Life hurts. It hurts emotionally, financially, physically, and spiritually. In the midst of suffering there is nothing worse than a pithy bumpersticker solution to a life wrecking hardship and what suffering people need is real truth for real life in real pain. To that end, Pastor Mark Driscoll, preaches from Phil. 1:12-18 to show how Paul found Joy in his own suffering, because it served to advance the gospel of Jesus.
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.
15 Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. 16 The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. 17 The former proclaim Christ out of rivalry, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. 18 What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.
Yes, and I will rejoice,
You are listening to Philippians, a Rebel’s Guide to Joy, a teaching series by Pastor Mark Driscoll. The following is a presentation of Mars Hill Church in Seattle. For more audio and video content visit marshillschurch.org.
Mark Driscoll: One other quick announcement I wanna make before we get right to work. That is in January, we’re doing an odd series where we’re allowing people to post any question – and if you don’t believe me, go check it out for yourself – any question. At marshillchurch.org, you can click on this little box that says “ask anything”. You can post any question you want. People are gonna vote on ‘em. The top nine will be a sermon series that debuts in January, as well as a book that I’ll write off of that. So, if you care about me, please go there and help. Right now, the lunatics have officially taken over the asylum.
And we could use your vote.
What we’re in the midst of right now is the great Book of Philippians and we’ve titled this series The Rebels Guide to Joy. Tonight, we’re dealing with The Rebel’s Guide to Joyo in Suffering. We’ll be in Philippians 1:12-18. My voice is shot. I’m sick with the flu. I’m seeing double. The Red Bull and the Dayquil are duking it out.
And you know when you preach on certain topics, it’s just gonna be that week. This week, I’m preaching on suffering, so it’s been a delightful week.
And you can pray ‘cause next week I’m preaching on death.
So, I’m a little worried about that. Could go either way. I’ll go ahead and pray and we’ll get right to work in what I hope, and trust, and pray will be a really good section of Scripture for ‘ya.
Father God, we begin, as always, by coming to you with gladness and gratitude. We come to you, not with hands full to give, but with hands empty in need. We come asking that in the midst of our suffering you would reveal to us, with increasing clarity and compassion, the person and the work of Jesus.
Father, it is our prayer that we would suffer well. That through our suffering, you would accomplish much in us and through us as happened in the life of Jesus, in whose name we ask these things. Amen.
As I said, tonight we’re dealing with The Rebel’s Guide to Joy in Suffering. And when we speak of suffering, we speak primarily of a theology of suffering. I believe that our culture today, including church culture, has a great emphasis on a therapy of suffering, how to help encourage those who are suffering, but what is, often times, deficient is a rigorous, Biblically based Jesus centered, Gospel honoring, passion encouraging theology of suffering. And our theology of suffering must precede our therapy of suffering. We must understand suffering and how God is in the midst of our suffering and what he intends to accomplish through it, if we are to have any appropriate therapy of suffering.
And unlike some religions which tell us that pain and subsequent suffering is a sense – illusory, that it is not real. It’s something that we simply have falsely convinced ourselves of. The Bible takes our suffering very real. And the Bible tells us that suffering is, in general terms, the result of sin entering the world. And you and I, we begin causing suffering before we’re even born. Our mothers would testify to the fact that we cause great pain and suffering, both prior to and in the act of our birth. And the cause of our suffering continues from that point forward so that on the earth, we cause others to suffer and we, ourselves, suffer because of the lives of those that we come in contact with.
The result is that, in large part, to be alive means that you will suffer; that you will suffer physically, and emotionally, and spiritually, and mentally, and relationally. And the Bible is so replete with suffering that roughly one third of the Psalms, which are songs and Psalms sung of God’s people in praise and gratitude to God, one third of those or more include Psalms of lament, where God’s people are groaning, and struggling, and wrestling, in a lamenting fashion with the difficulty of sin.
Whole Books of the Bible, such as Lamentations are lamenting in their very essence. Every prophet in the Bible, with the exception of Haggai, has at least one lament in their Book.
Additionally, the Lord Jesus himself lamented over Jerusalem and wept over the death of his friend.
And human suffering is so real, and so raw, and so replete throughout Scripture that there are, occasionally, those in Scripture who, despite their great love of God, question why they were even born, cursed the day of their own birth. Perhaps, you can identify with them. Perhaps, you have or are suffering to such a degree that you wake up and, occasionally, look in the mirror and ask, “Why, God, was I ever born? It seems like it is nothing but sorrow, and shame, and suffering, and why in the world would I be brought into an existence that is marked by this level of pain?
If so, then Job and Jeremiah would echo your sentiment. Those two men in the Bible asked the question of God, “Why was I born? Why did I leave my mother’s womb to see nothing but sorrow, and shame, and strife, and suffering, all the days of my life?”
Some come critiquing religion, in general, and Christianity, in particular because of our emphasis on suffering. Karl Marx is one noteworthy historical example. He said that, “Religion was the opiate of the masses”, meaning that when we suffer, we seek God in the same way when someone is hurting physically, they ask their doctor for a prescribed medication that might alleviate or diminish their pain. Marx said that in a bit of jest and mockery, but as Christians, we would say, “No, the fact is that people really, truly, continually are suffering in various degrees and ways. And they truly do need some balm of comfort and relief. They need some help. And God is not to be mocked; God is to be pursued.
