We launch into a new week of episodes with a question from a podcast listener named Brad. He writes in to ask: “Dear Pastor John, I have a question about passages like 1 Peter 4:12 — ‘Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you’ — and 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.’ Do we use those types of passages to encourage a fellow believer when they’re dealing with issues like sickness or recovery from an accident? Or do these verses pertain only to the types of trials that come as a result of following Christ (Philippians 1:29)?” Pastor John what do you say?
Well, my own view is that most of the passages in the New Testament that encourage us in suffering, deal with persecution, but that the principles of how the suffering serves us and how we are to handle it applies to all suffering in the path of obedience, including disease or calamity, natural disaster or whatever.
Opportunities for Growth
In other words, if you are on your way to visit a sick person — according to obedience to Jesus, and you want to go in Jesus’s name and for Jesus’s glory and build up their faith and encourage them — and someone doesn’t want you to do that, and they shoot you in the arm, and you have to go to the hospital because you have now shared the sufferings of Christ, you are in a similar position you would be if you had a car accident on the way and broke your arm and had to go to the hospital. The same basic truths would sustain you and guide you in both cases.
Now, of course, there are different challenges in both cases. In one, you will be challenged to love your enemy. You don’t have any enemy in the car accident scenario, except your own stupidity maybe in taking the wrong turn or not applying your brakes soon enough. And so you might face the challenge of feeling guilty.
So the challenges are going to be different in both cases, but the basic principles of what God is up to in ordaining these kinds of sufferings and how are we to spiritually grow in them, those are going to be the same. In both of these, faith is being challenged by the devil to get you to doubt the goodness of God, and in both of them God is testing your faith to see if you will trust him and grow in grace.
So let me give two reasons, one from the Bible and one from experience, why I think suffering from persecution and suffering from accident or disease or natural calamity are all included in the principle when the New Testament talks about how to handle suffering, how to grow in suffering, what God is up to in suffering.
Suffering with Christ
And here is my key text: Romans 8:16–23, which says,
The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs — heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. (Romans 8:16–17)
Now that is an amazing statement. It says that if we suffer with Christ, we will be glorified with Christ. So does that only mean persecution? Is that what suffering with Christ means? Christ suffered crucifixion like persecution, and we must suffer some kind of persecution in order to be glorified? Well, here is the catch. The very next verse goes like this:
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. (Romans 8:18)
Now what are those, the sufferings of this present time? Is that just persecution? And you go on and read verses 18–23, and it is really clear. He talks about the fall and God subjecting all things to futility and corruption, and within that, there are groanings and pain. And you get to verse 23 and he says,
And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. (Romans 8:23)
Now there you have a statement about groaning because these bodies get sick, they get diseased. They get hurt. They grow old and aged and they die, and we groan waiting for their redemption. And that is included clearly in Paul’s flow of thought with “sufferings of this present time.” And that is part of the explanation of suffer in verse 17, where it says “provided we suffer with him in order that we may be glorified with him.”
So the upshot, it seems to me, is that Paul explains the sufferings with Christ in verse 17 as the sufferings of this fallen world. And then he says that they include groanings that come from these bodies that need resurrection. And the reason these are all sufferings with Christ is that they are sufferings that we endure with him in the path of obedience. We were in the car going to take ourselves to visit our friend who needed encouragement, when either the accident or the shot happened. They may come from persecutors, these sufferings. They may come from disease or natural disaster, but we are walking with Christ step by step, in reliance upon the Holy Spirit, whichever way they come. And so we are with Christ and we are called to hold fast to him.
So my answer is: Yes, James 1:2 is applicable to cases like this: “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 now that could be natural evils that befall you because you are in a tsunami or a flood or earthquake, or it could be persecution. God is testing you. Will you trust him? Satan is tempting you. Will you doubt God? So that is my biblical argument, mainly from Romans 8, for why I think, when you read the principles of how to manage suffering and what it is doing in our lives in the New Testament — it doesn’t matter whether you have got cancer or whether you have just been put in jail by hostile people to Christians — both of those situations are covered by the principles of how to deal with suffering.
Good in Both
And I said there was one other argument from experience for why I don’t make this distinction between persecution and sickness, and it goes like this: It really is impossible to draw a clear line between suffering that comes from persecution and suffering that comes from disease. If you are flogged for Jesus’s sake, and your back is ripped open (like Paul’s was five times), suppose a week later infection sets in. You thought you were done with that persecution, and weeks later when you are almost healed, you get this residual infection, a fever comes, and death threatens because of the fever. Now are you dying because of a disease, or are you dying because of persecution? Of course, the answer is yes.
Or here is a more relevant example: If you get malaria because you are a missionary on the ground in the Amazon, is that because you are diseased or a missionary? And there are countless such ambiguities. We just can’t make that distinction hard and fast. And thank God we don’t have to. And so my conclusion is that all the teachings on suffering in the Bible can apply to both persecution pain and kinds of pain that come from other contexts.
And the application would be to both, and it would be a mistake to say, “Oh, this kind of pain that is coming from persecution, that is handled in one way. This kind of cancer that is coming from that, that is handled in another way. God relates differently in those.” No, he doesn’t. He is testing in both. He wants you to trust him in both. He is sovereign in both. He is good in both. The devil is wicked in both, and you need to resist him in both.