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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 its 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 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 recognized us, and would chirp merrily whenever it saw us. When it had grown big enough to care for itself, we released it to fly away into the open field. But the other bird was dead. When we watched the mother bird gazing at her dead chick, we were wondering how she felt.

Suffering in human relationships

Suffering is not only about a horrific car acci­dent or a 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.

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 others.

Suffering is a daily experience that, for the most part, involves human relationships. It usually arises when people rub shoulders 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 either because there would then be the problem of loneli­ness. With no one to talk to, or to share one’s difficulties with, run­ning away may not be a solution. But neither is staying put. Either way, pain and suffering seem to be inescapable.

Many have tried to arrive at an explanation for the existence of suffering. Is suffering meaningless? If not, what meaning does it have?

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 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 some value, meaning, and purpose.

We can point to the cross of Christ in support of the statement that suffering has value. The cross helps us to see 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 because we were redeemed through Christ’s suffering and death. We are thereby perfected, cleansed from sin, and freed from its power.

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 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 can 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. (Hebrews 2:10, NIV, italics added)

Who is this 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 is made perfect can 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 on these remarkable statements over and over without exhausting their depth. Jesus is the Son of God, yet he “learned obed­ience” through suffering, and was thereby “made perfect”. 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”? The Lord learned obedience for our sake, and it evinces the utter selflessness of his character.

Not all suffering is related to sin

It is crucial to appreciate the value of suf­fering because only then will 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. By this reasoning, because 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. It was precisely because he was without sin that 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 always necessarily due to sin. In your house­hold, 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 is right and who is wrong. The clash of characters is a major cause of every­day unhappiness.

Can we pin the blame on sin for this kind of suffering? 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 in the same way: “My way is right and yours is wrong.” Insisting on our own way often leads to sin, but disagree­ment is not necessarily sinful in itself.

Who is right and who is wrong? It is a fact of life that problems do arise over differences in ways of thinking. Everyone who is married, or who has a family, or who shares an apartment, is aware of this. It is not always a matter of sin but of personality and looking at things from different perspectives. Such dif­ferences need not always be a cause of friction 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

It is possible that both parties are right. The Bible tells of a conflict between Paul and Barnabas, two great servants of God. They parted company because they disagreed vehemently over what to do about Mark. Paul did not want to take Mark 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 go home (Acts 15:37-40). In Paul’s mind, anyone who serves the Lord like that is unfit for God’s work. We can 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 can imagine him saying to Paul, “Mark does have his weaknesses (and who doesn’t?), so perhaps he left the last time because he was a bit homesick, having been away for some time. It was not because he didn’t want to serve the Lord.” There was another possible 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.

It was a saving factor for Mark that he received both rebuke and consola­tion, 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 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 a 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 was not the result of any specific sin in either Paul or Barnabas, yet it was deep and protracted. There is no record in subsequent history that Paul and Barnabas ever had an occasion to cowork again. But this does not mean that they harbored any 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 cowork together.

Mark later came back to cowork with Paul as a faithful servant of God (2Tim.4:11). He had by then learned his lesson. By this time, perhaps Barnabas had died. The fact 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

The point that we need to drive home is that sin and suffering are not necessarily causally linked. If one day we bid farewell to loved ones, do we not suffer? Of course we do. That kind of suffering 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 (see the Appended Note at the end of this chapter).

This is a central message of the book of Job. Job’s friends held to the notion that all suffering is caused by sin. When great cal­amities fell upon Job, they immediately assumed that he was guilty of heinous sins, and pressured him to repent in dust and ashes. When Job protested his innocence, he was sternly reprimanded.

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

3. The notion that all sickness is caused by sin

There are not lacking among Christians those who fail to under­stand the message of Job. The same erroneous linking of sin and suffering 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 the 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. When they saw that it is not always God’s will 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 the conse­quences of this error are, and to see the error of ignoring the Lord’s call for us to take up the cross.

4. God Himself suffers because of love for us

God Himself suffers pro­foundly even though He does not sin. He suf­fers because of our sins, but that is so only 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, just quoted, cautions against.

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 feeling bitter, Paul says, “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake” (Col.1:24). Do we rejoice in suffering? That would be 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 grave mistake.

