“Through Him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance… more than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.” (Romans 5:2-3, 11)
Suffering is one of the most confounding issues for those who are followers of Jesus Christ. Somewhere deep inside of us is the hard-to-dislodge assumption that we should be immune from personal suffering due to our covenant relationship with God. Why would a loving Father ever allow His children to hurt? If He is good, and supposedly good to us, what answer can we give concerning the presence of genuine suffering in our lives?
We experience mistreatment.
We are sometimes denied what we ask.
We become ill. Our loved ones die. We go bankrupt.
Our children stray. Our parents divorce. Our spouses cheat.
Let us be brave enough to forego pretending that Christians don’t experience the exact same types of suffering that non-believers experience.
But let us confidently remember and declare that we do not experience suffering in the same way that non-believers do.
The chief aim of God’s work on our behalf is to bring us to Himself and to make us like His Son. Jesus promised us that, should we commit to follow Him and embrace His mission as our own, we would experience what He experienced while He was here. Jesus experienced wisdom, power, miraculous events, victory over temptation, spiritual ecstasy, effective prayer, affirmation from the Father, and delightful relationships. Yet He also found intense human opposition, attack from Satan, misunderstanding from His earthly family, ridicule and rejection, mockery from those He loved and overwhelming challenge from spiritually dead religionists. Please remember that the prerequisite for the potential of even becoming His disciple was that you had to pick up your own cross and follow Him (Luke 14:26-33).
Carrying your cross is not some sweet, sentimental concept. Jesus declared that you cannot follow Him unless you are willing to endure suffering and die to yourself. Yet we are often so surprised (even offended) when suffering finds us, as if it is an anomaly in the Christian’s life-experience. The reality of a Christian’s suffering has never been the exception to the rule, and modern Western Christians are the first among the generations of Christ’s followers who presume it should be so.
So, then, how does a follower of Christ rejoice in suffering? Firstly, I’m glad it does not say to rejoice about the suffering itself. That would be…well…weird. We do not jump up and down and giddily celebrate painful seasons in our lives. Yet, we do rejoice while we are in them because of what suffering produces in us. As Christians, we see our suffering as a means to a desirable end. Since God has ordained that we will be brought to Him and will become like Jesus, how would this be accomplished in the absence of suffering? The pinnacle of Christ’s earthly work occurred in His greatest moment of agony during His passion-hours from Gethsemane to Gabbatha to Golgotha. Our own sufferings (though not remotely as intense as His) allow for a sharing in the experience and life of Jesus Christ. Resurrection power is what our short-cut-craving hearts really want, but there is no possibility of resurrection power unless there is first crucifixion suffering. There is some hidden, glorious treasure that proceeds from a proper response to suffering which manifests the reality of God in your life.
It is His nearness. It is His care. It is His affirmation that you are ready to be trusted with this painful part of knowing Him. It is His preparation of you to be His helpful instrument in the lives of other sufferers.
Suffering does not always make sense to the mind but it can always bring depth to the soul. I have learned that when I am entrusted with suffering, I am being invited by God to grow in Him. Few Christ-followers are intentional about “going there” with Jesus, but the truth of the matter is that, when we welcome Him to lead us through a time of suffering, we will experience an aspect of joy that is different from anything else that we experience in our relationship with Him.
It is a sacred place. It is holy ground. It is the incubator of deep and meaningful joy in our lives.