Intimacy and Eternity

The Principle of Suffer-Reign

 

Part Two, Chapter Ten

Therefore, since Christ suffered in his body,
arm yourselves also with the same attitude,
because he who has suffered in his body is done with sin.
As a result, he does not live the rest of his earthly life for evil human desires,
but rather for the will of God.
(1 Peter 4:1-2)

The Principle of Suffer-Reign

This is a chapter not only for those who feel scarred and battle-weary, but equally for those who desire to share more of the Lord’s own heart.

Broadly speaking, our sufferings fall into the same categories we considered when looking at the different sorts of wilderness. There are those which come as the result of our own stupidity; those we suffer at the hands of unseen spiritual powers; those which in no way can be deemed our own fault, and those which the Lord is specifically using to further His own purposes.

What distress we can cause ourselves if we blame the wrong “source” for our sufferings. Ros and I are in touch with a woman who has had more than her share of knocks in life. Long ago she came to the unfortunate conclusion that God was “out to get her”. This has profoundly skewed her view of God, and made it all but impossible for her to be able to receive the grace of God. She has recently been wrongfully convicted of something she has not done. As we have prayed for justice to be done, we have also been concerned for her to “sort the categories out.” Something remarkable is now beginning to happen, both in her outward circumstances in her inward being. May she find the abundant comfort the Lord longs to show her!

Nearly fifteen years ago, I was experiencing a lot of pain, and sensed that the time had come to stop working because a period of suffering lay ahead. As Ecclesiastes 3 reminds us, “There is a time for everything!” For reasons known to God, the operation did not go well, and I was in agony for several weeks, until a second operation put right the damage caused by the first one. It is not easy to point to any clear “results” that came from this suffering, but the verse from Peter that we started this section with points us to the fact that these times make us much less preoccupied with trivialities and matters of no eternal consequence. Jerome had good reasons for writing as he did: Nothing is more to be feared, than too long a peace. You are deceived if you think that a Christian can live without persecution. A storm puts a man on his guard and obliges him to exert his utmost efforts to avoid shipwreck.

Paul urges Timothy to endure hardships in the same spirit that the Lord Jesus did. He also promises that if we endure we will also reign with Him. One translation puts it like this: If we suffer, we shall also reign with Him (2 Tim. 2:11-12 RSV). Perhaps we would do better to spell the word suffering ‘suffer-reign.’ Paul could equally as well have said when we suffer, rather than if we suffer. He says much the same thing in Romans 8:17: If we are children, then we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in His sufferings in order that we may also share in His glory. Such verses point us to a radical conclusion: in stark contrast to today’s easy-believism, in which God is ‘marketed’ as the solver of all our problems, effective Christianity and suffering go hand in hand.

Unlike those who first heard Peter’s letter read to them, most of us have not placed our life directly on the line for believing in the gospel. There may well be a direct correlation between this and the generally low awareness of Heaven that so many of us have in the West. When God is all we have to lean on, we lean much harder and pray more fervently.

Converts in the Early Church were taught that they would enter the Kingdom of God through many hardships and tribulations. (John 16:1-4; Acts 14:22; cf 1 Thess. 3:2-5; 2 Tim. 2:1-3; 1 Pet. 2:21-23; 5:8-9; 1 Cor. 15:58; 2 Cor. 12:7; Matt. 5:10-11). So far from this making them gloomy and morbid, the overwhelming impression we are left with from reading the Acts of the Apostles is that of a joyous and contagious faith which has experienced much suffering, but which considers it of little consequence when compared with the surpassing joy of knowing Christ. So long as everything is going well for us, we rarely identify with those who are suffering. Men at ease have contempt for misfortune, observed Job shrewdly (Job 12:5). Even a taste of real suffering can make us far more compassionate and prayerful. There is nothing automatically ennobling about this process: it can also make us bitter and cynical. If our sufferings cause us to turn from the Lord, we still have all our suffering but to deal with, but without the Lord’s help.

Selah. What effect have your sufferings had on you? Have they made you bitter or better? We are always sliding in one direction or the other along this scale.