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 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, for our knowledge is still imperfect at this time (1Cor.13:12). Some types of suffering will always seem to our limited understanding to be quite incomprehen­sible, especially the suffering of the inno­cent, and particu­larly when we consider ourselves innocent. Being unable to understand suffering is itself a form of suffering. What we know from Scripture is that to indiscrimin­ately lump all suffering together with sin is a failure to distinguish between good and evil.

We may be left wondering what sins we have committed to de­serve suffering. This situation can be dangerous because it can lead to resent­ment against God for being supposedly unjust, especially when we, like Job, are unaware of having committed any particular sin for which we seem to be punished.

1. A clearer understanding of its value

Scripture teaches 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 [1] because I have sinned. The Holy Spirit convicts me of my sin, and 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 thinking 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 evaluate whether my standpoint is valid before God. I bear in mind that even if my stand­point is right from my own 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 or 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 (Rom.12:15), and sharing their burdens (Gal.6:2). Love is 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 (cf. the list of sufferings in 2Cor.11:23-28).

(5) I suffer because I love God, and gladly endure hardship and even die 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 situation deny the Lord who loves them, and whom they love. It is often the case that because we love God, 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 sufferings are not caused by sin. Whatever the cause, suffering is never meaning­less or useless. Pain and suffering have incal­culable value in the process of our being conformed to Christ’s image. It is 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 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 grasp this vital principle if we are to under­stand the heart of the gospel. The gospel that Jesus proclaimed is a gospel of suffer­ing. If we are not ready to accept suffering, we are not ready to be Jesus’ disciples.

The gospel that Jesus preached is differ­ent from what we often 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?” (Matthew 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 prolonged form of execu­tion that man has ever devised. Other forms of execution are relat­ively quick. 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.

But the cross is the most grue­some and pro­tracted torture-execution that man has ever devised. The Romans used this form of punishment frequently. People are known to have hung on the cross in excruciating torment for 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.

We find ourselves saying to the Lord, “May I stand before a firing squad instead?” A firing squad of several marksmen will ensure a quick death, but Jesus calls us to the cross! So we start bargaining: “Lord, I want to follow you, but taking up the cross is a bit much. You really strike a hard bar­gain.”

We have read Jesus’ statement about bearing the cross many times, yet we close our eyes to its clear meaning. We see, yet do not see; hear, yet do not hear or under­stand (Mt.13:13).

Why does Jesus insist on the cross? Does he enjoy subjecting 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 the execution upon us.

In all this, we must not lose sight of the fact that in speaking of the cross Jesus does not 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 ruled out, but if it is not accompanied by being born anew through the Holy Spirit, it 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 His people, even if that leads to suffering comparable to that of crucifixion. As a form of execution, crucifixion is no longer practiced today, so Christians are no longer cru­cified. But even when it was practiced, Jesus did not mean that every Christian will inevitably be martyred by being hung on a literal cross.

In the history of the church, comparatively few Christians died by crucifixion. The apostle Peter is believed to have been one of them. Stephen the first martyr was stoned to death. Paul, a Roman citizen, was probably beheaded, for Roman law did not permit the crucifying of Roman citizens. So when Jesus spoke of the cross, it was meant above all to be taken on the spiritual level. We are called to follow in his foot­steps first and foremost with our hearts.

Today’s Gospel rejects suffering

But Jesus’ call is rejected today. Many today preach a gospel of material prosperity and enjoyment, and 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 of that make and model!

While the man who had received the car sat on the platform rejoicing over his good fortune, this evangelist continued: “When you pray, don’t just ask for a car. Tell God the exact model and color.”

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!

Excuse me for interrupting this utterly self-centered sales pitch, 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”: When you go into a restaurant, 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 the “King’s kids” — so order the finest filet mignon you can find.

I am not exaggerating what was said by the televangelist, whose name I will not mention. He has a regular audience of hundreds of thousands, and rakes in hundreds of millions of dollars a year through his television ministry. You cannot get your millions unless you preach a gospel of steak over hamburger, or a gospel of luxury cars.

This evangelist must have thought to himself, “Poor Jesus, the gospel he preached will barely get you ham­burgers, more likely it will get you the cross!” 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 pleasing the crowds.

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 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 will 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 wouldn’t Satan gladly endorse this preacher’s message, which is the 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 life of luxury”? Are we hearing the same voice? Jesus says, “My sheep know my voice” (Jn.10:27). Are we able to differ­entiate the Lord’s voice from the chorus of 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 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 would be correct and incontrovertible.

