Christians Suffer Too

The first century of the New Testament Church was both exciting and traumatic. It was exciting because the Church was expanding rapidly. And though spectacular miracles were decreasing in number, memories of the days of the Lord and the Apostles were still fresh and vivid as they were handed down both in the sacred Scriptures, and in private correspondences and in oral traditions. It was, however, also a traumatic time as the early Christians faced persecutions on every side. First it was persecution by the Jews,—during which time Stephen was stoned to death (Acts 7:54–60),—then it was persecution by the Romans. The Roman persecution had begun in A.D. 64, under the reign of Emperor Nero. On the 18th or 19th of July that year, a massive fire broke out in Rome, which left only four of the fourteen regions in which the city was divided untouched. Four of the districts were completely razed. Tradition had it that it was Nero himself who ordered the fire because he had wanted to enjoy the lurid spectacle of burning Troy and to fulfil his ambition of rebuilding the city and calling it Neropolis. But when public rumours about his involvement began to spread, he needed a scapegoat. The hated Christians became his scapegoats. Great multitude of Christians were tortured. Some were clothed in skins of wild animals and torn to death by mad dogs in the arena; others were crucified; yet others were covered with tar and impaled on stakes of pine to act as human torches in Nero’s garden.

It was in the context of these persecutions, both Jewish and Roman, that the letters of James, Hebrews and 1 Peter were written. It is not surprising, therefore, that the most encouraging treatises for Christians who are undergoing persecution and sufferings may be found in these letters. Yes, Christians suffer too. What is the purpose of suffering? What should our attitude be when we suffer? What should we do when we are called to suffer? These questions are addressed in these letters.

What Are the Purposes of Suffering?

From the said epistles, we can see four main purposes for suffering.Firstly, the Apostle Peter reminds us that some suffer as the consequence of their own faults (1 Pet 2:19). When Christians suffer in this manner, they may be said to be undergoing chastisement by the heavenly Father (cf. Heb 12:5–11). Such chastisement, says the author of Hebrews, is "for our profit, that we might be partakers of his holiness" (Heb 12:10, cf. v. 11). In other words, chastisements are designed to expose our sins and to reveal to us how we have fallen short of the image of God, and thereby to mould us into the image of Christ. David, who was himself severely chastised, affirms, "Before I was afflicted I went astray: but now have I kept thy word" (Ps 119:67); and "It is good for me that I have been afflicted; that I might learn thy statutes" (Ps 119:71). Thomas Brooks puts it this way: "God’s house of correction is His school of instruction."

Secondly, Peter also reminds us that others suffer for the sake of Christ (1 Pet 4:13–14), or for "conscience toward God" (1 Pet 2:19). These, in other words, face persecution for their faith. When we are persecuted in this manner, we are said to be "partakers of Christ’s sufferings" (1 Pet 4:13) or, as Paul puts it, we "fill up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ" (Col 1:24). This suggests, that Christians should expect to be hated and persecuted just as Christ Himself was (cf. Jn 15:18; 1 Pet 4:12); and when Christians are persecuted in the Name of Christ, then God is glorified (1 Pet 4:14). Thomas Brooks puts it well: "As our greatest good comes through the sufferings of Christ, so God’s greatest glory that He hath from His saints comes through their sufferings."

Thirdly, suffering serves to test the genuineness of our faith. Such sufferings may involve some form of persecution for Christ’s sake, or it may not involve any noticeable reason as in the case of Job. James, writing to the early Christians who were dispersed because of Jewish persecution (A.D. 44–62; Acts 11:19ff), tells them that the temptations or trials they were experiencing was "the trying of [their] faith" (Jas 1:3). Peter tells the Christians experiencing Nerodian persecution that the "manifold temptations" they were experiencing was the "trial of[their] faith" (1 Pet 1:6–7). The word translated ‘trial’ in both cases is the Greek dovkivmion (dokimion), which was used to describe the proving of precious metals to make sure that they are without alloy. Just as Abraham’s faith was tested and proven genuine when he was instructed to sacrifice Isaac, and Job’s faith was proven real when the hedge around him was removed, so too, God sometimes sends trials our way that we may be assured that we are for real. The man depicted by the "stony places," after all, receives the Word of God with joy, but when "tribulation or persecution ariseth because of the word, by and by he is offended" (Mt 13:21).

Fourthly and finally, suffering builds our Christian character. James reminds us that the trying of our faith "worketh patience" (Jas 1:3), and that when patience has finished its works, we "may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing" (v. 4). The Apostle Paul, writing in another context, says, "tribulation worketh patience; And patience, experience; and experience, hope" (Rom 5:3–4). Job, who experienced a time of intense trial, puts it most beautifully: "But he knoweth the way that I take: when he hath tried me, I shall come forth as gold" (Job 23:10). In a word, we may conclude that Christian suffering is not purposeless. It serves both to glorify God and to strengthen the saints. "The vessels of mercy are first seasoned with affliction, and then the wine of glory is poured in. Thus we see afflictions are not prejudicial, but beneficial, to the saints," says Thomas Watson.