Paul wrote from his prison cell to remind the Philippians that it has been granted to us not only to believe in Christ but also to suffer for Him (Phil. 1:29). While there are certain forms of distress that are common to all – illnesses, bereavements, partings and disappointments of many kinds – there is a deeper level of suffering which can only be embraced voluntarily. Paul describes how he longed to know Christ and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in His sufferings (Phil. 3:10).

There is an important sequence and gradation here. Having come to know Christ, Paul experienced His power flowing through him. Finally, he reaches the point where his love for God, and his longing for his fellow men combines to make him willing to suffer any tribulation for their sake. Far from making him retreat into a ‘safer’ practice of his faith, as so many people do, Paul used his sufferings as a means of identifying more fully with his Lord.1 Tozer, challenging on this as on most other subjects writes:

God will not force this kind of suffering on us, nor embarrass us with riches we do not want. Such a cross is reserved for those who apply to serve in the legion of the expendables, who love not their lives unto death, but who volunteer to suffer for Christ’s sake, and follow up their application with lives that invite the fury of hell . . . The marks of the cross are upon them and they are known in heaven and hell. But where are they? Has this breed of Christian died out upon the Earth? Have the saints of God joined the mad scramble for security? Are we now afraid to suffer and unwilling to die? I hope not, but I wonder.2

Let your spirit “swivel” now to identify people who are in distress. They may be particularly in need of your prayers or physical presence. Don’t put them out of mind just because they are out of sight!

Job’s Sufferings

The book of Job is a powerful rebuke not only to his presumptuous friends but to theological know-it-alls everywhere. Job’s counsellors assumed there must be an earthly reason for their friend’s sufferings. Once they had embraced this misunderstanding, it was only too easy to pass on hurtful judgements and to make ill-founded accusations.

If the Lord were less unflinching in His purposes, He would surely have put an end to the terrible tribulations that were assailing Job from every quarter. I often wonder if He was tempted to shout out, “Hold on Job. Just hang on in there.

When you get through this time of testing you’ll come out much the stronger! When God reveals Himself in the stunning final chapters of the book, however, He makes no effort to provide a reasoned philosophical explanation for Job’s appalling sufferings. Instead, He speaks about animals that cannot be tamed, such as crocodiles, wild oxen and mountain goats; animals that can neither be harnessed for any “useful” purpose and which may indeed be entirely inimical to us. Our natural inclination is to keep clear of such animals, or to hunt and destroy them, but God is clearly “championing” His creation here in a way that forces us to consider that just as He has a place for them in His scheme of things, so He must have a place too for the seemingly inexplicable episodes that come our way. Nothing is beyond His reach.

All the ways of the Lord are loving and faithful for those who keep the demands of His covenant.
(Psalm 25:10)

Most of us find that there is an adjustment period to go through when something serious happens. I have written in detail about handling grief and trauma in The Vale of Tears, but you will no doubt have heard about the example of Joni Eareckson. Having suffered the accident that left her completely paralysed, she came through intense depression and reached a place not only of acceptance but of being able to encourage multitudes to come to terms with their own disabilities and to a renewed faith in Christ. Is this not the fruit of knowing the Lord rather than knowing about Him?

Lord, renew patience and perseverance into every situation that we face: both the dogged kind that holds on in there, and the faith-filled kind that triumphs over every affliction.

The Way of the Cross

Any power without counterbalance becomes autocratic and leads to abuse and to folly. (Honoré de Balzac)

Cults and despots frequently attempt to justify their most extreme actions by branding opponents as “evil”, thereby making them appear lawful targets. When the intense and specific assaults Jesus experienced during His forty day fast in the wilderness failed to deter Him from His mission, the powers of darkness tried another line of attack, putting it into the minds of the Pharisees that He must be casting out demons by the hand of Beelzebub (Matt. 24-27). Labelling Jesus “evil” made it so much easier for them to justify pursuing Him to the cross!

