What constitutes suffering for the name of Christ? Often we recall the most severe examples of suffering—Stephen crying out to the Lord as enraged Jewish leaders hurled rocks at his body; Paul and Silas with feet shackled to a Philippian prison, still feeling the pain of their earlier beating; Jim Elliot and his four missionary friends rushed by armed Huaorani Indians. These are all graphic examples of Christians enduring great sacrifices for the advance of the gospel.
Scripture teaches (even promises) that all Christians will suffer, but these graphic examples are not the norm for faithful Christians in the West today. So what does suffering for the name of Christ look like in twenty-first century America?
During one panel discussion at the Together for the Gospel conference, Ligon Duncan and I interviewed our friend John Piper on this issue.
Ligon Duncan: John, you have done a pretty extended exposition on kinds of suffering, available on the Desiring God website. You have done it in different forms. You are addressing this very question that, that suffering just means taking a bullet or getting your head hacked off. You make a great point in that message about how any kind of suffering can become suffering for Christ if you will embrace it that way.
John Piper: If you pick a text on suffering and you try to apply it to cancer, when it is dealing with persecution, a lot of people will say, “I don’t think that applies to me, because that is really applying to getting suffering from somebody hurting you or saying something evil.” So I have developed an argument: All suffering that a Christian endures in the path of obedience is suffering with Christ and for Christ (though not in the same way).
And there are a couple of reasons for that.
One is that in suffering, the temptation is the same whether it is coming from cancer or slander. And the temptation is to say, “God is not good and it is not worth serving him, and escaping from this suffering in some sinful way is to be preferred.” Those are the same. And so the real battle is the same, whether it is coming from a physical thing or another.
Secondly, I don’t think historically you can draw a line between suffering from persecution and physical suffering. Just try to imagine a particular kind of Pauline persecution, like being whipped 39 lashes, five times (2 Corinthians 11:24). Well, let’s just take the third time. You can imagine what his back must have looked like—39 times five is a lot—and it healed five times. So the third time his back is turned into jelly again.
Now they don’t know anything about antibiotics. When they are done with him, they throw him on the floor and his back is now covered with dirt. What happens when your back is lacerated and it is covered with dirt? I’ll tell you what happens: infection happens. What happens when you get an infection? Fever happens.
Now which is the physical suffering here and which is the persecution suffering? Where are you going to draw that line between the fever and the lashes? Which is why I say that any fever experienced in the path of obedience—getting my sermon ready, making hard calls, staying up late with the suicide situation, and not enough rest and I have got this awful sore throat—tell me these are not the same suffering as being criticized for your ministry. It is the same essential suffering.
And so I think I can develop textual and thoughtful arguments for why almost all texts on suffering can help our people, whether their pain is coming from a difficult marriage, coming from slander, coming from cancer, or coming from wherever.
The issue is in all suffering, when we trust him and keep trusting him, we will find some evidences of his sovereign mercy toward me. And the source of it is a very minor part when it comes to the real battle down here of “Will I trust him? Will I hold on to him or not?”
C.J. Mahaney: Knowing you, John, and knowing your church, you have devoted much time to addressing the topic of suffering and to preparing your church for suffering. Why and how would you recommend that local pastors here do the same?
JP: Well, the why is because the Bible promises, “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22, ESV). It is a given that to come to Jesus is to compound your suffering, not minimize your suffering. Certain kinds of sufferings get minimized. The suffering that comes from drunkenness will probably go down. So don’t hear me saying nothing changes or is beneficial. That is not true. There are amazing releases for conscience. A lot of psychological things will improve, but others will get worse.
So, if you are now in a marriage where one of you is a believer and one is not, that is this sort of thing. They will suffer.
And the second is because you see it out there. You see the little Down-syndrome kids, and you see the people in the wheelchair, and you see the painful marriages that are out there. You see it, and you either are going to just ignore it, or you are going to give them something to help.
Third, I don’t think Christ is glorified anywhere more than when suffering people rejoice in him as their treasure. If everything is going rosy for all my people, the possibilities of us making a name for Jesus in the city is smaller than if things are going hard for our folks. Then the possibility of making a name for Jesus is greater. What the world wants to see is not for you to tell them, “Jesus makes things go well for me.” Things are going well for them, too, probably better than for you, and it is money and doctors that are doing it for them. So that argument has teeny-weeny effectiveness.
Rather, when neighbors know that the baby in your womb has a liver outside his body, no spinal column, and you have carried this baby to the end and they watch you, the possibilities of making much of Jesus are staggering.
Not many people see life that way. My job as a preacher is to help that mom, way before the pregnancy, get ready for it so that she has some resources. And one of the most satisfying things in ministry, guys, is to do this long enough so that you get a steady stream of testimonies that come to you at funerals and in hospitals and other places where a mom or a son or a relative just takes you by the hand and says, “So glad we have been at Bethlehem. We would be insane if we didn’t have a big God, if we didn’t have a strong God, if we didn’t have a sovereign God, if we didn’t have a holy God.”
I love those testimonies and I get a lot of mileage of late-night work out of testimonies like that, and they are pretty common stream.
We have got a lot of strong women at our church. They bear a lot of things. They endure pain through marriages and through kids that are disabled…Strong women are magnificent testimonies to Christ because, if they are complementarian, they are combining things the world can’t explain. They are combining a sweet, tender, kind, loving, submissive, feminine beauty with this massive steel in their backs and theology in their brains.
Listen to the T4G panel discussion here.