And I know when I speak of suffering, some of you immediately resist. You don’t want to talk about that. So much of your life is committed to not seeing, hearing of suffering. You don’t watch certain television programs. You don’t pursue certain truth in media. You don’t log onto certain websites, read certain books, pick up certain magazines, or subscribe to certain newspapers because you know, “I will hear of suffering. I will see of suffering. And I simply would like to live in an illusory world where I am fine, and the people that I know are fine, and that altogether, things are fine.”
And so, to emotionally compel you to the place where the Apostle Paul is writing from, we have taken clips of local, national, and international news from Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday of this week. We’ve put them together for you as a bit of a montage, so that you will see, not only your own suffering and the suffering of those I your sphere of influence and relationship, but you’ll begin to have some understanding of the magnitude of ongoing, continual suffering that people on the earth are experiencing, even as we gather together this evening.
(Audio from news)
Male: It was shortly before lunch, at 11:15, when the warnings went out. A tornado was tearing through parts of Pensacola.
Male: One home was blown right off its foundation, killing a man and woman inside, but nearby, a 15 month old boy sleeping in his crib, was buried in this.
Male: A violent storm moved through Missouri, killing two people. It then tore through parts of Oklahoma.
Female: Oh, man.
Female: (Screaming and crying).
Male: It didn’t take long for the word to spread across town. The daycare center had been hit.
Male: A drug resistant super bug is more widespread than first thought and may be killing more Americans each year than AIDS.
Female: Imagine what it’s like being 11 years old and being father and mother to your little brother. The children sleep on a plastic ground sheet.
Male: These are links to the dark world of child pornography, not only in Las Vegas, but probably other areas as well. I mean, we have a lot of child pornography in our country. Worldwide, it’s a growing industry, unfortunately, and we know – we don’t know how all these children become victimized. I –
Male: At least two people were killed in a highway pileup involving dozens of vehicles caught in a blinding sandstorm.
Male: Then, today, we were hit with stormy weather, thunderstorms, lightning, hail, you name it.
Male: Analyst are blaming the slump on three things – record high oil prices, more troubles in the housing sector, as well as disappointing corporate earnings.
(Sound of bomb)
Male: (Inaudible comment).
Male: Blood soaked sandals were left in the streets as police carried dozens of bodies, and more than 100 injured, to hospitals.
Male: Police broke up panicked crowds and gawkers photographing the bodies.
Female: The morgue has taken in 110 bodies since the blast. Scores are still unclaimed. Photographs of the dead hang outside.
Female: I hit my knees and thanked God today. If I didn’t believe before, I do now.
Mark Driscoll: You and I can only handle seeing so much suffering, and hearing so much suffering, and we reach a point where we simply cannot continue to see it or hear of it. And I want you to, for a moment, consider with me what it must be like that we are incapable of fully experiencing this; what it must be like to be God. The Bible tells us that God sees everything. That means that God sees all injustice, evil, sin, atrocity, pain and suffering. He sees all of it. There is never a moment that God is not seeing suffering. Unlike you and I, God never has a moment of respite.
Additionally, the Bible teaches us that God hears all. There is never a moment that God does not hear those who are weeping, and wailing, and screaming, and shouting, and crying, and moaning in agony, and pain, and suffering. And God endures this continually, unendingly, unceasingly. And the Bible says that God is good. That God is loving. That God is merciful. That God is compassionate. And you and I, when we see suffering in our life for the life of others, when we hear of suffering in our life or the life of others, we are overwhelmed. And for God, this is continual and it encompasses every human being on the earth.
You have suffered, and you are suffering, and you will suffer. The question is not, “Will I suffer?” That is not the question. To be human and alive is, by definition, to suffer. The question is, “When will I suffer? How will I suffer? How bad will it be? How long will it hurt? And will it kill me?”
You and I will suffer. Will we suffer in a way that is purposeful that God might do something in us or through us, or will we suffer in a way that is purposeless, that nothing good would be accomplished in us and that nothing good would be accomplished through us?
Now, even in bringing up this subject of suffering, some of you will immediately, out of self defense, or self righteousness, or self aggrandizement, have a hard time listening to me say anything. You may believe that you have suffered so much more than I that I have no right to speak to you. You may believe that the hardship that you have endured so supersedes any hardship that I have endured, that I am not a man of merit to speak of suffering to someone who has suffered as much as you. And rather than talking about all of the suffering that I have endured in trying to outdo your sense of self righteousness, what I would say is this. The man who writes the Book of Philippians, his name is Paul; he’s a man who has suffered.
And my goal tonight is not to diminish, to demean your suffering in any way, but to tell you that in Paul, you have a man who identifies with suffering; a man who had experienced tremendous suffering; a man who is worthy of our listening and he’s exemplary in his suffering. And by way of introduction, I would like to simply read for you some of his own words from a letter he wrote called 2 Corinthians and I want you to simply listen to this man, and in so doing, I want him to build credibility with you so that when he speaks of suffering, you’ll understand that he is a man who is speaking from experience, not in theological abstractions, but in life lessons. We’ll begin with this quote from Paul.
