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21. Made Perfect Through Suffering

Chapter 21

Made Perfect Through Suffering

The Problem of Suffering

Suffering, pain and death are among the most diffi­cult pro­blems in philosophy. Philosophers are forever wrestling with the question of suffering, yet the answer remains elusive. Why is there so much suffering in the world? What is the meaning of suffering, if it has any meaning at all? Many philosophers who have wrestled with this problem have found no meaning in suffering.

Yet we see the reality of suffering every day, whether reported in the newspapers or experienced by people whom we know personally. Or even in a dead bird. We feel a twinge of pain and sorrow over an innocent bird that could have sung so sweetly in the trees and hopped so cheerfully on the grass. It now lies dead, never again to enjoy the warmth of the sunshine, the fragrance of the flowers, or the gentleness of the breeze.

I mention a dead bird because just the other day we found two baby birds in the garden, one dead and the other alive. The living bird was injured, having fallen from a tree, so we took it in and nursed it. To our joy it recover­ed. It seemed to recognize us, and would chirp merrily whenever it saw us. When it had grown large enough to care for itself, we released it to fly away into the open fields. But the other bird was dead. When we watched the mother bird gazing at her dead chick, we wondered how she felt.

1. Suffering in Human Relationships

Suffering is not only about a horrific car acci­dent or a heartbreak­ing death in the family. The scope of suffering is much wider than that. It is the emotional and physical pain of one kind or another, whether great or small, which is an inalienable reality of life in this world. In a world in which sin reigns, suffering is woven into the fabric of daily life.

For example, do you not suffer when someone speaks un­kindly to you? In all likelihood, you suffer for one reason or another every day. Perhaps someone in your household was incon­siderate to you, or misunderstood you, or said something that humiliated you in front of other people (or so you thought).

Suffering is a daily experience that, for the most part, involves human relationships. It usually arises when people rub against one another in the wrong way, perhaps at home, at school or at work. People are a common source of suffering and unhappiness, so much so that many prefer to run away and be left alone. But that might not solve the problem, because there would be the problem of loneliness. With no one to talk to, or to share one’s difficulties with, running away may not be the solution. But neither is staying put. Either way, pain and suffering seem to be inescapable.

Many have tried to come up with an explanation for the existence of suffering. Is suffering altogether meaningless? If not, what meaning does it have?

2. Made Perfect through Christ’s Sufferings

It is in relation to salvation and perfection that the meaning of suffering begins to emerge. In the pursuit of perfection we can­not escape from facing the reality of pain and sorrow. In the first place, we are perfected—cleansed from sin—through the suffering and death of Christ (Heb.10.14). If suffering has any meaning at all, surely it is seen in the person of Christ and his saving work for mankind. For that reason we cannot be Christians without believing that suffering has value, meaning, and purpose.

In the light of the cross of Christ, we can point to something specific in regard to the general statement that suffering has value. The cross enables us to see the truth that because Christ suffered to redeem us, suffering is the most meaningful thing for the Christian life. That is an astonishing assertion to make, but it finds full confirmation in Scripture. While to the non-Christian suffering is an unnecessary and meaningless intrusion in life, to the Christian it is supremely meaningful pre­cisely because we were redeemed through the suffering and death of Christ. We are thereby perfected, cleansed from sin, and freed from its power.

3. Perfected Through Suffering

Not only is suffering of the greatest significance for us be­cause of what Christ Jesus accomplished for us on the cross, suffer­ing is also supremely meaningful because it is the means by which we are brought to spiritual perfection in Christ. It is of the greatest importance for our spiritual lives that we grasp this remarkable truth. We will confirm it from Scripture, since our aim is not to purvey our own opinions. Hebrews 2.10, a verse whose importance could hardly be ex­aggerated, says:

In bringing many sons to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering. (NIV)

Who is the Author of our salvation but Jesus Christ? Yet God had to make him perfect through suffering. Think about it. If it were possible for Jesus to be perfect without suffering, what would be the point of subjecting him to suffering? If anyone in the world could be perfected without suffering, surely it would be Jesus Christ.

Note what this verse does not say; it does not say anything about Jesus’ suffering for the purpose of redeeming us. What this verse does say is that he suffered in order that he himself may be perfected! Only when he was made perfect could he die on the cross for us and become the Author of our salvation.

This astonishing fact is hard for us to grasp. The very begotten Son of God, Jesus Christ, had to be “made perfect” through the only means possible: suffering. In no vague or uncertain terms, Scripture affirms that God made Jesus perfect through suffering. This is stated again in Hebrews 5.8-9:

Although he was a Son, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.

We can meditate upon these remarkable statements over and over again without exhausting their depth. Jesus is the Son of God, yet he “learned obed­ience” through suffering, and was “made perfect” thereby. How much more, then, do we need to be perfected through suffering?

Four things are linked here: learning, obedi­ence, suffering and perfection. Jesus learned obedience through suffering, and was made perfect by it. Then, having been made perfect, he became the Author of salvation to all who, in following him, are learning obedience through suffering.

Let this fact sink into our hearts: Even Jesus Christ, the Son of God, Lord of lords and King of kings (Rev.17.14), had to learn obedience through suffering in order to become perfect. Why did he need to “learn obedience”? A moment’s reflection will enable us to see that obedience is not something that the Lord of lords needed to do. Obedience was not something that applied to the Sovereign, but to his subjects. Now the King himself has chosen to learn obedience in order to save his subjects! Who has ever heard of, or even dreamed of, such a King? What an amazing Lord this is!

Let this, too, be firmly fixed in our hearts: The Lord learned obedience for our sake, not because he had any need of it for him­self. This both evinces and underlines the utter selflessness of his character. How surpassingly wonderful he is!

4. Not All Suffering is related to Sin

It is important to appreciate the value of suf­fering because only then do we have a safeguard against falling away. Many Christians have fallen away from Christ because of bitter resentment over suffering. Finding no meaning in suffering, they wonder why they have to suffer at all. In the minds of most people, suffering is an unfortunate and unnecessary misfortune that has befallen human­kind.

