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.

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.’”

What You Should Do

And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light. (Colossians 1:10-12)

Hundreds of times I’ve found myself bemoaning some predicament or difficult decision. Often, I’m on the floor and staring up at the ceiling. Although the words may vary somewhat, they all pretty much amount to this:

“God, can’t you just tell me what to do?”

I’m a planner. So, what I really mean is this: “If You could just spell out every step for the next few months—or years—that’d be great. Maybe a detailed list?”

What I keep forgetting is that God already did that. He even put it all in a list for me in Colossians. Sure, it isn’t exactly a step-by-step guide, but close enough. His planner for our daily life goes like this:

Bearing fruit in every good work: Since He’s prepared good works for us to do (Ephesians 2:10), that makes this one even more straightforward. But how can we identify these? By…

Growing in the knowledge of God: He’s the one who prepared these good works. So, He’s the one we should cozy up to and learn from through His Word and consistent communication. And when we do, we get some boom to go with it…

Being strengthened with all power according to His glorious might: God is radioactive. As we walk in those good works by getting to know Him, His power rubs off. True, we don’t get the X-Men glowing face like Moses, but we can still put on quite the light show (Matthew 5:16). You get that power…

So that you may have great endurance and patience: When good works flow from our knowledge of God and His strength, we suddenly care a lot less about those worries that used to drag us down. We can endure because God’s Kingdom is present in our life right now (Matthew 6:33). With such a focus, that means we should be…

Joyfully giving thanks to the Father: Rolling in those pre-prepared good works with God-strength and God-focus makes us want to do the God-is-good electric slide (your results and dance moves may vary). We just can’t keep our mouths shut because He…

Has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light: In fact, that’s the biggest, boldest thing on our God-given to-do list. We do the good works He’s planned with His strength and our eyes on Him, all because He qualified us.

So many times I want God to spell things out for me each step of the way. And sometimes He does. But most often, He points me—gently or not so gently—back to Colossians. I’ve been given instructions for the day-to-day race that will one day end with Him. Faith means leaving the details in His hands.

It Looked Better in My Head

“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.” Philippians 2:3-4 

Your calling looks better in your head than in real life. Inside, safely tucked away in your synapses, the visions of what God wants to do through you come with puppies, double rainbows, and guilt-free cheesecake. It’s amazing how perfectly our brains can sand down the obstacles ahead, plaster over the voices of dissent, and generally build a future much like the highlights from someone else’s life.

With such a build-up, it’s easy to see why we get disappointed. After all, stories like these are all over:

  • The country preacher has a vision to reach rural America with the gospel, to burn so brightly that a whole community is changed. But the church never grows. He sees nothing dramatic happen and finally moves on.
  • A woman faithfully loves and serves her unsaved coworkers for years. She pours hours of prayer into the thing, hoping that at least one will really absorb what she’s been sharing with them. But all she seems to take with her when she retires are the pictures from her cubicle.
  • A Christian missionary community, after years of serving the poorest in their adopted country, finally has a breakthrough when a local leader professes faith in Jesus. Days later, militants attack the area and murder the new convert, his family, and many of the missionaries.

And maybe something like that has hijacked your calling, too. You started out strong, pushing forward even when turbulence hit. You just knew God would work all things together for your good, and you had that verse, Romans 8:28, firmly planted in your noggin (and maybe scribbled on a Post-It Note on your mirror—just to be sure).

But along the way, the future you had imagined became more and more distant from the slog-it-out reality. You doubt that God was ever really in the thing to begin with, and, so, you try to forget that something ever happened, that something got you excited and charged up in the first place.

Don’t write off your calling just yet.

The thing about God is that He’s big, really big. And He sees much farther, clearer, and better than us. From our perspective, we can’t always see progress. But usually that’s because we’re trying to see the land ahead from a valley.

The truth is that we may not see progress in the short-term, maybe not even in our lifetime. But we’ve been called to faithfully serve where Christ puts us. We get bogged down when we imagine that all our service and work should produce results that we can experience. Our joy comes from seeing things happen, and not so much the serving.

But God never promises that we’ll see what He’s up to—at least, not while we’re camping here on earth. He’s called us to look out “for the interest of others,” both believers and the unchurched. Whether we see something happen or not.

Cold Showers

Every morning for as long as he could, my grandfather slid out of bed before the sun rose and took a cold shower. Now, granted, he lived in the warm climes of southern Alabama, and the waves of heat there appear more like tsunamis of heat. But let me tell you, cold showers in the early morning of southern Alabama feel pretty much the same as cold showers anywhere else. They’re cold.

Every evening, my grandfather came back to a house without air conditioning. He did prop a fan in the window, but that seemed more like a concession to his wimpy family than anything he needed. In a house he’d built himself that had little insulation and a tin roof, the fan pretty much blew hot air around.

