“We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.” (2 Corinthians 4:8-10)
One of the most important duties belonging to the church is to preserve and re-tell the stories of the suffering of God’s saints. The writer to the Hebrews put it plainly: “We must not be sluggish, but must imitate those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.” One of the saints whose sufferings should be of particular interest to us is the apostle Paul.
In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul reminds us that suffering was central to his life, “I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again” (11:23). How did Paul face such suffering? He told the Ephesians that every event in life, including suffering, must be read through the prism that “God works all things after the counsel of his will” (1:11) He also told the Christians in Rome that, “God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love him” (8:28).
Now not everyone agrees with Paul’s understanding of suffering. William Barclay, a liberal theologian, is adamantly opposed to Paul’s view. In A Spiritual Autobiography, he says, “I believe that pain and suffering are never the will of God for his children… I cannot conceive that such things are God’s will under any circumstances.”
Is Barclay right? Is Paul wrong or even deluded? As we think of suffering in the life of a Christian, we need to remember an important discovery that Martin Luther made in 1518 at the Heidelberg Disputation. It was in the midst of this controversy that Luther pointed out a very important concept in the New Testament known as “the theology of the cross.” Essentially, this truth reminds us that God comes and reveals Himself to us, not in circumstances of triumph, prosperity or success, but precisely in those moments of our lives where we feel abandoned, lost and wounded – in a manner similar to Jesus’ sufferings on the cross. It is in the midst of our trials and sufferings where God is most active in accomplishing His will.
Although the crucifixion of Jesus was a sickening and offensive sight, the Gospel writers tell us it was in this gruesome setting that God saved His people. It was in the agony and desolation of Calvary that God brought redemption and blessing to the world. And Paul tells us that it was through his own sufferings for Christ that God’s plan to bring eternal life to the nations was accomplished. Suffering serves an important role in the Christian life.