The situation is not helped by those Christians who teach that all suffering is caused by sin. Therefore if sin is to be abhorred, so is suffering. This equating of sin with suffering and vice versa is utter­ly erroneous. Jesus was sinless but that did not prevent him from suffering. Indeed, precisely because he was without sin he suffered more intensely than those accustomed to sinning. The sufferings which Christ endured for our sake show that suffering has value and meaning quite apart from sin.

Moreover, suffering is not necessarily always due to sin. In your household, for example, why do misunderstandings arise that create so much anguish and suffering? The problem is often due to character differences or different ways of doing things. The husband has one way of doing things, the wife has another, and a third per­son yet another. It is often not a matter of who, objectively eval­uated, is right and who is wrong. Character differences, which produce conflicting styles, create misunder­standings. The clash of characters is a major cause of everyday unhappiness.

Can we blame this kind of suffering on sin? Is it a sin for us to have different characters and different ways of doing things? Does the other party not have a right to be different from us in character and person­ality? We like to think, “My character is the norm of civilized behavior. If you had a personality like mine, there would be no misunderstandings.” The other person thinks the oppo­site: “My way is right and yours is wrong.” Insisting on our own way leads to sin, but disagreement is not necessarily sinful in itself.

Who is right and who is wrong? How do we resolve the matter? It is a fact of life that problems do arise over differences in our way of thinking. Everyone who is married, or who has a family, or who shares an apartment, is well aware of this reality. It is not always a matter of sin but of personality and, consequently, of looking at things from different perspectives. Such differences need not always be a cause of friction or tension but often they are, because we are not yet fully perfected. But even in our imperfect state, God can use our differences to balance one another, and bring forth beneficial results. It is by no means always a question of who is right and who is wrong.

(1) Paul and Barnabas

Actually, it is quite possible that both parties are right. The word of God tells us of a conflict between two great servants of God, Paul and Barnabas. They parted company because they had disagreed vehemently over what to do about Mark. Paul did not want to take Mark along on a missionary journey because of what he had done in a previous journey: for some (unknown) reason Mark had decided to leave Paul and Barnabas and had gone home (Acts 15.37-40). In Paul’s mind, anyone who serves the Lord like that is unfit for God’s work. We could imagine Paul saying to Mark, “If you want to go, just go; but don’t come back, because you are unfit in your present state to serve the Lord.”

But Barnabas, whose name means “Son of Consolation,” was lenient on the young man. We could imagine him saying to Paul, “Mark does have his weaknesses (who doesn’t?), so perhaps he left last time because he was a bit homesick having been away for some time, but it was not because he didn’t want to serve the Lord.” There was another reason for Barnabas’ concern for Mark: Mark was his cousin (Col.4.10).

Who is right and who is wrong? If we see the one as right and the other as wrong, we are making a fundamental mistake because both were right in what they did. The fact that Paul and Barnabas did what was right according to their respective characters was a saving factor for Mark. Mark was rebuked by Paul and consoled by Barna­bas, and he needed both.

Mark’s receiving both rebuke and consola­tion was a saving factor, as can be discerned from the fact that he later came back to God’s work and wrote a gospel that stands before us, the Gospel according to Mark. The character differ­ence between Paul and Barn­abas was necessary for Mark’s spiritual survival and growth. In a sense Paul was a father to Mark, and Barnabas a mother. Paul punished Mark, but Barnabas wiped the tears. Both were necessary for Mark.

To argue over who was right and who was wrong is to show a lack of spiritual insight. Some people criticize Paul for being too harsh, or Barnabas for being too sentimental. We would be wise to refrain from this kind of speculative judgment. The fact is that God used both Paul and Barnabas to bring great blessing to Mark, who eventually became an effective worker for Him and His church.

The character differences between Paul and Barnabas led to great suffering—the suffering of separation. The suffering, though intense, was not the result of any sin in either Paul or Barnabas. It was, nevertheless, deep and perhaps protracted. There is no record in subsequent history that Paul and Barnabas ever had occasion to co-work again. But this does not mean that they harbored any personal ill-will against each other. It is more likely that they recognized that their styles differed to the extent that it was best for both parties not to co-work together.

Ironically, Mark came back later to co-work with Paul as a faithful servant of God (2Ti.4.11). He had by then learnt his lesson. By this time, perhaps Barnabas had already died. That Scripture never mentions a subsequent reunion of Paul and Barnabas cannot be taken to mean that they were never reconciled. The fact that Mark later served with Paul provides evidence to the contrary.

(2) Suffering Can be Caused by Love, not Sin

In any case, the point that needs to be driven home is that sin and suffering are not necessarily causally linked. Let us take another exam­ple: If one day when, for whatever reason, we must bid farewell to loved ones, do we not suffer? Of course we do. That kind of suffering, however, has nothing to do with sin. On the contrary, there is suffering because there is true love. The pain of separation is caused by love, not sin. It is painful to bid farewell to those who are dear to us. On the other hand, if there is no mutual love, we would say, or think, “Are you leaving? Good riddance! How quickly can you go?”

We need to dispel the deeply rooted notion that sin and suffering are always connected. It is true that they are often linked, but not always. Sin and suffering are neither intrinsically nor inseparably linked [70].

This is a central message of the book of Job. Job’s “friends” held to the notion that all suffering was due to sin. Consequently, when all sorts of calamity were coming upon Job they immediately assumed that Job was guilty of some heinous sin, or of many sins, and pressured him to repent in dust and ashes. When Job protested his innocence, he was sternly and persistently reprimanded.

As a result, Job in his intense anguish was driven to despair. Even his once firm faith in God was shaken to its foundations. This goes to show just how dangerous is the linking of sin and suffering. It can, and has, destroyed the faith of some people.

(3) The notion that all sickness is caused by sin

Yet there are not lacking among Christians today those who have evidently failed to understand the message of Job. For example, the same erroneous notion of linking suffering with sin lies behind the notion of many charismatics who claim that it is not God’s will that believers should suffer from physical ailments. Their whole healing ministry is based on this assumption. God’s will, as taught by them, is that we should all have health and prosperity.

A well-known charismatic church leader, whom I knew person­ally in England, when he was dying of cancer, was apparently in a state of near-despair, not for fear of physical pain but out of fear of having been rejected by God, because God did not answer the many prayers for his healing. He was barely fifty years of age. This also brought turmoil to the churches and the Christians associated with him. For when they saw that it is not always God’s will to pre­vent or to heal pain and suffering, the erroneous foundation on which they stood began to crumble beneath their feet.

