Today is the 200th anniversary of the arrival of Protestant missions in China. On September 7, 1807, Robert Morrison put his foot on Chinese soil for the first time. He stayed there for 27 years. He had one furlough. He translated the Bible. He endured tremendous hardship. He lost his first wife there. The effect of his life and the subsequent efforts for missions in China have been simply incalculable, as I’m sure you are very aware.
I just want to suggest that today, as one of the ways that you might mark the anniversary of September 7, 1807, that you would go to chinasoul.org, and download for free the four videos called The Cross: Jesus in China.
What you will find, if you watch these four hours of video about the history of the church in China, is that the interviews with those who have spent years and years in jail, prison, and suffering are shot through with one main motif: joy. It is absolutely amazing to look into the faces of people who spent 27 years, or 15 years, or five years in prison, in hard labor, and in isolation and hear the way they talk about it.
So I thought it would be fitting that, in tribute to them and all those throughout history and around the world who have borne that kind of burden with joy, we should talk today and celebrate today the function of joy in our suffering.
Joy and Suffering
Joy in the Bible is the means by which we are sustained in suffering, and joy is that for which suffering is preparing us. Let me begin by simply reading you a litany of verses, just about 10 verses, where joy is linked with suffering. You tune into how it’s linked. How does this work? In the Bible, what is the way God describes the connection between joy and suffering? Here they are:
Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame (Romans 5:3–5).
Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness (James 1:2).
But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed (1 Peter 4:13).
Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name (Acts 5:41).
I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me (2 Corinthians 12:9).
Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all (Philippians 2:17).
Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church (Colossians 1:24).
And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit (1 Thessalonians 1:6).
We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part (2 Corinthians 8:1). So you get the message. In the Bible, when God calls us to suffer and to sacrifice, he is not calling us away from joy, but into the deepest joy. Please don’t leave this series of messages on the call to suffer thinking that I did anything other than pursue your joy. Is that clear? Say yes if that’s clear. I have come here for your maximum, everlasting joy. That’s why I’m calling you to suffer.
How Do Joy and Suffering Relate?
What we need to do is examine how this works. How are we sustained by joy? How is suffering leading to joy? How does joy shape and give flavor to the suffering? That’s our assignment today. God intends for joy to be so woven into the fabric of the suffering of your lives that it makes your suffering become bright, shining, and striking in this world, so that the world looks at it and tastes something unique and sees something amazing.
Salt and Light
We go first to a word of Jesus. Listen carefully. You probably know these by heart, but here’s what you should be listening for as I say these words. You should be listening for how salt, light, joy, and suffering are related.
Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven (Matthew 5:11–16).
Now, what’s the connection? What is your salt? What is your light? What makes your life salty, and what makes your life so bright with a kind of distinguishing brightness that when you do good deeds, you get no glory but God does? Most people who do good deeds get glory for good deeds. What would it be like to do a good deed and have everybody praise God instead of you? How can that happen? It almost never happens.
My answer is that this is all one paragraph. This is not to be split up in little pieces, dangling out there in the oral tradition somewhere. He says, “Blessed are you when men persecute you, and revile you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely.” Now, let that be real for a minute. Today, people say ugly, mean, false things about you — about the way you pray, or about the way you witness, or about the way you have devotions, or about the way you go to Chicago, or about the way you do whatever — and they are lies and it hurts like crazy. Nobody likes to be criticized or insulted, especially falsely when there’s no warrant for it.
And the next word out of Jesus’ mouth is, “Rejoice.” That’s impossible. Nobody acts like that. That is so counterintuitive, and so crazy, and so different from the way the world responds to being insulted. It just might taste like salt. It just might be what happens to a piece of corn on the cob, hot with butter melting over it, and no salt, and then there’s salt and you say, “That’s good corn,” because that’s what salt does.
I know all the talk about us being preservatives in society…blah, blah, blah. That’s true, but this is also true, I believe. When you are insulted and the miracle of joy happens in your heart, you’re unusual. The world has never seen anything like this. It cannot do it. You won’t see it in politics this year, but if you do it, the world will awaken.
Making Your Light Shine
Where is that joy coming from? It’s clearly not coming from these circumstances here, because everybody I know returns evil for evil. These really weird Christians don’t seem to do that, contrary to all the right-wing Christian radio talk shows. We don’t need any more of that. What we need is this miracle happening in Wheaton students’ lives for the next 50 or 60 years in the suffering places of the world. Then the world — Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, secular Americans, Zoroastrians in Pakistan — might say, “I’ve never tasted anything like that. I’ve never seen anything like that.”
