I argued yesterday that when Paul says through many tribulations, we must enter the kingdom, he didn’t limit that to the tribulations that come through mistreatment because we are Christians. In other words, it’s not just persecution, it’s all the kinds of sufferings that you meet in this world. Which means that suffering with Christ and for Christ is not defined decisively by whether that is coming from those who disapprove of your faith; it’s defined decisively by whether you are walking in the path of obedience.
All suffering experienced of any kind in the path of faithful obedience to God is suffering with Christ and is suffering for Christ. Cancer, quadriplegia, AIDS, blindness, and dementia, in the life of a faithful Christian, is as much suffering with Christ and for Christ as if you were thrown in prison or beaten for your Christianity.
Now, don’t misunderstand in the larger context of what I’m saying, that I don’t believe in divine healing or divine miraculous rescues. I do. God can today, and he does, touch people and take away their sicknesses and deliver them miraculously from extremely painful circumstances. I believe that. However, there is good reason in the Bible to believe that his ordinary way of applying what he bought at the cross and will pay off completely at the resurrection, is to give it partially now. His ordinary path seems to be that we arrive in the kingdom someday along the path of affliction of every kind.
Suffering for Christians
So let me give you one passage that’s so important for me in that regard. It’s Romans 8:21-23, and it goes like this:
For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.
He’s just set up the world as a world that is groaning; that is a very apt description of this world. Under the curse of the fall, all the frustrations, all the pain, all the misery, and all the sin is set under this groaning that God assigned to it because of the fall, in hope. And then he adds:
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.
I just don’t think it could be much clearer. Even people filled with the Holy Spirit groan, waiting — “How long, oh Lord with Alzheimers? How long with cancer? How long in this wheelchair? How long with this disability?” So sometimes he magnifies his glory through divine healing, and sometimes the groaning lasts until death and healing comes at the resurrection from the dead.
Another text in that regard is 2 Corinthians 12:9. Paul had this thorn in the flesh, and we don’t know what it was. Three times he asked, “Lord, please take it away, it hurts.”
And Jesus said to him:
My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.
To which Paul responds:
Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.
So then we have one example, at least, where Jesus simply says, “I could take it away, and I won’t take it away. I have a reason for not taking it away.”
Satan and Suffering
Now, here we have to pause and put in a parenthesis, which is not really a parenthesis, it’s a huge hunk of the message. Someone might say, “When you use the word purpose, Piper, are you sure you want to use that word? You’re saying there’s purpose for a thorn, purpose for cancer, purpose for a suicide, purpose for hurricane, and purpose for a war? Are you sure you want to talk like that? I mean, you know what you’re implying, don’t you? That God is somehow over this. He is not dropping the ball, not playing catch up, he hasn’t been backed into a corner, and has no emergency lights flashing in heaven? Isn’t that what purpose signifies? And you’re going to now talk to us for a while about the design and purpose in my pain, my mom’s pain?”
In order to do that, I think I need to address lots of things, but I only have time to address one. Let’s address Satan, because surely Satan has a will. Surely Satan is beating up on people. Surely Satan is deceiving and is a murderer from the beginning, like Jesus said (John 8:44). Satan has a design. Satan has a purpose. So how do those relate? So I want to say two things about Satan and his designs and his purposes in suffering in the miseries of this world. I’ll say two things and give you some texts for each one.
Nothing that Satan does is outside God’s sovereign rule.
You, in Christ, are totally safe from Satan’s damning power.
But before we speak about that, let’s just back up. I’m going to come around that and back to this issue of purpose, and talk about purpose in a few minutes. But I want to just get in Satan’s face here for a minute and make sure that you know what I think the Bible says about Satan’s power in your life to cause suffering and misery.
Nothing that Satan does is outside God’s sovereign rule.
Acts 10:38 says that Jesus went about healing those who were oppressed by the devil. So the devil is clearly in the world, messing things up. In Luke 13:16, remember there was a woman who couldn’t stand up for 18 years? She was bent over and Jesus said, “Should not this daughter of Abraham be healed whom Satan bound for 18 years.” Satan bound her, that was Satan at work. That spinal issue was Satan, Jesus said. So I know he’s here, I know he’s alive, and I know he does these kinds of things. So when I talk about God’s design and God’s purpose in them, I have to come to terms with what’s going on between God and Satan here.
