Does God will the suffering of Christians?

Posted: July 12, 2012 by J in Church, Discipleship, Theology

Even a brief look at the apostle Paul’s view of Christian suffering cannot fail to unsettle us. It may surprise us that Paul hardly ever mentions Jesus’ sufferings as such: almost always it is in the context of believers’ suffering. Our suffering in union with Jesus is a theme Paul leans on so heavily, I find it disturbing. There is far too much material to present here. Here’s a taste:

Suffering can be seen as the essence of Paul’s ministry and apostleship:

But the Lord said to Ananias, “Go! For this man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before Gentiles, kings, and the sons of Israel.  I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”  Acts 9:15-16

Paul understands suffering as a fundamental part of his calling:

For this gospel I was appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher,  and that is why I suffer as I do2 Timothy 1:11-12

This suffering was actually a participation in the suffering of Jesus:

For … the sufferings of Christ abound toward us… We are always carrying in the body the death of Jesus  2 Corinthians 1:5; 4:10

In Paul’s suffering, Christ’s sufferings are in some way still being completed:

I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.  I became its servant according to God’s commission…         Colossians 1:24-25

Paul sees this participation in Jesus’ sufferings as an essential part of ALL gospel ministry, not just his own. He exhorts Timothy:

Do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, or of me his prisoner. But join in this suffering for the gospel, by the power of God…       2Tim. 1:8

Suffering then was not a by-product but really a core part of gospel ministry. It IS gospel ministry:

As for you, be sober always, suffer, do the work of an evangelist: carry out your ministry fully.    2Tim. 4:5

And this ministry is entrusted not only to leaders but to the whole church:

For he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well…    Philippians 1:29

So Paul sees his participation in Jesus’ suffering as a role model for all believers:

I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death...  Therefore, all who are mature should think this way.   Philippians 3:10,15

In fact he views the Christian calling as essentially one of suffering:

so that no one would be shaken by these afflictions of yours. For you yourselves know that we are appointed for this. For in fact when we were with you, we were telling you in advance that we would suffer affliction, and so it has happened…    1Thessalonians 3:3-4

This fellowship of suffering is so basic to the Christian life that without it there can be no hope of glory:

…and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.    Romans 8:17

For Paul, then, the gospel is a call to participate in Jesus, first and foremost in his suffering and death – though later on in his glory also. God’s will for us is that, by joining in with Jesus’ story, we are able to follow him through death and into eternal life. Suffering is not an unfortunate by-product of faith: it is core Christian experience.

In the gospel we are called to  come and suffer with Jesus.

And this responsibility to suffer falls especially onto church leaders.

Tomorrow: did you notice the strange twist in that?

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Comments
  1. Dan W says:

    Hey Jono,

    I reckon Heb12, James 1:2-4, and Rom 5: + 8:28 are a few of the places people turn to in support of the more Calvinistic approach. What would you say regarding them?

    Rm8 seems to be more than participation – ‘all things work together for good’. This is for a subset of people (those loving God and called according to his purpose) whom God wills to share in Christ’s suffering. Does this mean that the things Christians suffer are willed by God and participations in Christ’s suffering, but these very things work for our good in that they conform us to the likeness of his Son? ie. God willed participation creates likeness?

    The other passages make it sound like that is that case. The participation in suffering prompts Christ likeness.
    That would be similar to Heb12:10 ‘God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness.’ And James; Testing of faith creates perseverance, and ‘perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete.’

    Any thoughts?

    • Jonathan says:

      Yes I think we have to link participating in Christ with the ‘good’ that God intends in our suffering.

      Those texts you reference btw are all dealing with Christian suffering, not suffering in general. I am suggesting in these posts that Christian suffering is in a special category, as a subset of Christ’s sufferings. So these texts I think have nothing much to contribute to a general doctrine of God’s will in creaturely suffering.

      The question of how sharing in Jesus’ suffering and ‘our good’ go together is a very good one. I’d love someone to tackle this. Calvin in that passage Ben quoted for us suggests various ways suffering benefits believers: humbling them and overcoming pride etc, but they don’t seem to relate to Jesus’ suffering that much.

      Paul gives a clue in 2 Cor 4:17 For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure…

      There’s a link (clearly!) between death and resurrection, and ‘our good’ largely involves resurrection. But what is the link? Being conformed to Jesus, as you say. There’s more to explore here and I don’t know who’s done it. It’s about Jesus, surely, and I’d love to get clearer on the details. My post I think gives a (somewhat uncomfortable) lead worth following, but it’s very preliminary.

      Why isn’t this bread and butter stuff for us evangelicals?? I wish they’d tackled this at Chalcedon, instead of farting around with all that ‘mixture of the natures’ stuff.

  2. I fear that we Christians in the USA do not really know what suffering is. We have life so easy that we expect life to always be comfortable and turn away from anything inconvenient or uncomfortable. I firmly believe that we do not have the missionaries going out today as they did a few decades ago, is because we do not want to suffer even the smallest pains.
    God has called us to suffer. Every Christian should be experiencing some suffering if they are doing God’s work in their lives. Someday events will not go as we had hoped and we shall find out what suffering is truly like.
    I plan to link to this post on my blog. Thank you for writing it.

    • Jonathan says:

      David,

      Thanks for your comment. Australian Christians are the same. We’ve cocooned ourselves in middle class comfort and security. We stay within very narrow lifestyle boundaries, in the zone where life is nice. This robs our Christian witness of most of its power, and our churches are very ineffective, on the whole. It is difficult to know what it means to walk with Jesus while we stay inside the cocoon…

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