But he just made it work. These inconveniences weren’t a challenge; they were opportunities. No water heater? Take cold showers. Three channels on TV? Talk when nothing’s on. No clothes dryer? Hang them up on a line. No phone? Go to your daughter’s house and use hers (though I can’t remember him ever doing so). Something breaks? Don’t buy a new one; fix it.

When I pull myself away from my iPhone, I’m sometimes struck with how different my life is. There’s never a drop of cold water anywhere near my shower. My first instinct is to buy what I need, never to make it. In the evenings, I have to force my mind to stay present on my family instead of drifting away to what important social media updates I’m missing.

But it’s not really the technology differences that hit the hardest. You see, there was a depth to my grandfather that I’ve found much harder to emulate. I’m often too distracted to get there. He just moved and breathed faith; it naturally flowed from his character. Yet I struggle to stay afloat in an ocean of distractions.

Perhaps those cold showers really would do me some good.

To Love > To Coexist: A Parable

Long ago, there was a small village crammed right up against a menacing wood on three sides and cliffs high above the ocean on the other. The villagers had no idea why their town existed in such a precarious place, but they accepted it as just the way things had always been.

Each year, the cliffs crumbled a bit more, and the villagers had to give up a bit more of their land. The villagers had talked about cutting down the trees for more room, but, secretly, they were afraid of going into the darkness. And, anyway, they didn’t have saws or axes.

So, this crumbling went on. But, you see, the villagers had something more important to worry about. They wanted to make sure that everyone lived peacefully together. Sure, they had their disagreements. Some people liked to wake up early, and some preferred to stay up late. Some ate carrots, and some hated them. But they coexisted. That was their highest virtue.

One day (as is so often the case in such stories), a man named Peter woke up and had a strange idea. He realized that he and all the others could just leave the village. It may not seem like much to you, but for the people of the village, leaving just wasn’t something you did. You coexisted, but you didn’t leave.

But this new idea gripped Peter. He thought of nothing else, and he knew it could save many people from the encroaching cliffs. So, he started telling people about it.

At first, only Peter’s family listened. Some of them thought his idea was pretty good. Others laughed. A few even got ticked. But they had to coexist; so, the disgruntled listeners let him have his crazy fantasy. For a while.

But, then, Peter had another funny thought. He felt something warm bubble up in his gut. Suddenly, he didn’t want the other villagers to fall off the cliffs one day. He had to do something. So, he started telling people that his idea was the only way to be saved from the coming disaster. What was worse, he even had other people talking crazy like that. Dozens of people agreed with him and shared this idea all over the place.

Eventually, those who simply wanted to coexist got the mayor to make Peter stop talking. Of course, they didn’t say he couldn’t talk—that wouldn’t be tolerant of them. Instead, they made a new law that said anyone wanting to share ideas had to have a permit. Said permit had to come from the mayor, who only gave permits once every year. He was fresh out whenever Peter asked.

Meanwhile, the crumbling cliffs had reached the first few houses at the edge of the village. Peter, who couldn’t help himself, tried again to get those living at the edge of the village to leave. They refused, and, in fact, complained about Peter to the mayor.

After having his tolerance pushed to the limits of what any tolerant person should have to bear, the mayor finally had Peter thrown out of town with his followers. Peter didn’t stop trying, though. From the woods, he convinced a few others in town that leaving was the only chance. These new believers would share this message until they, too, were tossed out.

Eventually, just as Peter had warned, the village and the villagers all fell into the sea.

Running from the Fish

My stint manning the meat counter at the Fresh Market lasted half a day. I needed a job; they needed someone to wrap up fish. Seemed like a good match.

It wasn’t.

In way of an interview, the manager glanced at my résumé and then scowled at me. I could weigh meat and smile. That got me in the apron and behind the salmon.

My training consisted of a fellow worker—a kid a few years younger than me at the time—pointing out the scales and the paper and telling me when breaks were. Needless to say, I floundered with the flounder, and my meat wrapping looked horrible.

By lunch, I’d completely lost my appetite thanks to the ground chuck, snarling manager, and disgusted looks from customers. I didn’t let the door hit me on the way out.

Sometimes, I live my faith like that as well—minus the fish smell, of course. I get pumped on Sunday and even during the week by diving into the action-movie known as Mark’s gospel.

But when the meat hits the scales, I cower down and run. Not literally. I just don’t speak when someone talks about a general faith in something; I don’t help everyone who really needs help; I don’t show love because I’m too caught up in my own not-enough-sleep-Monday blah.

I just don’t live what I believe all the time. It’s hard, so I let it go.

Building up to that Paul faith—that preaching-while-rocks-are-flying faith—takes time and a whole lot of God’s help. I haven’t quite gotten there yet, but every so often, I shock myself with a love for people that goes so deep I can’t help but speak.

Someday, I’ll be there all the time. I pray you will be too.