Chapter 8 The Choice for Suffering: The Life of Paul
(This is the last chapter in the book The Choices God Makes. Previous chapters can be viewed in the archives.)
The Apostle Paul had a very clear understanding of his calling, which included both positive and negative facets. He knew without a doubt that he was called as an apostle, and he began many of his letters to the churches reminding them of that fact. On the other hand, he knew, as Jesus had foretold when Paul was converted, that he would suffer for the Gospel. But this negative aspect of his call was not something he ignored or avoided. He embraced it, as we read Acts 21:10-13:
After we had been there a number of days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. Coming over to us, he took Paul’s belt, tied his own hands and feet with it and said, “The Holy Spirit says, ‘In this way the Jews of Jerusalem will bind the owner of this belt and will hand him over to the Gentiles.’” When we heard this, we and the people there pleaded with Paul not to go up to Jerusalem. Then Paul answered, “Why are you weeping and breaking my heart? I am ready not only to be bound, but also to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.”
Likewise, we need to embrace the totality of our call, not just some part of it. When we try to selectively live out our call, the way we want to, focusing on the positive and ignoring the negative, we drain our calling of its power and ultimately do harm to the Kingdom of God.
According to the Bible brokenness is a sacrifice that is pleasing to God. “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Ps. 51:17). We as Christians do not bring animal sacrifices to God, because Jesus made the ultimate sacrifice as the Lamb of God. Instead, our Lord expects us to live a life of sacrifice. Who is it Jesus says will be blessed in the Beatitudes? The poor (broken) in spirit, those who mourn, those who are meek.
Matthew 21 is a remarkable chapter in the Gospel account of Jesus’ life. It begins with Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and it ends with Jesus referring to Himself as the cornerstone. In between we see Jesus revealing Himself to the crowds, overtly, as the Son of God. Jesus cleanses the temple saying, “My house shall be called a house of prayer,” then He demonstrates His authority over creation by causing a fig tree to wither which was not producing fruit, and finally He tells two parables which make it clear that God had rejected the leaders of Israel because they had rejected the prophets, John the Baptist, and even the Son of God Himself.
Thus, Matthew 21:42-43 are a kind of summary of what Jesus has just demonstrated and taught. In these verses, Jesus is warning the spiritual leadership of Israel that their rejection of Him would result in the Kingdom of God being given as an inheritance to the Gentiles. But then in verse 44, referring to Himself, he says something very strange: “He who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces, but he on whom it falls will be crushed.” He is giving the people a choice, between being broken and being crushed. I think if I’d been in the crowd that day, I would have asked Jesus, “Is there another choice?” This verse may sound very negative, but it is clear that Jesus considers being crushed to be the worse outcome. Tommy Tenney has said the same thing in one of his books: “Fall on the rock before the rock falls on you.”
It is not God’s desire for His children to be crushed, yet this happens, most often when we refuse to be broken. We believe we can choose not to be broken before God and just continue to live our lives. But biblically, if we choose not to be broken, we are also choosing to be crushed. Our God is sovereign. He is all-powerful and in control of every situation. As He says in Isaiah 46:10, “I say: My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please.” He allows trials in our lives to refine us and purify us. We all have lessons to learn every day about humility and righteousness. If we come before the Lord with acceptable offerings, a broken and contrite spirit, completely dependent on Him, releasing control of our lives to Him, He will bring healing and victory. If not, we will remain in our circumstances, becoming progressively more desperate, until finally we are crushed under the weight of the rock.
We fall on the rock, Jesus, in order to die to self. This is to our advantage. The Apostle Paul, who fell on the rock many times, makes the key observation in Colossians 3:3, “For you have died, and your life is now hidden [or protected] with Christ in God.” If we are dead with regard to the world and our own desires – the lust of the flesh, the pride of life – then satan is robbed of the weapons he can use against us. Paul also says in Romans 6:7, “…anyone who has died has been freed from sin.” At the same time, we understand from Scripture that God is close to us in our brokenness, and that we will receive the healing that we need. Psalm 147:3 assures us that our Lord “…heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.”