“For we do not want you to be ignorant, brothers, fellow Christians of the affliction we experienced in Asia, for we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death.” Goes on to say, “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but now destroyed; always carrying in the body, the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh, so death is at work in us.”
He goes on to say, “As servants of God, we commend ourselves in every way. By great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger, by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, the Holy Spirit, genuine love by truthful speech, and the power of God with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left, through honor and dishonor, through slander and praise, we are treated as imposters, and yet are true; as unknown, yet well known; as dying, and behold, we live; as punished, and not yet killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything.”
A little later in the Book, he writes these words, speaking of false teachers who are grieving him. “Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one. I am talking like a madman with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings and often near death. Five times, I received at the hands of the Jews the 40 lashes, less 1. Three times, I was beaten with rods. Once, I was stoned. Three times, I was shipwrecked. A night and a day, I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys; I, in danger from rivers; danger from robbers; danger from my own people; danger from Gentiles; danger in the city; danger in the wilderness; danger at sea; danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship through many a sleepless night; in hunger and thirst, often without food; in cold and exposure; and apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak? And am I not weak?”
And lastly, “A thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from being too elated or happy. Three times, I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But, he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you. My power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ then, I am content with weakness, insults, hardship, persecution and calamities, for when I am weak, I am strong.”
Paul is a man who, to a degree that I dare say none of us can relate, understands what it means to suffer. And in the Book of Philippians, he is in a dire circumstance that includes great suffering. As we open the Book of Philippians, it is important that you know the man, Paul; know the life that he lived so that he might have credibility with you; that you might trust him in your own suffering as a good teacher to instruct you.
Now, as we open Philippians, let me introduce you to the Book. Paul was a man who entered into this city of Philippi that was a regional city, like Seattle. There, he preached the Gospel and some people, primarily women, became Christians and the core group for his church plant. He served there faithfully. Though he was imprisoned and beaten, God delivered him miraculously. And Paul had a very loving relationship with that church to where they cared for him, and he cared for them, and they respected him, and he adored them.
And Paul, at the time of the writing of the letter of Philippians had seen the church mature and grow to where it was about 11 years of age, roughly the same age as Mars Hill Church. And Paul had left that church to go start other ministries and churches and had not physically been present with the church in Philippi for roughly four years. And he was imprisoned. He was facing death for the preaching of the Gospel, the good news of Jesus. And the church heard that their dear friend and pastor was facing the possibility of death. They were concerned about this health, his well being, his provision, his very life.
So, they took a generous offering. These are a financially generous people. And they gave it to a trustworthy man, perhaps a deacon. His name is Epaphroditus and they told him, “Go find Paul in prison. Tell him we love him, we care for him, we’re concerned for him. Give him this generous gift so that he can have food and whatever else that he needs, even though he’s in prison, and bring back to us a report of how our pastor is doing.”
And they heard that along the way, Epaphroditus himself had become sick and was facing the possibility of his own death. And their hearts were grieved because now they’re anticipating the potential death of not only their pastor, but their fellow church leader, perhaps deacon, who was commissioned to care for Paul and bring them a report. God miraculously healed Epaphroditus. He was allowed to continue on his mission. He ended up finding Paul. He ended up giving to Paul the generous gift from the Philippian Christians. And, in response, Paul sat down in his dirty jail cell and he wrote a letter with his own hand to the church at Philippi to his friends. That letter is Philippians.
What an amazing gift we have that the Spirit of God would choose to preserve this letter. And that 2,000 years later, you and I would get to read the very words of the man who was writing a joy from prison while suffering and facing the possibility of death. And joy is the great theme of the Book of Philippians from a man who is suffering well. We’ll begin reading his words in Chapter 1:12.
“I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the Gospel.” He doesn’t tell us what has happened to him. He’s not self-loathing at this moment. We don’t know if he is hungry or well fed; if they broke any of his bones; if he sick; if he’s sleeping on the floor or in a bed. We don’t know if he has a blanket to keep him warm or if he keeps himself awake shivering at night. All he says is, “I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the Gospel so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial” – some of your translations will say, praetorian guard – “and to the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. It’s about Jesus. And most of the brothers, fellow Christians, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the Word or the Word of God without fear.”
You and I will suffer. Paul, here, is suffering. And what Paul is exemplifying for us is that there is a way to suffer as a Christian so that our suffering is purposeful and not purposeless. My question to you is this. When you suffer, because the question is not if, when you suffer, will you suffer in a way that is purposeful or purposeless? Will you suffer in a way that God could do a good thing in you? We call it sanctification. It is where through suffering, and hardship, and pain and mourning, and loss and strife, and struggling, we are made to be more and more patterned after the character of Jesus Christ. Or will suffering, for you, become an opportunity that you allow to pass you by so that God is not able, because of your stubbornness to do anything good in you?
