Yesterday also marked the birth date, in 1915, of PCA teaching elder and foreign missionary Francis Rue Steele, who died in 2004. Here today, for our Sunday Sermon, is his article, The Privilege of Suffering.
THE PRIVILEGE of SUFFERING.
by Dr. Francis R. Steele
Why do Christians suffer? Is there a purpose in it and if so what is that purpose? Should all suffering be treated as a calamity and considered as punishment? How should the Christian behave in the face of suffering; gloomy or patient—or what? Note first of all that there are two kinds of suffering: deserved and undeserved. We are not here concerned with suffering which is the just desserts of our own foolish or sinful behavior. “For what glory is it if when ye be buffeted for your faults ye take it patiently” (I Peter 2:20). “But let none of you suffer as … an evildoer” (I Peter 4:15). But what about undeserved suffering, why is it permitted and how should we behave?
What does the Bible have to say on this point? It says, quite clearly and unmistakably that God permits suffering to come into the lives of His children as a special privilege and that it is an experience to be sought from Him for His glory. How different this attitude is from that of the world toward suffering and, for that matter, of most Christians as well.
The Lord Jesus laid the foundation of this truth in His teaching and it was later developed further by the Apostles. Let us see what they have to say and ask God to clarify our thinking on this much misunderstood point.
The whole matter is summarized thus by the Lord: “These things have I spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33) The first statement is conditional “ye might have.” The second is unconditional “ye shall have.” If we fail to understand the principles under which God is operating in this present world we may well feel distraught and upset by our experiences. However if we understand we may enjoy the tranquility of soul which resting in the promises and providence of God affords. Our enjoyment of His peace is conditioned by our accepting His will. But in either case we shall experience tribulation; this is inescapable. This is the unavoidable situation confronting Christians because, in the very nature of things, there must be conflict between light and darkness, good and evil, the Christian and the world just as there is between God and Satan. There is no possibility of “peaceful co-existence” between righteousness and unrighteousness.
It is more difficult for those of us who live in North America to appreciate this fact than for those Christians who live among hostile Muslim people in North Africa. The atmosphere of religious respectability and material abundance here at home blinds us to the real world outside. We are easily deceived into equating our social and material comfort with the privileges and benefits we believe are rightfully ours by virtue of our being Christian. If so, however, we are ignorant of two facts. (1) For the first few centuries of its life the whole Christian church was despised and persecuted by the world and (2) the majority of our Christian Brothers and Sisters living outside our artificial environment are still living under extreme hardship and severe persecution even today.
But even more important than that, we have explicit teaching from the Lord concerning the elements of a life of true discipleship. “Remember the word that I said unto you, The disciple is not greater than his Lord. If they have persecuted me, they will persecute you also.” (John 15:20) Or put another way even more forcibly, “It is enough for the disciple to be as his Lord.” (Matthew 10:25) Enough! Who could wish for anything more? Isn’t that the goal and aspiration of my life? But, is it; really? Or have I a mistaken concept of my desire when I sing so heartily “I would be like Jesus.” Do I not really have in mind undescribable joys and pleasures flowing from a life of such sweetness and goodness as I have never known before? If so, then I had better turn my eyes away from these dazzling dreams and listen to His voice again, “If the world hate you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you . . . if they have persecuted me they will persecute you also.” Can it be that I actually desire to be more than He was in this world; more popular, more comfortable? God forbid that He should ever have to say of me, “The world cannot hate you; but me it hateth, because I testify of it, that the works thereof are evil.” (John 7:7). God forbid that the world should ever see so much of itself in me or that I should be so attractive and congenial to it that it would look with favor on me while at the same time despising the Lord I profess to follow.
A word of caution is necessary at this point. The world hates Jesus because His life of holiness convicts it of sin. That’s what He meant when He said, “They hated me without, a cause.” (John 15:25) There is no need for us to seek or produce occasion for suffering. No suffering brought on by stupid, sinful or selfish behavior glorifies God. “Let none of you suffer . . . as an evildoer.” (I Peter 4:15). We should rather “seek after godliness and true holiness” and then “think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened unto you: but rejoice, inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ’s sufferings.” (I Peter 4:12-13).
It’s no great surprise to us that grossly sinful or viciously anti-religious people treat us rudely or harmfully because of our witness for Christ. Though, be assured, few of us in America ever know anything like the persecution our Christian Brothers overseas suffer constantly. Nevertheless, whether we welcome such treatment or not, we can understand why it comes when it comes. Such people don’t know any better therefore we realize we ought to be patient with them no matter what the cost. Whether we do or not, of course, is quite another matter.
But what if unjust, undeserved treatment comes from within the family of believers? How easily and quickly we become hurt and resentful. Yet wasn’t this precisely our Lord’s experience. Isn’t this peculiarly characteristic of His deepest suffering. He was misunderstood by his closest disciples—even his own family. He was betrayed by one of the twelve. He was deserted by all men at Calvary. He was blasphemously denied by one of the specially privileged three. And “as he was in the world so are we.”
