Friday, June 11, 2010

Rejoicing in Suffering

One thing I hear very often from evangelicals is that we don't rejoice in our sufferings themselves, but in the products of that suffering -- what the suffering produces (e.g., perseverance, proven character, and hope, Rom 5:3-4; cf. Jas 1:2-4), and will eventually give way to (i.e., an eternal weight of glory, 2Cor 4:17). And I understand that. We don't enjoy trials as if we're masochists or even ascetics, as if we love suffering for the sake of suffering. We do have a great, deep, abiding joy even during our trials, but we have that joy because of the God-ordained products of that suffering.

But what I fear is that many Christians hear this kind of statement and take it the wrong way. They may hear it and believe that suffering for righteousness' sake is merely something to get through, and not something that is a stimulus to enjoy the glory of God.

So what do I think we should think about this issue?

First of all, we must let verses like Philippians 4:4 and 1 Thessalonians 5:16 govern our understanding of joy in trials or suffering, because it's true that we are commanded to rejoice always. I think 2 Corinthians 6:10 is also a helpful passage to consider, as it tells us that we can be sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.

What I must guard against in my own thinking is the notion that the only true joy or hope that I can have in very unpleasant trials and suffering is in the prospect of that suffering coming to an end. In other words, when I suffer for righteousness' sake, I need to be able to, in that moment, recognize that God has ordained that this happen, and that His purpose in ordaining that this happen is the same reason that He ordains everything else to happen: so that He might be displayed and enjoyed as glorious. And that glory is my greatest good. (That's what Romans 8:28 means.) And so if the trial has come about to reveal God's glory, then I want to enjoy His glory even in the midst of that trial, otherwise I'll waste that trial. So:

1) God ordains that His people suffer and go through trials in order to reveal His glory.
2) God's glory is what I am most happy and satisfied in.
Therefore, 3) I rejoice in the suffering for what it reveals of God.

That is precisely what was going on in Acts 5:40-42, when the apostles rejoiced that they had been counted worthy to suffer shame for the name of Christ. They were rejoicing, not only in the fact that one day the suffering would end, but they saw suffering for Christ's sake as such a privilege and honor -- that they would be displaying His glory and sweetness by giving up their comfort, to put it mildly -- that they were happy to experience it. This is that blessing that Jesus pronounces upon those who suffer for righteousness' sake in Matthew 5:10-12. It is what Peter says in 1 Peter 4:12-16: that to the degree we share in the sufferings of Christ we should keep on rejoicing, because in that moment we are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests on us.

So it's important for Christians, in our thinking about our Christian life, not to simply rejoice in the midst of our trials because someday they'll end. We must rejoice in our trials, because in the midst of those trials God 1) is manifesting His glory, which is my greatest joy, 2) has called me "blessed" when such things happen, and 3) causes His own Spirit to rest on me in those instances. The eternal weight of glory that our light and momentary affliction is producing for us is something that we can begin to enjoy even now -- and even in the midst of that light and momentary affliction.

To illustrate a bit, I offer this admittedly imperfect analogy. Compare being sick to sin in our Christian life, medicine to trials, and health to holiness in the Christian life. When I'm sick, I need medicine. Taking that medicine is often very unpleasant in itself. It tastes pretty terrible. There's no way that I would drink this stuff for fun. I'm only going to take it because I know it will make me healthy. But because the taking of the medicine has so often been paired with being rid of my sickness and regaining the joy of my health, I do actually become happy to see the medicine when it's presented to me. My joy in being healthy begins to merge with my joy in taking the medicine, because the medicine is the means by which I will get healthy. I don't groan when I see the medicine. In a strange sense, rather than being bitter, it becomes sweet to me.

Similarly, because trials are paired with 1) seeing and enjoying the glory of God in greater degrees and 2) my increasing Christlikness, I rejoice in those trials also. The "health" that I rejoice in in the above analogy is not simply heaven when I'm free from all suffering, but the enjoyment of God's glory and the progress of my sanctification here and now.

So, when you suffer for the name of Christ, don't waste the opportunity that you've been given to see and enjoy and make much of the glory of God in Christ through that suffering. Receive it with thanksgiving, with joy, with a sense of honor and privilege that you have been granted for Christ's sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake (Phil 1:29).

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice!
- Philippians 4:4 -

Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you,
which comes upon you for your testing,
as though some strange thing were happening to you;
but to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing,
so that also at the revelation of His glory you may rejoice with exultation.

If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed,
because the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you.

Make sure that none of you suffers as a murderer, or thief, or evildoer, or a troublesome meddler;
but if anyone suffers as a Christian, he is not to be ashamed,
but is to glorify God in this name.

