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but I don’t want to suffer

Years ago my wife and I were talking with a man who went on a bit of a mini-rant. Somehow the conversation turned to the desire of many to be beautiful or fit or buff or thin or whatever standard of beauty they may have. He said he can’t stand when people would say, “I’d do anything to look like her” or “I’d do anything to look like him”. He told us he had started responding to such claims by saying, “No, you wouldn’t.” Inevitably this would puzzle people. “What do you mean, ‘I wouldn’t’?” He would tell them, “If you would do anything to look like him or look like her, you would be doing it.”

His point was that if you really would do anything to be fit or strong or thin or whatever, and if you aren’t doing that thing, whether lifting weights or running or eating a healthy diet, then you wouldn’t actually do anything to look like another person. You might do something—if it were easier than what it would actually take to look a certain way.

His real point was this: we all want the easy way to achieve our goals. We all have things we desire, whether it’s a better yard or to pay off our debt or to get in shape—or to grow in our faith. The reason we don’t do these things, however, is these things take effort. They take intentional determination. We would love to have them, but the amount of effort necessary to achieve them prevents us from pursuing them. Who wants to spend evenings and weekends landscaping? Who wants to stop eating out or go a few years without a vacation in order to pay off debt? Who wants to get up early and go jogging and avoid that donut at work and skip that third bowl of ice cream? Who wants to wait patiently on God as he works in our life to grow our faith?

This aversion to any form of suffering is seen in our spiritual lives. We want to be like Jesus but we don’t want to engage in the spiritual disciplines necessary to actually be like Jesus. We want victory over sin but we don’t want to take the steps necessary to do so. We want to know the Bible better but we don’t want to set aside time to actually read it. We want the results without the hard work of pursuing the results. To say it another way: we don’t want to suffer in any way.

Suffering is inevitable. No one gets through life without suffering. No one. Others may not suffer as you suffer, but they still suffer. For some, the struggle is financial. Some always live on the edge, just one failed water heater away from financial disaster. Others have plenty but struggle with family dynamics. Some struggle with ongoing, chronic illness. Some suffer from addictions. Some can’t seem to hold down a job and this brings suffering. Still others suffer directly for their faith in Jesus. As we’ve seen in our sermon series in 1–2 Timothy, Paul expected believers to suffer in general.

He knew something of suffering. During one of his imprisonments he wrote to the church in Philippi to encourage them to remain faithful in the midst of suffering.

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, 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. 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, engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.

Philippians 1:27–30 ESV

Paul begins this paragraph by insisting that circumstances should not determine their faithfulness. Whether he is able to visit or not, he should hear they are standing firm in their faith, united as a church as they engage in ministry together. The word translated “manner of life” means their citizenship—the entirety of their life and its responsibilities. Paul insists they fulfill their purpose by living worthy of the gospel of Christ whether circumstances are what they want them to be or not. As Moisés Silva put it, “There is no respite from Christian obligation.” The truth is Jesus is Lord of all, which means he is Lord of each and every moment we exist. Our whole-life obligation to him remains, despite our circumstances.

This is why Paul uses strong words to describe this responsibility to live for the Lord. The Philippians must stand firm and they must strive together. Both require vigorous, conscious effort! Silva points out that striving together implies a struggle. This struggle is not for individuals, for Paul says they must strive side by side. Following Jesus happens in community.

Paul adds they must not be frightened by opponents. We’re unaware of open hostility against the Philippian church, but the threat of hostility was always present. At the very least, their opponents were spiritual in nature as Paul points out in Ephesians 6 that our struggle is not with flesh and blood but against spiritual forces that are opposed to us.

Paul says their refusal to fear their spiritual opponents, whether through direct, physical persecution or the spiritual opposition we all face, is a sign to these opponents of their destruction and of the believers’ salvation. Then he says something that is altogether shocking: “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”. The pain and the struggle and the conflict they were experiencing should not cause them fear, for God has granted them to suffer for his sake. Granted. It is a gift of grace. It is God’s lavish gift to them to suffer for Jesus’ sake.

There is some question what sort of suffering Paul means. Moisés Silva writes that given the believers’ union with Christ, any and all suffering they experience they experience for Jesus’ sake. He writes,

We may consider, however, that for the person whose life is committed in its totality to the service of Christ, every affliction and every frustration becomes an obstacle to fulfilling the goal of serving Christ. It surely would be impossible to think that believers who enjoy freedom of religion and so suffer no physical persecution or religious discrimination are thereby deprived of an essential element in their sanctification.

Moisés Silva, “Philippians (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament), p. 84

Whether an affliction—an occasion of suffering—is persecution or illness or financial struggle or relationship difficulties or anything else, for the believer that struggle is for Jesus’ sake and therefore that struggle has eternal significance. How one responds, then, is a testimony to who Jesus is and what he has done. It is a demonstration of your salvation, of God’s work in Christ in your life.

The reason suffering is a gift from God is suffering gives us more of God. That is, suffering enables us to experience God’s presence in a greater way. What greater gift can he give us than himself? This is why Paul can say in Romans 5, “We rejoice in our sufferings”. Because God has granted to us to suffer for the sake of Christ, to quote a twenty-first century theologian, we must not waste our suffering.

Suffering is a powerful tool in God’s hands to mold us and shape us into the image of Christ. Suffering is a powerful means God uses to bring about the very thing every follower of Jesus desires above all else: to be like Christ. This means we should not look on suffering as punishment or as retribution for some wrong we have committed. Rather, we should recognize the grace given us in the suffering. Rather than evidence of God’s displeasure with us, suffering allows us to see God’s pleasure. It isn’t the suffering God delights in, but what suffering produces in us that God delights in.

We see this in Paul’s words. He says “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”. The same grace of God that grants us salvation is the grace of God that grants us to suffer for his sake. Suffering for the sake of suffering is not of the Lord. The Lord grants suffering for the sake of Christ for what it produces in us.

No one enjoys suffering. If one enjoyed suffering it ain’t suffering. It’s not suffering to enjoy Taco Tuesday or a perfectly cooked ribeye or a nice, long, difficult bike ride. Okay. A long, difficult bike ride is suffering, so bad example. Actually—no, it’s not. Cycling is self-induced suffering! Every bike ride is more enjoyable when it’s over, for the memory of climbing a hill and flying down the other side and hearing the bike slice through the air is incredible. The “suffering” required to produce the memory makes the suffering well worth it. Every aspect of cycling is amazing, even as it is difficult in the moment.

This is life. When we look back on our suffering we are better equipped to see the benefits of the suffering. In retrospect we can better see God’s hand at work in our lives, drawing us closer to him and becoming more like him. In the moment it may feel like a long, hard, difficult, and painful climb up a steep incline but as we crest the hill and gain momentum and the wind begins to evaporate a bit of the sweat from our brow, we start to gain clarity.

This is how we must approach suffering. All suffering has an expiration date and when we get through the suffering we will see how it was truly God’s grace in our lives to allow us to go through it. Even more, we will see how it was God’s grace that carried us through it.

All this means is you and I must hold on. We must endure. We must stand firm in one spirit, together, and we must strive side by side, again, together. None of us is on a solo ride. We’re all in a group ride, helping one another when we get weak and helping one another see the obstacles in the road and helping one another see the finish line. Let’s get there, but let’s get there together. There is no other way than through suffering.