Church, Suffering

4 Things You Need to Understand About Christian Persecution

Persecution. It’s a hot topic in pop-evangelicalism these days in the wake of Pastor James Coates’ arrest in Canada (please don’t forget to pray for him, his family, and his church).

Though Pastor Coates’ arrest was heartbreaking, one good thing that has come out of it is that the online discussion about it has pulled back the curtain on just how much biblical ignorance is running rampant out there among professing Christians on the issue of persecution.

In a way, it’s understandable. American citizens (and many citizens of other Westernized countries as well) alive today have grown up with the guarantee of freedom of religion, codified in our Constitution. Until the last ten years or so, finding the proverbial needle in the haystack would have been much easier than finding an American who had experienced actual Christian persecution at the hands of her government.

To us, the persecution of Christians has always been something that happened thousands of miles away in far off, uncivilized, unsophisticated lands. “That could never happen here,” we mused thankfully, and promptly pushed the matter out of our thoughts.

But it can happen here. It’s already happening here. And it will increasingly continue to happen here.

And so, it’s a good thing that the issue has come to the forefront now, while we still have time to develop a biblical theology of persecution and prepare to act on it.

Let’s examine four popular misunderstandings about persecution, and what the Bible has to say about it.

1.
The degree of persecution does not equal
the definition of persecution.

“That’s not persecution. Persecution is being burned on sticks.”

I forget what the “that” was in this comment I recently saw on social media, but the “burned on sticks” part stuck in my memory. Whatever the “that” was, it some sort of unpleasantness aimed at a Christian for his faith, but it was much less intense than being burned on sticks.

But that diminished intensity doesn’t mean “that” wasn’t also, in fact, persecution. It only means “that” was less painful, less inconvenient, less life-altering, less terrifying persecution than the persecution of being burned on sticks.

I think maybe people don’t understand the difference between the definition of persecution and the degree of severity of persecution. Persecution is like stealing. Taking a paper clip from your office isn’t as severe as embezzling millions of dollars, and doesn’t garner as severe a consequence, but both are, qualitatively, and, definitionally, stealing. When you take something that isn’t yours, without permission that’s stealing, regardless of the value of what you take, and regardless of the consequences that follow.

The Bible doesn’t give a cut-and-dried definition of Christian persecution – i.e. there’s no one verse that specifically says, “Persecution is _____,” – rather, we glean the definition from looking at examples of it in Scripture. And, actually, if we look at it on a spiritual level rather than a temporal, tangible, earthly level, the definition of Christian persecution is rather simple: Christ is always right. Satan is always wrong. Any time Satan opposes Christ, that’s persecution.

Christ is always right. Satan is always wrong. Any time Satan opposes Christ, that’s persecution.

If you are obediently following God’s Word, standing with Christ and His Word, and you face opposition for that – regardless of the official reason given for the opposition (more about that in a sec) – you’re being persecuted, whether it’s somebody responding to your Christian worldview Facebook post with an “angry face” emoji or somebody executing you for sharing the gospel.

The Bible says in 2 Timothy 3:12:

Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.

If the definition of persecution is being “burned on sticks” – martyrdom – then this verse of Scripture isn’t true. Millions of Christians living godly lives in Christ Jesus have lived and died without being martyred. Yet this verse says all will be persecuted. Since we know this verse of Scripture is true, that means persecution has to include lesser forms of mistreatment of Christians.

We should never say that somebody calling you a booger head for being a Christian is as bad as, painful as, or difficult as being burned at the stake, but both are, qualitatively, persecution, just in different degrees of severity.

2.
We must think about persecution
on a spiritual level, not a tangible level.

For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.

Ephesians 6:12

We’ve simply got to wrap our minds around this concept if we’re going to properly understand persecution.

There is an entire, real spiritual realm that we cannot see, hear, or touch. And in that realm, Satan and his minions are constantly rebelling against God and attempting to, for lack of a better word, “attack” God and thwart His purposes. 

And what better way to really stick it to God than by using His own Creation against Him? People made by God in His image. People He loves so much that He sacrificed His only Son for them.

Because we can’t see Satan and his demons, he “puts on flesh” by using his children – his slaves – to do his bidding. 

So when we see, for example, governmental officials placing restrictions on the church and giving Covid as the reason, we’re not seeing reasonable, uninfluenced people altruistically doing what’s best to protect others. That’s just the deceptive window dressing Satan wants us to see. That’s his sleight of hand to distract us from what’s really going on in the spiritual realm: he’s attempting to attack God and His people and thwart God’s plan for the church. And he’s using God’s own creation – people and government- to do it.