- 1 Peter 4:12-16 -

So they went on their way from the presence of the Council,
rejoicing that they had been considered worthy to suffer shame for His name.

- Acts 5:41 -

For to you it has been granted
for Christ's sake, not only to believe in Him,
but also to suffer for His sake.

- Philippians 1:29 -


Bobby Grow said...


I understand your sentiment, and probably looks alot like something I would've wrote before this cancer. What you're assuming is some sort of rational continuity in someone's life. Often times certain kinds of suffering bring a physical and mental/emotional incapacity; so that wasting or gaining from that particular suffering isn't even at issue (i.e. you're so broken that all you can do is lay there and try to rest in the LORD). I think the point is, like with Job, is not to curse God in the process --- nevertheless I think it's okay to get mad at the Lord and talk it through with Him (He's big enough for that) --- after we come out of the particular process of suffering I think we will be able to appreciate the Lord's presence in that process that we couldn't when in the midst of it. I'll let God worry about displaying His glory through times of distress; that's not up to me, I just trust Him.

As I write this to you, Mike; I'm laid up, recovering from my last round of chemo, and a major surg. 5weeks ago. To tell you the truth the only thing that keeps me going is that the Lord is indeed walking through the fire with me and the fam; and that there is an end-date to all of this ridiculousness (because that's what disease is, it's not how it's supposed to be --- thank the Lord it's all been redeemed --- but to desire to be healthy is something we've all be created for [i.e. for life, not death]). Let me end with Paul's perspective:

"in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus." I Thess 5:18

Paul doesn't say 'for everything give thanks' but IN; I'm not thankful for this cancer, I'm thankful that the Lord is near, and that He is faithfully walking us through this.

I get the sentiment of your post; I just think it needs to be softened with a little reality.

Mike Riccardi said...


What can I say? I disagree with the guy who's got cancer. The emotions and the so-close-to-home of that guarantees that the objectivity is gone.

Look, I weep with you in your suffering. I hate that you've got to endure the pain of cancer and cancer treatment, which is, as you say, a result of the Fall. It wasn't supposed to be this way. I feel you there. But as insensitive as it might sound, experience -- no matter how serious or gripping or saddening -- doesn't trump Scripture.

I don't buy the notion, "We can be mad at God, He's big enough for that." Getting mad at God is what got Job the most forceful, scathing rebuke in all of Scripture in chapters 38 to 41.

I'll let God worry about displaying His glory through times of distress; that's not up to me.

That's a very fatalistic attitude, which, given the situation, is understandable, but still not a Biblical response. It's just like saying, "God's gonna do what He's gonna do, so no need to pray about it." God will indeed display His glory, but don't forget that your chief end is to do the same (1Cor 10:31; 1Pet 4:10-11). In every situation we enter, our divine assignment is to live in such a way that makes much of Him.

As far as looking to the end of the suffering, I'm not saying that that's wrong. Of course we should fix our hope completely on the grace to be given to us at the revelation of Christ (1Pet 1:13), and look forward with life-giving joy to the day when all tears will be wiped away. I'm just saying that if that's all it is for you -- if you can't see and savor all that God is for you in Christ right now through the suffering -- you're not responding how God intends.

Now, of course that's easy to say. I'm not saying that I'd be any better in the situation -- at all. But if I did have a sub-Biblical attitude through suffering, I'd have to recognize that it was sinful and repent of it. No matter how many other good Christians sympathize with the severity of my circumstances, it doesn't make it right to respond sinfully.

to desire to be healthy is something we've all be created for [i.e. for life, not death]).

And yet, to live is Christ. More deeply ingrained in us than the desire to be healthy is the desire to see and know and enjoy God. And to the degree that we subjugate the latter to the former, we made idols out of that desire.

Paul doesn't say 'for everything give thanks' but IN.

I think that's a distinction without a difference. I also think it's a dishonest reading of the text to think that Paul means to say, "In whatever circumstances you face, be thankful for... something else." Why would Paul say in Philippians 1:29 (quoted at the end of the post) that we have been granted to suffer for Christ's sake? Again, Peter in 1Pet 4:12-16: keep on rejoicing, you're blessed, the Spirit rests on you.

So what's reality? Is it the way we feel in the midst of these excruciating experiences? Or it is the forever settled, unchanging, tested Word of God?

The bottom line -- the 'real' reality that we have to confront ourselves with -- is this: If God has ordained that all things work together for our good (i.e., His glory), how can we not be thankful for them? How can we not rejoice in them?