We should now be able to see how far-reaching are the conse­quences of this error, and the error of ignoring and even discarding the Lord’s call to take up the cross.

(4) God Himself Suffers Because of Love for Us

We need to realize that God Himself suffers pro­foundly, though He has nothing to do with sin. Certainly He suffers because of our sins, but that is only so because of His love for us. “And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God by whom you were sealed for the day of redemp­tion” (Eph.4.30). The more you love a person, the more you suffer.

We can now better understand Isaiah 63.9 which speaks of Yahweh God in relation to Israel: “In all their afflictions He was afflicted…in His love and in His mercy He redeemed them”. Significantly, the next verse (v.10) says, “But they rebelled and grieved His Holy Spirit,” which is precisely what Ephesians 4.30, quoted above, cautions against.

If the one we love is expected home by a certain hour, yet has not returned, we suffer because we are anxious for his welfare. Is this brother (or sister) all right? Did he get lost or injured? We suffer not because of sin but because of love, being anxious for his safety and welfare.

5. Suffering Has Profound Meaning

You may still be unconvinced that suffering has any value at all. But the Biblical truth is that suffering is essential for spiritual perfection. We must grasp this principle so that we won’t feel bitter or indignant when suffering comes. Far from being bitter, Paul says, “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake” (Col.1.24). Do we rejoice in suffering? That is impossible unless we see its profound value and meaning.

We no longer understand the meaning of suf­fering today, nor do we rejoice in suffering. We only know how to rejoice in good and rosy circumstances.

I wish that someone would teach young Christians the great value of suffering. Then they will learn to accept suffering joyfully, as did the apostle Paul. But when we are taught to believe that all suffering is caused by sin, we inevitably harbor a negative view of suffering. It is right to hate sin, but tying all suffering to sin results in hating suffering as well, and that is a serious mistake.

Here it is essential to discern good and evil: Sin is evil, but suffering can be good (depending on our attitude to it). Sin brings pain and suffering; but suffering can teach us to be righteous and perfect. In God’s wisdom, suffering can also serve as an antidote and deterrent to sin.

But having some discernment of good and evil doesn’t mean that we understand all there is to the meaning and purpose of suffering at this time, for our knowledge is still imperfect (1Cor.13.12). Therefore, some suffering will always seem to our humanly limited understanding to be quite incomprehensible, especially in regard to the suffering of the inno­cent, and particularly when we consider ourselves innocent. Being unable to understand is itself a form of suffering. But what we do know from Scripture is that to indiscriminately lump all suffering together with sin is to show that one is incapable of distinguishing between good and evil.

Sometimes we may be left wondering what sin we have committed to deserve suffering. This attitude can be dangerous as it can result in a measure of resentment against God as being unjust, especially when we (like Job) are genuinely unaware of having committed any particular sin for which we seem to be punished.

(1) A Clearer Understanding of its Value

The Scriptures teach us that the relationship between suffering and sin cannot, and must not, be simplistically asserted in this form: suffering is always due to sin. The matter is much more complex than that. For the sake of clarity we use the following itemiza­tion,

(1) I suffer [71] because I have sinned. The Holy Spirit convicts me of my sin, and Yahweh God as a loving Father disciplines me for my good (Heb.12.5,6). Suffering, in this case, is a call to repentance.

(2) I suffer, not because I committed any sin, but because some­body sinned against me. Suffering of this kind gives me the opportun­ity to learn to forgive, even as I myself have received forgiveness.

(3) I suffer because the standpoint of the other person is entirely different from mine. This results in pain on both sides, though nei­ther party has sinned (as in the case of Paul and Barnabas). In this situation, I must evaluate whether my standpoint is valid before God. At the same time I must bear in mind that even if my stand­point is right from my perspective, that does not necessarily mean that the other person is wrong. Thus I learn to be conciliatory even when it is not always possible to agree—and where the disagreement must stand, to nurture no bitterness and harbor no grudges.

(4) I suffer because of love for others. This causes me to be intensely concerned for them, suffering with those who suffer, weep­ing with those who weep (Ro.12.15), and sharing their burdens with them (Gal.6.2). Love is also the cause of grief when we have to part physically (e.g. Acts 20.37,38). Or, like Paul and other servants of God, enduring hardship and every form of suffering to bring the gospel to the whole world, and to build up the church of God (see the long list of sufferings in 2Cor.11.23-28).

(5) I suffer because I love God, and gladly endure hardship and eventually perhaps even death for His sake. This kind of suffering often cannot be totally separated from the previous kind (suffering because of love). Stephen is the first in a long line of those who suffered and died for the Lord they loved (Acts 7). Some martyrs suffered unspeakable tortures before they were killed, but would under no condition deny the Lord who loves them, and whom they love.

It is often, or even usually, the case that it is because we love God that we also love people. In this case points (4) and (5) are interconnected.

There are many causes of suffering, and some of the most intense are not due to my having sinned or someone else’s having sinned. But whatever the cause in any particular case, suffering is never meaningless or useless. Pain and suffering always have incal­culable value in the process of our being conformed into God’s image. Indeed, it is precisely for this reason that suffering is indispensable, as can be seen from the fact that even the Son of God himself had to be perfected through it.

(2) Every Christian Is Called To Bear the Cross of Suffering

Brothers and sisters, we need to go deeper and deeper until we grasp the profound value of suffering, and be like Paul who rejoices in his sufferings for the sake of God’s people (Col. 1.24). We must understand this vital principle if we are to under­stand the heart of the gospel. For the gospel that the Lord proclaimed is a gospel of suffering. If we are not ready to accept suffering, then we are not ready to be disciples of Jesus.

The gospel that Jesus preached is vastly differ­ent from what we usually hear today. Too often the sales pitch of the gospel—in radio, television and liter­ature—is that the gospel brings joy and comfort to your life, and abolishes every form of suffering. Don’t believe that lie. The Lord Jesus preached just the opposite:

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life shall lose it; but whoever loses his life for my sake shall find it. For what will a man be profited, if he gains the whole world, and forfeits his soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Mt.16.24-26)

There is no more potent symbol of suffering than the cross. We are called to suffering just as we are called to perfection, and perfect­ion comes through suffering.