In this whole debate about Pastor Coates and whether or not he should have obeyed the government’s Covid regulations, and whether or not he should have gone to jail for refusing to obey them, and whether or not his imprisonment is actually persecution, one of the things Christians are failing to grasp is that, in God’s economy, the government has no right or authority to place any restrictions on the church in the first place.

In God’s economy, the government has no right or authority to place any restrictions on the church in the first place.

Stop myopically looking at one itty bitty little tree, and back up and look at the whole forest: God is King of the Universe. He purchased the church with the blood of His Son. He founded it. He owns it. He is the head of it and rules over it. 

The government is God’s servant. A servant has no right to override his master’s commands:

  • God says:
    proclaim the gospel to the whole creation and make disciples of them,
    come, all who are thirsty, and
    whosoever will may come.
    He casts out no one who comes to Him.

    His servant, the government, has no right to issue an edict that only a select few may enter the church to serve the Lord with gladness, come into His presence with singing, enter His gates with thanksgiving, and His courts with praise, when God has said, “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth.” God does not place capacity limits on who may come into His church. The government certainly has no right to do so.

Open your spiritual eyes, sisters. Look beyond what you can see in this tangible realm, and grasp the bigger picture. This isn’t about what your physical eyes can see. Persecution is about spiritual warfare.

3.
Satan is a deceiver.

Have you ever heard the old saying, “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”2? Well, it’s true and he pulls that trick on various levels with various people. It’s not just on the macro level with atheists or lost people who are convinced Satan is just a mythological character. There’s also the micro level of the sleepy-eyed Christian who has forgotten that Satan is the underlying inspiration for every unholy act in the world. (And we’re all prone to that forgetfulness from time to time.)

That’s why Satan doesn’t march right up to Christians and say, “Hi, I’m the Prince of Darkness. Wouldn’t you like to sin against God today?”. He’s smarter than that. He knows if he presents himself to you as what he really is, and sin as what it really is, you’d see right through him and stay away from him. 

There may come a point in time in the West at which the government clearly and overtly says, “Christianity is against the law, and if you’re a Christian, you’ll be executed.”

But that time is not now. That’s the last leg of the race for Satan. And you don’t get to the last leg of the race without first having stretched, put on your running shoes, and run the first, second, and third leg of the race. And that’s where we are right now: at the beginning of the race.

At the beginning of the race, Satan has to con you into believing there are good reasons for the havoc he’s wreaking on the church, and he’ll even disguise himself as an angel of light and dress up his reasons in the costume of Christian-ese to do it. And that’s exactly what he has done as he has persecuted God’s church with Covid regulations3:

It’s for your safety…

It’s for the safety of others…

It’s loving your neighbor…

The Bible says you have to obey the government, no matter what…

And…

James Coates wasn’t arrested for preaching, he was arrested refusing to obey Covid regulations.

Again, put on your spirit realm thinking cap and your spiritual eyeglasses and see what’s really going on here. Satan doesn’t give a flying flip about Covid regulations, or the virus itself, or how many people it kills or doesn’t kill. His mission (though futile) is to destroy God’s church, and to  oppose, rebel against, and attempt to thwart God’s plans and purposes at every turn. And he will use anything he can get his hands on to do that – especially deception that veils what he’s really doing.

Don’t believe me? What capital crime did the Roman government officially charge Jesus with and execute Him for? It wasn’t for preaching or being a “Christian”. It was for insurrection. Because in Rome’s eyes, there was only one King of the Jews, and it wasn’t Jesus.

And what about the riot in Ephesus? When the Ephesian business men grabbed Gaius and Aristarchus, they didn’t say, “We’re about to beat you senseless because you’re Christians.” Nope, it was, “It’s the economy, Stupid.” They were riled up at the Christians because they were losing money.

And when Paul was arrested in Acts 21, the reason given was inciting a riot, not his beliefs or practices as a Christian.

And when Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were thrown into the furnace, the capital charge was not: “These men worship the one true God,” The official charge was that they refused to obey the king’s unbiblical law – which as the governmental “servant of God” he had no right to make in the first place, nor to punish God’s people when they obeyed Him rather than man. Selah.

Need I go on? Search your Bible. Search the nightly news. You’ll find many instances in which Satan sets the stage with elaborate props of perfectly logical sounding reasons why God’s people are being attacked, while backstage, he’s singing second verse, same as the first – I hate God and I want to kill what He loves.

He wants you to think pastors are being arrested and fined and sanctioned because of Covid regulations, or that Christian businesses and organizations that won’t get on board with the government’s sexual perversion agenda (let the reader understand) are violating anti-discrimination laws, but that’s not the real reason. They’re being arrested and fined and sanctioned because Satan wants to obliterate the church.