And I think it is also the answer to the question, how do you do good deeds and let your light so shine that men may see your good deeds and give glory to your Father, not you? That’s really hard. What’s the key? I think the key is that when good deeds are done at great cost to you, and everybody expects a little bit of self-pity and, “Oh, poor me,” and , “Praise me,” and there’s none of that there but only joy that you can serve, they just might say it’s from God.
So my first observation here from Matthew 5:11—16 is that when God calls you to suffer, he doesn’t call you away from joy; he calls you into joy, because joy is what sustains your suffering. It shapes your suffering and gives flavor to your suffering. It gives brightness and striking unusual-ness to your suffering, because you’re not an, “Oh, poor me” kind of person, like a man who comes home from work as a pastor and goes to his wife just craving to be pitied. All men like moms. They want to marry moms. We want people to pity us. Grow up, guys, and women. This is human. It’s just particularly annoying in men.
Inspired Examples of Joy in Suffering
Let’s take this site of the function of joy in the midst of being insulted, producing a very unusually flavorful Christian whose life is bright, and go to the book of Hebrews to watch it work. I haven’t asked you to open your Bibles yet. I don’t know if Wheaton students bring Bibles to chapel. But at this point, I’m going to invite you, for the last 12 minutes, to open your Bibles. If you have a Bible, let’s go to Hebrews together. If you don’t, you can just listen carefully.
A few years ago, I don’t know how many, I saw this sequence in Hebrews and it absolutely blew me away. Most of us think of Hebrews as a book about Melchizedek, and nobody understands him anyway, and so the book is not much use. What an unbelievably, incalculably horrible mistake. I mean, this book is so practical, so radical, and so amazing that I want you to see it. There are four passages of scripture we’re going to move through to our climax in a few minutes.
Bright Joy and Plundered Property
Let’s go to Hebrews 10:32–34. Now, what we’re doing here is we’re asking, “Lord, would you just show us from your people in the Bible about how joy works to sustain suffering and lead to more joy?”
But recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to reproach and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. For you had compassion on those in prison…
Now, stop there and get the setting. He’s pointing back to the early days when they became Christians. That resulted in suffering. Evidently, some of them were put in prison. In those days, prisons didn’t have televisions. They didn’t have cots. Probably, if you got food it was because your relatives brought it to you. But if the relatives bring you food, the ones who put you in prison know they’re connected to you. And if you’re connected, your relatives might get thrown in too.
You can picture the crisis of the little group that has mom and dad or friends in prison. They’re saying, “We’re not in prison, and they need us. Should we go? Because if they take us, what about our kids?” You might get that kind of thing from your grandma when you decide to go somewhere. They decided to go. Isn’t that what it says? “You were not only mistreated, but some of you were partners with those so treated. For you had compassion on those in prison.”
They had a little prayer meeting and said, “Shall we go or not go? Shall we take the risk and go in there and identify ourselves with them? They’re in prison due to the fact that they’re Christians, and then they will know we’re Christians, and something might happen to our stuff.” But they said:
Let goods and kindred go. This mortal life also. The body they may kill. God’s truth abideth still. We’re going.
Then look at what happened:
You had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property.
Their houses were sacked. Maybe there was graffiti on the walls. Maybe furniture was thrown out and just burned. I don’t know what happened. Something happened to their property. They looked back over their shoulder and saw smoke coming out of their windows. Do you see what they did? Did you notice the word? They rejoiced. Would you? If somebody trashed your house and said, “Christian, get out. No more Christians. Christians, die.” Would you rejoice?
I’ll read it again. These are not my words. I’m not making this up. These are real people. This really happened. Miracles happen. It says, “You had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property.”
How’d they do that? How are you going to do that this afternoon when something terrible happens? How can that be? Nobody naturally rejoices when their stuff is burned, or trashed, or thrown out, or has graffiti written across the wall of their house, saying, “Get out of the neighborhood.” Nobody rejoices at that. The answer is the middle of Hebrews 10:34:
Since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one.
They had a better possession and an abiding one. Those two words, better and abiding, bring a psalm to my mind. Psalm 16:11 says:
You make known to me the path of life.
In your presence there is fullness of joy;
at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.
