We have all been following with horror the atrocities committed by the Islamic State in northern Iraq against Christians and other minority groups. We are all filled with revulsion knowing that Boko Haram has kidnapped over 200 mostly Christian schoolgirls. Our news reports are filled with acts of violence being committed against Christians. Christians are suffering, going hungry and dying of exposure. How ought we to think about the suffering of God’s people?
1. Violence is the natural state of man
I have in South Africa been very privileged (unlike many) and have lived a very peaceful, secure life – for which I can and must thank God for.
On the weekend I had the privilege of connecting with Grant, his wife Loki and four children. They live and work among nine nomadic tribes in northern Kenya. Grant helps run a bush bible school and teaches the Bible to converts from one of the tribes, equipping them to teach others. Grant told us that they cannot have a centralised Bible college for all the tribes because it is the sworn duty of each tribe’s warriors to kill warriors from the other tribes. Men would not last a week in the Bible College as they would be murdered, not by fellow students, but by other men in the territory. They are trying to establish regional bible schools for each tribe and territory. For thousands of years the tribes have raided each other for camels, goats and pasture. Terrible acts of violence are committed in this inter-tribal warfare. The trouble is now the herdsmen/ warriors have AK47s. Grant and his family are concerned for their personal safety – they do their best to be wise and they trust the Lord for protection. The point is that inter-tribal warfare is not unusual or surprising. Violence is the natural state of man.
The first sin after Adam and Eve disobeyed God was a crime of violence. Cain murdered Abel. It was a homicide. Outside Eden, apart from the grace of God, we are naturally in a state of enmity towards God and other human beings.
We should buy too much into the lie that human beings are basically good deep down and just need to discover our hidden goodness and inner potential. If you are raising your children this way and therefore without discipline and correction, you best start checking the visiting hours of the nearest home for juvenile offenders.
Generally government is good
God has, in his providence, appointed secular governments to keep peace and order, punish crime and reward good. This is why the Apostle Paul tells us to pray for kings, presidents and tyrants.
First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, 2 for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. (1 Timothy 2:1-2)
Not only that, many countries have enjoyed unprecedented peace as a result of the gospel coming to that country. Many people were converted, societies were transformed and entire countries have enjoyed a “Christian ethic”. Only the gospel can truly change man’s heart and instead of being at enmity with one another, we start loving our enemies for that’s how God treated us. Many regions in the world have had little or no peace for the gospel has never come there or the gospel did come, but has been despised and lost. The ultimate solution to the violence in the Middle East, on the Cape Flats and in many homes is the transforming power of the gospel.
2. Christians are not immune from suffering
Some Christian leaders and teacher say the exact opposite. Joel Osteen wrote a book called, “Your best life now” and often says that we should claim all God’s promises of prosperity by faith. According to these false teachers, God does not want Christians to be poor, sick or suffering.
Our great Apostle Paul had a slightly different view of the Christian life. As he combatted the false teachings of the “Super Apostles”, who were the 1st century equivalents of Benny Hinn and Joel Osteen, this is what he wrote:
23 Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one—I am talking like a madman—with far greater labours, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. 24 Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. 25 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; 26 on frequent journeys, 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; 27 in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. 28 And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. (2 Corinthians 11:23-28)
It does not sound to me as if the Apostle Paul was experiencing his best life now. Unless Osteen and Hinn and the like are reading a different Bible to me, I would suggest that Paul was looking forward to his best life in the future with Jesus and all God’s people in the New Heavens and the New Earth.
In the very next chapter of 2 Corinthians Paul prays three times for the thorn in his flesh to be removed. Not only did Paul face external hardships and suffering, he also experienced personal ailments and weaknesses. God’s answer to Paul is not what we might expect:
9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for 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. 10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:9-10)
Christians are not immune from suffering. In fact, quite the opposite, God uses our weaknesses and suffering to show that his power is all-sufficient, not ours.
The insufficiency of Christ’s sufferings
Before you condemn me as a heretic, read what Paul wrote:
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. (Colossians 1:24)
Christ’s sufferings (and death) are not lacking in its atoning value. Christ’s sufferings are indeed all-sufficient to pay the price of all the sins of all God’s people through all the ages. But what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions is their personal presentation to the nations. There was no YouTube in the first century. The video clip of the cross could not go viral. The Roman guards weren’t tweeting about Christ’s crucifixion. Relatively few people even knew about the suffering and death of Christ. How will Christ’s afflictions be made known to your family, your workplace and the nations? Through the suffering of the Apostle Paul, through your sufferings, and through the sufferings of God’s people in all the nations. When we suffer and still trust in Christ, our family and friends see how precious Christ is and how precious his sufferings are to us. Our sufferings present Christ’s afflictions to the world as precious.