One thing we should also note about suffering is that it is not an unusual thing as far as Scripture is concerned. In fact, it is almost expected. First Peter 4:12-16 states:
Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler. However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name.
Here we see the intermingling of God’s sovereign will (Boulema), His desire for man (Thelema), and man’s moral will. God’s sovereign intent is for His glory to be revealed, God desires that we participate in that glory through suffering for Christ, but it is our choice whether to enter into that. Further, not all choices to suffer glorify God. There exists voluntary suffering that is not of the kingdom of God, as indicated in these verses – things that we do by habit or out of choice that result in our suffering but which do not glorify God. These are the negative effects of our moral will, things like binging and purging, or cutting, or making bad choices and being involved in destructive relationships. As much as we might feel like these things are not voluntary, they are, though the motivation for them may lie outside of us (as with the way we were brought up, or traumas we experienced).
Sickness or disease is certainly not voluntary suffering. There are many Christians who believe that God causes sickness to test us or to mature us. Jesus had a different response to this when asked by the disciples about a man born blind (John 9). For the disciples, there were only two possibilities for the cause of the blindness: either the man sinned or his parents sinned. Jesus said it was neither of those things, but rather that it had happened “so that the work of God might be displayed in his life” (John 9:3). So, although sickness is not voluntary, healing from sickness can bring glory to God, and so can have the same outcome as suffering for Christ. God is in the business of redeeming and restoring, and healing from sickness and disease is part of that restoration.
When we choose to suffer for Christ, it is a redeemed version of suffering, because it directly results in glory for God. The church has a rich tradition of this kind of voluntary suffering, one that has been lost in modern western society. We can think of it as intentionally limiting ourselves in some way, usually in terms of our own comfort, to bring about something that’s honoring to the Kingdom of God. It may involve risking a friendship or acceptance by family because of our testimony as a Christian; or choosing to fast, or occupying our time with prayer rather than something else; or choosing to live and minister in places that most people would avoid. Paul chose to endure all manner of suffering, as he details in 2 Corinthians 11: imprisonment, beatings, stoning, shipwreck, potential danger both from people and circumstances, sleeplessness, hunger, thirst and exposure.
Today, we do everything as a society to avoid suffering or loss or deprivation, and we certainly never willingly bring it upon ourselves. This is to our detriment as believers in Jesus Christ. Consider the Beatitudes of Matthew 5 and what and who Jesus calls “blessed”: the poor in spirit, those who mourn, and those who are persecuted because of righteousness. Jesus calls us not to avoid these things, but to voluntarily enter into them, because there are blessings associated with each. As the 1 Peter passage noted earlier says, we participate in the sufferings of Christ so that we may be overjoyed when His glory is revealed.
We’re aware of the imagery in Scripture of the church as the Bride and Jesus as the Bridegroom. Jesus made a key observation in Matthew 9:15 about the significance of this relationship as it pertains to voluntary suffering: “How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast.” Contrast this with the 1 Peter verse that says we will be overjoyed when Jesus’ glory is revealed, that is, when He returns to earth. Simply put, we choose to suffer for the sake of Christ because He is not with us, as a way of remembering Him while He’s gone, and as a way of preparing for His return.
In Revelation 19:8, we’re told that the Bride (us, the church) will be dressed in clothes that are bright and clean, and that this beautiful wedding dress represents the righteous acts of the saints. We are also told in Revelation 21:2 that when the New Jerusalem descends to earth, it is prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. It is no coincidence that this city is composed of precious stones, pearls and gold, all of which require pressure, irritation or a refining fire to achieve their maximum brilliance and value. This is the church, prepared for Jesus.