The cross is the most painful and most prolonged form of execu­tion that man has ever devised. Other forms of execution are relat­ively quick and easy. Execution by the sword takes one quick stroke, leaving you little time to feel the pain. A bullet to the head is a quick way to die.

The cross, on the other hand, is the most grue­some and pro­tracted torture-execution that man has ever dreamed up. The Romans used this form of punishment frequently. People are known to have hung on the cross in excruciating torment for as long as two or three days.

Jesus did not say, “If any man would come after me, let him accept the sentence of being shot or electrocuted.” We may be willing to die if not too much suffering is involved. Suffering is the most frightening aspect of dying, and if the suffering could be minimized or eliminated, death would be much easier to accept. But to our shock and dismay, the Lord speaks of bearing the cross.

So we find ourselves saying to the Lord, “May I stand before a firing squad instead?” A shooting often involves a firing squad because a lone executioner could miss the mark, usually the heart, on the first shot. But if there is a firing squad of several marksmen with high-powered rifles, then you have a sure and quick form of execu­tion. We may prefer execution by shooting, but the Lord calls us to the cross! “What? Crucifixion? There must be an easier way.” So we continue bargaining: “Lord, I want to follow you, but taking up the cross is a bit too much. You really strike a hard bar­gain. Why don’t you make it easier?”

We have read Jesus’ statement about bearing the cross many times, yet we close our eyes to its obvious meaning. We see, yet do not see; we hear, yet do not hear or under­stand (Mt.13.13).

Why does Jesus insist on the cross? Does he enjoy calling us to torture and death? No, it is not the Lord but the world who will crucify us. Jesus did not crucify himself; it was the Sanhedrin together with the Romans who crucified him. Likewise, when we are crucified, it is not the Lord but the world that inflicts it upon us.

In saying all this, we must not lose sight of the fact that in speaking of the cross Jesus does not want to emphasize the phy­sical aspect exclusively, or even primarily. The call to take up the cross is above all the call to die to the old self and enter into a new life of walking with Christ. Martyrdom is not excluded, but being martyred physically without having been spiritually born anew through the Holy Spirit, would be an act of human heroism compar­able to a soldier dying for his ideology or his country. Patriotism and heroism have their value, but these are not what Jesus calls us to.

We are called to break with the old life, and be totally committed to God and to His people, even if that means sufferings comparable to that of crucifixion. As a form of bodily execution, crucifixion is no longer practiced today, so Christians are no longer likely to get cru­cified. But even when it was practiced, Jesus certainly did not mean that every Christian will inevitably be martyred by being hung on a literal cross.

Actually, in the history of the church very few Christians died by crucifixion. The apostle Peter is reported to have been one of these. Stephen, the first martyr, was stoned to death. Apostle Paul was probably beheaded; he was a Roman citizen, and Roman law did not permit the crucifying of Roman citizens. The point is that when Jesus spoke of the cross, it was meant above all to be understood on the spiritual level. We are called to follow in his foot­steps first and foremost with our hearts.

6. Today’s Gospel Rejects Suffering

But Jesus’ call is rejected today. Many today preach a gospel of material prosperity and enjoyment, as well as freedom from every form of suffering, including poverty and illness. The other day I was listening to a television evangelist who was saying that it is so won­derful to believe in God. Someone in that church, he told his viewers, believed in God and as a result, when he wanted a nice car, even a specific make and model, guess what? The Lord, of course, gave him a luxury car exactly of that make and model!

While the man who had received the car sat on the platform gloating over his good fortune, this evangelist continued: “When you pray, don’t just ask for a car. Tell God the exact model and color you want.” God is there to do our bidding. To believe this is to have “faith,” according to this preacher. Believe that God will give you what you want and you will get it!

Well, excuse me for interrupting this very attractive but utterly self-centered line of thought, and let me ask, “Since when do we tell God to get us what we want, or give orders to the King of kings and Lord of lords?”

But let the television evangelist continue with his “gospel”: And when you go into a restaurant, he declared, don’t order hamburgers. Ham­burgers are for the poor, but we are the children of God. God is the great King and we are His children—we are “King’s kids”—so order the most expensive filet mignon you can find.

I am not exaggerating what was being said by the televangelist, whose name I won’t mention. He has a regular audience of hundreds of thousands, and rakes in hundreds of millions of dollars a year through his television ministry. There is no way you can get your millions unless you preach a gospel of steaks over hamburgers, or a gospel of luxury cars.

“Poor Jesus,” this evangelist must undoubtedly have thought to himself, “the gospel that he preached will barely get you ham­burgers if you preach it, more likely you will end up on the cross! But if you preach a gospel of filet mignons and Rolls Royces, you will bring in the crowds and the money”. But Jesus was not interested in money or in pleasing the crowds. Small wonder there are few who preach the gospel that Jesus preached.

While listening to the televangelist, I could hardly believe my ears. To confirm that I had heard him correctly, I listened attentive­ly, and sure enough he was saying again and again, “This man asked for a luxury car, and God gave it to him!”

I was thinking, “Are you sure that it was God who gave it to him?” I know of someone else who said to the Lord Jesus, “I will give you the glorious kingdoms of the world if you will just bow down to me” (Mt.4.8-9). The televangelist’s message sounded uncannily like the words of Satan. It is Satan who would say, “I have the power to give you the kingdoms of the world, so what are filet mignons and luxury cars to me? They are included in this package called ‘the world’.” And would Satan not most gladly endorse this preacher’s message, which is the diametrical opposite of Jesus’ teaching?

Which gospel are we preaching, the gospel of Jesus Christ or a different gospel (Gal.1.6-8)? Could the one who said, “Take up your cross and follow me,” be the one who said, “Come to me and I will give you a luxurious life”? Are we hearing the same voice? The Lord says, “My sheep know my voice” (Jo.10.27). Are we able to differ­entiate the Lord’s voice from those other voices offering the world to us? Can we distinguish good from evil?

