The Theme of Suffering in the Pauline Epistiles

Introduction

For many Christians today, the Gospel is not Christ centered but self centered.  One can hardly turn on Christian television without hearing how God promises them this or that; how God guarantees them health and wealth in this life; how life is to be blessing filled.  It is sad to see those who follow after Christ for their own sake.  It grieves me that so many are turning to Christ as a new way to prosper or as a new method of happiness.  This is a very skewed view of the Gospel.  At the center of the Gospel message is Christ and Him crucified.  In order to be obedient to Him, we are told that suffering, tribulation, and persecution come along with following Him.  Paul understood suffering very well.  He considered his suffering for Christ an honor and privilege and this is a reoccurring theme throughout his epistles.  We can learn much from Paul about what it truly means to follow Christ.

To Follow Christ is to Suffer for Christ

One cannot follow Christ without suffering or being persecuted.  This is clear from the life of Paul.  After being blinded by Christ on the road to Damascus, Jesus said to Ananias concerning Paul “This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name” (Acts 9:15-16).  And of course, this is just what happened.  In his second epistle to the church of Corinth, Paul recounted for them his suffering: “I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again.  Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked” (2 Cor. 11:23-27).  The experience here of Paul is in sharp contrast to what Christians are being told today from pulpits all across America.  If a Christian is suffering today, it is assumed that he must be out of the will of God, or there must be some unresolved sin in his life.  This view cannot be reconciled with the experiences of Paul who was clearly in the will of God.

Suffering is not something that the Apostle Paul endured as a special calling.  He taught suffering and persecution are necessary, an obligation, and to be expected for all believers.   Suffering is also part of the human condition that we inherited from our forefather Adam.

Suffering is Necessary

Of course no one likes to suffer.  Suffering is unpleasant.  But sometimes, through the unpleasant, God performs His best work.  Pain has a way of affecting and perfecting us. Paul understood this; so much so that he urged the church at Romans to rejoice in their hardships; that even in pain, God has a plan for perfecting the saints: “but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.  And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us” (Rom. 5:3-5).  Through suffering, God builds character.  This character was important in the building of the early church.  It made them strong in their faith.  Without that strong faith, without the willingness to suffer, the Church of Christ would have fizzled and withered under the pressure of persecution.

The Apostle Paul also indicated that suffering is necessary to partake in Christ’s blessings “Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory” (Rom. 8:17).  Ironically, we often hear mention of being co-heirs with Christ concerning the blessings, but rarely do we hear that we must also share in Christ’s suffering as well.  We pick and chose what we want.  We eagerly accept the blessing, but reject even the notion of suffering.  According to Paul, they both go hand in hand.  We must share in the suffering in order to partake of the blessing.  The Wycliffe Bible Commentary writes “Those who are fellow sharers with Christ in suffering will also be fellow heirs with him in glory (Rom 8:17). The experience of suffering precedes the experience of glory.”[1]  This sentiment is echoed in the Bible Knowledge Commentary: “For Jesus Christ it involved suffering and abuse and crucifixion; therefore being co-heirs with Christ requires that believers share in His sufferings.[2]

In Philippians, we see that the cause of the Gospel was advanced due to the suffering of Paul.  During his imprisonment in Rome, Paul wrote: “Because of my chains, most of the brothers in the Lord have been encouraged to speak the word of God more courageously and fearlessly (Phil. 1:14).  So Paul’s suffering was a catalyst for the advancement of the Gospel.  But it is not just his suffering, but the suffering of all the saints.  The greatest church growth occurred during its greatest persecutions.  This growth could have never occurred if Christians did not consider it a privileged to suffer and die for Christ.

It is no wonder that Paul tells those at Philippi “For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him, since you are going through the same struggle you saw I had, and now hear that I still have” (Phil. 1:29-30).  Paul did not consider his suffering something to be ashamed of, but of something to be proud of.  Suffering was something that the church of Philippi was to embrace.

Moreover, Paul considered suffering for Christ an act of fellowship.  Again, writing to the church at Philippi, Paul says “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death” (Phil. 3:10).

Suffering is Expected

Not only are we not to be surprised to suffer for Christ, but we are to expect it.  According to the Bible Knowledge Commentary, the books of Thessalonians were written to “commend the Thessalonian believers for their steadfastness in persecution”[3] In his first epistle to the church of Thessalonica, Paul wrote “In fact, when we were with you, we kept telling you that we would be persecuted. And it turned out that way, as you well know” (1 Thess. 3:4).  Paul had been telling them to expect persecution.  He was encouraging them to continue in the faith in the face of their persecution.  He told them a couple of verses later “Therefore, brothers, in all our distress and persecution we were encouraged about you because of your faith. For now we really live, since you are standing firm in the Lord” (1 Thess. 3:4).  Here Paul equates enduring persecution with standing firm in their faith.  His praise for the Thessonalocians continued in his second epistle to them: “Therefore, among God’s churches we boast about your perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and trials you are enduring” (2 Thess. 1:4).

 

Suffering is an Honor

In 2 Corinthians, Paul wrote “To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.  Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’” (2 Cor. 12:7-9).  Paul responded with “That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10).  A few of things can be said about the passage.  First, Christ allowed this suffering for His purpose.  Paul stated that the purpose was to keep him from being conceited.  Second, Paul, an Apostle of Christ who not only had the gift of healing (Acts 14:10, 28:9), but also able to raise the dead (Acts 20:9-12), could not heal himself.  This is in contradiction to many Word Faith teachings in the church that we must have faith in order to be healed.  No one would suggest that Paul did not have faith.  Third, Paul prayed specifically to Christ to be healed.  Christ refused.  It was the will of Christ that Paul suffer.  As mentioned earlier, Christ told Annias that he would show Paul what it means to suffer for His sake. Christ ordained that Paul suffer for His sake.