By subjecting Jesus to the shattering indignities of a trial before a corrupt and prejudiced court, Lucifer hoped that He would be driven by the intense physical and mental pain to retaliate against those who were treating Him so badly. He might even feel disinclined to pursue His mission to save the world! Mercifully, his plan failed. Longing, as any one of us would, to avoid the agony ahead, the Lord Jesus did the highest thing a man can do: He set His face like flint to fulfil what He knew to be His Father’s will, knowing that salvation would ultimately depend not upon what He did but upon what He suffered – and upon His Father’s ability to raise Him from the dead.

Even when hanging on the cross, Jesus’ concern was not for revenge, but to forgive those who had done such terrible things to Him. He was concerned for their eternal well-being, whilst at the same time making provision for His mother.

In their heart of hearts, the disciples perhaps harboured the secret hope that Jesus had not meant what He said about having to die. It was only later that they realized just how necessary His sacrifice had been. On the road to Emmaus, as He opened up the Scriptures to Cleopas and his friend, we see the Lord Jesus “looking back” on His sufferings for the first time. “This is what is written, He explained to them: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day (Luke 24:46).

If it were right for us to pin our ultimate hopes for happiness in this world alone would the Cross have been necessary? Jesus taught that we have no permanent home here below not only to whet our appetite for what lies ahead but also because Satan is recognized as the god of this world. All the saints of God have had to fight inevitable battles as they seek to advance the Kingdom of God – it is what comes out of these struggles that is so amazing! (Luke 24:46. See also John 15:18-20; Mark 13:11-13; Heb. 3:5-6; Rom. 5:3-4; James 1:2-4; Rev. 2:10, 3:10, 13:10.)

In the early days of the Church, Christians were eager to be loyal citizens of the Empire. This became impossible, however, when Caesar ordered them to affirm publicly, ‘Caesar is Lord!’ Historians have found it puzzling that some of the most enlightened emperors, Marcus Aurelius and Diocletian for instance, were amongst those responsible for persecuting believers. Perhaps it was their very vigour that made them demand a degree of allegiance that no true Christian could give to the Empire. Bishop Polycarp was one of the many who paid the ultimate price for taking his stand for the King of Kings. When the Bishop was promised that his life would be spared if he would only utter the phrase “Caesar is Lord,” he made the memorable reply: “For eighty-six years I have been the servant of Jesus Christ, and He has never done me any injury. How then can I blaspheme my King who saved me?”

Given the ever-present reality of such suffering, Paul beseeches us not to become engrossed in the things of this world (1 Cor. 7:31). It is all too easy to think that we are trusting the Lord, when all we are really doing is relying on favourable circumstances.

Some people are so proud of their abilities they think they can do what they like with them. They think nothing of indulging in the debauchery and drunkenness that Peter warns against. There are all too many others, however, who feel as though they have no special abilities at all. Peter reminds these people that every one of us has gifts and that we are to use them for God’s glory. Above all, he urges, we are to love each other deeply, for love is of God, and it helps us to remain clear-headed so that we can pray and serve the Lord. (See 1 Peter 4:3-11)

Paul laments that everyone looks out for their own interests rather than those of Christ Jesus (Phil. 2:21). How sad. May we devote all we are and all we have to the Lord.

When the Lord Jesus warned Peter that he would one day suffer martyrdom for his Lord, it may have sounded as though He was promising John, the beloved disciple, an easier life. The Lord’s reply to Peter’s question appears somewhat brusque: What is that to you? You must follow Me (John 21:20-23). But Peter knew nothing of the sufferings the Lord had reserved for John in his old age. Neither do we know what hidden sufferings may be in store for those we so foolishly envy or look down on.As Henry Wadsworth Longfellow reminds us: “If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.”

Some of us are so self-centred that we think we are suffering for Christ when everyone else can see that we are suffering primarily because of our own foolishness or unpleasantness. If we are about the Lord’s work however, there will inevitably be times when we meet with opposition. So far from being an expression of God’s disapproval, such persecution is when a sign of His approval of our work (cf Acts 5:41). We are by no means not called to seek out such suffering, but neither can we always expect to avoid it.

