The Gospel and Suffering

A message given to the Nellmapius Township Church in Pretoria, South Africa.

Download the audio here (includes Sesotho translation).

In the year 1841, a missionary named David Livingstone arrived in the Northern Cape of South Africa after a seven month journey at sea.  He came to South Africa to tell tribal Africans about the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Livingstone was an intelligent man.  He studied to earn a degree in medicine and attended lectures on theology.  His heart burned with a passion to share Jesus with people, so he answered the call to leave the comforts of his home in Scotland to come to Africa.

David Livingstone spent 32 years in Central and Southern Africa.  But they were not perfect.  In fact, he experienced much pain and hardship for the gospel.  His life was not marked by prosperity or fame or money or comfort, but suffering, despair, poverty, and stress.  In 1849, Livingstone had to send his family back to England because of the trials of missionary work.  His wife became an alcoholic and died of malaria.  And during the last four years of his life, Livingstone was very sick himself.  In 1873, David Livingstone died of malaria and dysentery.  He did not die wealthy, famous, comfortable, or painless.  He died hurting and alone.

David Livingstone suffered greatly for the advance of the gospel in Africa.  Some people would say, “What a sacrifice he made!”  But that is not what he said.  Sometime before his death, he wrote in a letter,

Anxiety, sickness, suffering, or danger…may make us pause, and cause the spirit to waver, and the soul to sink; but let this only be for a moment.  All these are nothing when compared with the glory which shall be revealed in and for us.  I never made a sacrifice.

To David Livingstone, suffering and the gospel went hand in hand, and suffering didn’t seem sacrificial.  There could be no triumph, no victory, no saving of souls if there was no suffering.

If you are like me, when you hear this, you probably feel convicted.  Why?  Because when suffering comes you usually do one of two things like I do: you either run away, or you grumble and complain.  If we had a vote with God, we would vote to not suffer.

You see, humans don’t like to suffer.  And we do not just try to avoid suffering.  In fact, we go to the extreme to find comfort.  And in our day, there is even a teaching in the church that says:  “Become a Christian and you will not get sick, you will not be poor, your wife will not have a miscarriage, and your children will be taken care of.  Jesus died on the cross so that you don’t have to suffer.”

Well, the Bible says exactly the opposite.  Consider our passage this morning, Romans 5:1-5.  Paul writes, “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance.”  Paul wants his readers to rejoice not only in their justification and future glory, but also in their present trials because God uses suffering to make them more like Christ.

Suffering is not just ‘one part’ of the Christian life.  It is the Christian life. A Christian’s life should be marked by suffering.  This doesn’t always mean being physically persecuted for your faith or becoming a martyr.  What it does mean is denying the pleasures of this world for a greater pleasure, namely, Jesus Christ.  God’s desire for you is not to run away from suffering.  It is to welcome it, embrace it, kiss it, and learn from it.

Jesus died on the cross—not to remove suffering from your life—but to give you an example of how to suffer in a godly way.  The question is not, “Will I suffer?”  The question is, “How do I respond when suffering comes.”

Because we tend to flee suffering instead of rejoice in it, we must understand and believe that God uses suffering in our lives to make us more like Christ.

So this morning, let’s meditate on suffering.  Let’s think about why it happens and what we can do when it comes.  Let’s begin by talking about the two different types of suffering.

Two Types of Suffering
The first kind of suffering is what I call “foolish self-infliction.”  This kind of suffering happens because have sinned or made a foolish choice and we must now bear the consequences.  An example of this kind of suffering would be suffering that comes from committing adultery.  You may lose your wife, your kids, your job, your house, your reputation, or something else.  Another example is being an alcoholic.  You become a slave.  You begin to have illness and sickness.  You start to abuse your spouse and children and friends.  Eventually you get arrested and suffer in prison because of your foolish, sinful choices.

The second kind of suffering is the kind we are talking about today.  This suffering is what I call “ordained Fatherly discipline.”  This is suffering that is not normally connected to a type of sin.  But it may be in some cases.  No one is perfect and the reason we suffer is because we are imperfect and the world is imperfect.  You will not experience a perfect day in your life until you meet Jesus in heaven.  This kind of suffering is not a consequence of being “less spiritual.”  It doesn’t come because you didn’t read your Bible or go to church or pray hard enough.  It comes whenever God wants it to, and it comes in whatever form God wants it to.  In fact, many times this kind of suffering comes to people who are walking close to Jesus.  When you are close to God, you will be persecuted by enemies.  When you are close to God, he will test your faith.  And this can happen to any of us: a pastor, a mother, a businessman, a teenager, or old man.  No one is immune from this type of suffering.  More than just persecution, it could be cancer, a miscarriage, losing your job, the death of a loved one, political unrest, economic hardship, being the victim of a crime, experiencing a natural disaster, or something else.

