Suffering as a ministry

We understand that the Lord often uses suffering as a means of sanctifying us — our trials are designed to conform us to Christ.  We don’t necessarily “like” the process, but we understand that this is what God does.

Paul makes that clear in several places:  “And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (Rom. 5:3-5; see also Rom. 8:28-29; 2 Cor. 12:9-10; Phil. 3:8; 2 Tim. 1:8).

Peter also affirms the reality and goodness of suffering:  “But even if you should suffer for the sake of righteousness, you are blessed. And do not fear their intimidation, and do not be troubled… (1 Pet. 3:14; cf. also 4:19; 5:9-10).

And Jesus’ half-brother, James, says something similar:  “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (1:2-4).

While the suffering is hard and painful, we can exult, consider ourselves blessed, and even rejoice, because we are confident that the Lord is sanctifying us in the process.  The trials we face expose our false places of refuge and ungodly desires and sinful inclinations, and also afford us an opportunity to repent and experience the sufficiency of the Word to transform us into Christlikeness.  And that’s good.

But there is another benefit that we rarely consider when we are suffering.  Too often we fail to consider the benefits that our suffering might have on the rest of the God’s people.  But the writer of Psalm 119 didn’t forget.  Twice in the 10th stanza of that psalm he affirms that it is vital for him to be faithful to the Lord when he is suffering so that other followers of God will be given a model for how to respond to trials:

May those who fear You see me and be glad,
Because I wait for Your word. (v. 74)

May those who fear You turn to me,
Even those who know Your testimonies. (v. 79)

In the first verse he desires that God’s people will observe his faithfulness and dependence on the Word of God and rejoice in God.  In the second verse he expresses a desire to be a model of faithfulness to those who know and are obedient to God’s Word (testimonies).

While most of us would be tempted to pray for the removal of our trial, the psalmist never prays for relief from his burden in any of the verses of this stanza (though it should be added that it is not sinful to pray in that way; see 2 Cor. 12:8 as an example).  However, twice he prays that the Lord would keep him faithful so that he could be a witness of what it means to suffer well and endure trials to the glory of God.

Examples of people who do not suffer well are abundant.  Examples of faithfulness in suffering are less common.  The rarity of faithful sufferers is demonstrated in the story of Job.  Satan asserted to God that the only reason people followed Him was because of the good He bestowed on them.  And God responded:  “Have you considered My servant Job? For there is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, fearing God and turning away from evil” (1:8).  That is, Job followed God regardless of whether God gave him good or not.  And then God allowed Satan to test the theory.  And at the end of Job’s two great tests, the Scriptures say, “In all this Job did not sin with his lips” (2:10).  When Job suffered the worst afflictions that Satan could pour out on him, Job still hung on to God and did not sin in any way.

The psalmist wants to be one of the faithful exemplars, like Job.  As George Zemek has written, “By both life and lip this disciple wanted to convey to the covenant community the sustaining power of God’s sufficient revelation for real life.” [The Word of God in the Child of God]

This is an oft-forgotten benefit of suffering.  God is not only working our suffering for our own benefit, but He is also working our suffering for the benefit of His other people.  As they observe our perseverance, they are encouraged to hold on in their suffering.  As they observe our love for Christ, they are encouraged to love God more than relief from affliction.  As they observe our service of others, they are stimulated to lay aside selfishness and give themselves away in service.  As they see us lean on God’s Word for sustenance, they are helped to find hope in God’s eternal Word.

The psalmist in no way diminishes the difficulty of trials and suffering.  Many of our trials are burdensome.  But the psalmist also helps us to recognize that the weights we carry are a benefit to the larger body of God’s people around us when they see us being obedient.  In that way, suffering is not only personally sanctifying, but suffering is a ministry and corporately sanctifying.

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