ tasted hostility from men and knew what it was to be unjustly tortured and abandoned, and to endure overwhelming loss, and then be killed, so that he is now a sympathetic mediator for us with God.
For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin. Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
He was despised and forsaken of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and like one from whom men hide their face He was despised, and we did not esteem Him. Surely our griefs He Himself bore, and our sorrows He carried; yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, and by His scourging we are healed. All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; but the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him.
Declare that this murder was a great evil, and that God’s wrath is greatly kindled by the wanton destruction of human life created in his image.
Thou shalt not murder.
Surely I will require your lifeblood; from every beast I will require it. And from every man, from every man's brother I will require the life of man. Whoever sheds man's blood, by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God He made man.
All the nations will say, “Why has the LORD done thus to this land? Why this great outburst of anger?” Then men will say, “Because they forsook the covenant of the LORD, the God of their fathers, which He made with them when He brought them out of the land of Egypt.”
Acknowledge that God has permitted a great outbreak of sin against his revealed will, and that we do not know all the reasons why he would permit such a thing now, when it was in his power to stop it.
The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our sons forever, that we may observe all the words of this law.
Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways! For WHO HAS KNOWN THE MIND OF THE LORD, OR WHO BECAME HIS COUNSELOR? Or WHO HAS FIRST GIVEN TO HIM THAT IT MIGHT BE PAID BACK TO HIM AGAIN? For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen.
Express that these boys who wantonly killed others and themselves rebelled against the revealed will of God and did not love God or trust him or find in God their refuge and strength and treasure, but scorned his ways and his Person.
2 Thessalonians 3:1-2
Finally, brethren, pray for us . . . that we will be rescued from perverse and evil men; for not all have faith.
For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is of any avail, but faith working through love.
You presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness, resulting in furtherlawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness, resulting in sanctification. For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. Therefore what benefit were you then deriving from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the outcome of those things is death. But now having been freed from sin and enslaved to God, you derive your benefit, resulting in sanctification, and the outcome, eternal life.
Walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh.
What is the source of quarrels and conflicts among you? Is not the source your pleasures that wage war in your members? You lust and do not have; so you commit murder. You are envious and cannot obtain; so you fight and quarrel. You do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures. You adulteresses, do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.
Since rebellion against God was at the root of this act of murder, let us all fear such rebellion in our own hearts and turn from it and embrace the grace of God in Christ and renounce the very impulses that caused this tragedy.
Trust in the LORD with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight.
And those who know Your name will put their trust in You, for You, O LORD, have not forsaken those who seek You.
When I am afraid, I will put my trust in You.
Point the living to the momentous issues of sin and repentance in our own hearts and the urgent need to get right with God through his merciful provision of forgiveness in Christ, so that a worse fate than death will not overtake us.
Now on the same occasion there were some present who reported to Him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. And Jesus said to them, "Do you suppose that these Galileans were greater sinners than all other Galileans because they suffered this fate? I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or do you suppose that those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them were worse culprits than all the men who live in Jerusalem? I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish."
Remember that even those who trust in Christ may be cut down like these kids were, but that does not mean they have been abandoned by God or not loved by God, even in that agonizing moment of suffering. God’s love more than conquers even through calamity.
Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? Just as it is written, "FOR YOUR SAKE WE ARE BEING PUT TO DEATH ALL DAY LONG; WE WERE CONSIDERED AS SHEEP TO BE SLAUGHTERED." But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Mingle heart-wrenching weeping with unbreakable confidence in the goodness and sovereignty of God who rules over the sin and the bullets of rebellious people.
Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head, and he fell to the ground and worshiped. He said, "Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked I shall return there. The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away. Blessed be the name of the LORD."
If He causes grief, then He will have compassion according to His abundant lovingkindness. For He does not afflict willingly or grieve the sons of men.
Trust God for his ability to do the humanly impossible, and bring you through this nightmare and, in some inscrutable way, bring good out of it.
And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.
This I recall to my mind, therefore I have hope. The LORD'S lovingkindnesses indeed never cease, for His compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness. "The LORD is my portion," says my soul, "Therefore I have hope in Him."
Count God your only lasting treasure, because he is the only sure and stable thing in the universe.
Whom have I in heaven but You? And besides You, I desire nothing on earth. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.