Quickly think about your life.  Where are you experiencing suffering right now?  Are you rejoicing in it?

In Romans 5:1-5, Paul’s desire is for the Roman Christians to rejoice not only that they are saved by faith, but that God puts suffering in their life to produce endurance, character and hope.  This suffering is “ordained Fatherly discipline.”  Let’s look at the passage.

He says in verse 1 that because we are justified by faith, we have peace with God.  This means that there is no condemnation before God.  The enmity that existed between us and God has been taken away because Jesus took our sin and God’s wrath on the cross.

Verse 2 says, “Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God.”  Through Jesus we have access to grace.  And this grace only comes by faith.  You cannot work to get grace.  You cannot do anything so that God will love you.  You must believe that he loves and you bank your life on that.  Because we get to stand in the midst of God’s grace, Paul says we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God.  This means that we rejoice that we will be glorified with Jesus someday in heaven.

Now verses 3-5 are the ones that we would like to skip over because Paul talks about suffering.  In verse 3, he says that We don’t only rejoice that God will glorify us.  Paul says, “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.”  You will be a flimsy, fragile, faithless Christian if you always try to run away when suffering comes.  Suffering ultimately leads to hope.  And Paul says that hope does not put us to shame.  Why?  “Because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”  When a father disciplines his son, he does it because he loves his son and wants him to become a mature adult.  He wants his son to grow strong and wise and smart.  In the same way, we can be assured that suffering comes, not because God hates, but because he loves us.  He has proven that by giving us Jesus and pouring his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit.

Examples of Suffering in the Bible
Well the Bible is filled with examples of men who suffered.  Here are three:

  1. Job was a man who loved God and was very wealthy.  But one day, God took all that wealth from him.  Satan challenged God saying, “Does Job fear God for no reason?  Stretch out your hand and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.”  Now some of you might argue that God did not send this, but that Satan was the one who made job suffer.  Well, in Job 1:21, after Job’s house and children were destroyed, he cried out to God, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return.  The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed by the name of the LORD.”  Job knew that ultimately God, not Satan, was in control of his life.  This is the attitude we need to have as well.  God is more powerful than Satan.  Satan cannot do anything that God doesn’t want to happen.  And in your life, if you think Satan causes all the suffering in your life to happen, you make him out to be a god.  Remember that God is God, and Satan is not.  Job knew this, and we need to know it as well.
  2. Our second example is Paul. Listen to this from 1 Corinthians 4:11-13: “To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless, and we labor, working with our own hands.  When cursed, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we pray.  We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things.” This does not sound like a man who lived in comfort and wealth.  It was a man who faithfully and joyfully accepted suffering for the sake of the gospel.  This was a man who was shipwrecked, beaten multiple times, went hungry, went to jail, and was mocked and ridiculed.  Paul was perhaps the holiest man who ever lived!  He wrote most of the New Testament.  But God’s plan for him was extreme suffering so that the gospel would be preached and people would be saved.
  3. Finally, let’s consider our Lord Jesus. He is God.  He created the world.  He lived in the magnificent glories of heaven.  But when he came to earth, he was born in a barn in a very small township.  The Bible tells us that his own family disliked him.  The Pharisees constantly sought to kill him, and one day, they arrested him.  The beat him and spit on him.  He faced an unfair trial.  He was flogged so severely that the flesh on his bones looked like raw meat.  His face was so disfigured that you wouldn’t have even recognized him.  Then he was nailed to a cross.  He had nails driven through his hands and feet.  And he died at the age of 33.  But he had to go through all this in order to save us from our sin.  Jesus died in order that the wrath of God would be removed from you and placed on him.  Isaiah says it was God’s will to bruise Jesus.  We could have not been saved if Jesus would not have suffered.  And Jesus suffered and died—not to remove suffering from our lives—but to give us an example of how to suffer in a godly way.  Remember Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane?  He was under so much stress that began to sweat drops of blood.  But he didn’t run away.  He didn’t complain.  He prayed, “Father, if there’s another way, take this cup from me, I don’t want to die this way!”  But what did he say next?  He said, “But nevertheless, Father, not my will, but yours be done.”  Do you pray this way?  Do you ask for things with an open hand?  Do you say, “Father, I would like for you to do this.  I want you to take this cup of suffering from my life.  But from the bottom of my heart, I want your will to be done, not mine.”  Maybe your cup of suffering is a disease.  Maybe it is poverty.  Maybe you can’t have children.  Maybe people persecute you for your faith.  Do you pray like Jesus when suffering comes?

