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.

Sifted

“Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.” Luke 22:31-32

Every so often, I’m overcome with the urge. I tromp my way into the kitchen, raid my wife’s Pinterest boards, and load up the most ridiculously awesome dessert I can find (as long as it has ingredients I can pronounce). Why? I have no idea, but cooking is an itch that has to be scratched every so often. And if I’m going to cook, then let it be dessert (or something grilled, but dessert works better year round).

Now, I’m not the most faithful of recipe followers. I never measure vanilla extract; I eschew mixer etiquette (like the speed really matters); and I don’t sift flour. In fact, I’m convinced that a sifter was invented by kitchen accessory companies as a way to squeeze more money out of wannabe chefs: “Sure, your flour is fluffy, but is it sifted fluffy?”

Okay, okay… a real chef, which I am not, will tell you the importance of sifting. They’ll go into a long spiel about why it makes the dish better. They’re right, I’m sure, but that doesn’t mean I’m willing to go through with the process. I’d rather live my fantasy about why sifting flour isn’t important because it makes the dessert easier.

In fact, that’s exactly the same reaction I have with my life being sifted. I much prefer the easy, slapdash method of getting to where God wants me to be. My desire is that He take me from messed up to fixed in the rough areas of my life without having to go through the tough work of restoration. Throw in the fix, and I’m good to go.

But it doesn’t work that way, and there’s a good reason why: being sifted leaves a mark that instant fixes don’t. We need the scars to remind us.

Notice how Jesus explains this to Peter. First, He tells Peter that Satan has asked to sift the disciple. Asked… as in requesting permission from God to test Peter. Second, Satan gets permission. Jesus doesn’t say the request was denied. He says only that He prayed for Peter’s faith not to fail. In other words, Jesus holds the disciple together, but He doesn’t stop the testing. Finally, it’s only after the sifting and restoration that Peter can strengthen his brothers.

That’s the key here. Peter gets sifted (through his denial of Jesus), but because he’s sifted, he can restore his brothers. His faith gets a huge boost, and the post-sifting Peter becomes a rock-steady man of God (couldn’t resist the pun).

Sifting stinks, and we’d all prefer that God would just snap His mighty fingers and make us the man or woman He wants us to be. But if He did, we would miss the blessing that comes from being refined in the fire. Yes, I said “blessing,” a big, fat blessing—even if it doesn’t feel that way at the time.

Let Pain Do Its Full Work in You

I don’t often just read the Bible during study. There’s too much conversation going on for simple reading. I’m too busy praying to God and preaching to myself to just scan over the words. I’m not super-spiritual; reading Scripture’s just not a quiet endeavor. You read it, and the words dig their way down deep.

Thanks to Mark Driscoll, I no longer have to worry about that sounding weird. (Now it’s only weird when someone comes in and catches me.)

Recently, I’ve been actively conversing with Lamentations, a book I’ve often avoided. After all, it’s not exactly a pep rally to go. Any book where the narrator says God makes him eat dirt doesn’t exactly land on the must-read list. We’d rather focus on the “joy comes in the morning” part and be done.

But we really can love this book—pain, face slaps, being buried alive, and all. You see, pain does a work in us; disappointment transforms. We don’t have to like it—Jeremiah didn’t—but we do have to remember that we’re not supposed to see things with our own eyes. We’re supposed to get a new identity in Christ and start from there.

That’s why Jeremiah can weep one moment and praise God the next. He knows that pain has to work through to completion and refine us. It sucks, but it’s worth it.

Argue with Lamentations for a few days. Get to know the God who knows what haunts you. The best part is that He knows how to grace you out of your pit.