The Gift of Suffering

The Bible is jam-packed with stuff that makes absolutely no sense the first time you read it. Such was the case when I sat down with my Bible this morning, opened up to Philippians 1.

[27] Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, [28] and not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God. [29] For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake, [30] engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.

Verse 29 in particular caught my attention. The phrase “it has been granted to you” clearly identifies that what comes next is a gift from God. To have something “granted” to you (like being granted permission to do something, or granted entrance into something exclusive) mean it is a precious gift. So, what is granted to Christians? Verse 29 says these two things:

  1. faith in Christ
  2. suffering for that faith

Okay, I get number one. God opens our eyes and hearts to see and receive the truth of the gospel, and we receive forgiveness and eternal life. Cool! Now that is a gift! Number 2, however…not so much. Suffering is “granted” to us, like a cherished birthday present? Come again? How can suffering be a gift?

The author of this letter, Paul the missionary and apostle, is currently in prison for preaching Christ. (This is why he speaks of the “conflict” that he still has in verse 30.) So, certainly he knows a thing or two about suffering for Jesus. As he writes this book of the Bible from behind bars, he labels his own suffering, and the suffering of other Christians, as a gift that is “granted” to us from God. What does Paul see about suffering that makes it a gift?

The answer is that suffering produces genuine faith and Christ-like character. When Christians are in the midst of trials, our reliance on God either strengthens or weakens. When it is strengthened, it confirms our salvation to be true and increases our boldness in the face of opposition. This is why Paul speaks of not being scared or intimidated in the face of persecution by unbelievers (vs. 28) as a clear sign of the genuineness of your own faith.

Deep down, I think we know this to be true. When we are in a cozy Christian bubble, away from influences that test us or stretch us, our faith grows weak and our walk becomes complacent. We begin to coast, the urgency of evangelism is lost, and doubts creep in. This is why God allows trials and suffering into our lives: to sharpen and strengthen our faith. Without trials and suffering, we would never grow and perhaps even deceive ourselves about the genuineness of our faith.

This is why suffering for Jesus is a gift. Every true Christian wants to be assured of their salvation, grow in holiness, and become more bold in evangelism. The means by which that kind of growth takes place is through suffering. There is no shortcut, no easy way to achieve these results. Without a little suffering for Christ, we simply wilt to our sinful selves.

Paul, Peter, and James all knew this to be true.

(Romans 5:3-5) Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.

(1 Peter 4:12-16) Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. But let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler. Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name.

(James 1:2-4) Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, [3] for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.

So, my Christian brothers and sisters, let the Word of God shape the way you see the suffering in your life. No one should seek suffering intentionally, but it is a part of life. In particular, unjust suffering for Jesus is part of the Christian life. It is actually a gift of God to strengthen our faith. Rather than run from it, or become bitter, or seek the path of least resistance, let us rejoice in our suffering as God uses it to shape and mould us into the image of his Son and bring glory to his Name.

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