The Role of Suffering in Sanctification

Desiring God 2010 Conference for Pastors

The Pastor, the People, and the Pursuit of Joy

The following is notes taken during the session, not the manuscript.

Let's turn to 2 Thessalonians 1. By way of introduction, I grew up in inner city Washington D.C. I started in the projects of southwest D.C. Then we moved to uptown D.C. I grew up during the crack era in the late 70's and early 80's. In growing up in an inner city context, you always hope things are going to be better. You're living in an environment where you're wondering if things are ever going to be different.

I went to church growing up, but it was a very non-Christian, social church. I heard the gospel for the first time in college and was blown away by the Ruler of lights. But the thing that blew me away as I began to be discipled was that I was hearing the same man-centered message I had heard growing up, where people told me that I deserved God's blessing. Then I went to seminary where we had to translate the book of Romans twice and then write a sanctification paper. I was thinking about what subject I would write on, and then I thought about the role of suffering in sanctification. So I began going through Scripture, from Matthew to Revelation, walking through this idea of sanctification and suffering's role in it. I was blown away.

Defining Sanctification

Sanctification is the process whereby God makes the believer progressively holy. We are redeemed by Jesus but we are still raggedy. So God uses things to sanctify us. As I started getting more and more into the text, I realized that suffering is one of the primal ways God sanctifies the Christian. I began to see this concurring idea throughout the New Testament that married suffering to sanctification. Suffering helps us and works with us. If we could personify suffering, he is our usher, if you will.

As I got through the Pauline corpus, one of the passages that blew my mind during this study was Thessalonians. We're only going to spend time in two verses, really. I'll read the whole first chapter:

Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

We ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers, as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of every one of you for one another is increasing. Therefore we ourselves boast about you in the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith in all your persecutions and in the afflictions that you are enduring.

This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering— since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed. To this end we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling and may fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ. (2 Thessalonians 1:1–12)

Here in this passage we see the second letter to the Thessalonians. The Thessalonians were those who some view as the model church. So it's unclear who the actual offenders in this context are. It's clear that the Thessalonians were being afflicted and were suffering. Paul gets worried about Christians when they experience their first sufferings. He gets very afraid because he wonders if they understand that this is part of the Christian life. One of my favorite verses in the Bible is Acts 14:22: "through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God." Fundamental Bible doctrine for Christians from Paul is that sometimes God is going to rock you by giving you things you don't like. Life is going to get feisty on you.

Suffering Is Inevitable

So Paul is wondering if Christians are going to see suffering as a normal part of the Christian life. There is no Affirmative Action when it comes to suffering. It's an equal-opportunity employer. There is no disinfectant you can utilize to anoint yourself out of suffering.

In 2 Thessalonians 1:11 Paul says "To this end." To what end? We see the answer in verse 4. Other believers are getting blown away by the fact that the Thessalonians are going through a hellacious struggle and are remaining steadfast. Christians learned about this and were excited about it. It encouraged them.

Then in 2 Thessalonians 1:5 he says that their faithfulness to the gospel heralds the reality of the faithfulness of God. In verses 6-10 it says that God is going to repay with affliction those who are afflicting the Thessalonians. God will repay to the opponents what they have done to the Thessalonians.

Then Paul says, "To this end we always pray for you..." (2 Thessalonians 1:11). Paul's prayers are legendary. They're convicting. They have great depth. They're extremely Godward and they're very distinct.

Being Worthy of God's Calling

Paul prays, "…that our God may make you worthy of his calling…" (2 Thessalonians 1:11). What does it look like for God to make someone worthy of his calling? The worthiness that happens during suffering is an act of God and not an act of man. The act of worthiness in this passage is that God makes the Christian worthy through the gospel. The desire in Paul's prayers is that God would meet them in their trials so that the glory of their calling would match what they're suffering. Paul is saying, "Show people that God doesn't save for nothing." He's saved us with particular purposes in mind. God is going to get his glory no matter what. This is God's soteriological goal.

It blows me away that Paul didn't pray for the Thessalonians to be removed from the trial they were enduring. He prayed that God would make them worthy of their calling and that he would keep them in this trial.

Some of you are in situations right now where you're struggling with perspective. No matter how many times suffering happens, during the first 25% of it we typically forget its purpose. When my wife and I first got pregnant, we were really excited. There was one doctor's appointment where I didn't go with her. I was in class at seminary and she paged me and I called her and she told me that the child didn't have a heartbeat.

As I drove to the hospital I was really wrestling with God. When I got to the hospital I laid my hand on my wife's belly and prayed for God to raise the child from the dead. I called the doctor back in to do another ultrasound and we saw that the baby's lungs were collapsed. To make matters even worse, my wife still had to give birth to our stillborn child. Once she did, I prayed for the child and asked for God to raise it from the dead. He didn't.

On top of this, my wife had a liver transplant and had to be cared for for more than two and a half years. During that time, God was taking the paper about suffering I had written in seminary and was working it into my heart.

We're not masochists here, but we allow God to providentially allow times of suffering for his glory.

Seeing God's Calling As Weighty

Moving back to 2 Thessalonians, we see that Paul explains in his prayer two or three ways the worthiness of God's calling is seen.

He prays, "…and may [our God] fulfill every resolve for good…" (2 Thessalonians 1:11). Now this is interesting, because here is the anatomy of how God keeps us joyous. This idea of "fulfill" here means to complete or finish something that has already been started. God has passions and desires. Most of us want God to be aligned with our desires, but true joy does not come from that. That will only lead to depression. We must pray for God to align our desires with his.

Jesus said, "If you abide in me and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you" (John 15:7). When God allows you to go through these struggles for your joy, he's fulfilling every good resolve that's based on his understanding of affliction. Suffering must come in order that the passions of God might be worked in us.

Paul ends his prayer with a purpose clause: "so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you…" (2 Thessalonians 1:12). Paul is telling the Thessalonians that the purpose of this trial is that the Lord Jesus may be glorified in them. God rigs our souls as mirrors and he uses trials to rub the dirt off the mirrors so that we might shine his glory toward other people.

Paul then prays "that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him…" (2 Thessalonians 1:12) "The stress is not on the glorification of the saved, but on the glorification of the Savior in the saved," John Stott said.

God is concerned about one thing and one thing only: that we would look like Jesus. He is spit-shining us to make us practically into the image of his Son. He doesn't send trials to take away our joy but to increase our joy. When I sense that a trial is coming, I pray that God would receive maximum glory out of it.

I pray that God would strengthen us so that we would live for an audience of One, the Triune audience, who has been hanging out from eternity and enjoying themselves and waiting for us to come in and spend time enjoying them.

is the founder and pastor of Epiphany Fellowship in Philadelphia.