What does it mean to “suffer for Christ?” What is the extent of the sacrifice that Jesus expects His followers to be willing to make for the cause of His name and His gospel? Is our suffering a reflection of our standing with God? Are we going to suffer more when God is unhappy with us?
Questions such as these are important for believers to grapple with. And the way we answer such questions will go a great way towards shaping our behavior as Christians, and our willingness to fully commit to Christ.
There are some modern ‘preachers’ who would have their audiences believe that God will not allow His followers to suffer, but will always make a way of escape. Suffering, in the lexicon of these “health and wealth” preachers who espouse a “word of faith” doctrine (declaring that you can speak yourself into a better life) is part and parcel of weak faith. They would have us believe that God never expects His children to suffer.
Those who believe such things are a bit like the disciples who, upon seeing a blind man, asked Jesus, “Who sinned? This man or his parents that he was born blind?” (cf. John 9:1-2) Jesus did not accept the premise of the question, and therefore neither should we.
The apostle Paul, in his writings has a bit to say about suffering. In Paul’s second letter to Timothy, Paul mentions suffering frequently. Concerning himself, and his work as a preacher and an apostle, Paul says, “it is for this reason I suffer.” (2 Timothy 1:12, cf. 2 Timothy 2:9). He admonishes Timothy to “share in the suffering,” (2 Timothy 1:8, 2:3) and to “endure suffering.” (2 Timothy 4:5). He warns, “Yes, and all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution.” (2 Timothy 3:12; NKJV)
As he wrote to Timothy, Paul was in prison in Rome. This was not a pleasant place to be, at that point in time. One writer described the conditions thusly: “It is impossible for the modern reader to appreciate the agony of Paul’s ordeal. Roman prisons were an absolute nightmare. Prisoners were beaten frequently, and these wounds, together with those caused by leg and/or hand chains, usually went untreated, hence infections were common… Cells were stiflingly hot in the summer and frigid in the winter, with temperatures ranging from the 90s in the former, and 30s in the latter. Sickness, screaming, and suicides were both heard and observed. Not even the darkness shrouded the horror. Men and women were thrown in together in common cells so that rape and sexual immorality were rampant. In the thick atmosphere, the stench was intolerable. Food, when available, was frequently spoiled or worm infested.” (Wayne Jackson, Before I Die; pages 213-214)
When Paul spoke of suffering, he was not using hyperbole or exaggeration. His truly was miserable lot. And yet, concerning this, he could say, not only that he was “not ashamed,” (2 Timothy 1:12) but that Timothy should share in such suffering if necessary. (cf. 2 Timothy 2:3)
Even before the imprisonment which ended in his death, Paul had suffered numerous things as an apostle. He certainly did not live a life of ease and luxury, with devoted followers paying for his every whim. Rather, he some years earlier he cataloged the hardships he had endured at that point, a list which included five lashings, three beatings, a stoning, three ship-wrecks, being adrift on the sea, and a laundry list of dangers and hardships he had been exposed to over time, including hunger, thirst and exposure. (cf 2 Corinthians 11:24-27)
Now, clearly, when Paul so suffered, it did not mean God was upset with him. Likewise, when Jesus went to the cross, He went as “God’s beloved son,” and God was well pleased with Him. The suffering Jesus experienced was only temporary, though, and then He rose from the dead and entered into glory.
Elsewhere Paul spoke of the reasons he was willing to suffer all the things he did for the cause of Christ. He wrote, “For His sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish… that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” (Philippians 3:8b, 10-11; ESV)
There is a path that leads to the resurrection, but it leads through a cross of self-sacrifice.
If you would learn more about the faith Christ calls us to have, the church of Christ invites you to study and worship with us at 234 Chapel Drive, Gallipolis, Ohio. Likewise, if you have any questions, please share them with us through our website: chapelhillchurchofchrist.org.
Jonathan McAnulty is minister of Chapel Hill Church of Christ.