If you are walking in obedience to the Lord and you face opposition or restriction, that’s persecution, regardless of the “official” reason given.

4.
Knowing the consequences ahead of time
doesn’t mean it’s not persecution.

“James Coates had been warned multiple times that he was violating Covid regulations and he kept doing it, so he can’t cry ‘persecution’ now that he has to pay the piper.”

Um…seriously? Have you ever read your Bible? Persecution is not defined by whether or not you know what the consequences for your actions will be ahead of time. I would even argue that most victims of persecution in the Bible knew what they were in for, and they chose to obey God rather than evil men anyway.

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego knew they would face the furnace.

Daniel knew the consequences for his prayers would be the lion’s den.

Jesus knew the cross was coming.

The Apostles had already been beaten and imprisoned for preaching the gospel, so they certainly knew they were in for more of the same when they went out and preached again.

Persecution is when Satan attempts to attack God and His people. It has nothing to do with whether or not the Christian being attacked knows what consequences his actions will bring.

Knowing the consequences ahead of time and obeying God anyway doesn’t mean you aren’t being persecuted, it means you’re a Christian.

There’s a lot of misinformation floating around out there about Christian persecution. If you’re a genuinely regenerated Christian, you will face some level of persecution at some point in your life. That’s a promise from Scripture. It’s important to be prepared for that so you can respond in a godly and obedient way, because responding to persecution by refusing to bow to man over God and doing so with a holy, humble, honored attitude is a testimony to the world, and an encouragement to your brothers and sisters, that Jesus Christ is King, and that He alone is worthy to rule and to reign.


1The Greek word for “church” in the New Testament is ekklesia. It literally means a gathering or an assembly. The church, is, by definition, a gathering together – in person – of “the called out ones” – Christians. Watching a church service online is a blessing when you are temporarily Providentially hindered from being there in person, but it is not the same as going to church, as we are commanded, and it is not a biblical substitute for going to church as we are commanded. It is not church at all, because where there is no gathering, there is no church.

2Quote attributed to 19th century French poet, Charles Baudelaire

3Please understand, I’m not saying that if you have to stay home from church temporarily to stay healthy that you’re automatically deceived or unsaved. Remember, we’re talking about the long term, big picture of Satan’s agenda here, not individual trees in the forest.


Additional Resources:

Persecution in the Pew

Why Pastor James Coates’ Imprisonment is Actual Persecution at The Cripplegate

Faith, Second Coming, Suffering

In the Mean Time

I am caring for my mom as she gets settled in at home after a lengthy hospital stay, so this article came to mind. With everything going on in the world, I thought we could all use this reminder. If you have a moment, I surely would appreciate your prayers for strength and wisdom for me, and that my mom would be able to sit and stand without assistance by the end of the week.

Originally published August 21, 2014In the Mean Time

 

When I was a little girl, around three or four years old, my mother occasionally needed to drop me off at a daycare center so she could run errands or attend to other things you can’t take care of with a pre-schooler in tow.

I hated it.

Even 40+ years later, I remember being terrified. I wasn’t a regular, so I didn’t know any of the other kids or the teachers or the routine or where anything was located. I didn’t want to be there because I didn’t fit in. I wanted to go home. I felt completely uncomfortable the entire time I was there. In fact, I remember crying unconsolably. When would my mom come back and get me out of this God-forsaken place?

Don’t cry. Your mom’s coming back for you soon.

I’m sure some kind teacher whispered that in my ear as she put her arms around me, the same way I’ve whispered it in the ears of children I’ve comforted over the years.

And, finally, Mom would come back, take me away, and everything would be all right.

Today, I still feel like that tiny child sometimes.

There are days when the evil and sadness of this world overwhelm me. When problems in my own life terrify me.

I hate it.

You see, I don’t fit in here. This isn’t my home. I don’t want to be here. And sometimes, I cry inconsolably…

When, Lord? When will you come back and get me out of this God-forsaking place?

And that’s when the kind and precious Holy Spirit wraps the arms of the Word around me and whispers…

Don’t cry. Your Savior’s coming back for you soon.

Soon, little ones. Dry your tears. He’s coming back for us soon.


