There are, of course, many different kinds of suffering in life. Some suffering comes as a direct consequence of our own sinful choices or other people’s sinful choices. Other suffering comes directly from Satan and his demons or indirectly, through people used as Satan’s pawns. Still other suffering is a result of God’s discipline, as he continues to build into us the character of Christ. Suffering is made even more difficult when we don’t know its source or can’t explain it. For example, I don’t have a good explanation for the suffering of my former student Steve—a young man with a heart for evangelism and church-planting who died in his thirties from cancer, leaving a wife and daughter. Why did he have to die so young? I don’t understand why my friend Phil had to leave the mission field suffering from a debilitating, degenerative disease. He was serving as a Christian missionary in a Muslim-majority country in Africa, and there just aren’t very many people standing in line for that job. Why did he have to suffer? I honestly don’t have a good answer, but I do know that suffering is in fact a normal part of being a disciple of Jesus.
The Bible clearly tells us that suffering is part of the normal life of discipleship. Jesus told his disciples not to be surprised by suffering; rather, he told them straight out that if the world persecuted him, then it would persecute them, too (John 15:18–21). Peter told believers not to be surprised by painful trials of suffering as if something strange were happening (1 Peter 4:12–13); rather, he told them to rejoice at being given the chance to participate in the sufferings of Christ. Paul told Timothy that “everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12).
Suffering is a topic that many American Christians simply want to ignore. Some churches resort to teaching half of the gospel, focusing on the blessings of God but not on his call to radical discipleship that includes suffering. This heresy is known by different names, such as “health and wealth” teaching or the “prosperity gospel.” Even evangelistic methods can easily be hijacked by this heresy. The “Four Spiritual Laws” written by Campus Crusade founder Bill Bright begins with the affirmation “God loves you and offers a wonderful plan for your life.” I agree with this statement, but many Americans interpret “wonderful plan” to mean a life without suffering.
The Old Testament prophet Isaiah predicted that the suffering servant would be “familiar with suffering” (Isaiah 53:3). Jesus was certainly familiar with suffering, both in his death and in his earthly life. He experienced the suffering of family rejection, betrayal by a friend, and homelessness. During his crucifixion, he suffered three specific kinds of abuse. Besides the obvious physical abuse of scourging and nailing to a cross, he suffered the verbal and emotional abuse of being mocked, cursed at, and spat upon. But he suffered another form of abuse as well—sexual abuse. Jesus was almost certainly crucified naked, which was part of the public humiliation of crucifixion. Having your clothes ripped off to expose your nakedness in public definitely qualifies as a form of sexual abuse. No wonder the writer of Hebrews says that Jesus is a high priest who can sympathize with our weaknesses (Hebrews 4:15). Our theology of suffering must include Jesus’s understanding of the suffering we go through in life.
We must also understand that Jesus’s suffering was entirely voluntary. When I was in college, I watched a reenactment of the crucifixion at a church camp in Missouri. I thought the campers did a pretty fair job of being realistic when I heard the sounds of hammers hitting nails, saw ketchup being used for blood, and saw people spitting at Jesus. But then something happened that shocked me at the time when those standing by the cross mocked Jesus, shouting, “If you are the Son of God, come down from there!” The person playing Jesus got off the cross—and walked away. As everyone sat in stunned silence, a person got up and said, “You know, Jesus could have done that. The nails didn’t hold him on the cross—his love did.”
REFLECTIONS: Have you become used to the story of the crucifixion—can you think of a way to remind yourself of the voluntary nature of Jesus’ self-sacrifice? Jesus understands and sympathizes with our own sufferings—can you think of a way to remind yourself of this truth?
Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you.
1 Peter 4:12