The Logic of Rejecting Suffering

The logic of rejecting suffering goes like this: If sin leads to suffering, and if sin is the sole cause of suffering, it then follows that if we are saved from sin, we are also saved from suffering. That sounds logical, right? As Jesus saves us from sin, so he saves us from suf­fering. If sin and suffering are intrinsically and inseparably linked, then this conclusion is correct and incontrovertible.

But it is an error of the first degree, being based on a wrong presupposition. Sin and suffering, as we have seen, are not intrin­sically linked. Yes, we do suffer because of sin, but we also suffer because of love and righteousness. Love makes us vulnerable to deep suffering, so much so that some people would rather not love. When you have a deep love for someone, you are vulnerable to pain and suffering.

I lost some sleep over a little bird I found in the garden because I was concerned for its welfare (this is not the same baby bird as the one mentioned earlier). I was telling myself, “Don’t be silly. There are more important things to care about than a tiny bird that has fallen out of its nest. When you’ve got churches to look after, who has time for a little bird?” That line of reasoning, however, could not keep my mind off the bird. I ended up telling myself, “Love is pain­ful.” I lost some sleep over a tiny bird, trying to figure out how to get it back to its natural habitat, and how to help the mother bird find the baby so that it may teach it to live as a bird. After all, not being a bird I don’t know how to do that!

Was sin involved here? Of course not. I suf­fered only because I cared about the bird. How much greater, then, is the suffering that comes from love for a human being!

Did Jesus not tell his disciples, when he sent them out on their first mission, that the Father cares even about the sparrows? So how much more does he care about them? (Mt.10.29-31)

I was planning to settle the bird in a nest, but I was concerned that the neighborhood cats may go after it. After surveying the trees, I came up with a couple of possibilities. Could I install a net around the tree to stop the cat from climbing it? I also sprayed the trunk with anti-cat smell, but that did not deter the cat. I needed a better solution. Eventually someone mentioned that cats, for some reason, generally do not climb fir trees, so I settled the bird on a nearby fir tree. That solved the problem! Indeed the cat made no attempt to climb the tree.

The next problem was getting the bird back to its mother. Wow, there are so many things to figure out, such as, what do we feed the bird and how often? Can it go through the night without food? While these things were swimming through my head, I was saying to myself, “Just go back to sleep. There are so many other more import­ant things to care about.” But I could not stop caring about the bird, and as a result I lost some sleep.

Don’t be ensnared by the idea that all suffering is re­lated to sin. Sufferings, problems, and hardships provide love with opportun­ity. If there were no problems in the world, how would love get a chance to express itself? Love rejoices at the chance to help. It does not complain about being obliged to help someone, nor does it des­pise the person who is too weak to help himself. Love rejoices at the opportunity to love and to care. When you see someone struggling to carry a load, you being stronger are eager to carry it for him or her.

It is easy for us to grumble, “Why don’t people study the Bible for themselves so that I won’t have to spend so much time and effort teaching them the word of God?” The fact that they don’t know the Scriptures gives you an opportunity to serve them, even to the point of exhaustion. I have observed, for example, that brother Joe is very tired after every Bible training session, yet he does not grumble, saying, “Why am I the one doing this? Can’t they get someone else to teach them the Bible?” This exhaustion is not the result of sin but of love, of a readiness to serve one another.

The situations that give rise to suffering are those that give love an opportunity to love. Love would have no opportunity to express itself if adverse circumstances did not exist. If there was no occasion to give to a poor man, would that be good? The selfish man thinks so, but love thinks otherwise. When there is a genuine need, finan­cial or otherwise, love rejoices at the chance to help. When love is denied a chance to show practical concern, it is disappointed. If no one in the world ever gets thirsty, there would be no opportunity to give anyone a cup of cold water.

7. Two Radically Different Gospels

So much of what is preached today is unasham­edly egocentric with its never-ending stress on material and physical blessings. A gospel is being preached which promises that if you become a Christian, you will have no physical disabilities or financial problems. Or that if you are sick, God will heal you straightaway.[72]

God may heal you, or He may defer the heal­ing, or He might not heal you at all. His ways are not our ways, nor is His thinking our thinking (Isa.55.8). If even His only begotten Son was made perfect through suffering (Heb.2.10), would God not also perfect us through suffering?

It takes suffering to reach perfection because moral and spiritual perfection is not something that can be created just like that, with a snap of the fingers. If that were possible, then surely Jesus would have been born into the world as a perfect human being. Yet Scripture states plainly that he was perfected through a process of suffering. Perfection at the spiritual level is attained, not created. Perfection had to be accomplished in Jesus through suffering and obedience. If Jesus had been born perfect, God wouldn’t have had to perfect him. The perfection of faithful obedience is learned, not created.

For the sake of our spiritual survival we must distinguish the two contradictory gospels. In these last days, it will become harder and harder to discern who is speaking the truth and who is speaking falsehood. Those who speak the truth will be maligned. It is always the case that those born according to the flesh persecute those born according to the Spirit, as the apostle reminds us (Gal.4.29). Those who reject suffering for themselves do not hesitate to impose it upon others!

But you need not be afraid when people speak evil of you, for that is part of the suffering to which we are called. Those who love the truth need not be afraid of affliction or vilification. As Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, Rejoice when you are persecuted! (Mt.5.11,12). To rejoice under such circumstances is contrary to our nature and way of thinking. Certainly, the Lord does not imply that we should deliberately look for trouble. But when persecution does come upon us, we rejoice because the prophets were treated the same way, as he reminds us (v.12). We are in the company of the perfect, the company of God’s people who understand the value of suffering.

The false gospel rejects every form of suffering and takes an ambivalent attitude towards holiness and righteousness. The gospel of Jesus Christ, by contrast, welcomes suffering for righteousness’ sake. In fact we are called to suffer: “To you it has been granted for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for his sake” (Phil.1.29).

The Two Gospels Differ in Spirit, Not in Doctrine

These two gospels share the same ba­sic dogma. Both affirm that Jesus died for our sins, that we are redeemed by his blood, that he rose from the dead, that he will come back to reign. These are the basic doctrines that we have in common in the Christian faith. Most of those who preach a man-centered gospel of prosperity, claim to accept these doc­trines.