Out of honor to my mom, I just wanted to say that I totally understand why she had to take me to the daycare from time to time. I would have done the same thing with my child. I’m sure it was a fine daycare with loving teachers. I’m just the kind of person who never outgrew stranger anxiety. This was my brokenness, not anyone else’s unkindness.
Easter, Suffering

Christ- the Suffering Servant

Originally published April 14, 2017

Isaiah 53

Who has believed what he has heard from us?
And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
2 For he grew up before him like a young plant,
and like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
and no beauty that we should desire him.
3 He was despised and rejected by men,
a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
4 Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
5 But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.
6 All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
7 He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he opened not his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he opened not his mouth.
8 By oppression and judgment he was taken away;
and as for his generation, who considered
that he was cut off out of the land of the living,
stricken for the transgression of my people?
9 And they made his grave with the wicked
and with a rich man in his death,
although he had done no violence,
and there was no deceit in his mouth.
10 Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him;
he has put him to grief;
when his soul makes an offering for guilt,
he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days;
the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.
11 Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied;
by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant,
make many to be accounted righteous,
and he shall bear their iniquities.
12 Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many,
and he shall divide the spoil with the strong,
because he poured out his soul to death
and was numbered with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many,
and makes intercession for the transgressors.

What a beautiful passage describing Christ’s suffering for us. Usually, when we think about suffering, we think about suffering we’ve personally experienced, things loved ones have been through, newsworthy events from around the globe, and natural disasters. And, as normal human beings in a broken, sinful world, that’s what we tend to do- we think of people, topics, and circumstances in light of our experiences with them or how they affect us. But as Christians, it’s imperative that, when we think of suffering, we look first to Christ, the Suffering Servant, and see all other suffering in light of His suffering.

Certainly, Isaiah 53 doesn’t cover every aspect or incident of Christ’s suffering, but let’s take a look at a few of these verses that prophesy – over 700 years before He was ever born – about the suffering of Christ.

Christ suffered physically
Most have read the Bible’s account of the crucifixion. But in the same way a verbal description of abortion doesn’t really capture the horror of the act the way a video can, our English words used in Isaiah 53 can’t adequately express the extreme physical suffering Christ endured on the cross. The cross was such an agonizing experience we had to invent a new word for that kind of suffering: excruciating. Ex– out of, cruciare– the crucifixion. Suffering drawn out of the cross.

So, how did Christ suffer physically?

Verse 5 says He was pierced, crushed, chastised, and wounded. Let’s take a closer look at those words:

Pierced– The Hebrew word means: “to wound (fatally), bore through” We see this with the crown of thorns that “bore through” Jesus’ head and the nails that pierced His hands and feet.

Crushed– The Hebrew means: “to be broken, shattered, beat to pieces” Interestingly, it can also mean “contrite”- He was contrite for our iniquities.

Chastisement– The Hebrew means: “discipline” as you would discipline a naughty child

Wounds/stripes– The Hebrew means: “a welt, blueness, bruise, hurt”

The flogging. The thorns. The pummeling He took from the soldiers. And carrying the cross to Calvary after all of that. Nails through His wrists, nails through His feet, the agony of trying to breathe, and, finally, the spear through His side. Jesus’ physical body took some of the worst abuse that’s ever been doled out by professional torturers.

Christ suffered emotionally
Jesus was a human being, just like you and me. That means he had feelings and emotions just like you and I do, and people and circumstances hurt Him just like they hurt us.

He was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. Jesus had loved ones die and friends betray Him and turn their backs on Him. He wasn’t immune to the hurts of life.

We esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. Stricken, smitten, afflicted- those aren’t words we use very often. What do they mean? Stricken is to reach out and touch someone. It’s the same idea as God striking someone down or striking someone with leprosy. Smitten by God– same idea, but with more of a judgment or punishment angle: “smite, chastise, send judgment upon, punish, destroy.” To be afflicted is to be “oppressed, humiliated, be bowed down.”

This phrase in verse 4 carries the idea that people thought Jesus had done something(s) that so displeased God that that God’s punitive hand of judgment was upon His life. Of course, that wasn’t true. Yet, there were people thought of Him that way and treated Him that way- at the cross, certainly, but also, to some extent, during His life.

And yes, that grieved Him as the God who loved and wanted to save these people, but, on the human side, well, we all know how it feels to be misunderstood and misrepresented. Christ felt those slings and arrows of the heart.

Christ suffered spiritually
When I say Christ “suffered spiritually” I want to be clear that I do not mean anything ever happened to Christ that marred His sinless perfection or in any way diminished His deity. What I mean is that He suffered due to fallen man’s sinfulness regarding theological or spiritual issues. For example:

He was despised and rejected by men…he was despised, and we esteemed him not. We see this constantly in the gospels. The Pharisees were always trying to trick Jesus and trap Him with difficult questions. They repeatedly accused Him of “working” on the Sabbath by healing people, picking grain and eating it, and so on. They plotted against Him. They tried to stone Him. Even at the end, when He was on the cross, Scripture says “they hurled insults at Him.”