That speaks of joy that is full and forever. That’s the only kind of joy I’m interested in. If you offer me 88 percent joy, I’ll say, “No, thank you.” If you offer me 99 percent, I’ll say, “No.” I want the full and forever kind of joy, period. I’m not interested in the other junk of this world. Satan entices us with joys that are so apparently great, but they can’t compare to full and forever. In these words, “You had a better possession,” — that’s full. “And an abiding one,” — that’s forever. So they looked at their stuff and said, “Let it go. We’ve got heaven coming.”
I’ve heard people say, from the time I was a Wheaton student till today, that you can be so heavenly minded you’re no earthly good. Well, these folks were earthly good because they were so heavenly minded. They believed in the shortness of life so intensely, and the length of heaven so intensely, and the infinite joys of heaven so intensely, that it made the trashing of their houses feel like nothing, and they could rejoice. That’s the way it works.
Look at Hebrews 11:23–26. We’re going all the way back to Moses now. I just want you to see the paradigm of how this works.
By faith Moses, when he was born, was hidden for three months by his parents, because they saw that the child was beautiful, and they were not afraid of the king’s edict. By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward.
He’s one of those weird people. It says he counted the reproach of Christ greater wealth. That means insult and abuse, and he takes it and says, “My wealth!” That just turns your head upside down. How is this so? It says, “for he was looking to the reward.” This is exactly the same framework of thought driving his love to embrace hardship, to lead a people.
In other words, when he was a Wheaton student and he contemplated where to go and what to do with his life, he saw fleeting pleasures here and he saw reproach and hardship here, and he embraced the hardship. Why? He looked to the reward. When God calls us to suffering, he’s calling us to the deepest, longest experiences of joy.
Next, look at Hebrews 12:1–2. This is Jesus now, so be very reverent as you hear how Jesus was sustained in the garden and on the cross. Beware of making light of what sustained Jesus.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.
If somebody says to you, “Don’t listen to Piper on this issue of joy motivation, because he’s a Christian Hedonist and that is selfishness.” Don’t ever call Jesus selfish. It will get you in big trouble. Jesus was sustained on the cross for the joy that was set before him, and if Jesus was, I will be, thank you very much. I will not seek a motivation that is nobler and higher than my King. It’s not selfish, because it’s God-exalting, others-including, and others-saving. He’s saving people while he’s being sustained by the hope of joy.
The hope of joy is that he will be surrounded by millions and millions of people for whom he died among all the peoples. This is not selfishness. This is the pursuit of God-exalting, people-loving, sacrificing joy forever. And that’s what will be the key in your life, if you love him that much that you want to be with him forever and be sustained by that joy.
Joy outside the Gate
One more text as we close. Let’s look at Hebrews 13:12–14.
So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. Therefore, let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.
Wheaton, you are here because God has revealed his glory in his Word and in his world. Give yourselves with all your might to know him in his Word and to know him in his world. That song that you sang for us, “The whole universe is his, through him, and for him,” that’s Colossians 1:16. All things — chemistry, philosophy, history, physical education, the Bible department, the music conservatory — all things are made through him and for him. Give yourself to know him in his Word and in his world.
Christian students should know the world better than anybody, and should know why the world exists and for whom the world exists. So give yourself to these studies. I stress that because I know that some of you are so chomping at the bit to go outside the camp and bear reproach for him, you just might bail on your education.
When I was at Fuller, it was the hot high days of black armbands and bare feet in classrooms and heading for the streets against Vietnam, and to be in seminary was a hard thing. And then Geoffrey Bromley, the church historian, stood up one day in chapel and preached a message from Luke. The text was, “And Jesus entered his ministry when he was about 30 years old” (Luke 3:23). He said to us 25-year-olds and 22-year-olds, “Stay here for a while and you might be more useful.”
I do want to summon you outside the camp. I do want to say when you’re done, and you have given your whole soul and your whole might to your chemistry, or your philosophy, or your history, or your music, or your PE, or your Bible, or whatever your discipline is, when you have given your whole effort for Christ’s sake in this place, then dream a dream for how to go with Jesus outside the camp, and through whatever hardships God appoints, make him known.
Make your life salty. Make your life bright. Be unusual. Don’t fit into the American way. Be counter-cultural. They will insult you, and because of the joy set before you, rejoice. Return good for evil. Lay down your life, and it may be that the whole Muslim world would fall before you, not through bullets, but through sacrifice. We don’t kill to extend our cause, we die to extend our cause, by the thousands — even by some who are in this room. I stand in awe of what God’s going to do in your life. May it be so.