A Privileged Existence
We as Christians may not always realize it or feel like it, but we do live a privileged existence. The Bible enumerates hundreds of ways in which we are privileged, but we are focused on two that are mentioned in Ephesians 4:12-13 which we began to study last week. We saw that first, we are privileged in that we have direct access to God in prayer and we saw what a wonderful thing that is and how it works. But the second privilege emphasized in this passage isn’t one we naturally gravitate toward. In fact, when we experience it, we don’t usually think of it as a privilege – and yet, it very much is. The second privilege? – suffering! You might title these two privileges prayer and pain. The little word “So” ties them together. Access to God is key to enduring the privilege of suffering.
When most of us see pain, we are kind of like the guy whose wife was in labor with their first child. Things were going pretty well when suddenly she began to shout, “Shouldn’t, couldn’t, wouldn’t, didn’t, can’t, won’t!” “Doctor, what’s wrong with my wife?” the guy shouted. “Nothing,” the Doctor said. “She’s just have contractions.” The doc didn’t get excited because he knew that while she was having pain, the pain would lead to a birth – just like any pain that God allows in our lives. So let’s look at His perspective on this most important topic.
II. Suffering For God
Paul says in verse 13, “So I ask you not to lose heart over what I am suffering for you, which is your glory.” Paul is in prison suffering for the sake of the gospel and concerned that his Ephesians friends might be tempted to pack it in before the heat gets closer to home, right?
“Don’t lose heart,” he says. He considers it a privilege to suffer for them if that’s what it took to the gospel to them and others. Paul’s own commentary on this verse is found in Colossians 1:24 and it is a truly remarkable statement. He says, “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, that is, the church.” Paul kept his eye on the prize, Christ -- not on the momentary pain. I saw a t-shirt at a volleyball game this week that said, “Pain is temporary; pride is forever.” I’d rephrase that slightly, “Pain is temporary, the prize (Christ) is forever.”
You say, “Sure, but that’s for heroes. That’s all for the saints who are above us mere mortals. I could never measure up to that kind of commitment.” And I must admit, I feel the same way. And yet, suffering is the second part of our privileged existence in Christ. You say, how could suffering be part of a privileged existence? Let’s gain some perspective.
- Suffering is a gift
First of all, we should know that suffering is a gift from God. Now, I know our reaction: “Some gift. I’d just as soon the Lord kept that gift.” Very natural reaction. But I hope you will see by the time we finish today that we need an attitude adjustment regarding suffering – not that we should seek it, or go out of our way to find it. We need not do so. It will surely find us. But when it comes and for however long it is our companion, we must remember -- God only gives good gifts.
But please turn with me to Phil 1:29 where Paul takes this to a whole new level: “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake.” Now, mark well what Paul is saying in this verse. It has one verb – “has been granted”. That is one word in the Greek language and it is the verb form of the noun “grace.” Paul is literally saying, “It has been graced to you” or “graciously given” or, even better, “undeservedly bestowed upon you.” Do you get the picture? The Philippians, and we by extension, have been highly favored with a gift from God. And what is that gift?
Well, the gracious gift is twofold. We are first “graced” to believe in Him. I like that one, don’t you? Couldn’t be in Christ were it not for that. And then there is the second part. We have been “graced” to suffer for His sake. And this isn’t just persecution. Any suffering can be the source of glorifying God and the cause of joy in your life. Any suffering. Paul says in Romans 8:18, “ For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” And that is in the context of a passage where he talking about how the whole creation groans under the ill-effects of sin. So, whether it is persecution, rheumatism, cancer, an injury, emotional distress, illness or even martyrdom, it is God’s gift to us and we need to embrace it.
I must tell you something else. Anyone who tells you that God intends you to live a life without suffering and that it can all be done away with enough faith is misleading you. That’s not what the Bible teaches. You say, “Well, is it wrong to ask for relief?” Of course, not. We are children of the Father; He cares about what hurts us and He may well give relief. Paul asked for relief in II Cor. 12 from his “thorn in the flesh”, but as it did not come to him, it does not automatically or always come to us. Sometimes there is a greater good in store, so when God says “No,” or “Not now,” our reaction should be to embrace His gift with thanksgiving and joy and anticipation at what He is doing.