Why should we expect suffering?
There are at least three reasons that we should expect suffering.

  1. The first reason is what we just discussed: Jesus himself suffered. The man we worship was not rich and famous.  He was a poor, homeless man who was murdered.  Listen to Hebrews 12:3-4: “Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.  In your struggle against sin you have not resisted to the point of shedding blood.”  This means that we have not even come close to the kind of suffering Jesus faced.  Because Jesus went through more pain and heartache than we could ever experience, we should be courageous!  We should not grow faint!  We should welcome suffering, just as Jesus did.  Paul says in 2 Timothy 3:12, “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”  Persecution is suffering.  It will come if you walk with Jesus.  If you haven’t experienced persecution or suffering, you might need to examine your life.  Have you really been changed by God?  Are you really saved?  I don’t want you to doubt, but I want you to honestly look at your life to find evidence of faith.  Everyone who follows Jesus will have hard times.  Remember that Jesus died, not so that you can be pain-free, but so that you can suffer with him and experience the glory he experiences.  He suffered to give you the power to honor God in your suffering.
  2. The second reason we can expect suffering is that Jesus told us to expect it. Not only did Jesus suffer himself, but he told his disciples many times that they can expect to suffer.  John 15:18 says, “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you.”  In Matthew 10 he says, “You will be hated by all for my name’s sake.  But the one who endures to the end will be saved…A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master.”  Further, in 1 Peter 4:12-13, Peter writes, “Loved ones, do not be surprised at the fiery trail when it comes upon you to test you, as if something strange were happening to you.”  Suffering shouldn’t be strange to the Christian.  It should be normal.
  3. The third reason we should expect suffering is that we live in a broken, sinful world. You cannot watch the news or read the newspaper without hearing about a disaster or disease or death that ruins people’s lives.  Romans 8:20, 22 says, “For the creation was subjected to weakness, not willingly, but because of God who subjected it…For we know that the whole creation groans together in the pains of childbirth until now.”  The world is dying.  And when  death draws near, things do not naturally get better. They get worse.

Some Objections to Suffering in the Christian Life
There are many objections that you might hear for why Christians should not suffer.  I’ll name two.  The first one is, “If God really loved me I wouldn’t have to suffer.”  First I will ask where the Bible says that.  Secondly, I will show you some places where the Bible says the opposite—that because God loves you, you will suffer.  Hebrews 12 tells us that God is a father who treats us as sons when we are disciplined.  Verse 6 says, “For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.”  Remember our verses from Romans 5, which we already read: “Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.”  We suffer because God loves us.  “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us,” the apostle Paul said.  There is a greater glory waiting, and God is preparing us for that.

The second objection people use is this.  They say, “The Bible says that Jesus came to make me rich!” One time, a person quoted 2 Corinthians 8:9 to me, which says, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.”  This verse doesn’t say that we will be materially rich with money or possessions.  It also never says that we will not endure suffering.  The context of this verse is generous giving.  Jesus gave everything he had for us, and so we should be willing to give everything we have for others.  Furthermore, Jesus came so that we might be rich spiritually.  We have the most spiritual riches when we are generous, kind, and ready to share with others.

What is God’s purpose in our suffering?
If God is truly in control of this entire universe, including our suffering, then he must have a purpose for everything, including our suffering.  There are probably a million purposes, but I want to give you five to think about.

