Christianity is the strangest thing, and one of the reasons I believe it’s true. Everything about it seems to be counter to everything I am. For some of us it takes a while, and some of us a very long while, to admit that is sin, and that we are sinners by nature at war with God. Because of this Christianity is counter intuitive to us. Everything about it seems upside down. That makes sense, though, because in a fallen world everything is upside down from the way it was created and supposed to be. We shouldn’t be surprised, then, because to counter the distortion of reality coming from sin, of course it seems upside down to us. Take Paul’s exhortation to rejoice in our sufferings. Really?

When I recently read Romans 5 all this was bubbling around in my mind. The very last thing I want to do when I’m suffering is rejoice. My typical response is to whine, moan, and complain. I don’t like suffering, so how in the world am I going to rejoice in it? It doesn’t feel good, whatever that suffering might be as I perceive it. Here is what Paul says:

Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.

Whenever we see the word therefore, we must ask what it is there for. In chapter 4 Paul is explaining how Abraham’s trust in God’s promises was credited to him as righteousness. He compares Abraham’s trust in God to ours who trust in Christ “who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.” That same trust that we are not right with God, that our sins, or trespasses, have been forgiven and guaranteed by Christ’s resurrection, means we can now have peace with God through Christ. It also means in that peace we no longer have to be controlled or defined by our circumstances, even if that includes suffering. Easier said than done, as we all know.

The Apostle Paul’s Life of Rejoicing
If we think our circumstances are the key to happiness, joy, fulfillment, or peace of mind, we are in for a miserable life. Having experienced seven decades of life, and counting, I can report that will never happen. And when our idea of perfect circumstances does show up once in a while, life plays a cruel joke on us, and we find getting everything we thought we wanted doesn’t fill the void after all. The reason is that only one thing can bring true satisfaction, and that is God Himself in Christ in our right relationship to our Creator. The Apostle Paul tell us what “the secret” of true contentment is:

11 I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. 12 I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. 13 I can do all this through him who gives me strength. (Phil. 4)

Because of secularism, the cultural air we breathe, people are obsessively focused on the here and now, but it offers cold comfort when the “stuff” hits the fan. Wait till you see all the “stuff” that hit Paul’s fan, and maybe we’ll think twice before complaining about pretty much anything. If we think we have it tough, let’s compare our lives with the Apostle Paul’s, this man who literally changed the world and brought untold blessings to now billions of people. Remember, if it wasn’t for the Apostle Paul nobody would likely have ever heard of Jesus. This is what God allows to happen to the most consequential man in human history:

 I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. 24 Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, 26 I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. 27 I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. 28 Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. 29 Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?


30 If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. (2 Cor. 11)

How did Paul endure all this and remain content “whatever the circumstances”? He tells us earlier in 2 Corinthians chapter 4, it is through the promise of the resurrection. Speaking of the treasure we have, “the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ,” he says it is in us as jars of clay. It’s a powerful passage and he concludes with this:

16 Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. 17 For our light and momentary afflictions are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. 18 So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

If all the physical and mental sufferings Paul endured are “light and momentary afflictions,” what in the world am I complaining about! Quite the contrary, Paul tells us suffering does something good in us, thus we can rejoice in it.

The Benefits of Suffering
As I typed those words I thought to myself, that sounds absurd; but it’s an absolutely Christian idea. There have also been plenty of non-Christians, and philosophies and religions, who agree, but they don’t have anything to anchor those benefits: the perspective of my being in a reconciled relationship as a sinner to my holy Creator God. Not to mention our Savior and Lord who was a suffering servant. In the post-Christian West, however, suffering is to be avoided at all costs. Because they have their feet firmly planted in mid-air, secular people enjoy their lives only to the degree they are devoid of suffering and struggles. One of our most popular greetings, “How’s it going?” reveals this. Have you ever regretted asking someone this as they complain about all the woes in their life? Me too.