Someone asked C. S. Lewis, “Why do the righteous suffer?” “Why not?” he replied. “They’re the only ones who can take it.” We’re so comfortable in our 21st century, affluent American existence that we view ease and comfort as our God-given right, when it is actually suffering which is our God-given privilege.
I think that most theologians would agree that Charles Haddon Spurgeon, who labored at the London Metropolitan Tabernacle from the 1850’s to the 1890’s was one of the greatest preachers of the gospel since Paul. Spurgeon was deeply affected by chronic ailments, the most pronounced of which was a debilitating case of gout. He was also afflicted by deep bouts of depression – unassailable depression. Yet, here is what Spurgeon told his students. Listen to this, “Our afflictions are the health regimen of an infinitely wise physician. I daresay the greatest earthly blessing that God could give to any of us is health -- with the exception of sickness! If some men that I know of could only be favored with a month of rheumatism, it would be God’s grace to mellow them marvelously.” And Spurgeon meant that for himself because he said, “I’m afraid that all the grace that I have got of my comfortable and easy times and happy hours might almost lie on a penny. But the good that I have received from my sorrows and pains and griefs is altogether incalculable.”
Paul’s threefold personal goal expressed in Philippians 3:10 was “that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death.” In other words, “Bring it on. I want to hurry up and fill up what is missing of the sufferings of Christ for the sake of others.” We don’t hear much of that these days, do we? But Paul understood that suffering is a gift of God, and He wanted God’s gifts.
- Suffering Has a Purpose
The next thing we need to know about suffering is that suffering always has a purpose – always. We may not see it at the time. We may not ever see it in this life, but faith believes our Lord’s gracious intent is expressed in every instance of suffering. In II Corinthians 12 we see that sometimes suffering is intended to keep us from pride. In Job it is a huge means of frustrating Satan. But of the many purposes we could choose, let’s confine ourselves to just three reasons that God allows suffering to demonstrate that it always has a purpose.
- To Reveal Sin
God sometimes uses suffering to reveal sin in our lives. This is certainly not the only and may not even be the main reason. We should never look at someone else who is suffering and say, “Oh, oh – where’s the sin?” That would be like the desperate mother of a four-year-old girl who kept sucking her thumb. The mother told her, “If you keep sucking your thumb, you’ll eventually blow up like a balloon!” The next day the mother and her daughter attended a small social gathering. Among those present was a woman who was obviously pregnant. The little girl spotted her and couldn’t contain herself. She walked up to the expectant mother and said, “I know what you’ve been doing!” It would be presumptuous of us to assume sin in someone’s life because we see suffering. But in our own lives, that’s the first question we should ask, for it is one purpose for which God allows suffering.
The Bible says in Psalm 119:67, “ Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep your word.” What wisdom is shown by David here as he notes that affliction was the means the Lord uses to get our attention and bring us to repentance. And when that happens it is a good thing, is it not? We read in Hebrews 12:6, “For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.” God is far more gracious than we realize when He takes the time to deal with us in our sin.
Discipline is not God’s way of saying, “I’m through with you,” or a mark of abandonment by him. In fact, it is the exact opposite; it is the loving act of God to bring us back. C. S. Lewis said, “God whispers to us in our pleasures; he speaks to us in our work; he shouts at us in our pain.” Sometimes it takes a 2X4 to the head to get our attention!
Timothy Keller, founding pastor of the Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City tells of a man he knew in his first parish who had lost most of his eyesight after he was shot in the face during a drug deal gone bad. He told Keller that he had been an extremely selfish and cruel person, but he had always blamed his constant legal and relational problems on others. The loss of his sight had devastated him, but it had also profoundly humbled him. “As my physical eyes were closed, my spiritual eyes were opened, as it were. I finally saw how I’d been treating people. I changed, and now for the first time in my life I have friends, real friends. It was a terrible price to pay, and yet I must say it was worth it. I finally have what makes life worthwhile.”
I can well remember the indelible impression it used to make on me as a child when my own father, having found me in some form of disobedience, would take me into his room for a spanking. I didn’t really mind the spanking, but most of the time, as he explained what I had done and why he would have to do this, tears would come to his eyes and that always spoke volumes to me of how much he loved me and was far worse punishment that the spanking. This is exactly why the Bible says in Proverbs 3, “11) My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline or be weary of his reproof, 12) for the Lord reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights.” If the Lord is loving you enough to reprove you through suffering, Beloved, don’t allow bitterness to intervene. Realize, He just wants you to love Him more than whatever it is that you are putting above Him. Confess your sin and move on.
