Personal Suffering Goes Along With Serving the Lord

Ancient Jail in Philippi. A possible site of the jail Paul and Silas
were in when they led the Philippian Jailer to Christ. (Acts 16:23-24)

"God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life." This used to be the first of the "Four Spiritual Laws" gospel presentation used by Campus Crusade for Christ. It is one that many people who are my age or older still remember used as the opening statement when sharing the gospel. I am of course, pulling the statement a bit out of context, the gospel presentation was filled with explanations and verses from Scripture used to lead people to an understanding of how to come to know salvation through Jesus Christ. The statement though seems to imply that if we come to faith in Christ, we will begin to experience this wonderful life that God has planned for those He loves. "Wonderful" defined by our own "American Dream" definition of "wonderful." Yet as a pastor of a church, I often come face to face with the great difficulties God's people have in their lives, some of the difficulties arising because they are living out their faith in Christ. When you read the New Testament, "wonderful" just doesn't seem to describe well the life of  trials and suffering that believers endured, even in the midst of their joy in knowing Christ. I fear the evangelical church has not been honest with how we have talked about what it means to follow Christ. It is a wonderful thing to know Christ, yet serving Him also will bring about great suffering. 

This year I have been preaching through Colossians and Philemon and will be finishing the series this coming Sunday. We have learned and been reminded of some wonderful gospel truths in this series. One gospel reality has been lying somewhat below the surface and hasn't come up too often although it's always been in the background. That is the reality that, in promoting the gospel, personal suffering goes along with serving the Lord. 

This reality is actually a little more clearly seen in Philemon than it is in Colossians. Both letters were written at the same time and towards the same people. Philemon was a leader in the church in Colossae. Tychichus and Onesimus were the letter carriers for both letters. Both letters were written while Paul was imprisoned, most likely in Rome. He mentions this in both letters and in Philemon, they seem to point us directly to the lesson that if we serve the Lord, we must also be willing to suffer. 

Four times in the 25 verses in Philemon, Paul mentions his imprisonment. Each time he does he describes the reason for his suffering in prison. Verse 1, "Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus", verse 9, "I, Paul, an old man and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus", and in verse 13, "my imprisonment for the gospel" as well as verse 23. Paul's faithful ministry of proclaiming the good news of how God saved His people from sin, death, and hell through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ brought such controversy upon himself that he was imprisoned by the Roman authorities. The Roman Empire did not enjoy the freedom of speech and religion that are protected by the constitution of the United States. Yet even though Paul was imprisoned, he still sought to continue his ministry by writing letters to churches and believers as well as teaching the gospel to any he had contact with within his prison, even though that was the reason why he was imprisoned in the first place. 

The culture that we live in today is very comfortable. We can avoid many types of suffering which our fore-bearers could not. Too hot outside? Just step into your air-conditioned home with the climate controlled to a perfect 70 degrees. Do you need to take a trip across the country? No problem, just jump into your luxury vehicle and get to the nearest airport where you can be flown to your destination in a matter of hours while you watch movies or take a nap and enjoy an ice cold beverage and tasty snacks along the way. In physical pain? There are a host of pain-relieving medications available to you, many without a prescription. We in this nation are blessed in many ways with a more comfortable life than those just a few generations back. Therefore, we have come to not expect struggle and discomfort in our lives. When suffering comes we can come to the conclusion that something isn't right, that we must be doing something wrong or that we deserve better. Yet, if we are seeking to serve the Lord by promoting the gospel, Scripture clearly reveals that it will lead to suffering. It would be wise for us then to prepare our hearts and minds for it. 

We will suffer for the gospel when we make sacrifices we would normally not have made in order to love and serve others. We will suffer for the gospel when we are faithful to preach or share what God's Word teaches to others who are living lives contrary to the gospel. We must be prepared in our cultural context for the day when faithful Christians may be imprisoned or publicly persecuted against because of our unwillingness to compromise our beliefs to fall in line with the sexual revolution.

There is also another key reason why Christian servants suffer that is often overlooked. That is Satan, the enemy of  God's people, is working against us. This may be the reason why suffering can come to churches and families and individual believers in such strange ways or all at once. There will always be opposition for faithful gospel ministry, some coming from the world, some coming from the devil. 

Believers though must prepare for suffering by trusting in and following what we are taught in God's Word. 

1.) Suffering while serving Christ doesn't necessarily mean we are doing something wrong. 

The most faithful of Christ's servants in the Scriptures suffered because of their faithful service to Christ. As was explained earlier in this post, the world, the flesh and the devil are all in opposition to Christ being honored and glorified. Although at times our suffering may be the direct result of our sins or failures, it is not necessarily the case.

2.) Suffering will actually be used by God for our ultimate good. 

Our suffering is not outside of the Lord's sovereign control. He has good purposes for our suffering. From strengthening our faith (James 1:3), to bringing us to maturity (James 1:4), to producing endurance, character and hope (Rom 5:3-5), to granting us the privilege to relate with our Savior in His suffering (1 Pet. 4:13), God has wise and good purposes for our suffering (Rom 8:28).

3.) When we suffer for Christ, we will not be alone, but will be helped and empowered by Christ. 

"And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age." (Matt 28:20 ESV)

"And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of Truth" (John 14:16-17 ESV)

4.) When we suffer for Christ, we are following in His footsteps. 

"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 15:20 ESV)

 "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you." (Matt 5:10-12 ESV) 

Maybe the spiritual law that "God has a wonderful plan for your life" really is accurate, if we think about it as primarily referring to the life that is to come for every faithful servant of Christ. A wonderful, eternal life enjoying our reward in the new heavens and the new earth, in the presence of our beloved Lord and Savior, Jesus.

As I close, I encourage you to hold on to the promise in 1 Peter 5:10-11, "And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself, restore confirm, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the dominion, forever and ever. Amen."