Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Why Suffering?


            I had to say goodbye to an old friend this week who went home to be with Jesus. His name was Frank and we were friends for more than twenty years. During that time, Frank always seemed to be suffering from some type of physical illness. I spent quite a bit of time with Frank over the last four or five years as his ongoing health problems gradually took away his freedom of movement and slowly infringed on his opportunities to earn a living. Unfortunately, Frank’s health issues inevitably left some of his earthly relationships battered and bruised as well. Not surprisingly, Frank’s faith ebbed and flowed as he tried to understand why God didn’t appear to be doing anything in response to his prayers for healing but instead allowed his many illnesses to continue and get even worse. However, in the end, Frank continued to put his faith in God’s goodness even though physical healing remained out of reach. I have an added perspective from my own personal experience with illness which I will say more about at the end of this lesson. However, for the average person who is in good health and is relatively happy yet trying to understand the prolonged struggles of someone like Frank, it’s hard not to wonder, Why Suffering?
            Let me make something clear right up front—there is nothing valuable, or biblical for that matter, in suffering for the sake of suffering. That’s an affectation: A fa├žade meant to hide some other motives. We are never called to go look for reasons to suffer for the sake of suffering. Here’s the truth about suffering: Suffering is inevitable in our sinful and broken world no matter how hard we try to avoid it. Suffering comes in all shapes and sizes—physical, mental, emotional, financial, relational, or even spiritual. Suffering impacts different people at different times and in different ways. I rarely make promises but I’m fairly certain about this one: If you have never suffered in any way, don’t bother looking for it, it will find you eventually.
For the vast majority of you out there, I am just going to assume you aren’t looking for an opportunity to suffer because it has already found you and has either left its scars on you in some way or is in the process of doing exactly that. You know what suffering looks like and feels like but what is less clear in the context of your life of faith is, Why Suffering? Is there a purpose to suffering? Is there value in suffering? Isn’t there another way? Why Suffering?
Subject Text
2 Timothy 1:8-12
            8So do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner. Rather, join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God. 9He has saved us and called us to a holy life—not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time, 10but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. 11And of this gospel I was appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher. 12That is why I am suffering as I am. Yet this is no cause for shame, because I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him until that day.
Context
            Of the thirty-nine books of the New Testament, Paul wrote as many as thirteen (although some scholars believe he only wrote 8-9 of them). I find it to be truly breathtaking that God used this one man to communicate so much of His holy Word to us. Throughout history, scholars have debated which of Paul’s writings is the most important. Frankly, I think it’s a somewhat silly debate since they were all God-breathed according to Paul himself. Nevertheless, some are more relevant at different times in our lives than others. I feel that way about Paul’s second letter to Timothy in relation to this lesson because it was the last letter Paul wrote. This final instruction to Timothy was penned while Paul was in prison in Rome for the last time in A. D. 66 or 67 where he was eventually executed by Emperor Nero. It seems pretty clear that Paul knew the end was near based on his instruction to Timothy. This letter is basically a commissioning letter reiterating Timothy’s duty as a minister of God’s Word and an encouragement to remain strong and faithful to carry out the ministerial duties he was called to fulfill. Personally, I can’t think of words that are more honest, revealing, and important than someone’s last words—and these are Paul’s last words so we should probably pay real close attention to what he is instructing.
Text Analysis
            8So do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner. Rather, join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God.