But it is an error of the first degree, 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 survival (this is not the same bird as the one I mentioned earlier). I was telling myself, “Don’t be silly. There are more important things to care about than a tiny bird. 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 to help the mother bird find the baby so that it may teach it to live as a bird.

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! And didn’t Jesus tell his disciples that the Father cares about the sparrows? How much more will He care about His people? (Mt.10:29-31)

I was planning to settle the bird in a nest, but was concerned that the neighborhood cat may go after it. After surveying the trees, I came up with a few possibilities. Can I install a net around the tree to stop the cat from climbing it? I sprayed the trunk with anti-cat smell, but that did not deter the cat. Someone mentioned that cats generally do not climb fir trees, so I settled the bird on a 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. There were so many things to figure out. What do we feed the bird with, and how often? Can it go through the night without food? While these things were going through my head, I was saying to myself, “Just go back to sleep. There are many 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 swayed by the notion 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, or des­pise the one 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 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 that brother Joe gets very tired after every Bible training session, yet he does not grumble, “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 and a readiness to serve others.

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 were no occasion to give to the poor, would that be good? The selfish man thinks so, but love thinks differently. 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.

Two radically different gospels

Much of what is preached today is unasham­edly egocentric with its constant 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.

God may heal you, or He may defer the heal­ing, or He might not heal you. 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 on 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 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 will persecute those born accord­ing to the Spirit (Gal.4:29). Those who reject suffering for themselves do not hesitate to impose it on others!

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. The Lord does not say that we intentionally seek trouble. But when perse­cution comes upon us, we rejoice because the prophets were treated the same way (v.12). We are in the com­pany of the perfect: God’s people who see the value of suffering.

The false gospel rejects every form of suffering and is ambivalent 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 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 lies the difference? It is a difference in spirit, not in dogma. In basic doctrine there is general agreement. Paul himself shared the same doctrinal tenets with the Pharisees. He had no dis­agreements with them 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 their teachings: “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). 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 Lord, was different from the Pharisees in spirit, not in doctrine. In the spiritual life, it is of the utmost importance to grasp that the crucial factor is the relationship which we have with God in our hearts. Where a heart relationship with God is non-existent, even if we hold to the ortho­dox doctrines, we will end up with nothing but eter­nal condemnation, for it is only through a liv­ing relationship with God that we have eternal life.

Caleb and Joshua were the only two men of all who came out of Egypt who were allowed to enter the Promised Land; the others died in the wilderness. What made Caleb and Joshua different from the others? Was it a matter of holding to 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 (Numbers 14:24); he and Joshua followed God wholly, not holding back anything from Him (32:12).

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 a grindstone that polishes a diamond and brings out its beauty. We need to see the redemptive value of suffer­ing — redemptive because suffering in the right attitude results in Christ-like­ness, while also 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 lots 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 funds. 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, 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 brought out glory and beauty in people. 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 see the beauty of good at its best. But when everything is nice and rosy, there is less opportunity to triumph over suffering and evil.

Living in the comfort and ease of an affluent society, and drinking in its prosperity is detrimental to the spiritual life. We ought to heed 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, many in the Western churches are taught to strive through “faith” and prayer 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. (1Timothy 6:9)

But we are touched when we see someone overcome imposs­ible odds, including poverty, to achieve noble goals. But is any­one ever impressed by someone who graduates from a famous univ­ersity 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 many years only because his rich father was holding a high position in an Asian country, and 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. 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, not even when it is established from Scripture that we cannot be perfected without it.

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 realize that it is an important means by which God purifies, molds, and trans­forms us, then we gladly submit to God’s will and wisdom, 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).

But if in the face of adversity we lament over it with an attit­ude of resentment and bitterness, then far from bene­fiting us, the suffering could do us harm. If we persist in that attitude, it will lead to disaster. This was what happened to the Israelites in the wilderness. They res­ponded to every trial and difficulty with a negative spirit expressed in grum­bling, resent­ment, and outright rebellion. As a result they per­ished in the wilderness despite having witnessed many miracles which God had performed for them, confirming His presence with them.