The prophecy that the Lord Jesus would be a “man of sorrows” undoubtedly embraces mental as well as physical anguish. (see Isaiah 53:3)

Can you imagine the pressure of living with continual suspicion and hostility from the powers-that-be? This is what Jesus faced daily – along with the constant presence of the sick and needy, which afforded the Lord Jesus and His disciples so little time in which to eat and rest. Beyond these physically draining aspects of His ministry lay His constant concern for the well-being of a nation who were “like sheep without a shepherd.”

Do we, too, not feel a constant ache for people who are unable to share the treasures we have found in Christ? It is especially hurtful, however, when this concern is thrown back in our faces and we face rejection. We must offer it all to the Lord, who understands our pain, and uses even the most troublesome events and relationships to further His purposes.

In 1 Peter 4:17, Peter declares that it is time for judgment to begin with the family of God. He is speaking here less of our final judgement, then of God’s discipline – His testing of our motives. How will we see how far short of perfect love our motivation usually is unless the Lord allows episodes to come our way that reveal it? Facing these challenges prepares us to face potentially even stronger temptations in the future.

Perspectives on Suffering

I compare the troubles which we have to undergo in the course of the year to a great bundle of faggots, far too large for us to lift. But God does not require us to carry the whole at once. He mercifully unties the bundle, and gives us first one stick, which we are to carry today, and then another, which we are to carry tomorrow, and so on. This we might easily manage, if we would only take the burden appointed for each day; but we choose to increase our troubles by carrying yesterday’s stick over again today, and adding tomorrow’s burden to the load, before we are required to bear it. (John Newton)

We saw in the chapter “The Dark Night of the Soul” that many of God’s finest servants go through prolonged periods of feeling abandoned. John the Baptist’s confident declaration, Behold the Lamb of God! must have felt like a dim and distant memory after a prolonged spell in the gloomy fortress of Machaerus. John had been on the receiving end of Herodias’s Jezebel-like assaults, and was plagued by the thought that he had got it all wrong. The message he sent to Jesus reads pitifully: Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else? (Luke 7:19). But do we never wonder such things when we are going through the mill? Don’t forget, too, that John had spent a confined period underground. We should never underestimate the effect of daylight deprivation.

Jesus’ reply left room for faith, just as many of His answers do to our own troubled questions. (Matthew 11:3-5). It is usually the Lord’s way to point us towards the truth, rather than to overwhelm us with convincing “proofs.” Jesus wanted to rekindle the faith of His doubting servant by helping him see that He really was fulfilling the Messianic verses, and that He therefore must be the One John had originally supposed Him to be.

Does this sound fair?

Watchman Nee was forced to copy out communist tracts by hand during the twenty-five years he spent in prison. He died almost as soon as he was released. There indeed was a godly man consigned to spend many years in futility – yet all the while his writings were bearing fruit around the world, enriching the lives of countless thousands. What prayers that man must have prayed for the growth of the Church in China during those years – and how spectacularly they are being answered in our own day!

The example of Watchman Nee brings us face to face with a man who was being prepared to rule and reign in a higher sphere, in eternity. Neither is his example unique in the remarkable annals of the suffer-reign Church in China as God moves in miraculous power at work among His people despite appalling suffering.3

A fishing boat that is being tossed in the ocean swell can still catch fish. I witnessed an example of this when Billy Graham visited Oxford. He was suffering at the time from a painful broken rib, and a group of anarchists suddenly burst into the Town Hall, shouting obscenities and releasing fire extinguishers. The sense of evil was almost tangible, but God was not thwarted. More people committed their lives to the Lord that night than on any other – despite the atmosphere”

In the history of the Early Church, the Lord often intervened not just to give His children grace to endure, but to rescue them as well (eg Acts 5:19-20, 12:5-11, 16:22-36; cf Daniel 4:24-25). He has not changed. We have heard modern day stories of widows’ cruses; of a bowlful of rice that continued to feed young Chinese children whose parents had been taken from them.4 In an example which parallels the ravens supplying Elijah with food, rats also brought sweet potatoes to a man in prison who had been condemned to die of hunger. Truly, God provides all that is necessary for those who trust in Him.