In his epistles to his faithful assistant Timothy, Paul told Timothy that he, Paul, suffers for the sake of the Gospel and encouraged Timothy to do the same: “So do not be ashamed to testify about our Lord, or ashamed of me his prisoner. But join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God” (2 Tim. 1:8).  He also told Timothy “And of this gospel I was appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher.  That is why I am suffering as I am” (2 Tim. 1:11-12).  And Paul made it clear that suffering is not something relegated to himself, or specially to the churches to whom he was writing, but to all Christians: “In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted”  (2 Tim. 3:10).  This is not something that Paul made up.  This was consistent with the teachings of Christ Himself “Remember the words I spoke to you: ‘No servant is greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also” (John 15:20) and “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.  Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matt. 5:11-12).  To suffer for Christ is not only an honor to Christ, but also an honor to the one who suffers.

Suffering is Part of the Human Condition

Being a Christian does not result in our no longer being human. Because of the fall, suffering is part of the human condition.  As Christians we are still human.  We still live a life in a corrupt world.  We still have a nature that is in rebellion to the things of Christ.  Paul eloquently made this point when he talks about his own battle against his sinful nature: “So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in the sinful nature a slave to the law of sin” (Rom. 7:25).  We still inhabit a body that is still subject to the curse of Adam, that being sickness, decay, and physical death.  Becoming a Christian does not somehow remove us from the consequences of life and suffering.  Our perfection is beyond the grave.  It is our blessed hope.  There will be no suffering once we take on our resurrected bodies.  Until then, all flesh must suffer the price of being human.

A missionary once commented on the suffering he had to endure during his missionary stay in a foreign country.  He told of how his family as well as he became ill numerous times with malaria and various other kinds of aliments.  He wondered why God would allow him to suffer while he was doing the Lord’s work.  He later came to realize that if we are to be an example among the people then we must suffer along with the people.  How could we relate to a suffering world if we ourselves knew no suffering?  This is one of the reasons why Christ serves as our mediator.  He suffered not only for us but with us.  He endured persecution and rejection during His life.  We are to be an example to others in our suffering.

This is why, despite the claims of Word Faith teachers, healing in this life is not guaranteed.  The Bible contains a number of examples of righteous people who were not healed.  Paul admits that “Trophimus I left sick at Miletus” (2 Tim. 4:20).  Paul had to rely on God’s mercy that his friend Epaphroditus’ deathly illness had run its course sparing his life (Phil. 3:25-26).  It appears that Paul was unable to help Epaproditus himself.  Moreover, Paul was unable to heal himself.  In Gal. 4:13-14, he writes “As you know, it was because of an illness that I first preached the gospel to you. Even though my illness was a trial to you, you did not treat me with contempt or scorn. Instead, you welcomed me as if I were an angel of God, as if I were Christ Jesus himself.”  As mentioned earlier, Paul also suffered from a “thorn in the flesh” which he unsuccessfully petitioned to have the Lord remove (2 Cor. 12:7-9).

Neither the example of Paul nor anyone else indicated that they were under the impression that healing here and now was guaranteed to all believers.  They simply accepted their situations and trusted in God’s grace for sustenance.[4]

Although God does not guarantee healing for all believers, at least not in this life, all believers will eventually be healed of all physical aliments as well as spiritual aliments.  But just as we still possess a sinful nature, we also possess a body still in bondage to decay.  The perfection of all things was brought about the work on the cross; it just has not yet manifested itself and will not until the return of our Lord.

Conclusion

In his epistles, Paul shed light on a topic often neglected, perverted, and denied by today’s selfish Gospel.  Today we are more concerned about what Christ can do for us than what we can do for Him.  We seek the blessings, but not the suffering.  But the suffering cannot be avoided by a true believer in Christ.  Paul and Christ both promised that we will be persecuted.  We grow during our persecution.  And although suffering is not something that anyone looks forward to, we cannot deny that it is an essential part of the Christian life.  For any Christian who has not suffered for the cause of Christ; who has not be persecuted; who has not undergone trials and tribulations for the sake of the Gospel; that Christian must reflect seriously upon His faith.  We must be willing to sacrifice everything for the cause of Christ.

There are clear promises of blessing for those who believe.  But most of these blessings are promised to us after we’ve suffered in this life.  We need to seek the blessor not the blessing.  But if we truly seek the blessor, we must be willing to suffer for Him, as He suffered for us.  We truly are co-heirs with Christ; not only in the blessing, but also in the suffering.  In other words, no pain, no gain!

Notes

[1]Charles F Pfeiffer and Everett Falconer Harrison, The Wycliffe Bible Commentary : New Testament [electronic ed] (Chicago: Moody Press, 1962).

[2]John A. Witmer, The Bible Knowledge Commentary : An Exposition of the Scriptures, ed. John F. Walvoord, Roy B. Zuck, and Dallas Theological Seminary [electronic ed.] (Wheaton: Victor Books, 1983-c1985).

[3]Thomas L. Constable, The Bible Knowledge Commentary : An Exposition of the Scriptures, ed. John F. Walvoord, Roy B. Zuck, and Dallas Theological Seminary [electronic ed.] (Wheaton: Victor Books, 1983-c1985).

[4]Norman L. Geisler and Ron Rhodes, When Cultists Ask : A Popular Handbook on Cultic Misinterpretations  (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 1997), 81.