- To Identify Us With Christ
A second thing suffering does is to identify us with Christ and bring assurance of salvation. Jesus says in John 15: “20) Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.” What is one way that we know we belong to Christ and are identified with Him? We know that when we are persecuted, when we suffer for His sake.
There is a wonderfully encouraging passage in Hebrews 13. Turn with me. Let’s start at verse 11, “11) For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the holy places by the high priest as a sacrifice for sin are burned outside the camp.” This is a reminder of the annual ritual by which atonement was made for the people. The priest would slaughter a bull to atone for his own sin and a goat to atone for the sin of the people. The blood would be taken into the Holy of Holies and put on the horns of the Ark of the Covenant – directly between the place where the presence of God dwelt and the Tablets of the Law which were stored within the Ark -- all signifying, of course, the sacrifice required to meet the demands of the law, thus removing that responsibility from the people. Then the animals who now represented sin were taken outside the camp to be burned. Read all about it in Leviticus 4, 6, 8 and 16.
Now, he goes on in Hebrews 13, “12) So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood.” Do you get this picture, Beloved? Imagine this! Jesus, who was the pinnacle of perfection, was crucified outside the gates of Jerusalem – one more symbol of his becoming sin for us who knew no sin that we might be the righteousness of God in Him – all of which had been depicted in the sacrifices of the Old Testament era. Now, the writer takes this one step further – one critical step further when he says, “13) Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured.” 14) For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.
What is he saying? What he is saying is this. When we follow our natural instincts and give all of our time and energy and effort to make a place for ourselves in this world; when that is our foremost concern; when we care more about what this world thinks that what God thinks; when we deny Him to please them; when we refuse to suffer humiliation, mocking, and possibly even pain, and maybe death to make our place in this earthly city; when we do not praise God nor acknowledge His name, then Beloved, we are showing ourselves not to be identified with Him – and outside of Him remember that there is no salvation. So – how are we doing? Jesus is outside the camp where He became sin for us saying, in effect, “I’m out here? What are you looking for in there? I’m out here? Name my name and come out here with me.” Suffering identifies us with Christ and His sacrifice on our behalf.
- To Enable Ministry
As a direct result of identifying with Christ, suffering often enables us to minister to others. Now – note this. Complaining renders suffering meaningless. But suffering is made meaningful in ministry when it is seen and embraced as a gift from God – when you can sit in jail and glory in it.
Paul tells the Philippians in 1:12, “I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, 13) so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. 14) And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear.”
This hints at something that is not obvious, but is true. We will impact the cause of the gospel much more by our suffering that we will ever do by our success. We will have far greater influence in people’s lives as a result of our suffering than we ever will by our success. Please do not misunderstand. I am not knocking success – I am praying for it on your behalf. Neither am I seeking suffering, but we must understand that when it comes, it is a gift from God and almost certainly intended for someone else’s benefit as well as for our own. Success does not impress an unbelieving world, but when they see someone accept suffering in a spirit of humility and joy and submission to God, they do not know what to do with that.
Depression lent an unexpected power to the ministry of Charles Spurgeon. He suffered deeply and regularly from bouts of deep depression. But listen to this: “One Sabbath morning I preached from the text, “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me.” And though I did not say so, yet I preached my own experience. I heard my own chains clank while I tried to preach to my fellow prisoners in the dark. But I could not tell why I was brought into such an awful horror of darkness for which I condemned myself. On the following Monday evening a man came to see me who bore all the marks of despair upon his countenance. His hair seemed to stand upright; his eyes were ready to start from their sockets. He said to me after a little parlaying, ‘I never before in my life heard any man speak who seemed to know my heart. Mine is a terrible case, but on Sunday morning you painted me to the life, and preached as if you had been inside my soul.’ By God’s grace I saved that man from suicide and led him into gospel light and liberty. But I know I could not have done it if I had not myself been confined in the dungeon in which he lay. I tell you the story brethren because you sometimes may not understand your own experience. And the perfect people may condemn you for having it, but what know they of God’s servants.”
What if just one person came to Christ as a result of your suffering? Just one. It would be worth it, wouldn’t it? Make no mistake, God always has a purpose for our suffering.