  1. We suffer for God’s glory. 1 Peter 5:10 says, “After you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.”  God receives the most glory when we are dependent upon his grace.  I am fully depending on God to restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish me fully in heaven.  We cannot experience this in all its fullness on Earth.  But here on earth, we will only suffer for a little while.  Maybe 70, 80 years.  Some people say, “I’ve had a hard life!”  Well, that’s better than a hard eternity!  It’s better than an easy life like the rich man who then died and then suffered in Hades for all eternity.  I have hope that one day I will be with Jesus in heaven.  I will be there because he suffered for me.  And I will praise God for his grace because his Son Jesus has overcome my suffering.  On earth, we experience hard times and trials and pain and sorrow and tears and death.  But a day is coming when Jesus will wipe away our tears and there will be no more pain.  This is only because of God’s grace.  God is most glorified in us when his grace is on display.  And his grace is most fully on display in the person of Jesus, who has and will overcome all suffering in the lives of his people.  Jesus died, not to remove suffering from your life here on earth, but to glorify the Father by removing suffering from your life for all eternity in heaven.
  2. Our holiness. James 1:2-4 says, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.  And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete lacking in nothing.”  The phrase “testing of your faith” is another way to say suffering.  “Suffering produces steadfastness.”  Steadfastness means faithfulness.  When faithfulness has its full effect, you will be perfect and complete.  Obviously this doesn’t mean you will be sinless.  I’m sure no one here would say they are perfect now.  But some day, in heaven, our holiness will be completed.  We will be like Jesus because we will be with Jesus.  So when trails and suffering come, we should not complain or grumble.  We should not ask God, “Why me?”  We should say, “Lord, this is difficult.  My heart is breaking.  But you are using this to make me more like Jesus.  You will not fail me.”
  3. We suffer for our inheritance. Romans 8:16 says, “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order to be glorified with him.”  There is an inheritance waiting for you in heaven, but it will only come if you suffer.  The great part of this is that we know true Christians will suffer.  The Scriptures we have read this morning prove this.  What is our inheritance?  This verse tells us that it is being glorified with Jesus.  Why was Jesus glorified after his time on earth?  It was most certainly because he suffered and died.  After Jesus rose from the dead, he was talking with two men on a long, dusty road.  They were sad that Jesus died, and even sadder that his body was missing!  Jesus said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken!  Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?”  In the same way, we will suffer for a while and then enter into glory.  “For I consider the sufferings of this present time are not worthy comparing with the glory that is to be revealed.”  The suffering we experience here on earth is not more terrible than the glory of heaven is wonderful.  Being glorified with Jesus will far outweigh the worst circumstance you could possible think of here on earth.
  4. We suffer so that we can comfort others who suffer. 2 Corinthians 1:3-5 says, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves our comforted.  For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.”  Not only does God purposefully and loving bring suffering and affliction into your life, he is there to comfort you while it is happening!  This is difficult to understand but I need you to think hard about this.  God brings affliction to you.  But he is giving you mercy at the same time.  We need affliction in order to mature.  We need the mercy because we deserve hell.  We don’t deserve to be lovingly afflicted.  We deserved to be harshly condemned because of our sin.  But God gives mercy and grace and he comforts us!  And what do we do with this comfort?  We comfort others.  When you find another person who has cancer and they are struggling with doubt and depression, you can comfort them.  When you find another person whose husband divorced them, you can comfort them.  When you find another person who lost a child, you can comfort them.  When you find another person who lost their job and can’t afford food and rent, you can comfort them.  If you share in Christ’s suffering, know too that you will share in his comfort.  He said to us, “Come to me all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest…for my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
  5. We suffer for the advance of the gospel. Colossians 1:24 says, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.”  Now this verse is difficult to understand.  It seems that Paul is saying that Christ didn’t suffer enough.  But what he really says is that there is not enough suffering in the church so he will suffer himself.  He says, “I will take the suffering to advance the church of Christ.”  Paul suffered for who?  For the sake of Christians and all those who would become Christians through his preaching.  When people see that you are willing to suffer for the gospel, something happens.  Something happens in their minds and hearts.  They realize that you are serious and that you don’t love a God just for personal benefit.  You love a God who is glorious and is passionate about building his kingdom.  If God simply made everyone rich and healthy, then everyone would be a Christian.  But that is what the world would want, and we know that God works contradictory to what the world wants.  The world thinks the way to build a kingdom is through money, power, fame, and education.  Take my country, the United States for example.  This is what we do.  We think that a kingdom is built on these things.  But God says, “I will build my kingdom through suffering.  My Son will suffer, and everyone who loves him will suffer with him.  And I will be glorified because through endurance and perseverance, they will overcome suffering by my grace.”

Before I move on to give you some questions for application, let me tell you a story.

There was a king in a far away country who came to a different country to build his kingdom.  This king was righteous, wise, and loving.  He was gracious and merciful to his people.  And in this new country, he built an army of soldiers.  This army vigorously trained and disciplined their bodies for battle.  They even practiced not sleeping in case they were required to fight all night long.  They fasted without food for days, in case a famine occurred.  As this king built his army, he fought many wars with other wicked, evil countries in order to advance his kingdom.  During these wars, many of the king’s soldiers died in battle.  Others got sick.  Some became depressed.  But everyone of them, whether wounded, sick, depressed, hungry, or tired, endured to the end.  They never gave up.  And do you know what?  This king and his army ultimately won the war.