In those moments, then, suffering becomes for us an excuse for sin. “I am suffering; therefore, I have right to do evil.” It becomes, for us, an occasion for bitterness, for anger, for mourning in an unhealthy and selfish way. It becomes, for us, an identity rather than an identity in Christ. It becomes for us a means by which we become bitter against God and people. That we turn our back on God in fury. That we shake our fist at God, as if he were unjust and needed to repent to us because he’s done us wrong.
You will suffer. Will you suffer well? Will you suffer in such a way that God, through Jesus Christ, could do something good in you; grow you in love, and mercy, and patience, and kindness, and faith, and humility, and Christ-likeness. My first question is will your suffering compel you to love Jesus more? Some of you know what I’m talking about. You have suffered, and because of your suffering, you love Jesus because in your suffering, you lost everyone and everything but Jesus, and he’s the only treasure you have.
Some of you, in your suffering, have learned to love Jesus more because you realize that our God didn’t stay distant and far away. Unlike the false demon gods of other religions, he was willing to humbly come into human history and our God suffered because of that. When you suffer, you love him so much because he chose suffering in a way that you and I would never choose to suffer.
Secondly, will your suffering purify your motives? We all, if we are Christian, are commanded to do all things for the glory of God. And, sometimes, we must confess that it is difficult because our motives are mixed. That if we walk with God faithfully, some people think well of us. Some people encourage us. Some people also will promote us to church offices and positions of leadership. And when we suffer all of the extraneous motivations for faithfulness to Jesus are stripped away, Paul, here, is a great example of that fact. He has no help. No wealth. No freedom. He has nothing to gain in all of this. His motives are pure. It’s just for Jesus. That’s why he suffers well.
And thirdly, will your suffering reorient your priorities toward the Gospel, the good news of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ? You and I can so easily get off mission and get off message. All of a sudden, we find ourselves not primarily focusing on Jesus and his will for our life, and his mission for our existence. We could pursue things. People. Experiences. Like comfort, and wealth, and pleasure, and simplicity, instead of Christ. And we can lose sight of the fact that in every situation, there is an opportunity for Jesus to do a work in me and for Jesus to do a work through me, and for me to know Jesus better. For me to love Jesus deeper. For me to be with Jesus closer. And suffering tends to clarify our focus and to reorient our priorities back to Jesus.
Have you suffered? Are you suffering? In what way has or could God, if you would partner with him in the suffering, use it to accomplish something good in you? And if you will partner with God in that way, he will take what he has worked into you and he will work it through you as a witness so that, as the world sees you suffer, and as the church sees you suffer, they see that Jesus is making a difference. They see that Jesus is at work. They see that you are suffering in a way that you absolutely could not apart from Jesus. Will your suffering be purposeless in you? Will it be purposeless through you? Or will it be purposeful in you, and will it be purposeful through you? I am begging you not to waste your suffering. Your tears should not be in vain. Your struggle should not be in vain. Your hardship should not be in vain. It should not be wasted. It should not be neglected. It should not be abandoned. It should be embraced as Gospel centered, Jesus given, divine opportunity. Paul is demonstrating that for us.
First question – will your chains of suffering become opportunities to speak of Jesus and to suffer well as an example of how Jesus suffered. I’ll give you an example from Paul. He is here chained, literally, to a soldier who has to keep watch and guard over him. And in that, Paul assumes, “This man must be elect. God wouldn’t chain someone to me unless they were intended to meet Jesus.”
So, I – praise to be God for the captive, evangelistic audience that God and his providential kindness has brought into myself. Some of you feel metaphorically chained to your desk. Stay at home mom chained to her house. Some of you are literally stuck in a hospital bed on occasion, or find yourself stuck in chemotherapy and treatment for some ailment. Say, “God, why am I chained here.” God, through Paul, would tell you, “You’re not chained here. You’re in a situation where I’m bringing people into your world and giving you an opportunity to speak of me, and to suffer like me, and to demonstrate the difference that I make in the life of a hurting person so that you have a witness; so your suffering is not in vain. It’s for your good and the good of those who are seeing and hearing of how you suffer.
Second question – will the Christians who watch you suffer, and hear you suffer grow in their faith? Will they become more bold? Paul says, “What has happened to me, brothers, has really served to advance the Gospel.” Some of the Christians were timid. They were shy. They were embarrassed a little bit about Jesus. They didn’t wanna say his name and now, the Christians have become more bold. They say, ‘Yes, I am a Christian. Yes, I do love Jesus. Yes, I do belong to Jesus.’ Christians are watching other Christians suffer and we may articulate a theology, but we demonstrate true belief with how we suffer.
And thirdly, will non-Christians become Christians as a result of your suffering? Paul says, “Not only is the soldier who’s looking after me talking and thinking about Jesus, he’s connected to the Praetorian Guard, 9,000 Roman imperial soldiers, very important, prominent, skilled men. And as I’ve talked to him about Jesus, he’s talking to some of his buddies about Jesus, and next thing you know, we have 9,000 very important men talking about Jesus.” Paul says, “I praise God for the opportunity God has given me through my suffering, that Jesus might do something in me and that Jesus might do something through me, and now, there is the possibility of upwards of 9,000 men becoming Christians.”
