The Wonderful Gift of… Suffering?

“For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him, since you are going through the same struggle you saw I had, and now hear that I still have.” (Philippians 1:29-30)

Philippians 1:29 is one of those verses that makes me stop and shake my head in disbelief. Paul tells the readers of this letter that suffering has been granted to them. Granted? Really? As in, “Here you go. Here’s a big ol’ heaping helping of suffering”?

If you dig into the Greek behind that phrase, you’ll uncover the word charizomai. This word usually implies something that’s freely given for someone else’s benefit. In fact, Paul uses this same word to talk about how God forgave our sins (Colossians 2:13; Ephesians 4:32); how we are to forgive others freely (2 Corinthians 2:7, 10); and how God bestows gifts or titles because of His love and power (as in Philippians 2:9). In Luke 7:21, the same word shows how Jesus gave sight to the blind. Free, beneficial gifts.

All those are well and good. So, why would Paul add something crazy like suffering to these other good things? Surely, he has to see that suffering doesn’t fit in the same category as healing the blind and forgiving sin. They don’t even share the same zip code. Right?

Well, Paul’s example shows us that they do. Right near the end of Acts (chapter 27), Paul gets stuck with a stubborn centurion who can’t wait to get to Rome and a ship’s pilot who’s happy to oblige. Paul warns that such a trip will end badly. They ignore him (word to the wise: never ignore Paul). When they run into a storm, things look really, really bad. People are throwing supplies overboard, faces are green, and hope goes buh-bye.

About that time, Paul gets to give his “I told you so” speech, and in that speech, he uses our old friend charizomai. An angel had appeared to Paul and told him, “God has granted you all those who are sailing with you” (Acts 27:24). God had granted him seasick sailors (who wanted to kill the prisoners, mind you) and a stubborn centurion who refused to listen to sense. What kind of gift is that? God could have granted him a miraculous trip to a nearby island—perhaps somewhere warm and not so stormy.

But if that had been the case, Paul wouldn’t have done the other part of this verse: “you must stand before Caesar.” If Paul had been whisked away, in fact, we wouldn’t have the books of Acts or Luke (that chapter is filled with “we” from our good doctor friend who also survived the storm); the sailors and centurion wouldn’t have seen God’s mighty act to save every single one of them; and Paul wouldn’t have taken the gospel to the most important city in the Roman Empire. God gave Paul the gift of their lives so that the gospel would bulldoze on.

And that brings up back to Paul’s suggestion that suffering is granted—a gift. Quite likely, Paul wrote his letter to the Philippians not long after being smashed into the rocks. Despite the messy trip (or perhaps precisely because of it), the message of Christ spread throughout the royal guard and people all over Rome. Other Christians got some backbone to speak more boldly (Philippians 1:13-14). Things went boom all over.

The gift of suffering, for Paul and for us, doesn’t seem much like a gift—at first. But the vantage point makes all the difference. Suffering that comes for the sake of Christ always produces a harvest of awesome. That’s because, in addition to the suffering, God also grants us the strength to endure and the chance to see the gospel take root.

And that’s why Paul can truthfully say, “What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things” (Philippians 3:8). That’s not empty boasting from a beaten down man. That’s the triumphant cry of someone who sees what lies ahead.

Fill ‘er Up

“Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church. I have become its servant by the commission God gave me to present to you the word of God in its fullness—the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the saints.” Colossians 1:24-26

Right after I got married, I gave up computer software updates and PC troubleshooting for something a bit more… down to earth, you could say. I needed work in my new hometown, and since employers weren’t tracking me down and forcing jobs on me, I gravitated toward the only available option: construction. With a booming housing market at the time, finding enough to do wasn’t a problem.

But finding motivation was a problem. Going from a specialized, higher paying job in computers, where I mostly sat at my desk all day, to cleaning up cinder blocks, wrestling with insulation, and scrubbing windows—that was quite the humbling thing. Honestly, I’d never had to do any real manual labor in my life before that. (Yes, I was coddled.) The heat and pain and bloodied hands were all new to me.

