By Rick Becker 23 July 2020
Suffering – it’s never pleasant, and we do our best to avoid all forms of it, but suffering is inescapable in this fallen world. The biblical view is that believers should expect sufferings, not simply because they live in this fallen world, but because God uses various forms of afflictions to discipline us, test our faith, and cause us to have an eternal perspective. As a result of false teaching, many have the view that all suffering is a sign of deficiency at our end of the equation. What should be seen as a privilege (suffering that God permits us to endure) is seen as a curse. Suffering that God permits his children to endure, is not harmful, but beneficial. “Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep your word.”
T H E P R I N C I P L E
Suffering is a sign that there’s something wrong in this world. What went wrong, is something called sin. Sin ruined creation, and one of the consequences is that suffering entered the world. Believers as well as unbelievers will share many of the same forms of suffering – physical, mental or emotional pain, dreadful circumstances, physical death etc. These serve as a stark reminder that we are a fragile vapor, susceptible to the pangs of living in a temporary and fallen world. In the light of eternity, unless they repent, the suffering of unbelievers is a waste. This is not the case for believers as we shall see later. Let me clarify the following:
• suffering in itself is no guarantee that we will grow or learn from it.
• not all suffering is a result of God testing us or teaching us, but a result of sin and poor choices (1 Peter 4:15-16; Galatians 6:7-9)
While we can avoid suffering as a result of poor decisions and our sin, we will have to endure various forms of suffering: “Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good.” 1 Peter 4:19
In this article, I am referring to the suffering that God permits for our benefit – not the suffering we bring upon ourselves due to the reasons above.
As believers, we will have to endure sufferings that God permits for a time, perhaps even our whole earthly existence. In fact, the believer in one sense is guaranteed more suffering in this present world than unbelievers. Unbelievers are not in a struggle against sin (Hebrews 12:4) They do not need to deny self, resist the devil, and they certainly won’t have to endure the persecution believers are destined for. Reminder of the words of Jesus to his disciples: “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.” John 15:18-20
Some believers are already in heaven, having given their lives for the sake of the gospel. Others are languishing in a prison, their crime – proclaiming the gospel or simply believing in the gospel. Others have suffered persecution for their faith in milder forms, but we should expect an increase in persecution during these last days.
The current state of this world, and the growing animosity towards those who stand for truth is an indication that the time of relative ease in this world experienced by many believers is drawing to a close. We should be prepared for the onslaught and persecution that will come our way, not just from the world, but from the wolves in the visible church – “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived.” 2 Timothy 3:12-13
Not many want to accept this “bad news,” and detest the thought that God permits and uses suffering in the lives of his people. As a result, they gravitate towards a comfortable theology that believes we can Christianize this world, restore paradise on earth, and eradicate evil and suffering. This is a denial of reality and of scripture. On the one hand they point to the early church as a blueprint for how the church should operate regarding signs and wonders. On the other, they ignore the pattern of sufferings endured by the disciples and the early church. They have twisted the scriptures which has resulted in…
T H E P E R V E R S I O N
False teachers and movements claim to have the solutions for our present sufferings. They tell us that all our sufferings are the result of ignorance, lack of faith, demonic attack, curses, failure to claim the promises of God, failure to use our authority, failure to tithe etc. They promise freedom which they cannot deliver, but they don’t care because they are profiteering from the pain of others. Movements like The New Apostolic Reformation (NAR) have primed their followers into believing that Jesus is the model for believers as far as miracles are concerned. They avoid the Jesus that came to model humility, suffering, and complete surrender to the will of God. They want to be seated on a throne and exercise dominion, they avoid the suffering necessitated by taking up a cross. This has created a host of deluded followers attempting to bring heaven to earth and eradicate suffering. We know that one of the ways “churches” like Bethel and Hillsong lure people in is through their music. But I think there is an effective lure that transcends music – the promise to end our pain. The underlying principle is that we should not suffer because Christ’s sufferings have delivered us from all sources of pain. This perversion has brought about the health and wealth gospel, dominion theology, and word of faith heresy. This is the opposite of what scripture teaches – we will follow in our masters footsteps: “ For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake.” Philippians 1:29
The Expositor’s Greek Testament commentary on this verse points out the following –
“The prospect of suffering was apt to terrify them.But when they view suffering in its true light, they will discover that it is a gift of God’s grace (ἐχαρ.) instead of an evil.—τὸ ὑπὲρ κ.τ.λ. The Apostle intended to insert πάσχειν after Χρ., but for a moment he pauses. To emphasise the real value of suffering for Christ’s sake, he compares it with that which they all acknowledge as the crowning blessing of their lives, faith in Him.”