            Paul was formally educated at the highest theological level of his day. He called himself a strict Pharisee. Pharisees made theological proclamations from on high; from afar; they did much of their theology in theory. However, Paul relinquished that life when he encountered the risen Jesus Christ and was transformed from church persecutor to church planter. There were consequences that accompanied that change. It is unlikely that Paul suffered much for his beliefs when he was a Pharisee. However, when he became of messenger and servant of Christ, suffering became a way of life for him; theology was no longer theoretical it was a daily practice in being obedient regardless of the personal cost and sacrifice. In Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, he provides a list of all the things he endured and suffered for his choice to be a faithful follower of Christ—multiple imprisonments, numerous beatings, lashings and stonings that left him near death, shipwrecks that left him adrift at sea at one point over night, always in danger from robbers, strangers, and sometimes people who called him friend. He often suffered the extremes of hunger, thirst, cold, and exposure. Worst of all, he suffered constantly with the anxiety associated with being responsible to shepherd the people God entrusted to his spiritual care (I am intimately familiar with precisely this anxiety). Consequently, it shouldn’t surprise us in v. 8 that Paul invites us to participate with him in his suffering. Paul’s invitation to suffer with him isn’t a theoretical concept—it’s part of being a faithful follower of Jesus Christ. But why? Why Suffering? In part, because suffering builds capital—not monetary capital that can be used in this life but spiritual capital that will be rewarded in the life to come. It earns the sufferer credibility—credibility to be heard and believed in this life. It also forces people to stop playing games with God. Let me try and explain this last one.
I taught you something last week that I want to tweak and repeat this week because I think it is specifically relevant in this case. “Suffering provides clarity about who stands with God and who does not. It is unlikely that anyone whose commitment to the gospel is inauthentic will be willing to endure the fiery trials of physical discomfort and emotional pain that persecution ‘suffering’ brings. In such a crisis, inquirers who have been walking the border between commitment to and rejection of the gospel must finally make a decision, and those who have professed loyalty to the church for ulterior motives finally decide that their deception no longer pays. Those who remain, as a result, have the assurance that their commitment is real…In other words, the testing of the believer’s mettle in the fires of persecution ‘suffering’ produces assurance of salvation and reduces the visible church to something more like its true, invisible number. The confidence and fellowship that results are gifts from the God so powerful that he can even make evil ‘suffering’ do his bidding.”[1]
“Paul speaks of affliction and suffering per se over sixty times. In doing so, Paul employs the word groups for ‘suffering’ and ‘affliction’ interchangeably, together with the general category of ‘weakness,’ all three of which Paul can also use to describe the suffering and death of Christ…For Paul, whenever Christians do suffer, they too must meet their suffering with joy, knowing that their affliction is not senseless, but becomes the divinely orchestrated means by which God strengthens their faithful endurance and hope by pouring out his own love and Spirit to sustain or deliver them in their distress. As a result, they too come to embody the cross and resurrection in their lives as a witness to others of the truth of Christ, especially as this is seen in their ability to love others even when they are experiencing affliction.”[2]
            9He has saved us and called us to a holy life—not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time, 10but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. 11And of this gospel I was appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher.
            Always the consummate preacher and teacher, even after all these years of preaching the gospel and now during his remaining days in a Roman prison, Paul refuses to squander the opportunity to remind anyone who will listen in vv. 9-11 what the central message of his ministry was always about—we have been saved by God’s grace through the incarnation of Jesus Christ whose death and resurrection provided a way to be reconciled back to God so we could spend eternity with Him. However, for Paul, the gospel message was always a two-part message—God’s grace freely given to save us, and the appropriate response by humanity to that free gift. For Paul, the appropriate response to God’s ultimate sacrifice was a holy life. There was no such thing as cheap grace for Paul. If God would go so far as to give His only Son as a sacrifice for our sins then our sincere gratitude for that gift was to be reflected in holy lives that we could offer back to Him.
            “There would be no gospel without the sacrifice that Jesus Christ made for our sins…God’s purpose in salvation was to redeem people for himself—people who lived to glorify him. Holy living seeks God’s view instead of the self-centered view. Holiness expects to find God involved in every facet of life. Holiness consistently turns away from self-pleasing answers in order to please God.
