To my friends,
Your Suffering is not in Vain
This Christmas marks my 6th as Rector of Good Shepherd. It is more true today than ever that I largely minister to my friends. In this season of holiday hope and expectation, I am struck again by the deep suffering of God’s faithful people in so many ways. This message represents the outworking of the Gospel and its application to our lives. It is perhaps the most important message that people need to hear, apart from Jesus’ saving work on the cross, in order to know the real joy of Christmas.
Today, I boldly proclaim to you my friends that your suffering is not in vain. In fact the cross of Jesus Christ teaches us that man’s suffering is redeemable, even the most hopeless kind. As we gaze at the most innocent human ever to live, suffering desperately for sins he did not commit, isolated from earthly friends and His heavenly Father; we are reminded that the appearance of things and indeed even the experience of things is not the last word on their reality. The world’s most desperate and vindictive message is that your suffering means nothing. Nihilism teaches that there is no meaning and it leads to desperation and despair. It is the anti-gospel and I beg you not to travel there. Instead drink deeply of three biblical truths that show us with utmost certainty that our suffering is not in vain.
- Your suffering is necessary – Romans 8:17 “and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.”
Of all the biblical truths about suffering, this one might be the hardest to receive as one suffers, and yet it is intrinsic to our belief that our suffering is not in vain. The Bible is clear that we must suffer with Christ in order to share in his glory. No matter where you are today, you can be certain that suffering is the appointed lot of all believers. In fact all suffer – Christian and non-believer alike. Only we suffer knowing that “an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Corinthians 4:17) is prepared for us. Paul tells us clearly in Philippians 3:10-11, that he wants to know Christ in order to share in his suffering. How can we know a person and not know that very central things in his life? If we are to know Jesus Christ, we must come to know a man “acquainted with sorrows” (Isaiah 53). Paul further says that the desire to share in Jesus’ suffering is accompanied by an equal desire to “attain the resurrection of the dead.” Not that we can earn or merit our salvation but that in our identity with Christ, we might have the glorious assurance promised to the saints.
- Your suffering is purposeful – Romans 5:3-5 “More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”
The purpose of our suffering goes deeper than just the necessity of suffering with Christ. Our suffering has purpose; so much so that Paul rejoices in his suffering. Maybe it is impossible at this moment where you are to rejoice in your suffering, but it is important to see the chain of causes that leads to the purpose of suffering. Suffering produces endurance; endurance, character; and character, hope. The purpose of our suffering is to build hope in the life of the believer. This is not an easy chain to follow. Suffering does not inevitably lead to perseverance. In fact it is important, as the writer of Hebrews enjoins, that we be “trained by it [our suffering]” (Hebrews 12:11) or else the final purpose of hope is never reached. How many of us know a person who when faced with great suffering, did not walk the chain of causes in Roman 5 to hope but instead grew deeper and deeper in anger and despair. Or as another friend said upon learning of an injustice, I have to decide to whether to get bitter or to get better. The purpose of suffering is not limited to hope but all kinds of Spirit-filled righteousness that is born out of the love of God poured into our hearts. The Holy Spirit is God’s deposit and guarantee that we do not suffer alone or without purpose.
- Your suffering is (temporary) for joy – Romans 8:18 “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.”
What great news to read of and believe on the great truths of the Bible concerning the release of Christian souls in heaven from any kind of suffering. The book of Revelation is clear that heaven is a place of no tears and no suffering of any sort (not even a sunburn). Who can imagine the glories of heaven? And yet our suffering often produces a myopic view that allows only the moment to be perceived as reality instead of God’s great eternity. That’s why Paul gives this great view that the present is not worth comparing to the future glory. He goes on to say in verse 28 of the same chapter of Romans that “God is at work in all things for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purposes.” Good is in the mix even in the midst of our suffering. God is doing what only God can do and it is for our ultimate joy. In 2 Corinthians 7:4, Paul proclaims “I am filled with comfort. In all our affliction, I am overflowing with joy.” What is this joy that Paul can dwell on and in in the midst of suffering? It is the joy of heaven, the joy of eternal life.
My friends your suffering – no matter how intense or long – is not in vain because your suffering is necessary, purposeful and for joy. I can think of no greater gift to give to my suffering friends this Christmas than a message of hope that is built on the solid rock of Jesus Christ and His precious Word.
Fr. Shay +