Where then is the difference? It is a difference in spirit, not in dogma. In basic doctrine, there is general agreement. Interestingly, the apostle Paul himself shared the same doctrinal tenets with the Pharisees. Paul had no disagreements with the Pharisees over basic dogma. Paul was a Pharisee himself, and remained a Pharisee right up to the end. In the presence of many Pharisees and Sad­ducees, Paul proclaimed, “I am a Pharisee” (Acts 23.6)—using the present tense. He was already a Christian by then, so he was both a Christ­ian and a Pharisee. This is entirely possible because he held to the same basic doctrines as the Pharisees.

Jesus did not disagree with the Pharisees in basic doctrine. In fact he taught the multitudes to obey the teachings of the Pharisees: “So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach” (Mt.23.3, NIV). He accepted their teaching but disapproved of their conduct.

The difference lies not in the fundamental doctrines but in the spirit. In every church there are people who, despite sharing a common doctrine, are entirely different in spirit. Jesus was different in spirit from the religious establishment of his day. Paul, like his Master, was different from the Pharisees not in doctrine but in spirit. In the spiritual life it is of the utmost importance to grasp that the crucial factor is the relationship we have (or do not have) with God in our hearts. On this point everything of eternal significance turns.

Where a heart-relationship with God does not exist, even if we hold the most orthodox fundamental doctrines, we will end up with nothing but eternal condemnation, because only through a liv­ing relationship with God do we have eternal life.

Caleb and Joshua were the only two men, out of all who came out of Egypt, who were allowed to enter the Promised Land; the others perished in the wilderness. What made Caleb and Joshua so different from the other Israelites? Was it a matter of hav­ing different doctrines, or different modes of wor­ship, or different coven­ants? Did they believe in a different God? No, Caleb and Joshua belonged to the same covenant as the other people of Israel. They worshipped the same God and accepted the same doctrines, but Caleb had a “different spirit” from those of his gen­eration (Num.14.24); he and Joshua followed God wholly, not holding back anything from Him (Num.32.12).

8. The Value and Glory of Suffering

To have a different spirit, we must see the value of suffering. Never think that suffering has no meaning or value. In Scripture, as we have seen, no one attains to perfection or Christ-likeness without going through suffering. In daily living, when someone misunderstands us or says something unkind to us, let us take that as an opportunity to move closer to perfection.

Suffering is like a grindstone that polishes a diamond, grinding into it and bringing out its beauty. We need to grasp the redemptive value of suffering—redemptive because suffering in the right attitude results in Christ-likeness, while progressively grinding down our old ego and freeing us from it. The grindstone of suffering will bring spirit­ual quality and beauty to our lives.

Not long ago Terry Fox died of cancer after raising a lot of money for cancer research. Every heart was touched by the noble persist­ence of a one-legged cancer victim who tried to run across Canada to raise the money. Could the greatness of his spirit have been mani­fested without the corresponding suffering? He showed that great­ness is born of suffer­ing.

Many glorious stories have emerged from the battlefields of the world, especially when a soldier lays down his life for a comrade, or loses a leg to save a fellow man. We admire the greatness of the human spirit that emerges from suffering in battle.

The horrific sufferings in the concentration camps of World War II have also provided occasions for glory and beauty to be revealed through them. Many accounts of courage, compassion, and selfless generosity have emerged from these horrendous camps. When we see the appalling ugliness of evil at its worst, we also see the beauty of good at its best. But when everything is nice and rosy, when there is less opportunity to triumph over suffering and evil, the opportunity for the triumph of good is corres­pondingly diminished.

Living in the comfort and ease of an affluent society and drinking in its prosperity is detrimental to the spiritual life. We should take warning from the fact that the wealth of “Babylon”, the commercial center of the world, was not a blessing but a curse that pre­saged its downfall (Revelation 18). Failing to understand the spirit­ual message of the fall of Babylon, multitudes in the Western churches today are taught to strive through prayer and “faith” to get God to bless them with the riches they clamor for. They turn a deaf ear to the warning,

People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. (1Tim.6.9)

We are touched, however, when we meet someone who has overcome impossible odds, including poverty, to achieve worthwhile goals. But is anyone ever impressed by someone who graduates from some famous university merely because he could afford a good edu­cation thanks to the financial support from his millionaire father? With enough money, almost anyone can get a university degree. I know of a young man from a rich fam­ily who took eleven years to collect a law degree from Cambridge University in England. He was able to stay in Cambridge for so long only because his father was holding a high position in an Asian country, and was very wealthy, and thus had the means to pay for his education—and for the fancy sports car that he drove around.

But the one who has had to struggle against poverty or hardship or physical handicap or mockery to gain success—this man or woman is worthy of our admiration, for he or she has triumphed over great difficulties.

Adversity has supreme value because it affords an opportunity for God to perfect us. But realis­tically, because our minds have been so trained to reject suffering, we are not easily convinced of its value and import­ance, even when it is established from Scripture that we cannot be perfected without it.

But it is important that we are convinced of the value of suffering, for affliction does not automatically benefit us or perfect us. Whether or not it benefits us depends on our attitude towards it. If we recognize it as an important means by which God purifies, molds, and trans­forms us, then we submit to God’s will and wisdom humbly and gladly, following what Jesus did at that profound moment at Gethsemane—a moment of the greatest significance for our salva­tion—when he yielded himself to the Father with the words, “Not my will, but yours be done” (Lk.22.42).

If, however, when we face adverse circumstances we reject it with an attitude of resentment and bitterness, then far from bene­fiting us, the negative attitude in which we respond to suffering will harm us and, if we persist in it, that attitude will lead to disaster. This was what happened to the Israelites in the wilderness. They responded to every trial and difficulty in the wilderness with a negative spirit expressed in grumbling, annoyance, resentment, and even outright rebellion. As a result they perished in the wilderness; and this in spite of the fact that they had witnessed many miracles that God had performed all along the way, confirming His presence with them.

It is the spirit in which we face suffering that determines whe­ther or not God can use it to benefit and to perfect us.

9. Following Jesus Together

Perfection in Scripture is not an individual human effort whereby I lock myself in a secluded place to perfect myself. There, day in and day out, month after month, I try to achieve perfection by being engrossed in meditation, sitting still with eyes closed, and focusing my mind on the spiritual. Nowhere in the gospels are we told that Jesus ever did anything like that.