The first few weeks, after a particularly arduous day of gophering around the jobsites, I’d come home and crash on the living room floor. My muscles weren’t used to the beating they took, and they made sure I knew about it.

Slowly, however, with all the wood slinging and nail pounding and putty slapping, things changed. The nights of carpet collapses became less frequent, and my hands didn’t split open nearly as often (unless you count the numerous times I stabbed myself with a chisel). In fact, I came to enjoy the process of seeing something come together, seeing a house take shape.

My spiritual growth has come in a similar fashion—just without the splinters. At first, the failures dragged me down and beat me up. The rejections when I tried to share my newfound faith stung. The transformation cut deep. But as I grew and as God worked in me, something changed. The pain still stings and the transformation still cuts (that never stops), yet I began to see the pain as an important part of the overall process. Christ is building something in me—and in His Church.

As humans, we all suffer. But as Christians, we fill up on suffering. Sounds bad, but the point is that instead of us letting the suffering go to waste, God uses it for the good of other believers (and our own). He takes the pain and makes it passion, passion that spills out as love for our brothers and sisters.

We each serve as a breathing example of the gospel played out in real life. Our pain and restoration make us a family like nothing else can.

There’s a Title for That

Sometimes, we just need to be reminded of who Jesus is:

  • The Word: He pitched His tent with us and put flesh on God’s promises (John 1)
  • Son of God: He’s got the whole world in His hands (Matthew 16:16)
  • Son of Man: He knows our sorrows up close and personal (Matthew 17:12)
  • Son of David: He loved His people, even if they didn’t recognize Him (Matthew 1:1; John 1)
  • Teacher: He tells us exactly what we need, even if it’s not what we want to hear (John 3:2)
  • Prophet: He told us what would and will happen (Deuteronomy 18:15; Matthew 13:57)
  • Provider: He can make a little go a long way (Mark 6:30-44)
  • Mediator: He’s right in the middle of our struggles and pleading our case (1 Timothy 2:5; Hebrews 9:15)
  • Suffering Servant: He got busted up for us (Isaiah 53)
  • Lamb of God: He put sin in a full-nelson and made death cry uncle (John 1:29)
  • Lion of Judah: He can take care of His enemies with just His roar (Revelation 5:5, 19:21)
  • Counselor: He’s the cure for our addictions and struggles (Isaiah 9:6)
  • Prince of Peace: He signed—in blood—the peace treaty between God and us (Isaiah 9:6)
  • Immanuel: He never gets tired of being with us (Isaiah 7:14)
  • King of Kings: He’s got the power (Revelation 17:14)
  • The Way: He ain’t got no time for wishy-washy “all roads” arguments; He’s it (John 14:6)
  • The Truth: He puts the lie in our “true for you” follies (John 14:6)
  • The Life: He resuscitates hearts that were hardened by sin (John 14:6, 20:31)
  • Good Shepherd: He patiently and lovingly tracks down His runaways (Luke 15:4; John 10:11)
  • True Vine: He nurtures us to fruitfulness (John 15:4-5; Romans 7:4)
  • Friend of Sinners: He offers grace to those stumbling around in darkness (Matthew 11:9)
  • Balm of Gilead: He binds up our wounds by the scars on His back (Jeremiah 8:22; Isaiah 53:5; 1 Peter 2:24)
  • Giver of the Spirit: He sent the One who makes the journey alongside us and leads us into truth (John 14)
  • Light of the World: He sends photons to those who’ve been blinded by the god of this age (Luke 2:32; Acts 13:47; 2 Corinthians 4:4)
  • Intercessor: He never stops praying for us (Isaiah 53:12; John 17)
  • Great High Priest: He took care of all the Temple work (Hebrews 7)
  • The Bread/Water of Life: He’s our daily nutritional requirement for a spiritually balanced life (John 6; Revelation 21:6)
  • Alpha and Omega: He gets the first and last word… always (Revelation 22:13)
  • Lord of Glory: He makes angels belt out never-ending praises (Psalm 24, 103:20; James 2:1)
  • Firstborn among the Dead: He paved the path that leads to His place (Colossians 1:18)

Jesus has so many titles because He fulfills all our needs. Wherever you are in life, whatever you need, He’s got it covered. As my father-in-law sometimes says, “Jesus picked up His cross and said, ‘Hang on to Me. We’re going through.’”