You will suffer. Will you suffer well? Will you suffer purposefully or purposelessly? Will you suffer in such a way that God does a work in you and through you or will you waste it? Will your waste your sickness, and your poverty, and your hardship, and your loneliness, and your tears, and your grief, and your sadness, and your sorrow, and your suffering? What a great tragedy it would be for you to waste all of that.
There was an American missionary to India. He’s name was E. Stanley Jones. He has a great quote that I think articulates so much of what Paul is trying to summarize. He says this. “Don’t bear trouble. Use it.” “Don’t bear trouble. Use it.” “Take whatever happens, justice and injustice, pleasure and pain, compliment and criticism, take it up into the purpose of your life and make something out of it.” “Turn it”, he says, “into a testimony.” “Into a testimony.”
Now, I believe that one of the reasons why our first inclination when we are suffering is to not turn it into a testimony is because our theology of suffering is often deficient. It is not popular to speak much of suffering today. And when we do speak of suffering, it is, often times, under the influence of very bad teaching. That’s why I think a theology of suffering is so important because it is the theology of suffering which undergirds the witness while suffering.
There are enumerable examples of bad teaching. I’ll give you ten ways in which the doctrine of suffering is mistaught, thereby corrupting your instinct to use it for a witness.
First, suffering is not avoided by you having a lot of faith. There is something called faith teaching, which is actually faithless teaching. It is unfaithful teaching which says, “If you have enough faith, you won’t get sick and you won’t be broke. You’ll be healthy and wealthy.” The logical conclusion is that if someone is suffering as a Christian, we should not comfort them. We should rebuke them because they are sin and if they had enough faith, they would be rich and healthy; yet, we see in Scripture there are people who have great faith in God, like Job, Paul and Jesus Christ who is God himself, and they suffer. They also experience poverty, hardship, loneliness, and they weep.
The sickest example I can give you from my own experience was a pastor that I knew of who taught, “If you have enough faith, you will not get sick and you will be healthy”, until his wife was diagnosed with terminal cancer and he was left with a dilemma. “Should I change my theology, which is wrong and comfort my wife or will I hold to my erroneous theology and rebuke her for her cancer?” And I grievously report to you that that man publically rebuked his own wife for not having enough faith to beat cancer as she was dying. That is demonic.
Number two. “Suffering does not automatically make you a victim.” My fear is when I teach on suffering, all who have or are suffering will simply declare, “I am suffering. Therefore, I’m like Jesus.” No, you’re not.
Jesus was without sin. You and I, we have tons of sin. And, sometimes, we suffer because of our sin, right? If you disrespect your boss, you will suffer unemployment.
Right? If you are cruel to your spouse, you will suffer a divorce. If you eat and drink too much, you will suffer physical ailment. And in those moments, you can’t say, “I’m like Jesus.” You can’t. You must say, “I’ve sinned and I’ve reaped what I’ve sewn.
Three. “Suffering is not necessarily a punishment for a sin.” God can discipline his people and punish non-Christians for sin, but there is not always a correlation between suffering and a sin. There is an example in the Bible where a man is born blind and some followers of Jesus ask him, “Is he blind because of his parent’s sin or his sin?” Jesus says, “Neither. He’s blind that the glory of God might be revealed in him.” God is doing something altogether different with that man, and his suffering is purposeful, not purposeless, but it’s not the consequence of anyone’s sin.
Fourth. “Suffering is not to be pursued.” The early church had some erroneous teaching where probably well meaning Christians realize, “Suffering purifies us and identifies us with Jesus”; therefore, they tried to suffer. They pursued suffering. Some of you do. You deny yourself Godly pleasure. You deny yourself any sort of fun or joy. When there is a conflict or a difficulty, you insert yourself that you might have something that is painful so that you might use it to be sanctified. And while it looks holy, it’s unholy. It’s pride which says, “I do not trust God to bring into my life his divine appointments of suffering. Therefore, I will help him by pursuing my own.” We would not encourage anyone to pursue suffering. What we are saying is when it comes, either from the hand of God or through the hand of God, when it comes, suffer well. Suffer well.
Fifth. Suffering is not to be avoided at all cost. Some of you make your decisions based upon, “What will be the path of least resistance? What will cause the least conflict, least pain, least friction, least hardship, least suffering? Then that’s what I’ll do.” And, sometimes, God calls us to hardship. Sometimes, God calls us to pain. Sometimes, God calls us to suffering. And had Jesus chosen the path without suffering, we would be dead in our sins and he would not have left the comforts of Heaven to come into the suffering of the earth.
One author says it well. He says, “I would rather have a bumpy ride to Heaven than a smooth ride to hell.”
And I think he’s right.
Number six. “Suffering is not to be excused because God uses it.” I hear some Christians who are unrepentant. They will sin and then God uses it for something good and they say, “Well, I know it wasn’t that great, but God used it so it must be okay with God.”