In Scripture, that is not how perfection is acquired. This way of pursuing perfection is often an escape from reality and suffering. When Jesus says, “Take up your cross and follow me,” he is not promoting a gospel of escapism. Instead he calls us to: “Follow me into a world where there is conflict and hostility. I will lead the way and you will follow right behind. Together we will confront every form of evil and rottenness opposed to us and we will suffer in the process. We do this in order to bring eternal life to those who are perishing in the spiritual darkness of this world.”

Jesus does not say, “As commander-in-chief, I order you into battle while I cheer you on from behind the front lines.” No, the Lord is telling us, “Follow me into the thick of battle. Together we will go through intense suffering, but it is a suffering whose redemptive effect will defeat evil. If you want to be my disciple, you must come along with me. Together we will overcome evil and establish righteousness, to accomplish the salvation of mankind.”

Jesus died to redeem us, and we too must be prepared to die to spread the gospel of redemption (Jo.12.24). If this teach­ing is unaccept­able to us, we can turn on the television set and listen to a gospel about a God who grants us nice cars and gourmet food.

Listen carefully and discern the voice of truth. Unless we discern the value of suffering, we will never know what it is to be a disciple of Jesus.

Growing in Christ-likeness Together

In Scripture, growing into Christ-likeness is not only an individual endeavor, but also the perfecting of a community of God’s peo­ple. The diverse members of the body of Christ need to grow into perfection together; or, as the apostle put it, “till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a per­fect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph.4.13; cf. Col.4.12). Notice here how “we” collectively are to become “a perfect man”. The plural turns into a singular!

Oneness is of the essence of perfection or maturity. Where there is true faith there will be unity—“the unity of the faith” of which Paul speaks in this verse. This faith has to do with the experiential “knowledge of the Son of God”. That is to say, it is a living faith in the living Lord that is the prerequisite for being perfected in the sense spoken of here.

Surely it is not God’s will for the body to have a perfect hand but a stunted torso. How can that be a complete or perfect man? The Bible has in view a perfect body of God’s people, in which every person attains to the oneness, the harmony, and the maturity of “a perfect man”.

This doesn’t just involve a few members of the body of Christ. Either the whole is perfect or nothing is perfect. If only three or four persons in the church are perfect, the church as a whole still has not become “a perfect man”. This perfect manhood concerns the whole body of Christ.

But we are well aware that community has its own peculiar problems. For that reason, many people avoid community life altogether. If five people stay together, they will become five sources of problems, with five different characters and five different ways of doing things—and therefore five potential causes of friction.

We can choose to run away, or we can choose to face the situation squarely. If we know the value of suffering, we would say, “I will stay put because it is refining me. I aim to contribute by encouraging and building up the others. Together we will overcome our weaknesses, and together we will grow to perfection—grow into the image of Christ”.

Of course if we don’t value perfection or harmony, or if we are unwilling to face the painful problems and resolve them, then we will not desire communal life. If you decide instead to live a solitary life, you will have only one source of problems: you yourself. That seems to be easier to handle than five sources of problems. But by secluding ourselves and escaping from difficulties, we avoid the Lord’s command to love, and that amounts to disobed­ience. The disobedient won’t see the glory that God has planned for the body of Christ. Even worse, by secluding ourselves we cut ourselves off from his body. How can we be saved without being a member of Christ’s body?

It is up to us to choose the easy road or the hard road. God calls us to walk on the narrow road because it is the road that leads to eternal life.

 

An Appended Note

Now is the Time of Salvation, Not Judgment

We have observed above that sin and suffering are not intrin­sically related. If it is true that not all suffering is due to sin, it follows that not all suffering is punishment from God. This is contrary to the usual assumption that suffering associated with sin is inflicted by God.

According to the New Testament, the present age in which we live is not a time of judgment but of salvation. Jesus af­firms that, “God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world should be saved through him.” (John 3.17)

We are living in the New Testament era, as distinct from the previous Old Testament era when God did indeed intervene in exec­uting judgments against Israel and the nations. The present time is what Scripture calls “the day of salvation” (2Cor.6.2); the same verse goes on to say, “Now is the time of God’s favor” (NIV). Jesus came “to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord” (Lk.4.19), the year in which slaves are released and debts forgiven. We live in this favorable Jubilee “year”. Jesus proclaims, therefore, that this is a time in which God has made eternal salvation available to all man­kind. It is not the “year” or the time when He condemns or judges debtors (sinners).

Correspondingly, one looks in vain in the New Testament for any direct act of God’s judgment at the present time upon the people of the world. God’s judgment will come upon the world at the end of the present age of grace, and it will commence with a series of events leading up to the Final Judgment, as is described graphically in the book of Revelation. But at the present time, everything God does is in order to give people the opportunity to come to Him for salvation.

(1) Paul’s Action against Elymas

Even in the incident in which the apostle Paul exercised what appears to be an act of judgment against the magician Elymas, who had tried to prevent the proconsul Sergius Paulus from believing in Jesus (Acts 13.7-12), the salvific (i.e. having the desire to bring salvation) intention of Paul’s actions are perfectly clear. The salva­tion of the proconsul was his paramount concern. Paul had no choice but to act in the way he did. As a result of Paul’s action, and also because of his teaching, the proconsul believed in Christ (v.12). As for the blinding of the magician, it was limited to “a time” (v.11), after which he would recover his sight. Moreover, because of that experience the magician might himself be inclined to contemplate the question of his own salvation.

(2) Disasters

It is of the greatest importance that we grasp the fact that we are living in a time of salvation, not a time of judgment or condemnation. If we realize this, then we will not think, for example, that people killed in an airplane crash or a car accident were the objects of God’s judgment. Neither does God judge nations at this time by means of earthquakes, floods, droughts, volcanic eruptions, and other such natural disasters.

(3) The Holocaust

For this reason, too, it is entirely erroneous to suggest (as some ignorant people have) that the Holocaust, in which six million Jews and another four million non-Jews were viciously murdered by evil men, is in any way attributable to the judgment of God. It is nowhere written in Scripture that God is exercising His judgment upon the peoples (including the Jews) and nations of the world at this present time, though the time is indeed coming when He will judge all men on Judgment Day. At the present time the only actions He takes, whether in relation to nations or individuals, have always to do with His overall plan of eternal salvation, which He graciously makes available to “the whole world” (1Jo.2.2). In God’s eternal plan, “Now (Gk. nun, ‘at the present time’) is the day of salvation” (2Cor.6.2), not of judgment or condemnation (Jo.3.17).