The perversion says the gospel is about gain in this world, the reality is it’s about loss:
“ But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.” Philippians 3:7-8
This is an example we must follow:
“Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” Philippians 3:17-20
Even those of us who understand the perversion of the doctrine of suffering, may find that lurking within our minds, is the idea that God owes us something good in this present world. As a result, when afflictions come, we ask the question – why me? We have this idea that bad things shouldn’t happen to good people. Our assumption that we are good, is where we go wrong – no one is good except God. Our second error is to assume that the good, or deliverance from suffering we desire, will be realized in this present age.
Beware of any perversion that promises to alleviate all your suffering. By demonizing forms of suffering that God permits – such as sickness, disabilities, financial hardships and other afflictions, the perversion not only places condemnation on believers, it robs them of the benefits: “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, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”
T H E P R E P A R A T I O N
“Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, so as to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for human passions but for the will of God.”
1 Peter 4:1-2
Peter is preparing his readers for suffering, so that when it comes they should “..not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.” – 1 Peter 4:12-13
The incarnation of Christ is not a model of what we can accomplish by means of signs and wonders if we are in a right relationship with God. This is yet another perversion taught in the NAR. It was an example of the pattern we should follow, one of humility and self denial, which inevitably will lead to some form of suffering: “And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” Philippians 2:8
You and I cannot avoid our own form a cross: “ And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” Matthew 10:38-39
The Christian will suffer, the Christian must suffer. Now if that sounds absurd and negative to some, then it’s because they have fallen for the perversion we have discussed. Preparation to suffer is crucial because way we process our pain is crucial. It will cause us to trust in God and rely wholly on him, or cause us to have bitterness towards him. Our response to suffering is revealing. Have we placed our hope in a therapeutic gospel, or the true gospel? Do we have a god that serves us and makes our dreams come true, or do we serve the true God who has promised us that in this world we will have tribulations? We should not find it strange that so many people fall away from the faith, and that the visible church consists largely of false converts. In many instances, these are people who were lured into an attractive gospel that promised to make their problems go away. They were not prepared, because they were not warned, and so the slightest bit of affliction causes them to walk away from what they never possessed in the first place – the truth. Jesus did not make the gospel appealing, he made sure people knew it might actually make their lives more difficult: “As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” And Jesus said to him, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Yet another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” Luke 9:57-62
More sobering words from Jesus: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.“ Matthew 10:34-37
The message of the disciples to believers included a warning to expect suffering:
“strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.”
Can you imagine a contemporary “apostle” or “prophet” teaching a message entitled “destined for affliction?” Of course not, because despite a godly veneer, they lust after power and satisfy their own passions. Paul however, knew that afflictions must come: “Therefore when we could bear it no longer, we were willing to be left behind at Athens alone, and we sent Timothy, our brother and God’s coworker in the gospel of Christ, to establish and exhort you in your faith, that no one be moved by these afflictions. For you yourselves know that we are destined for this. For when we were with you, we kept telling you beforehand that we were to suffer affliction, just as it has come to pass, and just as you know. ” 1 Thess 3:1-4
Believers should expect, and prepare for suffering, anything contrary is a rejection of what scripture teaches on the subject.
T H E P E R S P E C T I V E
What we need, is a heavenly perspective of our sufferings: “For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.”
2 Corinthians 4:17-18
The perversion, has caused people to focus on the seen, on transient things. The perversion seeks reward in this life in the form of health, wealth, favor, status etc. The reality is we stand to gain something yet unseen, and eternal : “Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.” James 1:12
Those who pervert the doctrine of suffering don’t preach on Luke 16 – the story of Lazarus the beggar and the rich man. When the rich man was in torment in Hades, he begged Abraham to “send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.” Abraham’s reply “Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish.” Luke 16:24-25
The flesh seeks immediate relief and gratification, but an eternal perspective teaches us that a delay of what God has promised us is not a denial that his promises will be realized. Friends, we are in a race, we are in a battle. There are times of relief and ease along the way, but the full reward comes at the end. Once again, we look to Jesus as our example to endure, to look ahead: “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. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.”
.T H E P E R P L E X I T Y
It’s in our nature to find a reason for everything, but our understanding on suffering is veiled. In Luke 13 we read about people who were looking for answers to a tragedy. Pilate had killed some Galileans, and it seems as if the people were drawing their own conclusions as to why the Galileans met their fate in that manner. What had they done to deserve such a death? Jesus did not give the reason, but answered: “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” Luke 13:2-3
Jesus immediately dispels with the idea that the tragedy, or suffering, was proportionate to individual sin – something taught by those who pervert the doctrine of suffering. Jesus goes on to mention another incident – the tower of Siloam that fell and killed 18 people: “Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”Luke 13:4-5
In another case it’s the disciples who were looking for a reason for suffering – in this case blindness. They immediately assumed that the blind man’s plight was a direct result of sin: ““As he passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.” John 9:1-3
In other words, the purposes of God take precedence and he does not owe us an explanation that will suit our finite minds.