A Chinese woman had a poster placed on the outside of her house throughout the traumatic years of the Cultural Revolution. The notice branded her as a lunatic evangelical, and warned people to keep away from her. She felt her isolation acutely. At the end of that terrible period, people flocked to her for counsel. The poster had convinced them of the genuineness of her faith! The Lord used the instrument of her humiliation as His means of salvation to others. Isn’t this a picture of the cross?

We can never be certain how the Lord will work in any given situation. Neither can we base a doctrine around an experience, no matter how precious. Why were so many of the Lord’s prophets slain by Jezebel, while Elijah was fed by ravens? Why, for that matter, was James beheaded while Peter was miraculously delivered? (Acts 12:1-11) Or why was Madame Guyon imprisoned in seventeenth century France for over a decade for no other crime than loving God, while other equally devout souls lived out their lives in peace and quiet? We can never understand all the Lord’s purposes in and through such suffering. There is no doctrine in Scripture of “how to escape from prison with the help of angels,” and it would be quite wrong to assume that Peter had more faith than James.

What we do know is that we are not alone in our sufferings. Countless Christians around the world are experiencing similar trials, and are drawing on the same strength that we are looking to. If we are sometimes tempted to think, “Why should such a lovely person have to suffer so much?” remember how our Heavenly Father must have felt as He watched His only Son being tortured to death at a religious festival that was supposedly convened in order to worship Him. He is no stranger to affliction – but it dishonours Him when we mistrust His love and purposes.

Let Nothing be wasted (John 6:12)

From the depths of the Soviet persecution of the church I came across this remarkable story.

An atheist, disputing furiously with a pastor in a railway carriage, seized the pastor’s precious Bible and hurled it out of the window. If I had been that pastor, I would have been kicking myself for getting my Bible out at all in that Bible-starved land. Some weeks later there came a knock on his door. It was not the dreaded KGB, but a group of workers with a story to tell. The leader told the bemused pastor how he had been working by a railway line some time ago when a book – the pastor’s Bible – was flung out of a train. The man had become a Christian through reading it, and so too had the friends he had brought along – and they wanted to be baptised! Who but God could have brought so much good out of such an apparently wasteful episode ?

After the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus told the disciples to gather up the remaining loaves and fishes. In one of my favourite phrases in the Bible, He declared, “Let nothing be wasted” (John 6:12). Jesus was showing here not only that God’s provision is sufficient for every situation but that He is able to weave the apparently dark and disconnected threads of our life into something gloriously coherent. Is He not working to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ, when the times will have reached their fulfilment (Eph. 1:10).

The picture of Jesus standing at the right hand of God to welcome Stephen is an image for us to meditate on. As the gospel has spread around the globe, so too has the opposition. More people are thought to have died as martyrs during the twentieth century than during the preceding nineteen put together.

In our own day, many Christians face intense persecution in certain parts of the world from fanatical Muslims and Hindus. In some parts of the world, it is considered entirely appropriate not just to exclude but even to kill someone who converts to Christianity. It is so important for us to be aware of what our brothers and sisters in Christ are going through, and to remember them in our prayers.

The process by which such tyranny develops is only too familiar and well-worn, even apart from specifically religious causes. As Walter Savage Landor reminds us, “Despotism sits nowhere so secure as under the effigy and ensigns of freedom.” Many of the greatest tyrants on the records of history have begun their reigns in the fairest manner. But the truth is, this unnatural power corrupts both the heart and the understanding . . . Despots govern by terror. They know that he who fears God fears nothing else; and therefore they eradicate from the mind . . . the only sort of fear which generates true courage.” (Edmund Burke)

“Despotism and freedom of the press cannot exist together,” Leon Michel Gambetta, warns, echoing Charles Caleb Colton’s warning that “Despotism can no more exist in a nation until the liberty of the press be destroyed than the night can happen before the sun is set.” Have we not seen this in Zimbabwe recently, and again, increasingly, in Russia? The Bible urges us to remember those who are ill treated as if you yourselves were suffering (Heb. 13:3). Ask the Lord to put those who are suffering for Him on your heart, and to give you words of encouragement for them, and prayers that bring release.