- Suffering Will be Rewarded
Now the final thing we need to note about suffering is that it will ultimately be rewarded. This is the one inevitable fact that we accept by faith that makes ours a truly privileged existence, in Christ. The patter is Christ. The Bible says in Philippians 2:8-9, “And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9) Therefore (because he suffered the humiliation, pain and excruciating separation from the Father in death – therefore) God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name” Man, that’s reward, wouldn’t you say?
Then there is Paul. Look at the list of his suffering sometime in II Corinthians 11. You’ll be staggered. But – Paul kept his eye on the prize, not on the pain. For Paul, as for Christ, the suffering of now became irrelevant when compared to the glory to come. He says in Romans 8:18, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” That’s why Paul could go on with an unbelievably difficult life not just with determination, but with joy! Why? Because he was looking beyond tomorrow. He was looking beyond next week. He was looking beyond next year. He was looking beyond this life! And what he saw when he looked beyond this life to the glories of heaven made everything bad that happened in the meantime absolutely irrelevant.
You say, “Okay, Dave, so Paul was special, but I’m not. I’m just trying to get by here. Just trying to get bread on the table. Enjoy life and leave a little behind for my family.” Oh, dear people, is that our aim? Do we want that for our legacy? I left a little money behind for my family? That’s not legacy. Legacy is when they see you acknowledging the supremacy of Christ on a daily basis. Legacy is when they see you laying up treasure in heaven. Listen, my dad didn’t leave me a penny. But I know he’s in glory and that he lived a heroic farmer and construction worker’s life that was dedicated to God. That’s a legacy!
You say, “But God’s call to Paul was special. That kind of faith doesn’t exist today.” Guess again. D. A. Carson in his book Being Conversant With the Emerging Church says that between 1880 and 1910, about one third of all missionaries who went to Central Africa died within their first year. Some mission agencies advised missionaries to bring their own coffins; and still they went. More people gave their lives for Christ in the 20th century than in the previous 19 put together. All over our world – all over our world today, people are taking the long view of faith. They are sitting in prison cells; they are facing death. But, They are saying the reward of heaven and of the glory of Christ is infinitely worth any price I have to pay here. I don’t know about you, but I want to be counted in that crowd that has its eye not on the pain, but on the prize, don’t you? God, please open our eyes of faith and help us to see you.
When I came to Christ, my life was no longer about me. My suffering can be the thing that shows that Christ is worth anything. That kind of faith doesn’t exist today. I beg to differ.
Some of you may have heard of Nick Vujicic, a 46-year-old Australian motivational speaker who was featured on 20/20 a couple of years ago. Nick also has no legs and no arms. That’s the way he was born for no discernible reason on December 4, 1962. Nick’s parents are devout Christians who planted a church in Australia eleven months prior to Nick’s birth, but they found it hard to understand how Almighty God could use their son’s loss for good. Nick recalls hearing in Sunday school about being made in the image of God which at the time seemed to him like a cruel joke. He seesawed between despair and begging Almighty God to grow arms and legs for him. He contemplated suicide the year that he turned eight years of age. Can you image, considering suicide at eight years of age? But we all well might have, given what Nick was asked to endure. When he was 15, however, one story in the Holy Bible answered one of his toughest questions!
He says, “When I read the story of the blind man...’Jesus said he was born blind so that the work of God could be revealed through him,’ that gave me peace. I said, ’Lord, here I am. Use me. Mold me. Make me the man you want me to be.’" Vujicic learned to write using the two toes on a partial foot that protrudes from his body. This small, little partial foot, with its two toes also allows him to balance himself in an upright position and from there, he has learned to do almost anything. He learned how to throw tennis balls, answer the phone, walk, and swim. He invented new ways to shave and brush his own teeth. He even earned double degrees in accounting and financial planning by age 21. He has since become a motivational speaker to Christian congregations all over the world and ministered to millions of people face-to-face. Teen-agers inevitably line up to give him hugs with tears streaming after he has spoken.
He told Diane Sawyer on 20/20 that yes he believed God could give him arms and legs and yes, even now, he would love to have them, but what he knows is that the day is coming when he will. In the midst of a handicap and suffering like most of us will never know, Nick Vujicic has found a privileged existence. Paul’s faith is alive and well and available. Let’s go forward together with eyes not on the pain, but on the prize, and let’s display God’s manifold wisdom.