Christmas day is nine days away, and I have not bought any Christmas present yet. This is not me. I usually like my world to be organized and predictable (being a Sensing and Judging MBTI Personality Type). But they’re a part of me, that likes to wait for the last minute Christmas shopping to add a little pressure and drama for the day – who doesn’t want a good story.
I like surprises, especially, if the gift I am about to receive is something I already know – something in my Amazon wish list. But what about the “gift of suffering?”
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.”
“For you have been given not only the privilege of trusting in Christ but also the privilege of suffering for him.”
Intersecting Faith & Life
A few years ago, a series of circumstances and life choices incited a prolonged season of grief and pain. Embarrassed, confused and utterly devastated, I struggled to regain my equilibrium and adapt to losses that made no sense and caused me to question everything that was once certain. Seasons of suffering are incredibly difficult to engage, yet they are part of our human experience. At some point, we each will face something that takes us to the end of ourselves and offers the opportunity to be hardened, consumed or swallowed by hurt.
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. One of the purposes of the suffering of the saints is that their relationship with God might become less formal and less artificial and less distant, and become more personal and more real and more intimate and close and deep.
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.
In context (Philippians 3:5–11) we see at least three things: First, Paul’s preparation to suffer by reversing his values; Second, Paul’s experience of suffering and loss as the cost of his obedience to Christ; Third, Paul’s aim in all of this, namely, to gain Christ: to know him and be in him and fellowship with more intimacy and reality that he identified with his best friends Barnabas and Silas.
What does that mean practically to us followers of Christ?
It means that whenever I am called upon to choose between anything in this world and Christ, I choose Christ. It means that I will deal with the things of this world in ways that draw me nearer to Christ so that I gain more of Christ and enjoy more of him by the way I use the world. It means that I will always deal with the things of this world in ways that show that they are not my treasure, but rather show that Christ is my treasure. It means that if I lose any or all the things this world can offer, I will not lose my joy or my treasure or my life, because Christ is all.
God helps us prepare for suffering by teaching us and showing us that through suffering we are meant to go deeper in our relationship with Christ. You get to know him better when you share his pain. The people who write most deeply and sweetly about the preciousness of Christ are people who have suffered with him deeply.
Elisabeth Elliot, wife of missionary Jim Elliot. She was a Christian author and speaker. She, having lived through great loss, taught on God’s grace in the midst of hardship, as well as teaching wives and mothers to fulfill the high calling of Titus 2. Elisabeth Elliot describes how it is often through the deepest suffering that God shows us the most profound lessons. As we trust Him through our trials, we come to a greater assurance of His love and sovereignty—even as He works all things together for the good of those who love Him.
Lysa Terkeurst. She is president of Proverbs 31 Ministries and the New York Times best-selling author of “Uninvited.” She puts her grief on display to offers hope to ALL who are suffering.
Jerry Bridges. At 14 years old, he heard his mother call out in the next room, entirely unexpectedly, and arrived to see her take her last breath. He also has physical conditions that keep him from regular sports. And just a few years ago his wife died of cancer. Serving God with the Navigators has not spared him pain. He writes with depth about suffering because he has gone deep with Christ in suffering.
Joni Erickson Tada. A story of a young woman’s struggle against quadriplegia & depression.
The Words of Job, Stephen, and Peter
After months of suffering, Job finally says to God, “I had heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees thee” (Job 42:5). Job had been a godly and upright man, pleasing to God, but the difference between what he knew of God in prosperity and what he knew of him through adversity was the difference between hearing about and seeing.
When Stephen was arrested and put on trial for his faith and given a chance to preach, the upshot was that the religious leaders were enraged and ground their teeth at him. They were just about to drag him out of the city and kill him. At just that moment, Luke tells us, “Stephen was full of the Holy Spirit and gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:55). There is a special revelation, a special intimacy, prepared for those who suffer with Christ.
Peter put it this way, “If you are reproached for the name of Christ, you are blessed because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you” (1 Peter 4:14). In other words, God reserves a unique coming and resting of His presence and his glory on his children who suffer for his name.
What good could possibly come from pain this profound? Where is there room for hope, let alone wholeness?
“Suffering the loss of valid dreams is an opportunity to gain Christ.” To not would be not to know Christ and thereby not fully know the Father. And two times that gaining is called a knowing— Philippians 3:8a: ” . . . because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” Verse 10: “That I might know him.” This is the intimacy factor in suffering. Do we want to know him? Do we want to be more personal with him and sincere with him and deal with him and intimate with him—so much so that we count everything as a loss to gain this greatest of all treasures? If we do, we will be ready to suffer. If we don’t, it will take us by surprise, and we will rebel.
May the Lord open our eyes to the surpassing worth of knowing Christ!