Suffering and God’s Will

by Mike Ratliff

8 Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. 9 But resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same experiences of suffering are being accomplished by your brethren who are in the world. 10 After you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself perfect, confirm, strengthen and establish you. 1 Peter 5:8-10 (NASB) 

Many years ago in a much younger season in my life, I worked with a fellow whose theology was quite different than mine. I had small children at that time and whatever diseases they brought home from school, my wife and I always contracted them. I would come to work suffering from the plague given to me by my children causing my coworker to admonish me for having sin in my life, which, according to him, was the cause of my misery. His theology was that God’s will for His children was that they be healthy, wealthy, and prosperous instead of disease ridden, living within humble means, and not always “winning.”

About that time, I read Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. I found myself weeping as I read of God’s people being burned at the stake, crucified upside down, or used as torches to light Nero’s gardens at night. Were these people martyred because they had sin in their lives? Would they have been spared the ignominy of their martyrdom if they had been more careful in walking in the promises of health, wealth, and prosperity that is what God really wants to give all His people? As I studied the suffering of God’s people from His perspective, I learned that my coworker and those from whom he got his theology were ignoring much of God’s Word while misinterpreting much of the rest. What is God’s will in relation to suffering in the life of His people?

Carefully read 1 Peter 5:8-10, which I placed at the top of this post. This passage tells us clearly that Christians are to live and walk through this life with the understanding that God’s purposes realized in the future require some pain in the present. God allows our enemy to attack us while using the resultant suffering to perfect us.

3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, 4 who comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. 5 For just as the sufferings of Christ are ours in abundance, so also our comfort is abundant through Christ. 6 But if we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; or if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which is effective in the patient enduring of the same sufferings which we also suffer; 7 and our hope for you is firmly grounded, knowing that as you are sharers of our sufferings, so also you are sharers of our comfort. 2 Corinthians 1:3-7 (NASB) 

In His work of perfecting Christians, God restores, confirms, strengthens, and establishes them. The believer who matures under the mighty of God within the fires of tribulation comes through the flames full of God’s strength and resoluteness. He uses the suffering He allows to produce strength of character in the believer. Of course, for believers to truly grow in the midst of this suffering instead of becoming discouraged and resentful, they must respond to it with a Christlike attitude as God’s slaves which Peter gives us in the following passage.

5 You younger men, likewise, be subject to your elders; and all of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, for GOD IS OPPOSED TO THE PROUD, BUT GIVES GRACE TO THE HUMBLE.
6 Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you at the proper time, 7 casting all your anxiety on Him, because He cares for you. 8 Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. 9 But resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same experiences of suffering are being accomplished by your brethren who are in the world. 10 After you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself perfect, confirm, strengthen and establish you. 11 To Him be dominion forever and ever. Amen.
12 Through Silvanus, our faithful brother (for so I regard him), I have written to you briefly, exhorting and testifying that this is the true grace of God. Stand firm in it! 13 She who is in Babylon, chosen together with you, sends you greetings, and so does my son, Mark. 14 Greet one another with a kiss of love.
Peace be to you all who are in Christ. 1 Peter 5:5-14 (NASB) 

Here we read that the genuine believer who is maturing unto Christlikeness is submissive (v5), humble vv5-6), trusting (v7), sober-minded (v8), watchful (vv8-9), hopeful (v10), worshipful (v11), faithful (v12), and full of affection towards the brethren (vv13-14). As we respond in the spirit to the trouble or suffering that God is allowing in our lives we will discover the peace of God in its midst if we respond from within our daily denial of self, taking up our crosses in order to follow our Lord outside the camp.

“Let us go forth therefore unto Him without the camp.” (Hebrews 13:13 KJV)

