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Suffering: The Forgotten Gift

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For unto you it is given in the behalf of Christ, not only to believe on Him, but also to suffer for His sake~ Philippians 1:29

Our text communicates an often forgotten truth: Each and every Christian has been graciously given the opportunity to BOTH believe in Christ AND to suffer for His sake. The first gift—belief in Jesus—is frequently discussed in our churches because it is easy to grasp its centrality to salvation: becoming a born again child of God; a new creation set to work in God’s Kingdom.

However, the second gift—“to suffer for his sake”—is no less important. Indeed, the verse indicates that the gifts are given conjointly; that is to say, one gift cannot be accepted without accepting the other. To accept the gift of salvation is to accept the gift of suffering for Jesus’ sake; to receive one is to receive both: faith in Jesus and suffering for Jesus are two sides of a single coin. Indeed suffering for Christ’s sake is so fundamental to the life of a Christian that Scripture tells us:

All that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution. ~ 2 Timothy 3:12

If we accept this truth, then, to apply it to our lives we must first understand why it is important to suffer for Christ’s sake and how it transforms a Believer’s life.

To suffer means to undergo or to experience difficulties, harsh circumstances. For example, Jesus suffered on the cross (1 Peter 3:18); and Paul suffered lashings, beatings, a stoning, shipwrecks, weariness and painfulness, hunger and thirst, cold and nakedness (2 Corinthians 11:23-33). Similarly, many other Believers suffered various persecutions a few of which are listed in Scripture in the Book of Acts.

But why was all this suffering necessary? To answer this question, consider the following verses:

Forasmuch then as Christ hath suffered for us in the flesh, arm yourselves likewise with the same mind: for he that hath suffered in the flesh hath ceased from sin; That he no longer should live the rest of his time in the flesh to the lusts of men, but to the will of God. ~ 1 Peter 4:1-2

This passage tells us that the Believer who has suffered for Christ’s sake has ceased from sin. Notice, however, the use of the past perfect tense in verse 1. The past perfect tense tells us that the action has been completed.

Therefore, we can understand 1 Peter 4:1 as saying the Believer who has completed his course of suffering for Christ’s sake has completed the process of ceasing from sin.

“And when he had called the people unto him with his disciples also, he said unto them, Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.” ~ Mark 8:34

The crucial implication is that the Believer who is completing his course of suffering for Christ’s sake is completing the process of ceasing from sin. In other words, suffering for Christ’s sake transforms the Believer from sin-FULL to sin-LESS; suffering for Christ’s sake perfects Believers.

Consequently, without suffering for Christ’s sake, Believers will continually struggle with the “lusts of men”, the so-called human nature (i.e., the natural inclination to reject the things of God in favor of things that please our senses, our intellect, and our pride; 1 John 2:15-16).

And he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me. He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it. ~ Matthew 10:38-39

Now, one might ask, “How does suffering for Christ’s sake transform us?” The answer to this question lies in the mechanics of choosing to suffer for Christ’s sake.

Self-preservation is the most basic instinct seen in man. Human beings only choose to override this instinct when there is something more important to them at stake. For instance, many parents will sacrifice their lives to protect their children.  Another, contemporaneous, example are the workers at the nuclear power plants in Fukushima, Japan who are risking their lives to keep the reactors from meltdown which could cause great harm to millions of their fellow citizens.

In each circumstance, the individual has to make a choice between the instinct to preserve his/her own life and devotion to a cause or person(s). Similarly, when Believers choose to suffer for Christ’s sake, they are consciously overriding their instinctive desire to protect themselves because of their devotion to Christ. This outward struggle between self-preservation and suffering for Christ’s sake exactly mirrors the battle in every Believer between The Holy Spirit and the “natural man”:

For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not. For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do… For I delight in the law of God after the inward man: But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death? ~ Romans 7:18-19, 22-24

Constantly, Believers must choose between serving our own natural desires/instincts and serving the commands of Christ Jesus. Thus, when believers choose to suffer harm for Christ’s sake, it becomes much easier to make the internal choice of God’s will over our natural desires.

“Now therefore fear the LORD, and serve him in sincerity and in truth… choose you this day whom ye will serve…” ~Joshua 24:14-15

Studies have shown that soldiers returning from war, where they are constantly making life and death decisions for themselves and their fellow troops, often find regular life to be somewhat trivial. Likewise, when a Believer stands up for the Gospel of Christ, even to the point of suffering for it, then standing up to the daily temptations of the human nature grows less difficult. After we have laid our lives on the line for Jesus, it is much easier to lay our desires on the line for Him too.

On a broader scale, suffering is also crucial for the church. Early Church history shows that the conversion of the Roman emperor, Constantine, to Christianity coincided with the beginning of the decline of the Church. What seemed like a triumph was actually a loss, because the removal of institutional persecution made the church weaker rather than stronger.

Therefore, a crucial question we must ask ourselves is, “How have I suffered for Christ’s sake?” If we are not suffering for Jesus’ sake then we are not being perfected, we are not learning to cease from sin, our human nature still dominates our lives. If we are not suffering for Christ then clearly we are not standing up for The Gospel, we are not sharing in His ministry.

Remember the word that I said unto you, The servant is not greater than his lord. If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you… ~ John 15:20a

If we are involved in Jesus’ ministry then persecution and the suffering that accompanies it will enter our lives. The problem we face today is that we have been trained to avoid suffering/persecution at all costs. We chase after comfort rather than chase after Christ.

  • We trade sharing the Gospel for the safety of silence.
  • We trade relationship with the needy for the ease of just giving money instead.
  • Instead of visiting the sick when they are sick, we give them a welcome back hug when they are well.
  • We give just enough money so we won’t miss it, but not so much that it would stretch our faith.

So our Christian walk is often reduced to a passive, impotent belief in a Jesus we have never experienced outside of an emotionally charged worship service in a comfy church. If our outward comfort is at the center of our decisions, then our inward comfort will be there too. Our willingness to put service over comfort, mirrors our willingness to put God’s will over human nature.

Let us, therefore, remember the great and gracious gift of suffering for Christ’s sake, given to us by our Lord. Let us embrace that gift, for it will change us from victims of our sinful human nature to VICTORS walking in the Power of God. Let us serve Jesus, whatever the cost to our personal comfort may be.

Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer: behold, the devil shall cast some of you into prison, that ye may be tried; and ye shall have tribulation ten days: be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life. ~ Revelation 2:10

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