Overcomers or Overcome?

We put ourselves to all sorts of inconveniences to satisfy our guilty passions but when it is a question of overcoming them we will not lift a finger. It is just this penny’s worth of suffering that nobody wants to spend. (Leonard of Port Maurice)

If suffering reduces us for a season, as it so often did the psalmists, to crying out to God for grace and strength to cope with the next half hour, then at least we are looking in the right direction, and refusing to allow circumstances to daunt our seeking. God hears and answers our cries.

In the meantime, it is comforting to know that He identifies with every situation that we will ever have to go through and will always provide a way forward for us (1 Cor. 10:13; Heb. 4:14-16). This is true – even when our sufferings are primarily the consequence of our own recklessness. It is so easy to recriminate, ‘If only I hadn’t been so proud or angry or careless, this would never have happened!’ Whilst it is always right to face up to our part in these things, it is also important to let the Lord lead us on from wherever we are. As Francis de Sales urges us:

Raise up your heart after a fall, sweetly and gently, humbling yourself before God in the knowledge of your misery. Do not be astonished at your weakness. It is not surprising that weakness should be weak, infirmity infirm and frailty frail.

It is important not to underestimate the effect that being under the weather physically or emotionally can have on our spiritual life. If you are on antibiotics, for example, it is quite normal to find it difficult to experience the Lord’s presence.

I for one do not find my spirit leaping for joy when the Lord highlights this verse from 1 Peter 4: Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. Many trials can not be averted, but it is important to focus on how the verse continues. . . But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when His glory is revealed (1 Pet. 4:12-13).

“Stuff” will always happen to us, so in one sense it is not so much what happens that is all important so much as how we respond to it. As always, God is often less interested in what we do than in the spirit in which we do it. Here is a thought to ponder. For most of us, it is not that our trials are too large, but rather that our love is too small.

Assuming you have done your best to face our sins and shortcomings, may I encourage you for the moment to leave them to one side, and to see your sufferings as a privileged sharing in the suffering of Christ?

Selah

Lord, we recognize that the spiritual battle in this generation is strong.
Where our sufferings have allowed a legacy of doubt
or disappointment to lodge in our hearts, wash us clean.
Let no trace of bitterness or cynicism fill our hearts.

Thank You that no situation is beyond the reach of Your help,
and that there are no limits to Your power.
Bring about great and necessary deliverances
on behalf of those who are suffering for Your sake.
Delight Your heart and confound Your enemy. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Grant grace today to all Your servants
who are suffering for their obedience to You.
Keep them from despair and wrong reactions
when doors shut in their faces.
Help them to trust You to open new and better ones elsewhere.

Here is a simple but profound two-part prayer.
Take your time to identify the issues the Lord would speak to you about.

Forgive us, Lord, for the suffering we have inflicted on others –
and heal us from the suffering we have received ourselves.

If the first step is to receive forgiveness for our own shortcomings,
the second step is to forgive the people who have caused or added to our suffering
– and then to receive His healing,
in readiness for the next round of life.

References
1. On more than one occasion Paul listed the intense sufferings that had come his way because of his faith and missionary activity. 2 Cor. 11:23-30 shows how selective Luke had been in drawing up his account of Paul’s ministry, since we have no other record of many of the incidents alluded to here. But Paul writes triumphantly from prison: I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel. (Phil. 1:12, cf 2 Cor. 1:8-11; 6:4-10; 11:23-30; Col. 1:24; Rom. 9:1-3,10:1; 1 Pet. 1:7; James 1:3; cf Job 1:6-12, 2:1-6 14).
2. The Root of the Righteous (Christian Publications Inc., Harrisburg, PA). Kingsway’s publication The Best of Tozer is a good starting place for discovering this unique man’s writings.
3. Lilies Among Thorns (Sovereign World) is a powerful testimony to the sufferings and the glory of the contemporary Church in China.
4. God’s Smuggler to China Brother David (Hodder and Stoughton) pp 295-6
5. Quoted in The Wisdom of the Saints, Jill Haak Adels (O.U.P.).