What Should Our Attitude Be

When We Suffer?

Firstly, we ought not to be surprised when tribulations come upon us. The Lord warned His disciples right from the start that they can expect persecution (Jn 15:18–20). Peter might have the Lord’s admonishment in mind when he says: "Beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened unto you" (1 Pet 4:12).

Secondly, we must meet persecution for Christ’s sake with joy. James says, "count it all joy" (Jas 1:2). In the same way, Peter says, "rejoice" (1 Pet 4:13) and "greatly rejoice" (1 Pet 1:6). Again, the Apostles were merely echoing the Lord’s instructions, for He says:

Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you (Mt 5:10–12; cf. 1 Pet 4:13–14).

Why should we be joyful in persecution? We should, because it is a tremendous privilege to be counted worthy to suffer for Christ and to be used of Him to glorify His Name.

Thirdly, when under chastisement, our attitude must be one of humility and repentance, mingled with thanksgiving. We ought to be thankful to the Lord for His loving correction, but we must not forget to weep for our sins. Yet, we must never despair (cf. Heb 12:12). Instead, as Owen puts it, "Labour to grow better under all your afflictions, lest your afflictions grow worse, lest God mingle them with more darkness, bitterness and terror."

Fourthly, we must have an attitude of hope and confidence. We must be able to say confidently with Job, "Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him" (Job 13:15a). We must not doubt Paul’s word, "And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose" (Rom 8:28).

What Must We Do When We Suffer?

Firstly and most naturally, we must come to the Lord in prayer. We should not straightaway pray that the Lord remove our affliction, though it is not wrong to do so (cf. 2 Cor 12:8). Rather, we should pray for wisdom to see our affliction from God’s perspective, for guidance and wisdom to govern our spirit and temper under trial, and for wisdom to know how best we should respond to the trial so that the greatest benefits may be reaped for our sanctification. This, I believe, is what James was referring to when he says, "If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God" (Jas 1:5). James was not speaking about asking for wisdom to do an examination, as the verse is commonly applied. His encouragement to prayer is in the context of suffering. So then, when you are afflicted in one way or another—whether it be by illness, financial collapse, bereavement, embarrassment, etc.—go to the Lord for comfort, "casting all your care upon him; for he careth for you" (1 Pet 5:7), but in your petition, ask not, so much to be relieved of suffering as to know why the Lord brings you to it and how it may be of use to your soul. Are you being chastised for some sin in your life? Go to the Lord with fasting and repentance (cf. 2 Sam 12:16) and resolve never to commit the same sin again. But do not have the attitude of Job’s friends and insist on pin-pointing what particular sin caused the affliction when you cannot see a clear connection. It may be that the Lord has another reason for your affliction. Consider what He would you learn through this trial.

Secondly, when you are undergoing affliction, may I recommend that you meditate on the goodness of God and on His love and mercy. Consider that as a sinner, you deserve nothing but the wrath and curse of God, and yet God has bestowed upon you blessings innumerable. Meditate on the Lord’s suffering for our sake. Our Lord did not deserve any of the afflictions that befell Him, yet He patiently bore them "as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers" (Isa 53:7), for our sakes. Are you stricken with illness? Consider that you are still alive, and consider that one day the Lord shall give you a body freed of pain and diseases. Meditate on the fact that you are, every day, drawing nearer to meeting your beloved Saviour. Have you lost property or are you struck with a financial crisis? Consider that the Lord cares for the birds of the air (Mt 6:26). Consider that you are but stewards of the wealth you have had, and that it is more needful that you lay up treasures in heaven,—which treasures you may be given occasion to lay up during your trial. Are you bereaved of a loved one? Consider that the Lord knows what is best for His children. Have you failed an examination? Consider that you have Christ as your advocate when you stand before the heavenly tribunal for your final examination.

Thirdly, may I also urge you to draw encouragement and strength from the experience of those who have been through similar trials. Apart from considering the Lord’s trial, you may want to read of Joseph, David, Job, Elijah, Daniel, Jeremiah and Paul. Consider the early church, consider the martyrs. Read Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. Consider how these children of God, this "cloud of witnesses" (Heb 12:1), have endured their "crook in the lot" and came out triumphant. Learn from them.

Yes, Christians suffer too. Yet know that

whatsoever is upon you is from the Lord, and whatsoever is from the Lord, to you it is in mercy; and whatsoever comes in mercy ought not to be grievous to you. What loss is it when the losing of earthly things is the gaining of spiritual things? All shall be for your good, if you make your use of all (Richard Greenham).

So lift up your heads, and give Him praise and thank Him for honing you by the trial He has allowed you to experience. And continue to run with patience the race that is set before you, "Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God" (Heb 12:2).