Can There Be Joy in Suffering?

There is a clear and present danger for millions of believers around the world. Brothers and sisters are suffering, unimaginably, merely because of their confession of faith in Christ. The Church is triumphantly advancing through the continuing motif of the Cross of Jesus Christ and His paradoxical, glorious, upside-down way of making all things — even a heinous Roman cross, and unprecedented persecution — work together for good (Romans 8:28).

Dr. Michael A. Milton
Can There Be Joy in Suffering?

To be a soul-winner is the happiest thing in this world. And with every soul you bring to Jesus Christ, you seem to get a new heaven here upon earth (C.H. Spurgeon Sermons, 11.431).

When there is joy in the hearts of God’s children, there is joy in the city. The joy of Jesus transforms gloomy people into happy people. 

Years ago, I was transformed. When I heard Dr. D. James Kennedy preach, “By grace are Ye saved through faith,” I discovered joy. I had never known the deep abiding joy that comes from peace with God until that moment. I immediately began to happily share the glory of the grace of Jesus Christ with others. I experienced simultaneous doxological combustion. The lungs of my soul were filled with rich oxygen of the Great Commission delight.

I was once a prodigal. Having been reared in a Bible-believing, Christ-loving home and then having lived (hardly the best description of that period) in the far fields of life as a very young man; then, having heard of God’s grace through Jesus Christ (through the cogent and authoritative preaching of Dr. D. James Kennedy), I learned that I am adopted as a son of God when I am regenerated and justified by God in Christ. That gospel brought — and continues to yield — inestimable joy.

Joy in Suffering

Joy and evangelism were forever wedded into a divine couplet in my soul. Joy and evangelism are what happened when a crisis erupted in Jerusalem in the days after our Lord Jesus ascended into heaven. A terrorist named Saul led a “great persecution” against the assembly of saints in that city called “holy”— Jerusalem. So, the people — not the clergy, mind you, but the people —were scattered. Read the text and note how the author, Dr. Luke (under the power of the Holy Spirit), begins with terror and ends with joy.

This is the inerrant and infallible Word of the living God.

And Saul approved of his execution.

And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him. But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.

Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word. Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed to them the Christ. And the crowds with one accord paid attention to what was being said by Philip when they heard him and saw the signs that he did. For unclean spirits, crying out with a loud voice came out of many who had them, and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed. So there was much joy in that city (Acts 8:1-8).

There is a clear and present danger for millions of believers around the world. Brothers and sisters are suffering, unimaginably, merely because of their confession of faith in Christ. The Church of Jesus Christ is threatened but cannot be defeated. The Church is triumphantly advancing, right on schedule, through the continuing motif of the Cross of Jesus Christ and His paradoxical, glorious, upside-down way of making all things — even a heinous Roman cross, and unprecedented persecution — work together for good (Romans 8:28).

The Joy of the Lord Is My Strength

I witnessed the transformative power of Jesus my Lord, first-hand. I taught Christian pastors in India who were beaten, their families attacked because of Christ. They told me how their villages were experiencing persecution and joy. “We are seeing more people come to Christ with a new incident of burning a home or beating a poor old man. Joy has come upon our city.” I heard the words and bowed my head and asked, “Who is the real teacher here? O God grant me such joy!” I was present in Eastern Europe when the “Wall” fell in Albania. 

I will never forget a minister lifting his shirt to show me what five years of daily whipping looks like. He received his beatings in a labor camp where he had been sentenced for refusing to curse Christ. Amazingly, this thin-as-rail priest showed me the knotted whelps of scar tissue all over his back as he smiled a toothless smile of inexpressible joy. “All for Jesus!” 

The priest followed me into Skenderbeu Square, the capital city of Tirana. He guided me to stand on the crumbled head of a dictator who declared he would wipe away any trace of Christianity from the nation. Students had toppled the statue as they rallied for freedom. The priest wept tears of joy as a Presbyterian minister stood on the head of the dictator, the finest pulpit I have even had, and proclaimed “the Gospel of God” to a thousand former captives of Communism.

The diabolical design to destroy the Church is an abominable scar on the history of mankind. It rarely warrants even a mention in the news. Yet, God uses the very sin of man, the barbarism of a lost race, to bring about good.

A City on a Hill

This is what happened in the text of Acts chapter eight. The Jerusalem assembly had gone through much already since Christ Jesus was crucified, buried, raised, and ascended. Now terrorism set in under a madman named Saul. The terror created what we see so often today in nations under persecution: diaspora. In that diaspora, something happened. That is what I want to focus on for this reflection.

What happened when the people of God were dispersed from killings and threats of killings was evangelism. Acts 8:4 is one of my favorite passages, “Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word.”

The text tells us that the diaspora was not in vain. In fact, the terror actually drove the disciples of Christ out from the relative comfort of home to the far reaches of the Roman realm. The traumatic events of Jerusalem, rather than driving people to despair, drove them to share the gospel with the world. Now, read through the story of Philip leading an Ethiopian eunuch to faith and go with the writer to the city of Samaria, and go to the end of this section, to verse eight, “So, there was much joy in that city” (Acts 8:8).

Tragedy leads to dispersion, leads to the preaching — the evangelizing — of the common people and souls are saved, lives are transformed, people are healed, and the faith of the resurrected Jesus went forward through the generations.

What I remember from my own conversion and the witness to persecution in other parts of the world is this: God is building His Church and calling me to be a part of it.

I learned this, also, from my Anglican friend from Sudan. We were ministering together in South Africa. Pastor “K” told me of his experiences of suffering and how Christ used his beatings at the hand of radical Islamic terrorists to build up Christ’s Church. He told of how he was able to share the gospel only because of the trauma that human beings were experiencing. The Church is ignited, as it were, through attack upon it. This is not something we pray for. This is something we pray in.

What Does This Mean?

Thus, I should look at tragedy and remember God’s involvement in humanity. He is not absent. He is there. I cannot fathom the depth of understanding of human suffering and divine sovereignty and intentions for good. Such things are too high for me. I see the doctrine. I do not look through it. Yet, I see and I know that God is involved. This causes me to recognize that the Gospel of Jesus may be preached in the midst of tragedy and indeed the trajectory towards joy involves a necessary first step of speaking Christ into the midst of the trauma.

Oh God let us preach Christ as we are dispersed through this generation, and as we speed headlong through the 21st century. Let us speak the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Oh, that I may have the passion for evangelism in the midst of trials that my Sudanese friend has. Oh, that the passionate prayer of David Brainerd might become the commitment of my life as a minister of Christ:

I care not where I go, or how I live, or what I endure so that I may save souls. When I sleep I dream of them; when I awake they are first in my thoughts…no amount of scholastic attainment, of able and profound exposition of brilliant and stirring eloquence can atone for the absence of a deep impassioned sympathetic love for human souls.

Then there will be joy in my heart and “joy in the city.”

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Michael A. Milton, Ph.D. (University of Wales; MPA, UNC Chapel Hill; MDiv, Knox Seminary) Dr. Milton is a retired seminary chancellor and currently serves as the James Ragsdale Chair of Missions at Erskine Theological Seminary. He is the President of Faith for Living and the D. James Kennedy Institute a long-time Presbyterian minister, and Chaplain (Colonel) USA-R. Dr. Milton is the author of more than thirty books and a musician with five albums released. Mike and his wife, Mae, reside in North Carolina.


Originally published January 13, 2020.