The Psalmist speaks of this when he cries out, “It was not an enemy that reproached me, then I could have borne it. Neither was it he that hated me that did magnify himself against me, then I would have hid myself from it, but it was ‘thou, a man, my own equal, my guide and acquaintance;” (Psalm 55:12-13) not a declared enemy but a supposed friend. It hurts deeply to remember that once “we took sweet counsel together, and went up into the house of God in company” (verse 14) then to discover that although “the words of his mouth were smoother than butter, yet war was in his heart.” (verse 21)
Such was the heartbroken reply of one missionary to another when the disloyalty of a colleague was revealed, “If an Arab had spat in my face on the street, that I could have understood and accepted it but . . .” Yes, that’s the difference “it was thou.” No matter how willing or able we may think we are to suffer reproach from unbelievers—though rarely tested at this point—it is an altogether different matter when it proceeds from a brother in Christ. Still, it is at exactly this point that we have the pre-eminent example of the Lord “because Christ also (thus) suffered for us, leaving us an example that ye should follow in His steps.” (I Peter 2:21).
We fail the test at this point since we have failed to heed His advice and warning; “in me ye (may) have peace, in the world ye shall have tribulation.” The simple truth is that true, lasting peace can only be found in Christ; He is the only unfailing Friend. Nothing and no one in the world is completely reliable or trustworthy. It is unwise to lean too hard upon even the most saintly Christian. God grant that we seek our peace only in Him and be satisfied. He will never disappoint us.
No matter what the source, however, most Christians react to suffering in more or less the same way; either bitter resentment or lugubrious silence. Moreover, some Christians seem to take morbid pleasure from their having to “bear a cross,” as they put it. They are at great pains to point out how noble they are to bear so patiently with such misfortune. What a disgraceful parody upon real Christian grace! Such behavior betrays the evil motive of selfish pride behind it. Bearing “a cross” (Mark 8:34) means giving complete obedience to the Lord. It has no reference whatsoever to sickness, accidents, calamity or any other hardship as such.
The gem of truth lies in the very heart of the Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount. Following a familiar pattern in Semitic didactic literature we find here two groups of four statements the fourth of each being the major thought of the group. Notice the development (Matthew 5:3-12). The first climax is, “Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness.” then follows the second group with its climax, “Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness sake.” But the crowning climax brings the lesson home personally, “Blessed are ye when men shall revile you and persecute you and say all manner of evil against
you falsely for my sake.” And finally, “Rejoice and be exceeding glad.” That is the unnatural reaction. “I can imagine suffering wrongfully,” you might say, “yet scarcely consider myself fortunate for it. But as for actively rejoicing in it . . .” Still that’s exactly what Jesus said; and what He meant. No matter what the source when we truly suffer for righteousness sake we should respond with positive joy. “Praise God, I am privileged to suffer shame, of any degree, for His sake!”
But let us turn from the proposition to the practice of this grace as recorded in Acts chapter 5.
Here we read of Peter and John who having been twice falsely arrested and imprisoned for preaching the Gospel were then unjustly and cruelly beaten. Notice their reaction upon their release, “And they departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for his name.” (verse 41). Surely this lies far beyond the ability of most of us. But why does it? Is it not because we fail to recognize such undeserved suffering as a privilege rather than a calamity? Surely this was the source of their joy. They rejoiced that “they were counted worthy.” What an absolutely opposite light this throws on the whole question. Can it be that I have been so blind in my complacency that I interpreted as a special blessing from God the almost total absence of such suffering from my life? Why did it never occur to me to wonder if the reason God spared me from suffering was that He knew I was not worthy. I have been kept from these privileged experiences because God knows I would disgrace Him in them. Did this ever occur to you? Did you ever pray, “O God cleanse me from the fault, the sin, that prevents me from witnessing with rejoicing heart at the privilege of suffering anything for thy glory. Make me worthy to suffer shame for His Name.”
May God give us grace to understand that such suffering for Him is a real privilege to be sought after for His glory. May we realize that it is a gift of great price to be desired eagerly, not a disastrous calamity to be avoided if possible at all cost and if not then to be borne grudgingly. That’s what Paul meant when he said, “Unto you it is given in the behalf of Christ, not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for his sake.” (Phil. 1:29) All of us will readily acknowledge that “to believe” is a gift, a free gift of grace (the basic meaning of the verb in this verse). But few are prepared to accept suffering also as a gracious gift of the same character. May God forgive us for our foolishness and teach us the true value of this high privilege.
Granted, then, that suffering for Christ’s sake is a priceless privilege, as I know myself I realize that I am not able of myself either honestly to seek or victoriously to bear suffering of this kind. Are there any resources of spiritual power available for me? I can give intellectual assent to the proposition that that which God wills for my life He is able to perform in my life but how? The answer to this question involves a remarkable spiritual principle. I cannot know the power before or without the suffering. God is not prodigal in His giving. The God of all comfort (strength) has promised to undertake for me under certain conditions. “As the sufferings of Christ abound in us, so our consolation also aboundeth by Christ.” (II Cor. 1:5). Would you know to the full the abundant consolation of Jesus Christ? Would you know the preciousness of His presence, the strong comfort of His love? There is only one way. “As the sufferings . . . so the consolation.” The deeper the need the greater the love. The more severe the testing the more powerful the Presence. For it is in “the valley of the shadow of Death” that in the fullest sense “Thou art with me.” We see, therefore, not only that suffering “for righteousness sake” is a high privilege, but also that it is the only way to know the fullness of the comfort of God’s great love.
“But let none of you suffer . . . as an evildoer . . . but rejoice inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ’s sufferings; that, when his glory shall be revealed, ye may be glad also with exceeding joy.” (I Peter 4:15 & 13).
Francis Rue Steel [1915-2004].