(4) “You do not know what kind of spirit you are of”

The account in Luke 9.52-56 underscores this truth:

He sent messengers on ahead of him. And they went, and entered a village of the Samaritans, to make arrangements for him. And they did not receive him, because he was journeying with his face toward Jerusalem. And when his disciples James and John saw this, they said, “Lord, do You want us to command fire to come down from hea­ven and consume them?” But he turned and rebuked them, and said, “You do not know what kind of spirit you are of; for the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them.” (Cf. also Lk.19.10).

The disciples were thinking of emulating the actions of Elijah in calling down fire from heaven (2Ki.1.10,12) after Jesus, their Master, was not welcomed by the Samaritans. They were still thinking in Old Testament terms, and had not yet entered into the spirit of the New Testament.

(5) How does God deal with His Church?

So far we have looked at how God deals with the world in the present era; is there any difference in His dealings with His church? As is to be expected, the same overarching concern for salvation (in its multiple aspects of regeneration, renewal, and perfection) gov­erns His dealings with His people, but there is an important differ­ence: the church is the community of God’s children. God deals with His children for their good, not excluding the application of chastisement as needed. Hebrews chapter 12 elaborates on this at some length:

And you have forgotten the exhortation which speaks to you as to sons: “My son, do not despise the chastening of the LORD, nor be discouraged when you are rebuked by Him; for whom the LORD loves He chastens, and scourges every son whom He receives.”

If you endure chastening, God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom a father does not chasten? But if you are without chastening, of which all have be­come partakers, then you are illegitimate and not sons.

Furthermore, we have had human fathers who corrected us, and we paid them respect. Shall we not much more readily be in subjection to the Father of spirits and live? For they indeed for a few days chastened us as seemed best to them, but He for our profit, that we may be partakers of His holiness.

Now no chastening seems to be joyful for the present, but painful; nevertheless, afterward it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. (vv.5-11, NJKV)

It is not my business to train or discipline my neighbors’ children, but it is my responsibility to train my own. Likewise, when God chastises us, He treats us as His children. The people of the world, not having yielded themselves to God, are not His children. His children are those who have “received Him,” “believed in His Name,” and are “born of God” (John 1.12,13).

(6) The Privilege of Being Disciplined by our Father

Being God’s children has many privileges and one of them, which few Christians count as a privilege, is to be disciplined by God as our Father. Chastisement is painful as Hebrews 12.11 affirms, and pain is suffering, but it is absolutely necessary in order “that we may be partakers of His holiness” (v.10). Thus we see that suffering has an important role in God’s salvific actions in His church. Nevertheless, this chastisement is not to be understood as judgment or condemn­ation, which are antonyms of salvation, but as the expression of God’s saving love for His children.

(7) 1 Corinthians 5

The severe disciplinary action taken by the apostle in 1 Corin­thians chapter 5 in dealing with a heinous sin is in line with this. The salvific intent of the action is made explicit in verse 5: “the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus”.

(8) Acts 5

How is the incident in Acts chapter 5.1-11 to be understood? Here Peter says to Ananias, “Why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit?” (v.3); “You have not lied to men but to God” (v.4). And speaking to Ananias’s wife, Peter exposes her for having conspired with him “to put the Spirit of the Lord to the test” (v.9). These statements, repeatedly referring to the Holy Spirit, indicate that the apostle had discerned that these professed believers had sinned against the Holy Spirit, for which there is no forgiveness.

Jesus gave this solemn warning: “I say to you, any sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven men, but blasphemy against the Spirit shall not be forgiven” (Mt.12.31; also v.32; Mk.3.29; Lk.12.10). Sin is committed in the heart before it finds expression with the tongue. To blaspheme is to speak evil of someone, or against someone. Lying is a malignant form of evil speaking.

In this tragic incident of Ananias and Sapphira, sin against the Spirit of God had to be summarily dealt with for the sake of the purity of the infant church which was threatened by it. This event confirms that the way God deals with the church, the community of His children (including those who claim to be His children), is different from the way He deals with those of the world; but nonetheless His actions are governed by His saving purposes, espec­ially for His church as a whole.

In the case of Acts 5, the well-being of the church is protected by the godly fear that came upon the church—a holy fear that deters sin. Twice in this passage we read of how the fear of the living God came upon all, both Christians and non-Christians, who heard of the matter: “Great fear came upon all who heard it” (v.5); “Great fear came upon the whole church, and upon all those who heard of these things” (v.11).

A Brief Excursus: Herod Agrippa I

Was not what happened to King Herod Agrippa I in Acts 12 clearly an act of God’s judgment? Herod Agrippa I, described by Unger’s Bible Dictionary (Moody Press, 1966) as “a zealous Jew,” was actually the last of the Jewish kings who reigned (AD 37-44) over the land which under the Old Testament was the land of Israel. His son, Agrippa II, ruled a small territory in the Lebanon area; he did not reign over Judea, Samaria, Galilee and Peraea; hence he did not reign over the land of Israel as it was in the Old Testament.

As the last of the Jewish kings, Herod Agrippa I does not come within the purview of this Appended Note which discusses the world in general and the church in particular in the New Testament era, but he must be considered rather in relation to the Old Testament era. Therefore what happened to him, in Act 12.21-23 is comparable, for example, to the demise of King Jehoram (2Chron.21.18,19; cf. Isa.14.11; 51.8).



[70] See Appended Note at the end of this chapter.

[71] In this and the following points the word “suffer” includes every kind of suffering, whether spiritual, mental, emotional, or physical.

[72] Sharing by B.C.: “On a holiday in Tasmania, my wife and I visited a church where the preacher kept on hammering the point that the poor and the handicapped have no faith in God. Among his listeners that Sunday were a lady with a wilted hand and a man con­fined to a wheel­chair, both of whom later im­pressed me by their joy in the Spirit and their genuine concern for other people.”

 

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