So here’s my warrant from the Bible for the first statement that nothing Satan does in your life, or your family, or Nicaragua, or Iraq, or Washington DC, or anywhere else in the world is outside God’s sovereign rule. Do you remember the story in Mark 1? Jesus comes into Capernaum and there’s a demon possessed man that comes into the synagogue and says to him, “We know who you are — the Holy one of God” (Mark 1:24). To which Jesus responds, “Be quiet and come out of him” (Mark 1:25). Then the demon leaves, and the people respond like this: “What is this? A new teaching with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”
One little word shall fell him. Do you believe that? If you believe that you have a huge issue on your hands. When Jesus speaks with full authority, demons obey — always with no exceptions. Which means if they’re tormenting you, he’s letting them because he could say, “Stop!” and they would stop. As they do many times when Jesus says stop.
Here’s another passage from Luke 22:31-32. Here’s Peter, about to be tempted to deny Jesus. And Jesus says something absolutely amazing to Peter. He says this:
Simon, Simon, Satan demanded to have you that he might sift you like wheat…
In other words, just like he did to Job, Satan says, “Give me this man. I’m going to push him through the sieve of fear tonight, and on the other side is going to come Peter minus faith. He continues:
Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.
That’s absolute sovereignty talking. He does not say if you turn again, or if Satan doesn’t succeed, but when you turn again. In other words, “What I asked the Father to do for you was to let you go down three times, but not fail. And my Father answers my prayers. When you turn, be a rock. I’m building my church here.”
Here is a third text. 1 Peter 5:8–9 says:
Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world.
You see what the connection is there between the jaws of the lion and suffering? He says, “Be watchful. Your adversary, the devil, is prowling around like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour. Resist him in your faith, knowing that the same experience of suffering…” The jaws of the lion are the jails and the whips of Peter’s day. So it looks like persecution is in Satan’s control. This book is amazing. Earlier on in the book, 1 Peter 3:17 says this:
For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil.
Now, I’m going to say it one more time and we’ll move on to the next point. Nothing Satan does in your life, or anybody’s life, is outside God’s sovereign rule. He does it by virtue of permission, and what God permits, he designs. If you permit something that you could have not permitted, you permit it for a reason. He is not willy-nilly. He’s not haphazard. He permits Satan’s work for purposes.
In Christ, you are totally safe from Satan’s damning power.
And here’s the second thing that I said; namely, that you, in Chris,t are totally safe from Satan’s damming power. Let me read you one of the most glorious texts in all the Bible. Colossians 2:13-15 goes like this:
God made [you] alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.
Now so far, Satan is not in view, but focus on what he just said. Jesus Christ came into the world, knowing that against every person in this room, there’s a record of debt. It is very long and it will be read in the last judgment to your damnation, unless something happens to remove it from you. And what happened was that the record was nailed through the hands of Jesus. He folded it up like a big piece of paper, put it in his palm, put a spike through it, and nailed it there. It’s not going to be presented in the courtroom at the end. You are free from every sin you have ever, will now, or will ever commit. That’s the Gospel. That’s what Christ did for us. And the question is, what does it have to do with Satan?
The next verse has no break, no pause, no breath. I’ll just read it in the flow of the passage.
…the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.
What does that mean? Satan is still moving, 1 Peter 5:8 says he’s like a roaring lion. So what’s this disarming that happened at the cross? It’s this: Decisively, he will be thrown into the lake of fire someday because of the triumph of Jesus, but right now the one damning weapon Satan has in his hands has been taken out at Calvary. You know what that is? There’s only one way Satan can damn you — by accusing you successfully in the courtroom of God for unforgiven sin. That’s the only way Satan can damn you. And that is nailed to the cross.
He is stripped of his one damning weapon. Therefore, you can get in his face. And if he’s about to kill you, you can say, “Make my day.” And he will be very frustrated that all he can do is kill you. I try to make this plain to our little kids at Bethlehem because kids are afraid of Satan, and they believe. Some of you don’t believe, but they believe. And I say, “Look, he’s got these weapons. He’s got these fangs, full of poison, and if he bites you, you’re dead forever in hell because that’s the power he has. However, at the cross, Jesus snapped those fangs off and all he can do is gum you.”