Jesus, bearing His cross, went forth to suffer without the gate. The Christian’s reason for leaving the camp of the world’s sin and religion is not because he loves to be singular, but because Jesus did so; and the disciple must follow his Master. Christ was “not of the world:” His life and His testimony were a constant protest against conformity with the world. Never was such overflowing affection for men as you find in Him; but still He was separate from sinners. In like manner Christ’s people must “go forth unto Him.” They must take their position “without the camp,” as witness-bearers for the truth. They must be prepared to tread the straight and narrow path. They must have bold, unflinching, lion-like hearts, loving Christ first, and His truth next, and Christ and His truth beyond all the world. Jesus would have His people “go forth without the camp” for their own sanctification. You cannot grow in grace to any high degree while you are conformed to the world. The life of separation may be a path of sorrow, but it is the highway of safety; and though the separated life may cost you many pangs, and make every day a battle, yet it is a happy life after all. No joy can excel that of the soldier of Christ: Jesus reveals Himself so graciously, and gives such sweet refreshment, that the warrior feels more calm and peace in his daily strife than others in their hours of rest. The highway of holiness is the highway of communion. It is thus we shall hope to win the crown if we are enabled by divine grace faithfully to follow Christ “without the camp.” The crown of glory will follow the cross of separation. A moment’s shame will be well recompensed by eternal honour; a little while of witness-bearing will seem nothing when we are “for ever with the Lord.” – C.H. Spurgeon

This post sprung from two seeds. The first was an article by Steve Lawson titled Gottschalk. Gottschalk was a Ninth Century Monk and theologian who discovered the writings of Augustine, which lead him to preach Justification by Faith alone. This cost him though. He was tried and imprisoned for the last twenty years of his life for refusing to recant. He was horribly beaten and went mad shortly before his death. He was considered a heretic so was denied burial in “sanctified ground.” After I read that I shared it with my wife and I then asked her if God was still with Gottschalk in his madness. Yes, I know he was there with him in his suffering, but what about when he was no longer coherent. Then the second seed presented itself. We discussed good Christian people like my parents who, though they are no longer with us, both suffered much in the last 10 years or so of their lives. My Dad had Alzheimer’s and my mother suffered from Dementia. Was God still with them through all that? Yes, He was! He was there with them just as He is with the Christian mother whose son was murdered and He is with the families of missionaries in countries that offer no protection from Islamic fanatics who persecute and kill those they see as infidels. He is right there in the midst of the suffering of His saints, to the end.

Suffering is the tool God uses to perfect His people for eternity and to further His Kingdom.

27 When they had brought them, they stood them before the Council. The high priest questioned them, 28 saying, “We gave you strict orders not to continue teaching in this name, and yet, you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.” 29 But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men. 30 The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom you had put to death by hanging Him on a cross. 31 He is the one whom God exalted to His right hand as a Prince and a Savior, to grant repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins. 32 And we are witnesses of these things; and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey Him.”
33 But when they heard this, they were cut to the quick and intended to kill them. 34 But a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the Law, respected by all the people, stood up in the Council and gave orders to put the men outside for a short time. 35 And he said to them, “Men of Israel, take care what you propose to do with these men. 36 For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a group of about four hundred men joined up with him. But he was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and came to nothing. 37 After this man, Judas of Galilee rose up in the days of the census and drew away some people after him; he too perished, and all those who followed him were scattered. 38 So in the present case, I say to you, stay away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or action is of men, it will be overthrown; 39 but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them; or else you may even be found fighting against God.”
40 They took his advice; and after calling the apostles in, they flogged them and ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and then released them. 41 So they went on their way from the presence of the Council, rejoicing that they had been considered worthy to suffer shame for His name. 42 And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they kept right on teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ. Acts 5:27-42 (NASB)

God’s ways are not Man’s ways. We seek to avoid suffering, but in God’s economy, those who truly belong to the Lord Jesus Christ must suffer as He did. That means that He suffered to the point of dishonor or shame and we are called to do the same. This is humility exhibited to the world, which God uses to work spiritual miracles in the hearts of men. It makes no sense to the natural way of thinking that to be beaten with rods was an indication that Peter and John had been counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name. To suffer dishonor or shame for the name of Christ is what we do when we preach the genuine, cross-centered Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ to the world. We do this as we take up our own crosses and follow Christ outside the camp and become identified with Him in the reproach of the cross. This means that if we sugar-coat the Gospel or tone it down, removing this reproach, then we are not going to suffer dishonor or shame for the name and that means we are not preaching Jesus and Him crucified.

We have a whole crop of ministries in our time that have never preached the real gospel. They are motivated to minister this way to not offend the people they have drawn into their non-threatening churches. They have no idea that what they are actually doing is denying they even know the Lord Jesus Christ, because unless they preach Jesus and Him crucified then they are preaching another Jesus and another gospel. They are preaching something that does not put them in the position to suffer dishonor or shame for the name.

What is God’s will for the suffering of His people?

Soli Deo Gloria!