Before I dive headlong into this post, I want to raise a question in order to prod some real soul-searching. Does suffering serve a purpose in the life of Christ’s followers and his church? This is one of those subjects that raises all kinds of tough theological and philosophical questions. In no way am I going to attempt to address them in an academic or polemical manner. If I am honest with myself, suffering is an unpleasant topic to discuss and write. It is also unpleasant to experience. Let me distinguish between two types of personal suffering: one takes places due to disobedience and the other comes about for the sake of Christ. For more on this distinction, I direct my readers and followers to first Peter chapters three and four. Those two chapters cover way more ground than I could ever hope to do in this post.
What this means is that I will focus this entry on the type of suffering that visits the believer because of Christ. I want to explore the believer’s response to such suffering in light of the following scripture passage:
“8 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. 9 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. 10 He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again. 11 You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many” (2 Corinthians 1:8-11).
Leave it to the apostle Paul to pull no punches about the experiences faced by his companions and him on their missionary journey to Asia. The apostle uses vivid language to give his Corinthian readers an accurate picture of what the experiences were like. Paul says that they were “burdened beyond [their] strength,” “despair[ing] of life itself,” and facing “the sentence of death.” I wonder how today’s church leaders and professing believers deal with this passage. From my perspective, I do not see any symbolic language being used whether apocalyptic or parabolic. Paul speaks in clear terms, or as the expression goes, he minces no words. He says that their experiences in Asia served the purpose of making them rely on God rather than themselves. Now, I think that is a crucial point to marinate in for a bit. In fact, it matters a great deal that Paul said it. Here is what I mean by that comment.
Nearly every biblical scholar acknowledges Paul as the greatest and most influential apostle out of them all. He is the Godfather of the apostles. He wrote most of the New Testament that has come down to the church over the centuries. Paul spearheaded the gospel ministry to the Gentiles while some of the original apostles focused on the Jewish people (Galatians 2:7-10, ESV). He viewed his role and position as an apostle with great humility as he saw himself as the least of the apostles (1 Cor. 15:8-9, ESV). Whatever Paul attained in the flesh, he counted as dung; however, he also refused to perceive his faith or standing before Christ as a badge of honor (Philippians 3:7-9, ESV). He will not lay hold of anything except Christ and his resurrection (Phil. 3:10-11, ESV). I should point out that Paul wrote his letter to the Philippians in prison for proclaiming the gospel. When he says in the second letter to the Corinthians that these afflictions took place to strengthen their reliance upon God, we now see the full manifestation of that bearing forth fruit in Philippians. Through the Spirit, Paul is able to focus solely upon Christ even in prison.
When Jesus ascended to heaven, he instructed the apostles and the disciples to wait in Jerusalem for the coming of the Spirit before launching out into gospel ministry (Acts 1:4-8, ESV). If the original apostles needed the Holy Spirit to preach the gospel, then Paul and his companions needed him, too (Acts 9:15-17, ESV). In Galatians chapter five, Paul characterizes this as living by the Holy Spirit, who Jesus identified as the comforter or helper (John 14:16-17, ESV). Let us not forget that Jesus entered the wilderness full of the Spirit while being lead by him to face Satan and his assaults (Luke 4:1-2, ESV). Here is the point…The presence of the Holy Spirit in the believer’s life is proof positive that one can suffer for Christ’s sake and come out the other side like gold.
One of the hardest truths to hear and embrace is the notion that suffering for Christ is an integral part of the believer’s journey. In fact, Paul states this point rather plainly in the verses that precede the ones that have been the focus of this post. For example, the apostle writes in 2 Cor. 1:5 that believers share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings in order to share abundantly in his comfort. I have a hunch that this is a piece of what Paul means in Romans 8:29 about being conformed to the image of his son. It is a hard road, and this leads Paul to ask the Corinthians to pray for his companions and him (2 Cor. 1:11, ESV). This is what brothers and sisters in Christ do. Our love and care for each other points to our Savior’s love and care for us. Because he triumphed over Satan, sin and death, the redeemed will triumph over them, too. Because he suffered and was glorified, the redeemed will suffer and be glorified. All that I am, and all that I will become, have their basis in Christ.