My Alien Brain

“And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him” Colossians 1:21-22

The first migraine hit me in middle school. While wrapping up some pre-algebra problems, a fuzzy, white spot kept covering up the numbers. I’d blink and rub my eyes and try to work around it, but the spot hovered there for most of the class. Being the well-reasoned adolescent that I was, I naturally assumed what seemed logical: I was about to die of a massive stroke.

I obviously didn’t die. But when the spot finally did go away, I wished it had stayed.

Stomach-curling, fist-clenching, world-bending pain plopped down into my cranium and threw some sort of headache party. After an hour or so, I couldn’t take it anymore. I told the skeptical school nurse that I thought I had a “migration headache,” which didn’t ease her skepticism. Still, she let me go home.

Just to complete the headache humiliation, I got sick right outside the school (so that all the classes on that side of the building could watch), fell asleep as soon as I got home, and woke up with a throbbing head. Migraines don’t like to go without a fight. They kick and scream into that good night.

My own head revolted against me for several years after that. If I didn’t get enough sleep or got hit with too much stress, the spot would make a comeback. I did learn to lessen the pain sometimes by closing my eyes as soon as the fuzz sprang into view, but that didn’t always work.

Truthfully, the migraines were the least of my problems. My un-reconciled brain, the one that had no understanding of Christ, had revolted from God. Instead of fuzzy spots as warning signs, there were evil deeds, as Paul calls them. I played on others’ emotions to get my way, used girlfriends as my personal trophy case, spent hours and hours on the kinds of websites that wouldn’t make it through a work Internet filter, and generally wasted my gifts. The pain that resulted from those “spots” wasn’t just inwardly focused—it left quite the burning trail in its wake.

My alien brain knew nothing else then. It wanted nothing better. It was pretty much dead.

That’s exactly the reason Christ’s reconciling, restoring death still astounds me. This gray matter, so unresponsive to anything spiritual, came to life with God’s preceding grace. He kept hitting me and kept hitting me until I finally gave up, followed His Son, and stopped being an alien.

No Empty Labor

On the surface, Ecclesiastes paints a pretty morbid picture about human labor. Here’s ol’ Solomon’s pep rally:

What does man gain from all his labor at which he toils under the sun? (1:3)

So my heart began to despair over all my toilsome labor under the sun. (2:20)

And I saw that all labor and all achievement spring from man’s envy of his neighbor. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind. (4:4)

Naked a man comes from his mother’s womb, and as he comes, so he departs. He takes nothing from his labor that he can carry in his hand. (5:15)

Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun–all your meaningless days. For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labor under the sun. (9:9)

I’m sure you can relate. Day by day, you swim through a tidal wave of emails, swing a hammer, or stare at the same spot in the assembly line you’ve been looking at for months. You’re glad to have the work, of course, but no matter how much you get done, it’s as if you never really make any progress at all. Tomorrow, those emails will be there, nails will still need to be smacked in, and the assembly line will keep churning along.

Sometimes, all you can really think is this: The job pays for the car that you need to get to the job. “Chasing after the wind,” indeed.

In some sense, nothing brings us more face to face with the Fall of humanity than work. In toil we see how the earth no longer produces like it once did (Genesis 3). In bitterness we see how “the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions” (1 John 2:16) can get us stuck on an endless uphill treadmill. In sorrow we can easily get burned (and burned out) by life “under the sun.” If our eyes can see no farther than “this world,” our work has nothing to offer beyond a paycheck.

But under the Son, labor takes on a completely different dimension—a Kingdom dimension. No, that doesn’t mean work suddenly becomes always awesome. It means that we recognize work as part of our calling, our marching orders to make Jesus-followers wherever we are. The true labor isn’t in email or hammers or assembly lines; it’s in throwing out nets and harvesting grain. We are where we are as a sliver of light to those around us.

