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.

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.

My Two Voices

“The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” Jeremiah 17:9

I never read the Bible alone. Instead, there’s a squeaky voice tucked away in my head that likes to tag along. For the most part, it hums along in time with the steady cadence of Scripture, just waiting. But when something challenging pops up, something that pushes against the way I’m living, the tiny warble begins.

Brace yourselves because I’m taking you inside here.

Me: You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires

The Warbler: You don’t need to worry about that. It says “old self.” You’re all brand-spanking new in here. Just ignore that.

Me: to be made new in the attitude of your minds

The Warbler: See. That’s totally you—new times two. Nothing left in here but soapy clean suds.

Me: and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.

The Warbler: Being like God? Yeah, right! That’s impossible. Not what that verse means. You can only do what you can do. Don’t worry about it. Next!

Me: Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor, for we are all members of one body.

The Warbler: Oh, man! You’re a truthfulness beast of awesome.

Me: Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.

The Warbler: That doesn’t mean you have to be nice all the time. Do you really want people stomping all over you? You’ve gotta push back and give them some smack when they need it.

Me: Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.

The Warbler: All? Pshaw! After the way you acted yesterday, that’s obviously a ridiculous goal.

Me: Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.

The Warbler: Eh, just focus on the Christ forgiving you part. It’s all about you, right?

Okay, okay, that’s probably a bit of an exaggeration. But from the conversations I’ve had, I don’t think I’m the only one who has such a voice that “helps” interpret Scripture. We all come to the Bible with certain ingrained expectations about ourselves, the world, and God. But God’s Word tends to sandpaper over them… a lot.

Not surprisingly, we push back. We justify trouble spots in our own lives and shift the tough passages to “worry about later” or “not about me” lists. I know I’m good at that.

Fail Big

I love that Paul, the witness to the Gentiles (that’s us), could easily be considered a failure—at least by our standards. How often he trudged into a city, laid out the message of the cross, and then got kicked out or chased away. Never rich, never featured in Rome Today magazine, never more than a stone’s throw from death.

But what a spectacular failure. God used this man’s frustrations to tear up the world.

I too often measure success in terms of how far I’ve come or how big of an impact I’ve had. But that’s not how God’s Kingdom works. It starts out like a seed—a dead, lifeless thing that falls into the ground and gets covered up. From there, great things sprout up.

When Jesus described the Kingdom, He used simple imagery. The small things in life, the things you can touch in your heartbreak, pain, and defeat. It’s a place for the poor, the persecuted, the childlike. This Kingdom flips our version of success over and spanks it for good measure.

Fail big—if it means that no one can mistake the results as something you could have done alone. Fail often—if it means pointing people to the cross and the God who never stops watching for them to return. Fail hard—if it means being free from this world’s measures of success.

After all, the Kingdom is worth it.

The First Promise

The promise of Christ comes early, probably earlier than you think. Before Adam and Eve got their just dessert after a fruit dinner and even before the serpent received news of a foot-stomping good time, the promise of Christ had already been given.

I’ll let Paul explain:

‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.

Did you catch that? Look at it through the lens of the NLT:

As the Scriptures say, ‘A man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one.’ This is a great mystery, but it is an illustration of the way Christ and the church are one.

Don’t miss that: true marriage isn’t simply a human invention or even a human action. A true marriage serves as a reminder and a promise—a reminder of the first union and first coming, a promise of Christ returning.

In other words, societies define “marriages” as social institutions and contractual obligations. God thinks much bigger. He intended marriage to point to Jesus, to salvation, to unity. It is the good news made manifest through a man and woman. Whatever societies may make of “marriage,” true marriage starts with the gospel.

Does salvation define your marriage?

Turning on the Lights

Familiar verses trip me up. I know that may seem odd, but that’s been the challenge of studying the Book of Job. I know my familiar, super-spiritual, get-hyped-up verse is coming, and my brain wants to phase out everything until I get to it. Yes, this verse:

For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. (19:25)

Great verse, but so is everything else leading up to it. In fact, that verse makes much more sense in context of Job’s clear-sighted, death-wish suffering compared to his friends’ repent-to-riches belief system. (That’s a whole other blog post.)

And other books are the same way. I know the highlight verses, and I have to beat back the urge to rush to them so that I don’t miss the good stuff for the famous stuff.

Here’s what I’ve come up with to keep my focus on the chapter I’m in:

  1. Read an unfamiliar translation or paraphrase. Whip out the NLT or The Message, and the unfamiliarity makes your mind focus. You could even tongue-trip your way through the old KJV for some hardcore challenges. I find that reading a couple translations means more scrutiny of what I read.
  2. Pray while you read. As I’m reading, I usually stop every few verses to pray over what I’ve covered. For one thing, I often need to repent of missing the mark (okay—pretty much every time), and for another, this slows me down enough to really get the point.
  3. Journal. Basically, this is prayer on paper. At least, that’s how I see it. You just keep notes of where you trip up and what you learn.
  4. Jump on the highlight verse. That is, read the book in light of the famous verse. Ask if that verse captures the theme. At least then the elephant comes out to play instead of standing in the corner.
  5. Outline it. Okay, I don’t actually do this, but some people like to outline what they read to better understand. I don’t think that way. If it works for you, go for it.

Do you have any tips for keeping your focus on what you’re reading instead of rushing ahead?