And why? These aren’t just playground bullies picking on a random kid for no reason. They had a reason. And those insults the chief priests and scribes and elders hurled at Jesus in Matthew 27:42-43 sum up that reason pretty neatly:

He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him. For he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’

Jesus was God. He was their Messiah. Yet these men didn’t want to humble themselves and admit it and bow the knee to Him. They looked Jesus in the eye – the God who loved them, created them, and breathed the breath of life into them – and said: We will not have this King reign over us! They despised and rejected the core of who Jesus was: Savior, King, Son of God.

But Jesus suffered in other spiritual ways, too…

The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
[He was] stricken for the transgression of my people
His soul makes an offering for guilt
He shall bear their iniquities
He bore the sin of many

Christ carried our sin. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree… (1 Peter 2:24). There’s no way we could begin to fathom what it was like for Christ to carry every single sin of billions of people in His body. But He didn’t just have the weight of that sin on His shoulders, He also propitiated God’s wrath toward every single one of those sins. God poured out the cup of His wrath for our sin and Jesus drank every last drop of it.

Jesus suffered tremendously. How did He respond to all that suffering?

Christ’s Response to Suffering
Hebrews 2:17 tells us: Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect.

One of the ways Jesus was made like us, His brothers, was that He suffered. He suffered physically, He suffered emotionally, and He suffered “spiritually,” just like we do. In fact, He suffered far more in each of these respects than any of us ever have or ever will.

But what’s even more amazing to me than the actual extent of Jesus’ suffering was the fact that He endured all of it, from the moment of His birth to the moment of His death without ever sinning. Not even once. Not even in His thoughts or the attitude of His heart.

That’s huge. Think of the suffering you’ve experienced in your life and how you responded to it. I’ve retaliated against people who have hurt me, or at least harbored bitterness against them. During times of calamity, I’ve yelled at God, I’ve questioned His love for me, I’ve not trusted Him, I’ve been angry at Him.

But Jesus never had a sinful response to suffering. How did He respond?

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth.

When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. 1 Peter 2:23

In some cases, Jesus just didn’t respond at all to the person or situation causing the suffering. He communed with God instead. Jesus knew that He was in God’s hands and God would mete out judgment at the proper time.

But this is the same Jesus who instructed us to “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, give your cloak as well as your tunic. And Jesus certainly embodied these responses to those who caused Him suffering.

Let’s look at Jesus’ response to Pilate in John 18:33-38. But before we do, bear in mind that Jesus has the power to call down any number of angels to destroy Pilate, the courtyard where He’s about to be flogged, Calvary, Jerusalem, the whole world, if He wants to, in order to avoid the suffering He’s about to endure, and Jesus is fully aware of that. But watch how He responds to Pilate:

So Pilate entered his headquarters again and called Jesus and said to him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?” Pilate answered, “Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered you over to me. What have you done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate said to him, “What is truth?” After he had said this, he went back outside to the Jews and told them, “I find no guilt in him.

Jesus took the time to, essentially, share the gospel with this horrid man, whose next move was to have Jesus taken out and beaten to a bloody pulp. Jesus not only refused to retaliate against Pilate, He blessed him with the gospel instead.

When Jesus was on the cross, how did He respond to those who had crucified Him and those who were mocking and insulting Him? Did He yell back? Tell them they were all going to burn in Hell? No, He prayed for them: Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.

Every time Jesus suffered, He responded to it in exactly the right, godly way. He trusted Himself, the situation, and everyone involved to God, He loved His enemies, and He said or did whatever would best proclaim the gospel or glorify God in that situation.

It’s difficult to wrap our minds around all of the ways Jesus suffered, and more difficult still to comprehend that He never responded sinfully to His suffering. But perhaps the most baffling aspect of Jesus’ suffering is that He willingly chose to endure it all for rebellious, thankless, undeserving sinners like you and me. To serve us. To purchase the salvation we could never earn. To live the life we could not live. To die the death we could not die. And to conquer the grave that, for us, was unconquerable.

All hail King Jesus- the Suffering Servant.

Suffering

Throwback Thursday ~ God’s Good Purposes in Suffering

Originally published June 16, 2017

In my previous article True or False: Is Your Theology of Suffering Biblical? we examined some unbiblical ideas and approaches Christians often have toward suffering. Why is it important to have a biblical view of suffering? Because suffering is painful enough without piling on things like, “God is punishing me,” or “This wouldn’t be happening if I just had more faith,” that aren’t even true. The biblical view of suffering frees you from from the additional agony of inappropriate guilt, the mindset that God is harsh or unloving, and the burden of striving to appease a God who’s not asking you to. A biblical view of suffering sets you free to rest in Christ and trust Him.