The kids, they come back years later and say, “Okay, Satan was gummin’ me today.” That’s okay, you just resist him. So if there are any kids in the crowd, I hope you remember the fangs are broken and his gums can kill you, but they cannot damn you. So that’s the end of my big parenthesis, which was an answer to the objection, “Are you sure you want to use the word purpose? When you talk about suffering in our lives, are you sure you want to talk about purpose language and design language? Don’t you know there is a Satan in the universe?” And my answer has been that nothing he does is outside God’s sovereign rule. So yes, I’m talking about purpose. And second, you, in Christ, are as safe as can possibly be from his damning power, as you trust in Christ.
Purpose in Suffering
So now the question is purpose. And if we had hours and hours together, we would scan the Bible for all the purpose statements. There are many. I’m only going to talk about one, and I think it’s the most important one. I think it is the ultimate one as to why God permits Satan to hammer you, and why God ordains things like hurricanes and war, and does not just throw Satan now into the Lake of fire. If you have an answer for that one, other than the answer I’m giving now, you come up and tell me. Why doesn’t he just toss him now into the lake of fire?
He’s going to do it at the end, so, “Just do it now,” I say to Jesus in my worst moments. Do you get your back up with God, saying, “Do it my way. I wouldn’t run the world like this!” I just want to warn you not to talk to God like that.
We spoke about 2 Corinthians 12:9, which says:
My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.
I think that statement states the ultimate reason for suffering; namely, there are aspects of the beauty, worth, power, grace, and value of Christ that can only be seen when his saints treasure him in suffering above health.
I’ll say it again, unless there’s any misunderstanding, Christ glory is displayed through healing. I love it when Christ shows his power by healing and delivering people from prison. He delivered Peter by throwing open the jails a few weeks after he let James get his head cut off. So I glory that James’s steadfastness reveals the preciousness of Christ, and I glory that Peter’s escape reveals the power and mercy of Christ. So my answer to the question of what he is up to, is that he is up to the display of the infinite worth of Jesus.
So let’s close by looking at a key text. Let’s look at Philippians 1:20. This is the text I used when I came to Bethlehem 27 years ago, using it as the banner I wanted to fly over my ministry.
…it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.
For three minutes, let’s work through the logic of that text. “My passion,” Paul says, “is that in my body, the body that can be whipped, jailed, the body that can have sex and eat pizza and drink diet pop, in that body, I want Christ to look good. I want to make Christ look great, whether I live or whether I die.” And then he says, and this is so crucial, “For to me to live is Christ and to die is gain.” Now, how does counting death as gain magnify Christ?
“My desire is that Christ be magnified in my body as I die, for to me to die is gain.” And that’s not hard. That’s a final exam in a class on Philippians; it would be in my class anyway. And the answer is: Christ is most magnified in us when we are most satisfied in him, when we lose everything but him. Death means, the wife is gone, the husband is gone, the kids are gone, parents are gone, Wheaton’s gone, the dream for retirement or a vocation is gone; it’s all gone and you’re dying of leukemia at age 23, like Zeke.
Does anyone remember Zeke? That was my senior year. His dad, who taught me English here, wrote a little article and said that near the end Zeke called death sweet names. I never forgot that line. That means he was hurting really bad. How do the Zekes of the world or the Pauls of the world, or you, when you face yours this afternoon, perhaps, how do you make Christ look magnificent when you’re dying? Answer: say gain.
If you put everything that this life offers you over here and Christ over here, and death takes all this and gives only him, what do you say? Gain. And when you say that, you know what happens in hell? They gnash their teeth, saying, “Failed, we failed again. We can’t stand it when those saints treasure Christ, delight in Christ, are satisfied with Christ, and enjoy Christ so much that he looks so great.” They gnash their teeth in hell when dying Christians say, “Gain.”
And the angels, with tears running down their faces, rejoice, “Yes, look how Christ is magnified by being preferred above everything that life can offer.” So my brothers and sisters, treasuring Christ above all things — above health, above life, above friends, above a long career — fulfills the purpose of your suffering. “My grace is sufficient for you. My power, my grace, is completed and made perfect in your weakness.”