When the apostle Paul—formerly Saul, persecutor of Christians—was converted, Jesus announced, “For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name” (Acts 9:16).
Indeed, the apostle Paul suffered much for Christ’s sake. And yet, he seemed to embrace, not resist, this suffering. For this reason, Paul can teach us much about suffering—its causes, its rewards, its effects, and our responses, among other things.
Most importantly, we discover that, though suffering is necessary and normal for the Christian, its rewards are rich, and its resulting joy everlasting. Paul tells us that through suffering, God’s glory grows, and we grow glorious.
Here are 10 things Paul teaches us about suffering as Christians:
1. It is normal for Christians to experience suffering.
In 2 Timothy 3:12-13, Paul wrote to young Timothy, his disciple, “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil people and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived.”
Paul also praised the Thessalonians for their perseverance through affliction (2 Thessalonians 1:4-6).
If you are a Christian, you may have experienced persecution for your beliefs at work, at school, or even as a parent. As Christians, we are citizens of heaven and citizens of this earth. While we remain on earth, our belief in a scandalous gospel will lead to misunderstanding as well as outright attack.
2. Christians will experience many different types of suffering.
Paul cataloged his sufferings in 2 Corinthians 11:23-39:
“Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers.” (2 Corinthians 11:25-26)
He concluded the catalog by noting his “anxiety for the churches.”
Like Paul, as we labor for the gospel, we may experience physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual suffering.
I recently suffered a hacking attack on my website, a website that earns me no money but exists solely for the purpose of sharing the gospel. Though such attacks sting, it encourages us to know that Christians everywhere, beginning with Paul, endure suffering of all kinds.
3. Suffering leads to hope.
A woman who feels hopeless after her husband has had a major heart attack may not immediately understand how suffering leads to hope. And yet, Paul said, “Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope” (Romans 5:3-4). Was Paul really saying that suffering eventually results in actual hope for the believer?
Yes, he was. Psychologists have discovered that facing adversity and setbacks often results in personal development.
For the Christian, suffering’s reward is even greater than “personal development.” Suffering grows in us a deeper hope, a hope for the unseen, a hope for things that will last forever.
4. Even suffering caused our by sin can result in redemptive change.
Examples abound in the Bible and in our daily lives of how sin leads to suffering.
When David slept with Bathsheba and later had her husband murdered, there were consequences—his son died. But even if you’ve never committed adultery or murdered someone, you know the agony you may feel after you’ve spoken harsh, untrue words to or about a child or a friend.
It is this agony, this deep remorse and profound sorrow, that Paul referred to in Romans 7:24 when he said, “Who can rescue me from this body of sin and death?” Thankfully, he arrived quickly to the good news for all sinners: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).
5. God is sovereign over our suffering.
God rules over everything. That is Paul’s point in the verse often quoted to sufferers: “And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them” (Romans 8:28). Unfortunately, Christians sometimes forget that God’s idea of what is good may differ from ours.
For example, Paul prayed that God would remove a “thorn in the flesh,” some type of unidentified suffering (2 Corinthians 12:7-8). God answered Paul’s prayer by telling him, “’My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness’” (2 Corinthians 12:9). In other words, God denied Paul’s request to remove the suffering because he knew that Paul’s weakness would be “good”—for Paul, for others, and for his own glory.
6. We are not alone in our suffering.
Paul said that the entire creation endures the suffering of this fallen world alongside us: “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time” (Romans 8:22).
Ever since Adam and Eve rebelled in the garden, the entire creation, and we ourselves, have been affected by the fall—disease, death, and decay are all part of living in this world until Christ returns to make things new.
The good news, Paul reminded us, is that “The Lord is near” (Philippians 4:5); that is, Jesus is close to us in our suffering, and he is soon coming to restore all broken things.
7. Suffering brings glory to God.
After asserting that he has been afflicted in many ways but has not yet been crushed, Paul proclaims, “For it is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God” (2 Corinthians 4:15). In other words, the suffering of Christians can reveal grace to others, thereby bringing glory to God.
Our family witnessed this progression of grace, gratitude, and glory personally when our younger son was diagnosed with a brain tumor and underwent four brain surgeries in a nine-month period. Rather than ask, “Why would a good God allow this?” we were able to continue trusting and hoping in God.
As people observed our faith, and as they observed God’s kindness to our family in the midst of suffering, “more and more people” understood God’s grace. Together, we all thanked God and marveled at his might and mercy—in other words, we all glorified God.
8. Christians can rejoice in their suffering.
“Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings….” (Romans 5:3)
We can rejoice when we suffer for reasons we’ve already noted:
Suffering is the evidence that we belong to the Lord
Suffering leads to hope
Suffering results in more and more people giving glory to God
The Lord is sovereign over our suffering
We are not alone in our suffering
9. God comforts us in our suffering so that we might comfort others.
As Paul explained, “He comes alongside us when we go through hard times, and before you know it, he brings us alongside someone else who is going through hard times so that we can be there for that person just as God was there for us” (2 Corinthians 1:4).
Those who have wandered the same wilderness of suffering often have a unique power to bring comfort to others in their situation:
An older mom comforts a younger mom when her baby won’t sleep through the night.
Cancer survivors comfort newly diagnosed patients.
A seasoned pastor comforts a younger pastor laboring under many burdens.
In such situations, the comforters become grateful for the suffering they have experienced because it allows them to minister to another hurting person.
10. Our suffering, in the light of eternal glory, is brief and light.
Paul asserted, “For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison…” (2 Corinthians 4:17)
In Romans 8:18, he explained: “For I consider these present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.”
To understand Paul’s point, imagine a pregnant woman suffering with agonizing back labor for over 10 hours. She wants to give up. She hurts. She screams. But then, finally, a pink-cheeked squalling infant appears. The nurses clean the baby, wrap her in a soft, flannel blanket, and place her in her mom’s arms. The baby glows; her mom glows. Two sets of eyes sparkle in recognition.
“This is the moment I labored for,” the mom thinks. The joy of knowing and being known by her baby is worth every second of torment she endured.
This analogy cannot fully capture the joy we will experience when we see Christ face-to-face. In that moment, Paul suggests, all of our suffering will most surely be forgotten, for in that day, we will fully understand God’s glory, and we will be fully glorious.
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