God’s purposes toward you, His child, are always good, even when He permits difficult things into your life. Let’s think about Romans 8:28 for just a second:

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.

It doesn’t say all things are good. It says that God uses all circumstances for good for His people – even the difficult ones – because He is good and His plans and goals are good.

Even Joseph saw this, way back in Genesis. After everything his brothers put him through, he said,

As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good,

As parents, sometimes we give our child ice cream to eat and sometimes we give him Brussels sprouts. Do we give ice cream because we love him and Brussels sprouts because we hate him? No. Both are done out of love, the ice cream because it brings him joy, and the Brussels sprouts because it has the nutrients he needs to be strong and healthy. It would not be loving for a parent to give only ice cream or only Brussels sprouts. In the same way, it would not be loving for God to give us only blessings or only difficult times. Everything God does in our lives, He does for His glory and our good.

So what are some of God’s good purposes in our suffering?

1. To bring glory to God
We touched on Job’s story in the previous article and saw how his suffering glorified God. Another great passage that talks about God being glorified through suffering is John 9:1-3:

As he [Jesus] passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. 2 And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” 3 Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.

If you thought suffering was God’s punishment for sin, you’re in good company- the disciples thought so, too! But Jesus was about to do something amazing in this guy’s life that would showcase God’s glory, and it would not have happened had he not suffered.

2. Suffering can be a witness to the lost
When we suffer without forsaking Christ and trust Him to carry us through it, it’s a testimony to others – especially lost people – that God is faithful and worthy of
their faith and trust. Your suffering might open the door to sharing the gospel with someone.

3. The logical consequences of sin
In the previous article, we dealt with the topic of suffering we “deserve,” and how, even though it’s painful, it’s easier to come to grips with that kind of suffering. That’s because we’re made in the image of God, and one of God’s attributes that is reflected in us is justice. We have this innate sense of wanting to see justice done. And when we, or anyone else, suffer the natural consequences of our sin, that points to God being a just God.
We tend to lump all suffering into the one basket of “that’s unfair!” but this is the kind of suffering that is just.

4. Discipline

Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent.
Revelation 3:19

And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons?
“My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,
   nor be weary when reproved by him.
6 For the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
   and chastises every son whom he receives.”
7 It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? 8 If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. 9 Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? 10 For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. 11 For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.
Hebrews 12:5-11

When we stray off into a pattern of sin, God can use suffering (often the natural consequences of our sin) to correct us and point us back to the Christlike direction we ought to be heading. He does that because He loves us.

5. Suffering can teach us humility and dependence on God
“Independence” is pretty much a motto for us here in the United States. Independence from England, rugged individualism, pull yourself up by your own bootstraps…Guess what? God doesn’t want you to be independent. He wants you to be
dependent- on Him. And nothing can grow that dependence and humility like suffering. Paul said in 2 Corinthians 12:7:

So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited.

6. Suffering can grow us in spiritual strength and maturity
Romans 3:3-4 says:

Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope,

Endurance, character, hope. These are all aspects of Christian character that God wants to build in each of us, and even though we wish He would just hit us on the head with a magic wand and instantly give us these things, that’s not the way He does it. He often produces these things in us by way of suffering.

7. Experiencing suffering gives us compassion for others, and equips us to help them

[God] comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.
2 Corinthians 1:4

God doesn’t do anything, including putting you through suffering, for no good reason. It could be to glorify Him. It could be to do something in you. Or, it could be to help someone else (or all three). God never wastes an experience in your life. If you’ve been through something, God can use that “been there, done that” experience to equip you to minister to someone else who’s going through the same thing.

8. Suffering can cause the lost to cry out to God for salvation
Remember the parable of the prodigal son? Sadly it’s a common tale. Some people basically have to hit rock bottom in their lives before they finally give it up and surrender to Christ, just like the prodigal son.

And how about the story of Jesus healing the woman with the issue of blood? Sometimes life is great. You don’t need Jesus, you’re doing life just fine on your own…until something devastating happens that you can’t handle, and you get desperate. Mark 5:26-28 tells us she

had suffered much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had, and was no better but rather grew worse. 27 She had heard the reports about Jesus and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his garment. 28 For she said, “If I touch even his garments, I will be made well.”

She was desperate. And God can use desperation and suffering to turn the heart of a lost person to Himself for salvation.

 

God is a good God, and His purposes in our suffering are always good. So the next time you’re suffering, think of those 8‘s in Romans 8:28, and remember these 8 good purposes God has for your pain, purposes that bring Him glory, work out His good plans, grow us in good ways, and enable us to do good to others.