We do not choose to suffer simply to be obedient; rather, we choose to suffer to be prepared, to be ready for the return of the Bridegroom. This is intensely personal and intimate, like an engaged couple making the decision to deny their physical desires and put off getting into bed with each other until they are married. Why do people do that, especially in this day and age? It’s not only because it’s the right thing to do, or “the Bible tells me so.” It is because they believe that what is coming is better than whatever they are denying themselves now. Our voluntary suffering, our denial of our own comfort, is a witness that things are not yet the way God intends. We are expressing longing for restoration and redemption, and in some mysterious way, we are helping to bring about that restoration. We are aligning our choices (Moral will) with God’s desire for us (Thelema) in order to bring about His sovereign plan (Boulema). This is a very powerful thing. At bottom, this was the power of the Apostle Paul’s life. Beyond the legacy of his writings, beyond the many church plants, he chose to agree with Jesus when He said about Paul in Acts 9:16, “I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.”
The most difficult thing I have to tell you is that sometimes, despite our desire to humble ourselves and be broken and obedient, we are crushed anyway, because it is what God has chosen to bring Him maximum glory. We have many examples of those who were clearly walking in the will of God, but who were singled out for crushing: Job, Peter (who Jesus prophesied would be sifted like wheat), Jesus, and of course Paul. In the short-term, each of these crushings could only be viewed as tragedy: Job losing his possessions, his family, his health and his reputation; Peter denying not only his relationship with Jesus but also everything he had said about Jesus as Messiah and Son of God, essentially throwing away the previous three years of his life; Jesus taking on the scorn and shame of dying a criminal’s death; and Paul suffering one setback after another as he gamely attempted to be faithful to his calling.
Seen in isolation these crushings seem unfair and purposeless. These individuals did not need to be taught a lesson, or to turn from their rebellion. They were each part of God’s inner circle, the devout. But in each case, the issue was not simply one of obedience – something much deeper was going on. Somehow, in the cosmic struggle between good and evil, God had decided to stake His claim for the Kingdom on these individuals.
We call God our Redeemer, and so He is. But whereas we think of this as one aspect of His character, I have come to understand that this is in fact who He is. He is not like us, trying to figure out how He might redeem a person or situation after tragedy has struck, but instead He is setting the stage for the tragedy, the crushing, in order to be the Redeemer. We saw this clearly in God pointing out Job to Satan: “Have you considered my servant Job?” The same was true for Jesus, as prophesied in Isaiah 53:10, “Yet it was the LORD’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer….” I believe He did this not only with Job, Peter, Jesus and Paul, but He does this today, with us. We are involved in all-out spiritual warfare, and we are the prize and the battlefield, as well as the means by which the Kingdom of God is advancing.
At the same time, we know from Psalm 34:18 that, “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” How else could Paul write in Romans 8:18, “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us”?
God may allow the rock to fall on us, but this is not the end of the story. We have a champion! It is Jesus, who said of Himself at the beginning of His ministry that He had been sent to proclaim freedom for the prisoner, recovery of sight for the blind and release for the oppressed. Jesus makes this offer to you today – He is still the one who can set us free and restore us. Many in Jesus’ day rejected Him and chose to remain in the prison of their own lives. But some chose to cry out like blind Bartimeus, “Have mercy on me, Son of David!” And those who were set free and restored by Jesus went on to change the world.
Where are you today? Are your enemies all around you? Then fall on the rock. Choose to be broken before your God. Cry out for His help and His mercy. Don’t seek so much to overcome your circumstances as to be purified by them. As Paul wrote out of his own hard-won experience in 2 Corinthians 4:16-17:
Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.
But perhaps you have chosen to go your own way despite God’s warnings in your life. And now the rock has fallen on you. Or perhaps you have been singled out for sifting. Are you crushed today? I have good news for you: the Lord Jesus saves those who are crushed in spirit. That’s why He died on the cross 2,000 years ago, that’s why He was resurrected on the third day, and that’s why He is sitting at the right hand of the Father in heaven interceding for us. Be assured, as my pastor, KT Terry says, “Your pain has purpose.” Choose to be faithful in suffering, but also to look beyond the suffering, as the Apostle Paul did, to the glory produced by that suffering.