I’ll give you one example. I was having a terse dialogue with a father who, literally, growing up, beat his sons. And he said, “Well, they grew up to be good boys, and they’re strong, and they’re masculine, and they have dignity, and they have courage, and they have toughness, so, you know, the beating wasn’t a bad thing.” I said, “That is a testimony to the goodness of God the Father, not to you as their father. That you are a wicked, evil, sinful man who did an atrocious thing in beating his sons. And if you don’t repent of that, you will go to hell because unrepentant people go to hell and you are a man who’s living an unrepentant life of all of your sin, and you keep making stupid theological arguments like, “Well, God used it, so he must think it was fine.” Just because God uses something, that doesn’t justify the sin. That means that God is good, even when we are bad, but that does not justify our evil.
Seven. “Suffering is no excuse to passively allow injustice and evil.” I have heard some people say, “I know they’re doing wrong and I know they’re doing evil, but God is using it to teach me good things, so I praise God for it.” No, you must also resist evil, pursue justice.
I had this conversation with a wife whose husband was beating her. I said, “What in the world are you doing remaining with a man who beats you and your children?” She said, “But, God is teaching me so much through this and I’m growing in my relationship with Jesus.” I said, “Well, praise be to God and be sanctified, but call the police. Have him arrested and thrown in jail. He, too, needs to be sanctified, not just you.” We cannot allow people to continually sin in the name of our sanctification. We also must confront them and rebuke them and, when necessary, take legal recourse.
Eight. “Suffering is, for us, not an act of atonement, but an act of sanctification.” God is not making us pay him back for our sin. When we sin, God is not making us come good on our debt. And some of you, I fear when you suffer, you think, “Okay, God is beating me now because I have sinned, and that’s okay. If God beats me enough, maybe he will then love me.” No. Jesus died for your sin. He’s been punished in your place. God is not making you pay him back. We don’t believe in karma. We don’t believe in penance. We don’t believe in purgatory. We believe in Jesus.
Nine. “Suffering is not to be fully understood in this life.” I have read a large stack of books on suffering and evil over the years, philosophical and theological in nature, and what I will tell you is this. There are many aspects of suffering and particular illustrations of human beings’ lives that encountered much suffering that I simply will not answer because I have no answer, other than to say God is good and I trust him. And when the Bible says that we, “Know in part and we see in part”, that’s true. And that, “When we see Jesus, it’ll all make sense.” That’s true. When Paul asks elsewhere his rhetorical question, “Who has known the mind of the Lord?”, he’s not expecting any of us to raise our hand, but to simply say, “Not I.” There are things that you will not understand regarding even your personal suffering until you see the face of Jesus.
And tenth, “Suffering is not beyond the goodness of a sovereign God.” “Suffering is not beyond the goodness of a sovereign God.” That God, ultimately, uses everything. That God, ultimately, works through everything. That God takes even that which is horrendous and eventually, because of his goodness and sovereign power, uses it for beauty. We believe that, and if we cease to believe that, we lose all hope. Romans 8:28, Paul says it this way. “We know that in all things, God works for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purpose.” In all things, God eventually works it out for his redemptive good. There’s an illustration of this in Genesis 50:20 where Joseph, looking at his brothers who sought to destroy him, said, “What you intended for me was evil, but God used it for good and the saving of many lives.”
The same thing happened with Jesus. Judas betrayed him. False witnesses came forward to falsely accuse him, and the greatest tragedy, injustice and evil in the history of the world was created and God used it for much good and the saving of many lives, including my own. And, occasionally, that ultimate redemptive good that will be fully unveiled in the Kingdom breaks forth into the earth so that you and I would have moments of hope and clarity that God is not done. That God will, ultimately, right all wrongs and straighten all that has been made crooked, and bring justice in the end.
I’ll give you one example. There was a young woman. She was smoking pot with her boyfriend, not Christian, neither of them. He, apparently, laced her pot with something else. She was sort of rendered immobile and paralyzed for a bit so that he could rape her. So that he could rape her. She became pregnant. Those who knew her encouraged her to have what would have been her second abortion and she decided that she would birth the child. She gave birth to a healthy baby boy. She later became a Christian and her son today is a dear friend of mine and a pastor. See, that’s God. God is so good that he can take a rape and make a Christian family where the woman becomes a deacon and her son, who was conceived out of a rape, becomes a pastor. And then they have the ability to have a witness saying, “Suffering is real and so is God. And suffering is real, and so is the goodness of God.”
Now, some of you likely wonder why there is so little teaching on suffering or why so much of the suffering that is spoken of from Bible preachers and teachers is so flawed and erroneous, and so skewed and so in line with these errors. Paul had that same hardship in his day. And in verses 15-17, he speaks of how false teachers in his day were teaching erroneously about suffering, and I grievously report to you that their error echoes in our own day. He says it this way in verse 15, 16 and 17. “Some, indeed, preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others, from good will. The latter do it out of love knowing that I am put here for the defense of the Gospel. The former proclaim Christ out of rivalry, not sincerely, but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment.”
What Paul is saying is this. That Bible preachers and teachers sometimes work from very dark and corrupted motivations. It is, often times, not all about the glory of God and the honoring of Jesus. Sometimes, sometimes, it is about rivalry, jealousy, selfish ambition. That in that, there were people in Paul’s day who were glad to see him go to jail because his books were selling more than their books. And his crowds were larger than their crowds. And his fame was outgrowing their fame and they had lost sight of Jesus. And when Paul went into prison, they were glad. They rejoiced. They gloated. They were thrilled.