Suffering

Throwback Thursday ~ True or False: Is Your Theology of Suffering Biblical?

Originally published June 9, 2017

Suffering can be a pretty heavy topic, so as Christian women, it’s important that we have some good tools in our theological toolboxes for understanding and handling suffering in a biblical way the next time it happens to us or someone we love. One thing that can help us to have a good theology of suffering is to understand some of the ways we, and others, might approach suffering in an unbiblical way.

A Proper Perspective of Suffering

Have you ever heard someone ask the question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” It seems like, when you’re sharing the gospel with somebody who’s a tough nut to crack, this is something they always bring up. “If your God is so good and so loving, why does He allow innocent children and nice people to suffer?” It’s actually such a common question that there’s an official name for it. This concept is called “The Problem of Evil,” or theodicy. And I’m sure lots of us have wondered about that, too.

The thing is, that question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” is flawed. R.C. Sproul Jr.¹ answers it this way: “Why do bad things happen to good people? That only happened once, and He volunteered.” The point is, bad things don’t happen to good people, because there are no good people except Jesus. None is righteous, no not one.

Maybe we should be asking why good things happen to bad people. God would be completely justified in sending every one of us to Hell, right here, right now, do not pass Go, do not collect $200. He does not owe us a blooming thing, and certainly not all the blessings He has been gracious enough to shower upon us- blessings we have been thankless enough to take for granted. We are beggars at the table of the King. To say, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” shows us just how entitled, arrogant, and oblivious to our sin we are.

I say all of that because we’re about to look at two different categories of suffering, and I want us to be mindful of our position before God so we don’t start off on the wrong foot thinking that we don’t deserve suffering. Instead we should be grateful to Him for blessing us and sparing us so much suffering- especially, as Christians, for sparing us an eternity of suffering.

Two Types of Suffering

When somebody says the word “suffering,” do any of the following types of negative scenarios come to mind?

Spending time in jail for committing a crime.

Your husband leaving you because you had an affair.

Grieving the loss of your child because you drove drunk with her in the car and got into an accident.

Losing your job because you were late to work every day.

My guess is that’s probably not the kind of thing that initially pops into your mind when you hear the word “suffering.” Why? What do all those scenarios have in common? They’re all a result of personal sin. You deserve” for those things to happen to you, whereas you don’t deserve” to spend time in jail for a crime you didn’t commit, or for your husband to leave you because he had an affair, or to lose your child to cancer, or to get laid off work because the company is struggling financially.

So there are two types of suffering: the type we “deserve”- something that’s a natural or logical consequence of our own sin, and the type we “don’t deserve”- something that’s due to someone else’s sin, or an “act of God,” or “just one of those things.” (And, please understand, when I say “deserve” or “don’t deserve”- that’s just shorthand for the way we perceive these two different kinds of suffering. We think we deserve or don’t deserve whatever is happening to us, but those words have very little to do with whether or not we actually deserve or don’t deserve what happens to us.)

We tend to understand suffering we feel is deserved. It may be just as painful as “undeserved” suffering, but it intuitively makes sense to us when we suffer the consequences of our own sin.

It’s that so-called undeserved suffering that we’re going to focus more on today that’s a lot harder, because in addition to the pain you’re going through, there’s always this sense of “Why is this happening to me? What did I do to deserve this?”

Because we have a lousy theology of suffering.

How? Let’s take a little quiz. 

Pop Quiz: True or False Theology of Suffering?

Answer each of these questions “true” or “false,” then scroll down for the answers.

1. Scripture promises that if Christians walk obediently with the Lord, life will go well for us.

2. I’m suffering because God is punishing my parents for their sin, or God is punishing me for my parents’ sin.

3. I’m suffering because God is punishing me for my own sin.

4. I’m suffering because Satan is attacking me.

1. Scripture promises that if Christians walk obediently with the Lord,
life will go well for us.

False. That’s pretty much what the prosperity gospel (or Word of Faith heresy) teaches- if you just obey well enough, pray hard enough, have enough faith, believe hard enough, whatever enough, everything will go your way. You’ll always be healthy, God will prosper you financially, your wayward child will come back to the Lord, etc.

And it’s partially based on Scripture, but it’s based on out of context Mosaic covenant Scripture. The Mosaic covenant was kind of an if/then thing. God said: If you obey Me, I’ll bless you, your families, your fields, your flocks, your finances, your fighting men. If you disobey me, I’ll curse you in all of those areas. As New Testament Christians today, that’s not the covenant you and I have with God. Through Christ, we are under the covenant of grace. And Christ says,

Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived.
2 Tim. 3:12-13

For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.
Matthew 5:45

In the world you will have tribulation.
John 16:33

Anybody who tells you “Come to Jesus and He’ll give you a problem-free life,” is lying to you. You’re going to suffer in this life. Everyone suffers. It’s just a question of whether you’re going to suffer with Jesus or without Jesus.