            “God did this not because we deserve it, but because that was his plan long before the world began—to show his love and kindness to us through Christ Jesus. Salvation and holiness rely on the Giver alone, not on the receiver. God’s sovereign choice alone, through his planned purpose and his astounding grace, allowed sinners to receive salvation and the right to stand holy before him. Everything fits into the framework of God’s sovereignty. We create neither the opportunity nor the possibility of our salvation. God graciously allows us to simply respond to his plan.”[3]
12That is why I am suffering as I am. Yet this is no cause for shame, because I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him until that day.
            Paul is at the end of his life but he hasn’t given up. Paul’s suffering hasn’t broken him. In fact, it is clear, based on v. 12, that his suffering has only served to strengthen his faith. But what is Paul referring to when he says that he believes Jesus is able to guard what Paul has entrusted to Him? Paul is referring to his reward of eternal life in the presence of Jesus when he completed his earthly life! Paul knew where he was going when his earthly life was finished and his suffering didn’t discourage that confidence but instead reinforced it. Paul’s unwavering faith in the face of suffering provides at least one answer to the question, Why Suffering? No matter how great you think Paul is, and he certainly deserves his place among the greats of our faith, he didn’t suffer for his own sake, he endured suffering because he believed who Jesus said He was and what Jesus said He did. Paul didn’t endure suffering to elevate himself to greatness in the eyes of those who witnessed his sufferings, he endured suffering to elevate Jesus in the eyes of those who witnessed his sufferings as the One who is eminently worthy of suffering for. Can there be a stronger witness to the greatness of Jesus than the suffering of His followers who nevertheless persevere in faith even in the midst of their suffering?
            “[Paul] endured with courage and honor because his trust was in the person of Christ…he had no faith in religious systems or in his own personality or ability. His confidence was in God, sovereign of creation, giver of life, conqueror of death.
            “Paul was able to endure suffering because he was convinced of God’s trustworthiness…Paul had an unshakable confidence that God would keep safe whatever he placed in his care. Whether it was his life or ministry, these treasures were safely deposited in God’s protection. This does not suggest that God protects us from all harm. But God does protect that which is eternal when it is given without reserve into his keeping: our soul and our work. These are held safe until the day of judgment.”[4]
Application
            I am under no illusion that I have been able to provide the definitive answer to the question, Why Suffering? Since God is able to accomplish anything, He can certainly accomplish whatever He wants without the need for suffering. Consequently, I’m not sure anyone will be able to give you a definitive reason for your suffering. I have come to learn that there are no simple answers when trying to explain why God works the way He does—Why did He allow your loved one to die? Why did He let your marriage end? Why do you struggle with depression? Why do you struggle financially? Why are you hated for your faith? I know so many of you are suffering under the weight of something you just don’t understand and I desperately wish I had a definitive answer for you that would encourage you and give you peace of mind, but I don’t. What I do have to offer you is a perspective on suffering from my own life that I said at the beginning I would share with you.
            As many of you already know, I have been battling an illness for more than a year and a half that was not immediately diagnosed and has since been resistant to treatments. Unfortunately, the illness causes severe physical pain and extreme exhaustion just to name the two most significant symptoms. My family and friends and I have prayed for either healing or for strength if there is no healing and I know many of you have been praying for me as well. Unfortunately, God has not granted me either healing or strength and last week I was once again hospitalized for a few days in order to rest and receive intravenous medication to relieve the debilitating pain associated with the illness. I had the opportunity to think about what this particular suffering means for my life and ministry.