Being with Jesus in suffering

Perfection in Scripture is not an individual human effort in which I lock my­self in a secluded place to perfect myself. Day in and day out, I try to achieve perfection through meditation, sitting still with my 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 kind of pursuit 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 that opposes 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 the 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, he is telling us, “Fol­low me into the thick of battle. Together we will go through intense suffering whose redemp­tive effect will defeat evil. If you want to be my disciple, you must come along with me to 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 (Jn.12:24). The alternative is to turn on the television set and listen to a gospel about a God who grants us luxury cars and gourmet food. Listen carefully and discern the voice of truth.

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 that “we” are to become “a perfect man” collectively. 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, a faith that has to do with the “knowledge of the Son of God”.

It is surely not God’s will for the body to have a perfect hand but a stunted torso. How is that 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 involve just a few members of the body of Christ. Either the whole is perfect or nothing is perfect. If only three or four in the church are perfect, the church as a whole still would not become “a perfect man”. This perfect manhood has to do with the whole body of Christ.

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

We can choose to run away or face the situat­ion squarely. If we know the value of suffering, we will say, “I will stay put because it is refining me. I aim to encourage and build up the others. Together we will overcome our weak­nesses, and grow to perfection in the image of Christ”.

If we don’t value perfection or harmony, or are unwilling to face painful problems and resolve them, we would not want communal life. If you decide to live a solitary life, you will have only one source of problems: you yourself. That may seem to be easier than handling five sources of problems. But by secluding ourselves, we avoid the Lord’s com­mand to love, which is an act of disobed­ience. The disobedient won’t see the glory that God has planned for the body of Christ. Worse yet, 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 one that leads to life.

 

An Appended Note

Now is the time of salvation, not judgment

We have seen that sin and suffering are not intrin­sically related. Since 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 all suffering 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. “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 judgment 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”. Jesus came “to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord” (Lk.4:19) in which slaves are released and debts forgiven. We live in this favorable “Jubilee year”. Jesus proclaims it 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).

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 set in play a series of events leading up to the Final Judgment, as is described 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 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 intent of Paul’s actions are 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 will recover his sight. And because of that experience, the magician may 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, we would not think that people killed in an airplane crash or a car accident are the objects of God’s judgment. Neither does God judge nations at this time by means of earthquakes, floods, droughts, volcanic eruptions, and other natural disasters.

3. The Holocaust

For this reason, too, it is entirely erroneous to suggest, as some have, that the Holocaust, in which six million Jews and four million non-Jews were murdered, is in any way attribu­table to God’s judgment. It is nowhere written in Scripture that God exercises 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” (1Jn.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 (Jn.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.” (Lk.9:52-56, cf. 19:10).

James and John were thinking of emulating Elijah in calling down fire from heaven (2Kings 1:10,12) when the Samaritans did not welcome the Lord Jesus. They were still thinking in Old Testament terms, not having 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 with an important differ­ence: the church is the community of God’s children. God deals with His child­ren for their good, not ruling out the application of chastisement when 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. (Hebrews 12:5-11, NJKV)

It is not my business to discipline my neighbor’s 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).

Being God’s children has many privileges. One of them, which few Christians count as a privilege, is to be disciplined by God our Father. Chastisement is painful as Hebrews 12:11 affirms, but it is necessary in order “that we may be partakers of His holiness” (v.10). Thus 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.

6. First Corinthians 5

The severe disciplinary action taken by Paul 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”.

7. Acts 5

How is the incident in Acts chapter 5:1-11 to be understood? 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 con­spiracy with Ananias “to put the Spirit of the Lord to the test” (v.9). These statements with their repeated reference to the Holy Spirit indicate that Paul had discerned that these two professed believers had sinned against the Holy Spirit, for which there is no forgiveness.

Jesus warned, “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 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. It confirms that the way God deals with the church, the community of His children, is differ­ent from the way He deals with the people of the world; yet His actions are nonetheless governed by His saving purposes, espec­ially for His church as a whole.

In the case of Acts 5, the well-being of the church was protected by the godly fear that came upon the church to deter sin. Twice in this passage we read of how the fear of the living God came upon all, Christians and non-Christians, who had 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. What happened to him in Acts 12:21-23 is comparable, for example, to the demise of King Jehoram (2Chr.21:18,19; cf. Isa.14:11; 51:8).



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

 

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