2. I’m suffering because God is punishing my parents for their sin,
or God is punishing me for my parents’ sin.

False. Years ago, I knew a precious lady who was conceived via incest. She had a number of pretty serious chromosomal medical problems, she had been physically and sexually abused as a child, and, as if that weren’t enough, she’d had relatives tell her in some pretty cruel ways that she was God’s punishment to her parents for their sin.

Ladies, I know there are at least a few of you who have had some really sad and scary things happen to you at the hands of another person- maybe your parents or a boyfriend or your husband or possibly even an adult child. And I want you to hear me- God is not using you to punish or get back at someone else, and He’s not punishing you for their sin. God deals with each person individually about her own sin.

Ezekiel 18 is a fantastic passage that explains this very clearly. Verse 20 says:

The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.

Now we do sometimes suffer as a result or consequence of someone’s sin. If a drunk driver hits your car and kills your child, you and your child have suffered as a result of that person’s sin, but that suffering isn’t God being punitive against anyone.

And, really, if you think about it, all suffering is the result of someone’s sin, whether it’s someone directly responsible for the suffering, like the drunk driver, or whether it goes all the way back to the sin of Adam and Eve with something like disease or a natural disaster that entered the world due to their sin. We suffer things like that simply because their sin causes us to live in a broken and fallen world.

3. I’m suffering because God is punishing me for my own sin.

False. 

But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.
Isaiah 53:5

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
Romans 8:1

If you are a genuinely regenerated believer, Christ was punished for your sin, past, present, and future. He took the punishment for your sin so you wouldn’t have to. 

But even if you’re not a believer, what is the penalty for sin? Romans 6:23 says,

For the wages of sin is death…

The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.
2 Peter 3:9

If you are not a believer, the fact that you are still alive and walking around on this planet, no matter what kind of circumstances you may be going through at the moment, is God’s grace to you. Because the moment you draw your last breath is when the punishment for your sin begins.

Now, certainly, both saved and lost people can suffer as a direct consequence of their own sin, but the purpose of that suffering is not retributive. It’s not to punish. 

4. I’m suffering because Satan is attacking me.

OK, that was kind of a trick question because the answer is: it doesn’t matter whether or not your suffering is caused by Satan because God is sovereign. Nothing happens outside His control. Let’s take a look at part of Job 1. (If you’re not familiar with Job, the quick back story here is that Job was very godly and very rich.)

Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them. The Lord said to Satan, “From where have you come?” Satan answered the Lord and said, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.” And the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil?” Then Satan answered the Lord and said, “Does Job fear God for no reason? Have you not put a hedge around him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. But stretch out your hand and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.” And the Lord said to Satan, “Behold, all that he has is in your hand. Only against him do not stretch out your hand.” So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord.
Job 1:6-12

Who was attacking Job here? Satan. Who allowed Satan to attack Job? God. Could Satan have attacked Job if God had told him he couldn’t? No. Does anything in this universe happen that God doesn’t have control over? No. Your heart won’t beat one more time, you won’t draw one more breath, you won’t think one more thought unless God permits it.

And the same is true with your suffering. Even if Satan is the one behind it, he can’t do a thing to you unless God allows him to. Martin Luther once put it this way: “Even the devil is God’s devil.”

And what’s more, you’ll never know for sure in this lifetime whether your suffering was caused by Satan or it was a gracious gift of God. Look back over that passage in Job. How do we know it was Satan causing Job’s suffering? Because God revealed it to us through Scripture. But where was Job when this conversation was taking place between God and Satan? He was down there working his farm and enjoying his family. He had no idea where this terrible suffering came from all of a sudden.

A lot of people these days seem to have the idea that if you’re suffering, it’s caused by Satan and if your life is going great, that’s God. But that’s not always true. Remember, it was the will of God to crush Jesus, and Jesus learned obedience by suffering. Sometimes that kind of thing is God’s will for us, too, and for good reasons. Even Job saw that: 

And he said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”
Job 1:21

Job knew that whatever came his way was because God allowed it, and that God had good reasons for it.

 

So if those are not reasons for suffering, why does God cause or allow suffering to come into our lives? Check out God’s Good Purposes in Suffering.


¹I’m aware that R.C. Sproul, Jr., in the last couple of years, has committed sins which led to his stepping down from ministry. I have included his name here for quote attribution purposes only.