            For the last six months or so, my wife and daughters and a few trusted friends have been pleading with me to reduce my ministry commitment at least until a successful treatment for my illness is identified and implemented. To this point, I have been resistant to their pleas because of my concern for you and your continued faithfulness and spiritual growth. I resisted their pleas because I wanted to remain faithful to the ministry God called me to even in the midst of my suffering. I wanted to be able to give you an example that faithfulness is not contingent on a life of ease. I wanted to be able to show you what God can do with suffering, so even though I have been hospitalized seven times over the last year and a half, I have not failed to communicate with you, pray for you, encourage you, admonish you, or teach you. I did that in the midst of my physical suffering because I love you and care about you and I want you to know that God loves you and cares about you as well. And nothing brings me more joy than encouraging you in your faith and teaching you about what God has to say to you. However, I have reached the point that I am simply no longer strong enough to continue preparing and publishing lessons as frequently as I have been to this point. I have not come to this decision lightly or without shedding many tears because this decision stacks a different kind of pain and suffering on top of my physical pain and suffering. Through those tears, I have asked the question more than once—Why Suffering? And finally, God whispered a kind of answer. He said: “I’m still in charge.”
            God’s words have been bouncing around in my head ever since I was laying in that hospital bed last week and I want to repeat something I said earlier about Paul: “Paul was able to endure suffering because he was convinced of God’s trustworthiness…Paul had an unshakable confidence that God would keep safe whatever he placed in his care. Whether it was his life or ministry, these treasures were safely deposited in God’s protection. This does not suggest that God protects us from all harm. But God does protect that which is eternal when it is given without reserve into his keeping: our soul and our work. These are held safe until the day of judgment.”
            My ministry to you is the treasure that I have asked God to protect and I trust He will do that because I believe Him when He says that He is still in charge. Consequently, after this lesson, I will only be preparing and publishing lessons once a month instead of weekly until God either restores my health or my strength. While I am entrusting you and the treasure of this ministry to God, I still fully expect you to continue to live holy lives as God called you to do and as I have continually taught you and encouraged you to do. And to take ownership of your life of faith and to continue to learn and grow in your faith and especially to share the gospel message of Jesus Christ whenever you have the opportunity. Here is another answer to the question, Why Suffering? as it relates to my illness. Because it gives each of you the opportunity to help me; to labor with me; maybe even suffer in some way with me. You know, if you’ve been following this ministry for any significant amount of time, that the mission of this ministry is to reach every nation with the gospel message. There are more than 200 nations in the world and this ministry has only reached a little more than half of those nations. There are more than 250 lessons available on the website as well as reading suggestions and other valuable resources including a guide to walk people through the process of asking Jesus to save them. That’s where you’re opportunity to help comes in. Use the website generally or the lessons specifically to engage people with the gospel message of Jesus Christ. Since I will now only be communicating with you for the foreseeable future on a monthly basis, I am asking you to be even more active than you have been to this point to share the lessons or the website as often as you can with anyone and everyone.
            Finally, I think there is at least one more important answer to the question, Why Suffering? It’s because it provides a place of common connection not just between you and me and all other suffering believers, it’s a place of connection with our Lord Jesus Christ who was known as the “Suffering Servant.” Peter said that Jesus suffered and left us an example to follow in His steps (1 Pet 2:21). In suffering we are probably more like Jesus than in any other condition. Through the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God accomplished what seemed like an impossible task of reconciling humanity to Himself. Because He is still in charge, I am confident that God can and will use your suffering and my suffering to accomplish exactly what is necessary to advance the salvation message of Jesus Christ and to bring all glory and honor to Himself in the process.
***Important Programming Change***
            Although all lessons are archived on the website and available to access at any time, I will only be posting new lessons on the second Wednesday of each month beginning in March.




[1] Frank Thielman, Philippians—The NIV Application Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995), pp. 101-102.
[2] Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid, eds., Diction of Paul and his Letters, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 919; 920.
[3] Bruce Barton, Philip Comfort, Grant Osborne, Linda K. Taylor, and Dave Veerman, Life Application New Testament Commentary, (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2001), 964.
[4] Knute Larson, I & II Thessalonians, I & II Timothy, Titus, Philemon—Holman New Testament Commentary, (Nashville, TN: B & H Publishing Group, 2000), 269.







(Audio version; Music: "Bring The Rain" by: MercyMe and "There Will Be A Day" by: Jeremy Camp)