Now let me ask you, “Would it have been more glorious for the king and his army to have won the war without fighting, suffering, and dying?”  Or let me say it this way, “When is their more sweetness in victory: when it is easy, or when it is hard?”  I guess you have to also ask yourself, “Can you win a war without fighting at all?”

What should be our response to suffering?
So what do we all this?  We know that the question we face is not, “Will we suffer?”  The question we face is, “How will we respond when suffering comes?”  We know it will happen, and when it does, we want to suffer like Jesus.  That is, we want to honor and glorify the Father.

So here are four questions to ask yourself:

  1. Do I rejoice, pray, and give thanks in suffering? 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 says, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”  Rejoicing doesn’t mean you have to walk around with a smile on your face even when disaster comes.  Paul said that we are “sorrowful yet always rejoicing.”  He means that in this world there will always be both suffering and joy.  At one moment, we mourn the death of our child.  Yet we rejoice that God is our comforter and Jesus has overcome death.  At one moment, we weep over the cancer that grows in our brain.  Yet we rejoice that God is the great healer of the sinful cancer of our souls.  At one moment, we despair because of the slander from non-Christians.  Yet we rejoice that Jesus said, “Blessed are you who are persecuted for my sake.”  If you are able to rejoice in suffering, you will pray to God and ask for more rejoicing and more strength.  And if you can pray, then you will thank him.  You will thank him because you understand that suffering is happening because God wants to make you holy.
  2. Am I patient in suffering? In Psalm 40, David is suffering.  There are people who are trying to kill him.  And he says, “I waited patiently for the LORD; he inclined to me and heard my cry.”  Do you remember Job?  He thought God abandoned him.  He thought it would have been better to not be born.  And God said, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?”  God wants Job to understand that life is not about him.  It’s about God and God’s purposes and God’s will.  Are you patient with God?  He doesn’t owe you anything.  He is Creator and you are creation.  If you love Jesus and are born-again, be assured that he has a perfect plan for your life.  But perfection will only come through suffering for the Christian.
  3. Do I preach the gospel to myself in suffering? As we have seen, the gospel’s foundation is suffering.  In Isaiah 52-53, Jesus is called “the Suffering Servant.”  In Psalms it says of Jesus, “They have pierced my hands and my feet!  They cast lots for my clothes!”  Without Christ’s sufferings, you would not be able to come to God.  And so remember that because Jesus suffered for you, you will be able to suffer with and for him.  The Holy Spirit will give you power, not to run away from suffering, but to endure it like your Savior.  In 1 Timothy 5:12, the old Apostle Paul said, “Fight the good fight of the faith.  Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called.”  You must fight!  And the only way fighting is possible is because Christ died to purchase your life and your salvation.  Indeed, Christ purchased the victory in the battle for you.
  4. Finally, you must ask: Am I humble, broken, and repentant in suffering? The proud person says, “I read my Bible.  I go to church.  God should love me.”  The person who is not broken says, “Why are you doing this to me?”  The unrepentant person says, “I don’t deserve this.”  Your suffering may not be committed to a particular sin.  Whatever the case, you should come before God humbly, with brokenness, and with a repentant heart.  You should hunger and thirst for righteousness.  You must understand and believe with all your heart that God is God and you are not.  That he created the heavens and earth and you are nothing but dust.  Once Job realized that God was there for him, in the midst of his suffering, he said, “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be stopped….Therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:2, 6).  When you suffer and complain, are you repentant?  Or do you try to justify your attitude before God?  Are you the proud man who says, “I don’t deserve this”?  Well, remember that God does not owe you anything.  “Who has given to me, that I should repay him?” says the Lord.  He doesn’t owe you a family, money, a job, clothes, food, the sunshine, the rain, or even the air you breathe.  Everything that you have is a blood-bought gift from Calvary.  It is all God’s grace.  Even suffering—as hard as it is to hear—comes by God’s grace.  Why do we say this?  Because God only has grace on his children.  His wrath was taken away from us when his Son suffered on the cross.  By God’s grace, you will endure and persevere.  By God’s grace, you will glorify your Father in heaven through your suffering by depending on his grace, being humble, and being broken.  And by God’s grace, he will cause this suffering to make you more like Jesus, our Savior from sin, the Lord of our lives, the Treasure of our hearts, and our most excellent Example in suffering.