The clay pots we call bodies that carry us through this life reveal themselves to be frail, temporary, and inadequate for the task that is before us. The words of Ecclesiastes 2:22-23 ring true in a world like this,
“What has a man from all the toil and striving of heart with which he toils beneath the sun? For all his days are full of sorrow, and his work is a vexation. Even in the night his heart does not rest. This also is vanity.”
Lately, it seems like we are surrounded by death. The number of “surprise” deaths that we have had to announce in our church in 2022 so far is heartbreaking. On top of that, our local, national, and international news stations have presented us with daily death counts for the past two years. And then there are those in our church family who the Lord has not yet called home, but their lives and ministry have been drastically changed by personal health struggles or the health of a loved one. And yet again, that doesn’t include those of our church family who have suffered from broken relationships, failing health, and chronic pain for years with no end in sight unless Jesus returns.
But aren’t Christians supposed to be a people of hope, endurance, and joy in the face of suffering? So how do we understand this “toil” we have been given? To lift our perspective above the clouds of loss or crises, we need to look to the God who sustains all things by the word of His power. We must raise our eyes and look to Christ, who provides for us not only an example but also power in our suffering.
Missionaries of Suffering
I want to suggest that the Bible does not see suffering as something that interrupts our ministry as servants of Christ, but rather, suffering is itself a type of ministry; one that the Church and our world desperately need to witness. I want to call all of us to prepare and lean into a ministry of suffering.
The Biblical secret to honouring God and loving others in our suffering is to embrace suffering as a ministry. When we hear the word “ministry” a few differing pictures might come to mind. Most often it is the pastor, the priest, or the missionary who is paid to spend his or her time working for God at home or abroad. Or we might think of the different programs our church runs like Sunday School, Youth Group, or a women’s ministry. But the word has its most simple definition as an office or service. Whatever you do is your “ministry” in some sense. Our suffering is a mission from God in which we can glorify Him. Suffering must be viewed as an appointed office through which we can continue to serve the purposes of God and his Church regardless of our circumstances. Ministers or missionaries are those sent out to do the work. In our suffering, we must see ourselves as sent out by God in the midst of suffering to reveal the power, supremacy, and sufficiency of God in this fallen world. I see this in the lives of the Old Testament saints, the example of Christ, and the challenge of the Apostles to an infant Church.
A Great Cloud of Witnesses
The first evidence of this is in the biographies of the characters that God has chosen to preserve for us in His Word. The Bible never shies away from the hard, ugly, and painful things of life. This should give us encouragement and hope in the midst of suffering that God means our suffering for our good and His glory because He is the same yesterday, today, and forever.
Remember Noah, who acted righteously amid an evil and corrupt generation (Genesis 6:9). Think of Abraham and Sarah; they were given the promise of a son who would bless the nations while enduring decades of pain regarding infertility (Genesis 15:1-6). Or Job who, having lost his livelihood, family, and health would say, “Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord. (Job 1:21)” David would write over and over again in the Psalms about the pain of loneliness and reproach he felt from the world around him (e.g. Psalm 88). Even the Apostle Paul was called by God to, “show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name (Acts 9:16).” Suffering is not the exception to the rule, it is the default setting. We should take great comfort that we stand among a great cloud of witnesses that, “though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us (Hebrews 11:39-40).”
These stories of real men and women are reminders that God means all things for good in the life of his people regardless of how it appears in the moment. These are the men and women we revere as “heroes” of the faith, yet their stories are preserved for us in suffering, not in strength. God accomplished his eternal purpose to bring Christ into the world to be our salvation through a lineage of suffering. Our first comfort in suffering comes from the camaraderie of those around us and before us in Christ.
The Perfect Example of Christ
But that camaraderie is not limited to our fellow human beings, but Jesus, the Son of God, shared in the experience of human suffering as well. Hebrews 2:14-15 says,
“Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.”
Part of the reason for the incarnation was that Christ would partake in our weakness, in our pain, in our suffering. “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin (Hebrews 4:15)”. And Peter makes the point explicit that it is the suffering of Christ that purchase our salvation, "He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed (1 Peter 2:24).”
If the all-wise God determined that the suffering of His Son was the most glorious way to achieve the salvation of fallen humanity, we can embrace the reality that “a servant is not above his master (John 13:16).” We can lean into Christ in our suffering and come to know His perfect love and strength more perfectly in our weakness (2 Corinthians 12:19).
The Refining Power of Suffering
And suffering not only is consistent with God’s work in history, but suffering has a positive benefit for our souls. When we experience God’s grace in weakness, the work of God to sanctify us is accelerated. James encourages the recipients of his letter, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing (James 1:2-3).” Suffering and want produce in us something that comfort and plenty do not. It represents the reality that God warns the Israelites of in Deuteronomy 8:10-11,
“When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the Lord your God for the good land he has given you. Be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God.”
Self-reliance is the enemy of God’s call on our lives that we die to ourselves and live for Him. Suffering reminds us, like the saints from Hebrews 11, I mentioned above, that we are not made for this world. We are made to walk and commune with God perfectly, and that future home will only be satisfying to our souls if we live with a healthy dissatisfaction with the present world as it is now. Suffering allows us to see through visible worldly pleasure to the greater unseen eternal pleasure waiting for us (2 Corinthians 4:17-18). When we suffer, the fragility of our worldly hopes is exposed and the supremacy of God’s promises to us are elevated and proven secure.
Bearing Christ to the World
However, our suffering is not meant only to benefit ourselves. Suffering equips us to show our brothers and sisters in Christ and a lost world the love and grace of a perfect God. Colossians 1:24,
“Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body.”
This is such a strange verse. At first glance, Paul seems to be claiming that Christ lacked a certain quality in his ministry that Paul is now fulfilling. Is Paul rejecting Christ’s cry of “it is finished”? I do not think so. What the Apostle recognizes is that in his suffering, he is proclaiming to anyone who is watching that the things of this world, health, wealth, prosperity, and comfort are not worth comparing to the glory of Christ. Jesus did this by becoming a man and living among us. But since the historical moments when Jesus walked this earth and was nailed to the cross what has been lacking from each subsequent generation has been the eye-witnessing of that suffering. No generation except the Apostle’s generation saw Jesus suffer. In our suffering then, we point to Christ’s suffering and mirror it to our generation. What Paul is saying is, that when God’s people suffer, they get to remind a watching world of the suffering of Christ. In our pain, we get to testify that Jesus endured pain for us. In our loss, we get to proclaim that Jesus suffered the loss of all heavenly glory to save us. In our frailty, we preach to the world that Jesus left the perfection of heaven to take on human form and become sin for us so we could know the love, grace, and forgiveness of God. The world needs to see Christ crucified, and in the suffering of His people, Christ proclaims the power of his suffering over and over again to every generation until he returns.
Embrace Your Calling
For many, the reality of suffering is an unexpected and unwelcome change to an otherwise normal life. One day you are in the weeds working beside your fellow Christians, the next, you can’t seem to get out of bed without mind-numbing pain. God knows that. He is not absent from that reality. And he is calling you to lean into his strength in your weakness to demonstrate to yourself and others that He is better. Embrace your suffering, because Christ embraced suffering so you could be forgiven. One day the suffering will end, but the fruit of living for God’s glory in suffering is an unfading crown of glory that will never be taken away.