Ebola and Christ’s afflictions
An Ebola epidemic has started and growing in West Africa. Did the Christian medical doctors leave the area when the first Ebola case was reported? Did they say, “This is getting too dangerous, we don’t think God wants us to suffer or die.” No, they stayed and by their staying the people who they were working with saw that Jesus was precious to them and that they were even willing to die to obey Jesus. Those West Africans could not see Jesus, but they did see their Christian doctor. Your work colleagues may never enter a church, but they see you. Your friends may never read the Bible, but the see you and your suffering.
3. Christians face particular suffering
I know that it’s easy to write a blog about suffering from the comfort of my comfortable study. However, are we that surprised when Christians face particular suffering, persecution and unjust kangaroo-court “trials”? We should not be. Jesus said this would be the case.
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. (John 15:20)
9 “But be on your guard. For they will deliver you over to councils, and you will be beaten in synagogues, and you will stand before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them. 10 And the gospel must first be proclaimed to all nations. 11 And when they bring you to trial and deliver you over, do not be anxious beforehand what you are to say, but say whatever is given you in that hour, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit. 12 And brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death. 13 And you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. (Mark 13:9-13)
Jesus did definitely not preach a health, wealth and prosperity gospel. He said that the opposite would most likely happen. Note that all these sufferings Jesus mentioned are on account of “my name’s sake” (i.e. because you are a Christian) and one of the main reasons and results of the suffering is in v9: “to bear witness to them.” Jesus is often more glorified as we persevere in our sufferings for his name’s sake than when we persevere in our joys.
Another religious extremist
The Apostle Paul, before his conversion to Christ, was tantamount to an Islamic Jihadist. He persecuted, imprisoned and killed Christians as a service to God. In a spectacular encounter on the way to persecute Christians in Damascus God appeared to Paul and said, “I am Jesus who you are persecuting!” The impact was profound. God radically readjusted Paul. However, in Damascus, this is what God said to Ananias about Saul’s conversion:
“Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. 16 For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” (Acts 9: 15)
God uses our suffering and weaknesses more than our joys and strengths in carrying his name to our workplace and the world.
Christianity is not a free pass for heaven. The message of bible is not, “You’re awesome and God wants to make you more awesome.” The message of the Bible is that we live outside of Eden. We are at enmity with God and others. Yet God has made a way for us in Jesus. Jesus lived the life we never could. He died the death we all should. He died for our sin, not his. He rose on the third day and ascended into heaven. He will return. God’s kingdom will be established in all its fullness. You can be part of that kingdom through faith in Christ. God may call you to suffer greatly for the sake of his name.
4. The Lord is our deliverer even in suffering
John Paton was a missionary in the 1800’s to the cannibals in the New Hebrides in the South Pacific (islands – now the nation of Vanuatu). One night a group of angry, merciless, cannibalistic warriors sought to attack his makeshift house. He and his family heard the commotion outside and knelt and prayed for God’s protection. Nothing happened that night. They were still alive the following morning. Many years later one of the warriors, now converted to Christ asked John, “Who those men dressed in white surrounding the house that night?”
God protected John and his family from temporal danger that night. Very often God protects his children from temporal danger still today.
The scandal of the Bible is this: God did not protect Jesus from temporal danger. The Roman soldiers took Jesus and killed him. Why would God allow that? Sin separates us from God and the punishment for sin is death, but Jesus died in our place so that our sin could be forgiven. It was God’s great purpose not to protect Jesus from temporal danger.
Sometimes God does not deliver his people from temporal danger in the way we expect. Sometimes he has a greater purpose and delivers us straight to heaven.
Eaten by worms
John Paton and his wife’s decision to go as missionaries to the New Hebrides didn’t come without criticism. On one account before leaving, a respected elder of the church chided the couple, “You will be eaten by cannibals!” To which Paton responded, “Mr Dickson, you are advanced in years now, and your own prospect is soon to be laid in the grave, there to be eaten by worms; I confess to you, that if I can but live and die serving and honouring the Lord Jesus, it will make no difference to me whether I am eaten by Cannibals or by worms.”
The Lord is our deliverer even in suffering. But not always in the way we think.
The right perspective
Our perspective should be the same as Paul’s in Philippians 1:21, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” What’s the worst thing someone can do to me? They can kill me. But even then I’m gaining.
Don’t be too surprised when Christian’s suffer for the sake of The Name.
But don’t be nonchalant about their suffering as if that’s what they signed up for.
It’s not so much if suffering will come, but how and when it will come.