Sometimes, we have an answer for our affliction, as in the case of Paul’s thorn in the flesh. I’m sure he was initially perplexed, but God in this case provides Paul with the reason: “So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited.” 2 Corinthians 12: 7
Paul’s response to his affliction was the complete opposite to what those who have perverted the doctrine of suffering teach. They would have attempted to speak to the thorn, bind the thorn, cast it out, and sought after some kind of breakthrough. Paul considered his affliction a privilege: “Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” 2 Corinthians 12:8-10.
There are times when we simply have no words or explanations as to why some endure suffering. This was one of those perplexing incidents – I once met an elderly woman, a domestic worker, a believer. She told me about a horrific incident when she was gang raped. This woman had an elementary grasp of the scriptures. She had no knowledge of the creeds, God’s decrees, or many of the other difficult doctrines or arguments over semantics that keep some believers occupied for a lifetime. She did not need to. The simplicity of the gospel was sufficient, the grace of God was sufficient. She radiated joy, contentment, she did not need to understand in order to love her saviour or be a fragrance that brings life. When it comes to some tragedies and forms of suffering, we have to be content with an element of mystery that won’t be resolved this side of eternity.
T H E P U R P O S E
There is no waste in God’s economy – while the reasons for some of our sufferings may not be clear, the purposes are. A few reasons for our sufferings:
Some forms of suffering are due to the fact that God in his mercy and love, is correcting us. It’s a sign that we are indeed his children: “And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons? “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.”
It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons.”
2. Conforming us into his image
“ And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.“ Roman 8:28-29
“Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” Hebrews 12:9-11
3. Comforting others
“ Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer. Our hope for you is unshaken, for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort.”
2 cor 1:3-7
4. Causing us to rely on God
“For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.” 2 Cor 1:8-9
“But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed”
2 Corinthians 4:7-9
T H E P R O M I S E
The eighth chapter of Romans is one of the most comforting chapters in scripture regarding our sufferings, we’ll examine a few portions of the chapter. We want to be done with suffering in this present time, but the scriptures exhort us to look forward to the day when they will end forever: “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” Romans 8:18
The perversion, in the form of Latter Rain theology, the manifest sons of God movement, and the NAR teach that the glory revealed to us will be in this present age. They use verse 19 as a proof text: “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God.”
The idea is that a new breed of Christian will walk in the authority and power of Christ, take dominion, and basically restore paradise on earth. Some even believe they will attain immortality. Their mission is to Christianize the world, bind the devil, eradicate poverty, racism, suffering and disease. But the futility and corruption of this world will only end when Christ returns. Until then, the groaning will continue: “we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.” (vs 22)
Verse 23 makes it clear that the deliverance we are waiting for is in the future, when our bodies will be glorified after the resurrection: “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.”
Philippians 3:20-21 makes this future aspect of our redemption clear: “But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ,who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.”
So where does that leave us? It leaves us with hope: “For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” (vs 24)
This is what distinguishes the suffering of believers, from unbelievers – they have no meaningful hope. In fact, the terror that awaits those who do not repent, cannot be compared to any misery they experience on earth.
Apart from having no hope, unbelievers have no meaningful help. As believers, we have the Spirit of God interceding for us: “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” (vs 26-27)
The next verse in Romans reveals that our afflictions are not wasted:
“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” (vs 28)
Not all things that happen to us will be good, but God in his infinite wisdom knows what will be good for us. During times of suffering we are usually unaware of the sanctification that is taking place within us, and in the middle of this passage in Romans, Paul reminds us that: “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son” (vs 29)
Paul concludes the chapter with a reminder that despite any earthly loss, we can never lose the most important thing: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers,nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 8:35-39
While we are not separated from the love of God during our trials, there are times during afflictions and tragedies when the pain is overwhelming, and the tears flow. God’s peace and comfort does not mean we don’t experience pain, but the time is coming when that will end, so look ahead, and be encouraged –
“And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
I had a conversation with a friend this week who has been on the verge of death, undergone numerous operations – with more to follow. Her words to me regarding her suffering – “God does not owe me an explanation.”
She has an eternal perspective. She has been separated from her comfort, but not from the love of Christ. No doubt, some of you who are reading this are in the midst of an affliction. You may be perplexed, in deep despair, and feel hopeless. I want to remind you that even if no human ear can hear your cry, or human heart can understand your pain, God knows, God understands, and he is the one you should call upon.
“do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”
1 Thessalonians 5:16-18
Let us all be reminded that Christ – a man of sorrows, can sympathize with our weakness and our afflictions. The comfort we desire is not found in the absence of our afflictions, but in the presence of Christ and the hope we have been given.
No matter what our affliction or loss in this world, we can be assured that if all that remains is Christ – that is sufficient.
“So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison”
2 Corinthians 4: 16-17