“For you have been given not only the privilege of trusting in Christ but also the privilege of suffering for him.” (Philippians 1:29, NLT)
Pardon the obvious, but many people become uncomfortable when we start to talk about suffering. To their way of thinking, suffering is something to be avoided, if possible. The theological explanations for suffering vary from the “hyper faith” perspective which intimates that if one has enough faith, you can avoid suffering, to the other extreme which believes that unless you are suffering, you are probably not a true believer.
Contrary to the way some people think, suffering is not always something to be avoided. Athletes will endure suffering to improve performance. The military regimen includes suffering. It is not that suffering is enjoyable, unless one suffers from a psychological disorder, but instead, it is the looking forward to a goal or an objective that provides the focus necessary to endure the pain. For Christ Jesus, going to the cross was painful. He looked beyond the cross and forward to the “joy which was set before him.” (Hebrews 12:2).
It is having a goal or an objective that motivates us to look at suffering, not as something to be feared or evaded, but as essential in the development of our character and endurance, as well as our identification with Christ and our brothers and sisters. A. W. Tozer wrote: “It is doubtful whether God can bless a man greatly until he has hurt him deeply.” We concede that this is not without controversy in some circles, however, the Bible is filled with examples of men and women who endured suffering before fulfilling their purpose.
Suffering is not our desired dwelling place, but it certainly can be the door by which we enter the habitation of our greatest usefulness. There is no substitute for suffering when it comes to developing character and endurance. “…we also rejoice in sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance, character, and character, hope.” (Romans 5:3–4, NET)). A similar thought is echoed by James: “Consider it a great joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you experience various trials, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance.” (James 1:2–3, CSB)
Character is not really proven until it endures. It is possible to have character before suffering, but until it is tested it is unknown and unproven. Suffering does not produce character, but it does reveal character and strengthen its endurance. Job was tested and suffered in ways that most people will never know and yet he could say: “But he knows the way that I take; when he has tested me, I will come forth as gold.” (Job 23:10, NIV). (Also 1 Peter 1:6-7, Isaiah 48:10). If anyone thinks that they should be exempt from the suffering that reveals enduring character, remember this: “Even though Jesus was God’s Son, he learned obedience from the things he suffered.” (Hebrews 5:8, NLT)
When we embrace suffering, we identify with Christ in his sufferings. Paul declared: “I want to know Christ and experience the mighty power that raised him from the dead. I want to suffer with him, sharing in his death…” (Philippians 3:10, NLT). This identification with Christ in his sufferings produces an intimacy that can be obtained in no other way and the result will be seen by others. “Through suffering, our bodies continue to share in the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be seen in our bodies.” (2 Corinthians 4:10, NLT, Galatians 2:20)
In addition to identifying with Christ through our suffering, we can also be identified with God’s people. We can start with Moses who forsook a comfortable life: “He chose to suffer with God’s people instead of enjoying sin for a short time. He thought it was better to suffer for the Christ than to have all the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking for God’s reward.” (Hebrews 11:25–26, NCV)
Peter reminds us that we can take consolation and encouragement from the fact that we are not alone in the struggle against our adversary, the devil. “Keep your guard up. You’re not the only ones plunged into these hard times. It’s the same with Christians all over the world. So keep a firm grip on the faith.” (1 Peter 5:9, The Message). The writer of Hebrews reminded his readers of how they remain faithful even when suffering, even accepting with joy the loss of all their material possessions, knowing that something better was awaiting them. He then said: “Patient endurance is what you need now, so that you will continue to do God’s will. Then you will receive all that he has promised.” (Hebrews 10:36, NLT).
If we are still intent on avoiding suffering whenever possible, we must ask ourselves what was different about the early church? (Acts 5:41, 1 Peter 2:21, Hebrews 10:32-34)
Finally, suffering comes in many forms and degrees and is not often presented in a positive light, but to those who embrace it, it will reveal a character that God can use for his glory and it will produce endurance that can withstand trials and tribulations. It produces intimacy and identification with Christ-like that of the first disciples. “…they were amazed and recognized that they had been with Jesus.” (Acts 4:13, CSB). There is no greater accolade than to be recognized as having been with Jesus.