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.

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Why Paul Wasn’t a Zombie

“We proclaim him, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone perfect in Christ. To this end I labor, struggling with all his energy, which so powerfully works in me.” Colossians 1:28-29

Worn out. Exhausted. Please oh please oh please be Friday. Those words probably describe many of our weeks—often by Monday afternoon. The surge of the weekday tide sucks us under and spins us around and strips away our energy by making us swim to the surface over and over again. Gasp. Bills. Gasp. Long meeting. Gasp. Kids biting each other.

What more can we give than that? What else can God expect from us than just trying to keep from drowning in the mess of life?

Paul says everything and more. Yep, you read that right. We’re supposed to slap down every last ounce of ourselves to the cause of Christ. We’re supposed to surrender every modicum of ourselves to the purpose of “proclaiming Him” with our joy-filled words and our peace-in-the-midst-of-this-hurricane-called-life actions.

Everything. Every single bit. For Him.

Feeling tired yet? I hope you don’t. You see, there’s something in here that we too often overlook. It does take energy—loads of it—to live a life of surrender. We wouldn’t expect anything less from being a living sacrifice (Romans 12:1). That means using all that we are to make all that He is known to all. But even with all those alls, you won’t be using up your energy.

Look again at what Paul says here: “To this end I labor, struggling with all his energy, which so powerfully works in me.” He doesn’t say, “I did it all myself until I burned out and crashed into the dirt and hated my life and decided it was just too hard to do anything and wanted to move to Alaska forever and hide in a cave.” Instead, he tells us that the source of his oomph is Christ.

Christ didn’t save us so that we could barely keep going, dragging our way like zombies down the road of life. Instead, we’re operating with power—His. He jump-started our lives with a spirit of power (2 Timothy 1:7), cranking up the juice through the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:8). After all, like Paul, we’re wrestling with the tasks God’s called us to do. We aren’t supposed to do this by tapping into our own reserves. God takes these fragile clay pots that we are and supplies His power so that He gets the glory (2 Corinthians 4:7). He adds the zing, and His zing is potent.

When you try to make it all work on your own guts and grit, you’ll eventually drain down and sputter out. Instead, take Him up on His “by my Spirit” (Zechariah 4:6) thing—that is, not your own strength. That doesn’t mean you’ll never get tired or weary. You will. But you can be sure that He specializes in renewing the worn out and exhausted (Isaiah 40:30-31).

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.

I Choose to Live Among

Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things. (Romans 2:1, ESV)

Those people are on a dark spiral downward. But if you think that leaves you on the high ground where you can point your finger at others, think again. Every time you criticize someone, you condemn yourself. It takes one to know one. Judgmental criticism of others is a well-known way of escaping detection in your own crimes and misdemeanors. (Romans 2:1, MSG)

You can’t escape Paul. At some point, every Christian must set aside self-righteousness and drink Paul’s writing, which can be akin to slurping down pickle juice. The sharp bitterness sends shivers through the whole body—and yet hydrates from the inside out (which is really what pickle juice does).

The bitterness, however, isn’t from what Paul says exactly; it’s from our reaction. Each word hurts because it’s true. Sometimes he hits our recklessness, and sometimes he hits our legalism, helping us to clean the glass so that we can see clearly.

Far worse, in my mind, is Paul’s refusal to let us gloat or raise ourselves up. Being isolated by my own sense of holiness would be easier. Paul doesn’t even let me close the door.

“Look ‘out there,’” he says. “You see those people? That’s you—each one is just like you. So, get out there and do something.”

It’s an uncomfortable feeling, trying to understand how to be like Christ. I want to pursue Him with all I am, but He keeps going out where the tax collectors and sinners are—people like me. The only difference is that I’m tagging along; they’re not yet.

Jesus went to the synagogue—and then took the synagogue to the people who needed it most. I didn’t meet Him in a church—or a Bible study or a church event. I met Him where Matthew did: in the middle of my sin.

Some sinners come running to steeples. Some sinners come running to Jesus in the streets.