“Prepare your people for suffering,” one pastor has repeatedly advised other pastors.
He’s right. And his counsel imitates what Christ did for His disciples while on earth, and what His Word repeatedly does for its readers even now.
Persecution and suffering are inevitable for the follower of Christ (2 Tim. 3:12). Make a choice to live godly — to refuse to lie when a lie seems advantageous, following through on a promise when it results in significant trouble and hurt for you, giving benevolently so that you have to sacrifice wants and even needs, carrying a baby to term when the doctor advises abortion because of the likelihood of the baby’s significant disability or disease — and you will be mocked, ridiculed, castigated, and in some areas of the world even beaten and killed.
So how should we think about this persecution and suffering? Jesus tells us in Matthew 5 (numerous other NT passages also apply, but for today, we’ll be attentive only to this chapter). Here are a few principles to glean from Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount:
- Suffering is only really suffering when it is done because of Christ (v. 11). Suffering is not suffering when people say evil things about me (I could be an obnoxious jerk and rightly deserve all that is said about me); suffering is suffering when evil things are said about Christ because of my godly living.
- Suffering is a means of experiencing the blessing and happiness of God (v. 11).
- It is better to suffer the insults of men than the condemnation of God (vv. 11-12).
- Suffering will be endured (and rejoiced in) when we anticipate our heavenly reward for our suffering more than our earthly release from our suffering (v. 12). (Which also means, as C. S. Lewis has argued, that seeking God’s reward is a fitting motive for our actions.)
- When we suffer, we are not enduring anything unusual, but we simply join a long line of godly men and women who have suffered before us (v. 12).
- Suffering provides believers in Christ an opportunity to demonstrate to the world that the inner law which controls us is different from the principles that guide the world (v. 43).
- The appropriate response to suffering is not indignation and argument, but love and prayer (v. 44). Specifically, we are to express love for our enemies (committed to seeking what is best for them, regardless of the cost to us) and to pray for our persecutors. Could it be that one reason we are ineffective in evangelism is that we resist persecution and fail to love and pray for our oppressors? Does not God sovereignly design our persecution to teach us to love and pray for our enemies and to afford us gospel opportunities with them? (I think the answer to that is “yes.”)
- Love is really demonstrated when we love the unlovely and the hateful — those who are the cause of our suffering; it is truly a mark of transformation when we love those who hate us (vv. 46-47).
- Our suffering is a means of demonstrating our sonship to the Father (v. 45); adoption to God is not gained through suffering, but suffering reveals that adoption has already taken place.
We are not commanded or encouraged to pursue suffering, but we are to anticipate suffering. And when it comes, it is to our advantage, as it transforms us into the likeness of Christ. Heed the words of Christ and suffer well for His sake.