Christ answered Solomon’s questions from all those years before. Carpenters, fishermen, tentmakers, shepherds, clothiers, tax collectors, soldiers, priests, and beggars, all found what gain there is in labor. It’s not empty toiling under the sun at all. It’s Christ in us, the hope of glory (Colossians 1:27).

Wakeup Call

Awake, my glory! Awake, O harp and lyre! I will awake the dawn! (Ps. 57:8).

Somewhere along the line, I forgot that I hate mornings. As a kid, I loathed the early morning sunshine after staying up too long and gorging on late-night TV shows. My Saturdays and Sundays and summer stirrings usually began at 1:00—p.m., that is. Even in college, I picked classes that didn’t require any matinal commitments on my part. If I could squeeze everything in from noon to four, all the better (which is part of the reason my university experience meandered through six years and countless majors).

But now, suddenly, I’m up at 5:00 a.m. And even worse? I like it.

I suppose there’s something about aging that rewires the morning-hate genes in our bodies or weakens the dawn antibodies we’ve built up over our childhood. The condition obviously overtook my grandfather, who never met a four o’clock coffee he didn’t like, and my father, who used to spring out of bed before I even went to sleep on summer nights. Genetic baggage like that will catch up with you.

So, here I am, awake to pray and scare the twitchy deer from our stubbly bean plants, awake to shush the early morning sleep whimpers from our dog, awake to roll life decisions through my recharged synapses before all the buzzes, whoops, and emails clog them up. Awake and alive.

David said that he would “wake the dawn” with his praises and prayers. Another psalmist, much later, cried for help in those dark, early morning hours. Suddenly being one of those early risers, now I understand why morning sun meant so much to them.

You see, for all my loathing earlier in life, there’s something almost sacred about the first light. No, I don’t mean God blesses one part of the day more than others; I mean that early mornings peel away distraction with rose-colored light. Early mornings smother doubts and fears in the same way they splatter dew on the grass. Those moments, before anything else bangs on the door of your brain, bring a clarity that fades away far too quickly. And I don’t want to miss it.

That’s why the boy who shuddered at the thought of eyes being open before noon is now the man who doesn’t want to miss the pre-day lightshow. It’s there that I find God waiting.

Sick on the Scenic Route

“Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” Philippians 3:12

On my way home from North Carolina, I followed my impulse to jump on the Blue Ridge Parkway that meanders along the spine of the Appalachian Mountains. Late spring had hit, and the trees on that slithering byway had burst into color. And if you know me, you know I can’t resist a scenic detour in spring… or summer…  or anytime I’m sure my car won’t get stuck for some reason.

If you’ve ever had the chance to sling along the Blue Ridge, you’ll find it hard to keep your eyes on the road. Gasp-worthy valley vistas pretty much assault you wherever you turn with their seductive greens and purples and blues. The only problem with a wandering gaze, however, is that many of the turns on that road completely bend back on themselves. So, you’re constantly looking out in awe—and then whipping the car back on the road before you become part of that valley view.

In fact, those stomach-churning curves nearly got the better of me. Never before or since have I suffered from motion sickness while driving. But that road, with all its flipping and flopping, beat me up. By the time I finally escaped that tangled beast of a road, I was actually happy to see the interstate and all its rush-hour traffic (well, for the most part). At least those bumper-to-bumper shenanigans meant I’d be going straight.

For many of us, our pursuit of Christ swings us around in much the same way. We whip around curves that seem to take us the long way round, nearly bumble off the road because something shiny catches our eyes, and let the cares along the way nauseate us. It’s a circuitous route, this Christian life, and one that doesn’t move us from start to finish quickly.

But it’s a path paved by the One who made us His own.

Each bend, each switchback curve, brings us closer to the goal He made possible. His mountain climbing 2000 years ago means we can follow Him all the way, no matter how far away the goal may seem. We’re His, and He’s calling us home.