Why We Suffer
This week in our lesson from Acts, we studied the familiar topic of suffering. If you teach through the Bible, you will inevitably have to discuss it. God has seen fit to speak to his people extensively on the subject. This isn't the first time, nor will it be the last time that we discuss this challenging truth.
As way of reflection this week, let's look at some of the different ways in which God's people may encounter suffering. Ray Ortlund, pastor of Immanuel Church in Nashville, TN actually describes three distinct types of suffering we are likely to experience.
First is deserved suffering. This is the suffering we experience as a result of our own sinfulness. People rarely struggle to understand this type of suffering. It seems to make sense to us. Most, if not all people are content to live in a world where you reap what you sow. Good begets good and evil begets evil.
As Christians, who read and study God's word, this type of suffering should never catch us off guard. The scriptures are replete with examples of it. From the very beginning of the book of Genesis, God has promised to chasten his children when they willfully disobey his commands. Time and again, we have disobeyed, and like a loving father should, God has been faithful to correct us. Like all correction, it isn't pleasant, but it is necessary to bring us back into submission to the authority of our Heavenly Father, where we can experience the fullness of the blessing he has prepared for us as his beloved children.
Second is innocent suffering. This is the suffering we might experience due to the sinful actions of others towards us (such as hatred, bigotry, slander, etc.), or as a result of sin in general and the brokenness of the world (natural disasters, disease, and death). Innocent suffering is a stumbling block to many. I believe the most commonly asked question about God is, "Why does a 'good' God allow bad things to happen?"
If God is good, loving, wise, and just, while at the same time sovereign and almighty, how is it possible that babies can get cancer? How can terrorists blow up buildings full of innocent people? How can these types of things happen on his watch??? Sadly, the conclusion many come to when faced with these questions is to declare God, incompetent (not good, loving, wise, and just), incapable (not sovereign and almighty), or invented (not real).
Third is righteous suffering. This is the suffering we will all inevitably experience if we walk in obedience to Christ long enough. While deserved suffering fits our worldview and innocent suffering challenges what we believe, righteous suffering radically transforms our lives in several ways.
When we experience suffering for the sake of the Gospel, we are, as Paul says in Colossians 1:24, "filling up what is lacking in Christ's afflictions." What does that mean??? It means that when we share in Christ's suffering, we are in some small way physically reenacting, for the sake of others, the finished work of Christ who suffered on our behalf so that we might experience the riches of God's mercy. In other words, we show Christ's love in our suffering.
Additionally, this is one of the many ways in which we are united to Christ. Understanding our union with Christ is imperative for our understanding of the Gospel. Suffering is one of the unbreakable bonds that binds us to our Lord.
God often allows believers to experience righteous suffering. We should expect it (2 Timothy 3:12)! In our culture we are trained to flee from anything that threatens our comforts (physical, financial, etc.). This wasn't the case for the early Church. They rejoiced in the suffering and persecution they experienced for the sake of the Gospel. Why? Were they crazy??? Why would anyone desire to suffer?
I don't think we are called to desire suffering in the sense that we should look forward to it. However, I believe the lesson we have learned and seen exemplified throughout the book of Acts is that we should rightly understand God's purposes in our suffering. When we suffer, God is working both in usand through us for his glory and our good.
He's working in us to sanctify us and conform us to the image of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Just as surgery is a painful process, the ultimate goal is for the long-term betterment of the patient. We suffer for awhile so that we can be ultimately be more healthy.
He's working through us as the means by which the good news of the Gospel is proclaimed to the ends of the earth. The narrow path of salvation for the few (Matthew 7:13-14) is soaked in the blood of many martyrs. Jesus gave up his life and poured out his blood so that we could be saved. In like fashion, we may be called to give our lives in sharing that same hope with others.
If you missed this week's sermon (or just want to listen again), follow the link below to listen. Or subscribe to our podcast in iTunes.
Part 51 - Paul's Suffering & God's Sovereignty
Questions discussed in this sermon:
1. What does Paul's life teach us about the relationship between our suffering and God's sovereignty?
2. How does Paul turn the Sanhedrin against itself?
3. How does the Bible ultimately prove that God can take suffering and use it to glorify Himself?