This is why a long time ago I changed my answer to that question. First, as I taught our children, nobody really cares how we’re doing—people care about themselves not you! Back in the 1990s my wife and I were active in the Amway business. (You youngsters probably don’t know what that is). Part of the vibe of the business was positive thinking. We were exposed to an author and motivational speaker named Charlie “Tremendous” Jones who wrote a book called, Life is Tremendous! He took the name because when people would ask him how he’s doing, he would always say, “Tremendous!” Ever since I do the same, but I use the word terrific. It’s amazing when I do that how most people perk up in surprise, often saying how refreshing that is, or asking why. It’s a great opportunity to bring up Jesus! I also consider it an act of service and blessing so they encounter the blessings of God through me. I smile, look them in the eyes, affirm their existence, and thank them for their service. I love doing that! Unfortunately, it is a rare commodity nowadays. Why isn’t everyone like that? All Christians should be, but the answer is circumstances, in which secular people live and move and have their being, instead of God.

As we saw above, Paul tells us the benefits of suffering come from turning us into different people. This change in who we are is true for non-Christians as well, as it is for Christians who are not walking intimately in communion with their Savior. Suffering affects us and alters how we see everything, and most importantly God. As an example, I will tell you about young Luna, 22, who has cut my hair the last three times at Great Clips. It was a wonderful experience being able to share the hope of God in Christ because I knew from our previous interaction that she’s not a Christian. I asked her this time if she believed in God, and she hesitated. She said she believed more in the universe, that God is a force. I asked her why, and basically it came down to life is hard. How could there be a personal God, she seemed to be saying, when there’s so much suffering. I said, at least with a personal God you can complain to him, but to an impersonal universe, not so much. Not to mention, the world is full of persons, so it makes sense God would be personal. She’s going on the heathen prayer list.

Christian Suffering Transforms the World
The Christian approach to suffering doesn’t mean we’re stoics, and that suffering is to be endured as if it wasn’t suffering. No, it’s called suffering for a reason because in it we suffer, we feel pain and sorrow, and expressing those emotionally is part of the deal. In itself suffering is not good, but a reflection of living in a fallen world among fallen people in a fallen body. It is okay to get frustrated and angry and wonder why. As we experience these unpleasant things, we then need to go to the throne of grace and give thanks for all of it. That can obviously be very difficult to do, but we must do so in obedience to God. In I Thessalonians 5 Paul tells us what that obedience looks like:

16 Rejoice always, 17 pray continually, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.

Because we’re sinners and suffering is hard and unpleasant, we will not be able to do this consistently, but that’s what repentance is for. After we repent, then we pray for that endurance that produces character. That word in Greek means to be proved through testing and to remain true. In other words, we are not fair weather Christians when the going gets tough. We refuse, like Job, to curse God and die. When we remain true to our Lord and Savior, we will have hope, and as Paul says, hope does not put us to shame. That word in Greek is interesting. It literally means, to curse vehemently, a verb variously translated as shame, disgrace, bring to shame, put to utter confusion, frustrate. Once we’ve developed the character produced in us by suffering, the experience of suffering, no matter what kind of suffering it is, has no power any longer to do these things to us. We call that liberty! It won’t surprise us that this passage where Paul makes this declaration in 2 Corinthians 3 (verse 17) is about hope. We are no longer slaves to our circumstances! Even when they involve suffering.

Of the many things Christianity brought to the world, among the most powerfully transforming was this endurance in the face of suffering. Along with love and service, it changed the world from the ancient pagan world into the modern world. Caesars and all the tyrannical leaders of the world ever since fear Christians who refuse to submit to their tyranny. They have no power over Christians because death for us, as terrifying as it is, it not the end, but only the end of the beginning, for forever. Something that scares all tyrants are these words of Jesus:

Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.

Most of us are familiar with the horrible persecution Christians had to periodically endure for three centuries until Constantine converted to Christianity in 313. While we as Christians love and affirm life, it is not in any way ultimate to or for us. Our hope is in God alone, in the resurrection of our bodies because we have a resurrected Savior. That, brothers and sisters, is the only true and ultimate source of liberty, and it transforms wherever it goes.

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