And you and I must always be careful that we do not celebrate when others suffer. When a politician falls. When a religious leader falls. When a celebrity falls. There is a sickness in our culture that is much like that day where people are glad. “Finally, someone who is beautiful, someone who is successful, someone who is rich, someone who is smart, is crying, and suffering, and hurting. Good. I’m glad. I feel vindicated.”
Paul says, “There is that sickness in us, that diseased part of our sin nature which, if not repented of, does not have a rigorous theology of suffering but, rather, has a depraved celebration of suffering.” And in that day, I would assure you of this. There were teachers saying, “Why follow Paul?” He’s sick and I’m healthy, and he’s poor and I’m rich, and he’s in prison and I’m free, and he’s dying and I’m living. Who do you think God’s blessing resides upon? Obviously, not that man.” And they failed to look at Jesus and see that their savior was a man who suffered. And it was not because he was not faithful. And it was not because God the Father did not love him.
How then, are we to respond in suffering? I devoted a great deal of my energy with you to telling you how we should not respond. Paul answers that question in verse 18, which will be our last verse. “What then? Thou having established we will suffer. What then? What then should our theology of suffering dictate? Only one thing; that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed and in that, I rejoice.” You say, “Paul, are you sure that’s what you meant to say? That even though there are Christians who have a false theology of suffering, who have envy, and jealousy, and greed, and pride, and selfishness, and sick ambition, that we should still rejoice?” And Paul says, “Yes. As long as the truth about the death, and the burial and the resurrection is ringing forth, that in that, I rejoice!” “Paul, are you sure that’s what you intended to say?” He says, “Yes, and I will rejoice!” And Paul tells us that in suffering, the key is to rejoice.
Now, in saying that, some of you immediately think that that would be cruelty because you wrongly identified joy, the great theme of the Book with an emotion. And you can’t command anyone to have an emotion. You can’t walk up to someone who is suffering and say, “Feel happy.” It’s cruel. Likewise, conversely, you can’t walk up to a loving couple on the day of their wedding and say, “More.” They’re incapable. They can’t manufacture an emotion. And so, joy and Scripture is not an emotion. Were it an emotion, God couldn’t command us to do it. And Paul, here, illustrates the choice of rejoicing or having joy.
Throughout the Scriptures, particularly in the Psalms, we’re told repeatedly, “Rejoice! Rejoice! Rejoice! Rejoice in the Lord always. Again, I say, rejoice!” And so, joy is a choice. Joy is a lifestyle, and rejoicing is something that is possible in the midst of suffering. And it is not rejoicing that we are suffering. It is rejoicing that in our suffering there is a purpose that God would do something great in us and that God, in his grace, would so something great through us. That we would know and love trust Jesus more, and that others would be compelled to become Christians and that Christians would be compelled to be better Christians and that our suffering would not be purposeless, that it would be purposeful. That we wouldn’t waste our hardship. That we would wouldn’t waste our tears. That we wouldn’t waste our pain. That we wouldn’t waste our poverty. That we wouldn’t waste our sickness, but that we would rejoice that in everything, there is an opportunity for Jesus to be made much of, both in me and through me.
(Applause and cheers)
And I looked at it roughly 18 times in the New Testament. Joy and suffering are spoken of together. We tend to think of joy and suffering as foes and not friends and, according to Scripture and the testimony of Paul, suffering and rejoicing are friends, but only if we understand the personal work of Jesus, which is where he continually returns. The great theme of the Book is Jesus. He keeps coming back to Jesus.
Isaiah 53 says of Jesus that he is a man of sorrows, familiar with suffering. That Jesus left the glories of Heaven to enter into the suffering of the earth. That’s how humble and good he is. He chose a life that you and I, were we given a choice, would not have chosen, a life of suffering. He suffered financially, physically, emotionally, spiritually, relationally, in every way, and to a greater depth; and even – that even Paul, or you, or I will ever taste. Yet Jesus’ suffering was purposeful, not purposeless. Jesus is our God and he accomplished many things. I’ll list five for you.
First, Jesus took our sin and purchased our salvation by what? By suffering. By suffering for us. He who was without sin went to the cross, substituted himself, and suffered and died in my place for my sins. Jesus’ salvation is very purposeful to me and to all Christians.
Secondly, Jesus suffered as an example for us. This will be further articulated in Chapter 2 so that when we suffer, we look to Jesus. How did he suffer? How did he suffer in a way that was meaningful and purposeful and worshipful?
And thirdly, this is astonishing. Jesus continues to suffer with us, we who are Christian. I believe that one experience in Paul’s life undergirded and, in large part, defined Paul’s theology of suffering, and that was his conversion. He was a man who was persecuting and murdering Christians. And he was on his way to cause more Christians to suffer. And though Jesus had suffered, and lived, and died, and rose, and ascended back into Heaven. Jesus came down, knocked Paul to the ground, blinded him and spoke to him when Paul was on his journey to cause suffering and said, “Saul, Saul” – that was his name at that time. Do you remember the words? “Why do you” what? “Persecute me?”, Jesus said. You say, “Jesus wasn’t being persecuted. He was in Heaven when his people were being persecuted on the earth.” And Jesus so closely identifies with us, his people, that we are called the body of Christ. It’s a metaphor, but is speaks of intimate connection that when you suffer, Jesus suffers. When you hurt, Jesus hurts. When you weep, Jesus weeps. You have not been forsaken. You have not been abandoned. You have not been betrayed.
