The Sufferer I Want to Be
Why I Love the Apostle Paul
The apostle Paul did not let his suffering for Christ turn him against Christ or away from his mission.
That doesn’t mean his sufferings were light or few. In fact, they were heavy and many. For example, “Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned” (2 Corinthians 11:24–25). Think with me about how your own mind might work in the midst of such recurrent sufferings.
Paul has devoted himself utterly to obeying Jesus Christ. The result of this faithfulness to the risen, all-powerful Christ is that Paul is wounded over and over again in the path of obedience. How would you respond? I have known professing Christians who become so embittered at the hardships in their lives that they turn away from the Christian faith.
Who Is the Decisive Cause?
Some of you might think: What such people need is to be taught that God did not bring these miseries, and so they should not turn away from him as though he did. Paul did not agree with that. He was too steeped in the Old Testament. He knew how things actually went, for example, with Job.
To be sure Satan was a great mover in the miseries of Job. He is the one who went before God and unleashed the deaths of Job’s children and the miseries of Job’s boils (Job 1:6–19; 2:7). But when Job expressed his own understanding of what happened in these calamities, he ascribed the decisive cause to God. “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21). “Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” (Job 2:10). And in both cases — the loss of his children and the horrible boils — the writer of the book said, “Job did not sin with his lips” (Job 1:22; 2:10).
And when all was said and done, in the last chapter of the book of Job, the inspired writer says that Job’s family “showed him sympathy and comforted him for all the evil that the Lord had brought upon him” (Job 42:11). So, we may put aside any idea that Paul thought his sufferings were random, or that they were only demonic or decisively from the hands of man. He knew they were from the Lord Jesus himself, who had told him they were coming (Acts 9:16).
When Trouble Arises
Now, back to my suggestion above that we put ourselves in Paul’s place and try to imagine what we might feel under his relentless sufferings, and how your mind might work.
I can hear some people in Paul’s place respond by saying, “Look, Jesus, I have pledged my life to you. I have heard you say that your yoke is easy, and your burden is light (Matthew 11:30). You have promised me peace and contentment (Philippians 4:7, 11–13). But almost every time I try to bear witness to you, what do I get? Pain. This is not the kind of reward I expect from a strong and kind Leader. This is not the way I thought you would treat your faithful followers. So, unless you use your power to make my life easier rather than harder, I’m finished with this Christianity.”
Jesus predicted that there would be such seeming converts who would respond like this. He said, “They have no root in themselves, but endure for a while; then, when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away” (Mark 4:17).
“I have known professing Christians so embittered at the hardships in their lives that they turn away from the faith.”
Jesus had warned his followers to expect abuse: “You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and some of you they will put to death” (Luke 21:16) “I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute” (Luke 11:49). And when Jesus turned Paul’s life around on the Damascus road and gave him his life mission, he was explicit: “I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name” (Acts 9:16).
So, when Paul suffered in the path of faithful obedience to Jesus, he did not accuse Jesus of bait and switch. He did not criticize his ways or murmur against his sovereign wisdom. He did ask for deliverance. Sometimes it came (Acts 22:25–29); sometimes it didn’t.
Passion for Christ in Suffering
One time in particular, when deliverance from suffering did not come, was especially difficult for Paul. He called it a “thorn . . . in the flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:7) and tells about it:.
Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:8–9)
How does this land on you? It is an astonishing response from Jesus. How would you have reacted to Jesus’s words? Would you say, “Your power! Your power is made perfect in my weakness! Jesus, for goodness’ sake, it’s my body that’s in pain! And your power gets the glory? How about some grace for deliverance!”
It is frightening how many Christians in the affluent West respond like this to suffering in their lives. They get angry at God. And if they were told that God’s design is to magnify the glory of his grace in their suffering, they would be furious at God and the one who suggested such a thing.
Content with Calamity
That kind of fury throws in the sharpest relief the way Paul responded to Jesus’s words when he was told his thorn would not be removed. Paul said,
Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 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. (2 Corinthians 12:9–10)
Can we even imagine such an emotion? Gladly! After crying out three times for relief, and being told no, to say “I will boast all the more gladly” in the weakness brought by this thorn.
“Paul did ask for deliverance. Sometimes it came; sometimes it didn’t.”
This is how much Paul loved Jesus Christ. This is how much he lived for the glory of Christ. If Christ says that his glory will shine more brightly through Paul’s suffering, then Paul, amazingly, rejoices in suffering. That is how his heart works. His supreme value is magnifying the glory of Christ. So, I will be content with persecutions and calamities.
This is the kind of person I admire most, the kind of person I want to be — the kind of person I love.