The word “suffer” and its derivatives are mentioned by the apostles dozens of times. Followers of the way would have expected to suffer, but was it a facet of the Christian walk especially, something Christ expected all believers to experience, then and now? Or was their suffering simply an unfortunate aspect of life within a given historical context?
Suffering and Scripture
There are those who wonder if believing in Christ is like magic, where God makes every bad thing good for those who believe in his Son. After all, the Bible says, “'Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you’” (Matthew 7:7).
One can easily debunk that theory by placing Christ’s words in context. Christ also declared, “‘If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me’” (Matthew 16:24).
The New Testament describes hardships for the disciples beyond what the average North American can imagine. Paul wrote, “I have suffered the loss of all things” (Philippians 3:8).
Followers of Jesus endured “mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment” (Hebrew 11:36). Acts 7:59 recounts the death of Stephen by stoning.
Paul prayed for the Lord to remove a certain “thorn [...] in the flesh.” He pleaded, but God did not remove it. In fact, he told Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:7-9).
Even though Paul laid down his life spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ across the Roman Empire, the Lord allowed Paul to suffer. He answered the apostle’s prayers, but not in the way Paul had wanted him to.
Becoming a Christian does not mark the end of suffering in this earthly life; suffering is something every person has in common.
Does this mean one will suffer even though he or she is a Christian? This would suggest that suffering is not an aspect of faith but just an unfortunate fact of life.
Extremes of Suffering
Christianity Today reported that “a thousand more Christians were killed for their faith last year than the year before. A thousand more Christians were detained. Six hundred more churches were attacked or closed.”
Certain countries are notably hostile towards Christ-followers; one can expect the suffering to be severe if the wrong people find out.
The believers’ situation in such countries echoes that of the early Christians who gathered in the upper rooms of certain homes or in the catacombs to avoid persecution, but they did share the gospel at the risk of their own lives.
The struggle of openly living for Christ is not always so dramatic. Joseph Scheumann points out that “the Bible doesn’t whitewash our experience of suffering by saying that it’s all of one stripe [but] recognizes the multifaceted ways that suffering can come upon us.”
It can be subtle, emotional, and still very painful. Examples include discrimination in the job market, isolation and/or verbal abuse among co-workers or classmates; rejection by family; and more.
Families and marriages split. Friendships are undone. Careers end. “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34). Jesus was preparing the disciples to expect division and rejection.
They would enter cities where the people might laugh and jeer them out of town, which was Jesus’ own experience; a direct result of publicly proclaiming that Christ was the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy, King, and Savior to all those who would submit their lives to him.
This is a familiar scene in North American homes too. Children turn to Christ, and their parents tell them not to bring religion into the home.
A woman is baptized into Christian fellowship, and her husband grows cold, feeling as though he is in competition with her new “family.”
One man believes in Christ for salvation and no longer goes to bars and strip clubs, so his former friends humiliate and reject him.
A staff room falls silent as the Christian enters for lunch, everyone hurriedly looking for a book or a newspaper to concentrate on, so she won’t talk to them, just in case she wants to mention Jesus or invite them to church. These are bloodless but lonely realities for countless individuals daily.
Here is Jesus’ poignant offer of comfort for the rejected: “if the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you” (John 15:18).
The Savior of the world endured this kind of hostility; should it surprise his followers if they also face the scorn and discomfort of unbelievers?
Our Suffering, God’s Glory
How is Christian suffering meant to be different from that of the world? The words for Christ are key. Some suffering is not a personal attack against one’s beliefs. A car accident and resulting injury or being diagnosed with MS are impersonal and unfortunate.
Yet, John Piper argues that “all suffering that comes in the path of obedience is suffering from Christ and for Christ” because all examples of suffering attack one’s “faith in the goodness of God and tempt us to leave the path of obedience. [...] Therefore, all suffering, of every kind, that we endure in the path of our Christian calling is a suffering ‘with Christ’ and ‘for Christ.’”
A frightening diagnosis, miscarriage, or injury in the line of work “tests and proves our allegiance to [God’s] goodness and power, and [...] reveals his worth as an all-sufficient compensation and prize.”
Piper explains that it is Satan’s plan to challenge and oppose the Christian’s faith by all means when they are engaging the world for Christ or just going about their business. Satan preys on God’s children in the hope that they will walk away from their Father in heaven.
Christ endured the same on the mountain after he was baptized. He was permitted to endure Satan’s schemes, and so are we.
There is also suffering, which comes about as a natural consequence of personal choice. One is fired from work due to theft or frequent tardiness. Injuries might result from arrogantly rejecting safety guidelines or posted warnings such as “do not jump” or “danger — high voltage.”
This is not suffering for Christ, although one can glorify the Lord through suffering if there is humility, confession, and repentance; if one is transformed by the experience in a way that honors the living God, or if others who were impacted by the event were drawn to Christ as a result of what they went through as caregivers.
Expect to Suffer for Christ’s Name
Some Christians purposely go to countries where the government is hostile toward Christianity. They know their lives are in danger and fight against the temptation to believe temporary comfort is better than Christ’s promise of eternal rest and joy in his presence.
They go for Christ — to do what he did and what he told them to do, which is to proclaim the gospel and thereby lead sinners to salvation. Christ could lead unbelievers to the cross without the help of Christians, but his people want to serve him, and this is how they do it.
They want to work for Christ, but the nature of this work is suffering, just as he demonstrated on the cross.
There is the risk of rejecting Christ at the critical moment or of becoming prideful about one’s level of faith and commitment to Jesus.
But there have been countless stories of individuals who were beaten, burned, or shot as a direct consequence of their decision to boldly proclaim Christ to the very end.
Some are famous such as the Apostle Stephen or Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Most only wanted everyone within earshot to remember the name of Jesus, the Messiah.
Most Christians wonder if they could be bold enough to worship God and forgive their tormentors. Could they, like Stephen, declare expectantly, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” and then, “cr[y] out with a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them’”? (Acts 7:59-60).
Could they, like Christ himself, say, “‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”? (Luke 23:34). Could they forgive and thereby show how their suffering is different from any other because their manner of suffering points to Christ?
Luke 12:12 records Christ as saying, “the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say” at such a time.
He promised this to his disciples, who were not superheroes, but ordinary individuals inspired by a unique promise from a living God who came down to show them the way; to speak words they could later quote before their tormentors; to endure what they would endure (and more) so they could follow his example.
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin (Hebrews 4:15).
Numerous verses highlight the reality of suffering as part of one’s faith life. Suffering looks different for everyone, but it is often public. The common thread for all believers is that the Christian always points to Christ in the midst of pain and struggle.
Paul’s appeal was for brothers and sisters in Christ to “present your bodies as a living sacrifice” and “be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Romans 12:1-2).
The apostle referred to the whole person; ideally, the believer submits every aspect of life to God — to his good purposes and his glory. Every aspect includes the darkness of personal suffering.
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Candice Lucey is a freelance writer from British Columbia, Canada, where she lives with her family. Find out more about her here.