When Jesus says, “I will never leave you nor forsake you, and surely I will be with you always until the end of the age”, it’s true. And when Paul was suffering in prison alone, he was not alone. Jesus was with him. That he wept, Jesus wept with him. And when he suffered, Jesus suffered with him. And to some degree, in a mystery that I cannot even fully articulate, when Paul was beaten, Jesus felt it. Can’t even explain that, but I celebrate it because we have a high priest who sympathizes with us in our weakness, which includes our suffering. His name is Jesus.
Fourthly, Jesus will put an end to all suffering. Friends, we believe that this world comes to an end. If you’re here and you’re not a Christian, your suffering is purposeless and you will die and go to hell to suffer forever. If you turn to Jesus and give him your sin and become a Christian, your suffering will be purposeful and upon your death or Jesus’ return, whichever comes first, your suffering will forever end. It will end. There is a new Heaven, a new earth, a New Jerusalem. There is a new Kingdom with a new King. And there will be no weeping or mourning. There will be death, or suffering, or sin, or sorrow, or sadness. That’s what the Bible promises.
And it says it this way in Revelation, “That in the Kingdom, the King, Jesus, will literally wipe every tear from our eye.” And we won’t suffer ever again.
Yet, fifthly, Jesus says this in John 16:33. “In this world, you will have tribulation. There will be suffering.” And so, friends, here’s what we want to tell you. You will suffer. And when you suffer, suffer well. Suffer for Jesus. Suffer like Jesus. Suffer with Jesus. Let Jesus use the suffering to do something good in you. Let Jesus use the suffering to do something good through you. Don’t waste any of your suffering. It’s precious. It’s cost you so very much. Don’t waste it. Invest it. Invest it in the Gospel of Jesus. Invest it in the people who know him and the people who need to.
I’ll close with this quote. There is a Romanian pastor. He suffered under communist rule. His quote is altogether insightful. He says this. “Christians are like nails.” He says, “Christians are like nails. The harder you hit them, the deeper they go.” “Christians are like nails. The harder you hit them, the deeper they go.” We would call you to be a humble, repentant, truthful, Biblical Christian who receives rebuke and correction so that you can be a good, firm, straight nail. And when life hammers you, you will rejoice, not in the pain of the strike, but in the depth of its effect. Do you understand? You will go deeper in Christ because of your suffering. And you don’t rejoice because of the suffering. But, you rejoice because of the goodness of God to drive you deeper into the living Christ through the blows of your own suffering.
We have put together for you as a way of illustration and transition a series of biographies that close the sermons in this series. Tonight you will meet Charlotte Elliott. She wrote a hymn called Just As I Am. In it, you will see a woman who used her suffering in such a way that it was purposeful in her and it was purposeful through her. And then, the campus pastors will transition our service, call you to response and we’ll begin our rejoicing. Our rejoicing, by singing the song that she penned. I hope you enjoy the story.
Narrator: Carefree Charlotte. That’s what everyone knew her by. For 30 years, she was the most cheerful, happy woman you’d ever know. She even made part of her living as a comedy writer, but shortly after her 30th birthday, that all changed forever.
What Charlotte didn’t know at the time is that we should spend the next 50 years of her life in the bed. The doctors didn’t know what was wrong with her. Every hour was filled with pain. She was overpowered with weakness and there was not one day that she lived without exhaustion. She hated God and cursed him for making her a prisoner to her own bed.
One evening, a few years after she got sick, her father invited a minister over to their house to cheer her up. He talked of peace and joy, on and on. Finally, she couldn’t take it anymore. She exploded with anger and lashed out at the minister, her family, and God. He immediately saw right through Charlotte and said, “You have become tired of yourself. You’re holding onto hate and anger, and becoming sour, and bitter, and resentful.” She was immediately broken and convicted by his words. Charlotte begged to know this peace and joy he spoke of. The evangelist smiled and said, “Come as you are to the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Bring your fears, hate, temper, and pride, and he will give you love and peace in their place.”
That was the day Charlotte claimed to go from utter despair to saving faith in Jesus Christ. She never recovered her health and spent the rest of her life confined to her home in bed. But, Charlotte’s heart was transformed, enabling her to find true joy and praise here creator, despite her physical suffering. Carefree Charlotte began writing hymns about this wonderful love she came to know. She wrote over 150 songs, later published as The Invalid’s Hymnbook. Charlotte is best known as the writer of Just As I Am, which she called her spiritual autobiography. Little did she know, as she told her story in song, that it would become the theme song for Billy Graham and be used to call millions to a saving faith in Jesus Christ. Just As I Am is a declaration of joy in the midst of suffering, confidence in the midst doubt, and salvation just as we are.
Male: When you’re ready, please stand and join us in singing.