Called to Suffer

“In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”

John 16:33

For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.

1 Peter 2:21

Suffering is no stranger to followers of Christ. It’s part of our calling, part of our identity. We are sufferers. We were born into a fallen world cursed by God when mankind first sinned in the Garden of Eden (Gen. 3:17). As a result, we groan. We groan because life hurts badly—there are unspeakable sorrows. We groan as we await the final day of redemption when “the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Rom. 8:21). We groan as our hearts ache for the day when Jesus will make all things new (Rev. 21:5). Until then, suffering is guaranteed.

Don’t misunderstand me. The primary identity of each and every Christian is an exalted and victorious one. It is connected to who we are in Christ; that is, our position or standing before God. We are set apart by God (Eph. 1:1); adopted into his family (Eph. 1:5); objects of God’s grace (Eph. 1:6); chosen by the Father, redeemed by the Son, and sealed by the Spirit (Eph. 1:4, 7, 13-14); we are part of God’s eternal plan (Eph. 3:11); and much more. This world is not our home, “For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Phil. 3:20). Positionally, we are already seated in the heavens and possess every spiritual blessing (Eph. 1:2). Make no mistake. The believer’s eternal inheritance is more glorious than we could ever imagine. Still we live in a world filled with pain, anguish, and loss. Suffering is common to all human beings; no one is exempt. However, its expectation is even more sure for Christians, due to our identification with the suffering Savior. Though he now sits at God’s right hand, our victorious, risen and ascended Savior still has his scars. We must never forget that!

More than seven hundred years before Jesus was born in Bethlehem, the prophet Isaiah wrote about the pain and anguish of Messiah, the Suffering Servant, as if it had already taken place. He was “despised and rejected.” He was not “esteemed” as he deserved, but instead was “stricken,” struck down by his own fallen creatures (Isa. 53:3-4). Ultimately, he was “wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities” at Calvary (Isa. 53:6). He was “oppressed” and “afflicted” by those whom he came to save (Isa. 53:7). Jesus is the Savior who suffered in the past, but remains understanding and compassionate toward us in our suffering—even now—as every believer’s High Priest (Heb. 4:15). With these realities in mind, let’s think about suffering in three ways.

Suffering is predicted by Jesus.

Jesus himself warns all who follow him: “In the world you will have tribulation,” but he also urges us to “take heart” since he already has “overcome the world” (Jn. 16:33). To believers who were scattered, due to persecution, the apostle Peter wrote, “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps” (1 Pet. 2:21). The specific context of this admonition is suffering for righteousness’ sake; that is, persecution for doing right in the face of evil treatment. However, the same truth also serves as an umbrella principle over all forms of suffering we endure. It’s part of our calling. Yet the suffering we experience is unlike that of Jesus in one very significant way: his suffering atoned for sin; ours could never. Jesus alone is the Lamb of God who can take away the sins of the world (Jn. 1:29). Jesus—and only Jesus—could be the “once for all” sacrifice which was foreshadowed by Old Testament law (Heb. 7:27; 9:12; 1 Pet. 3:18). He alone is the sinless God-man, the one, qualified mediator between God and man (1 Tim. 2:5). He alone is Savior (Acts 4:12). Our suffering can never save us (we could never atone for our own sin), but it can deepen our existing relationship with the One who already suffered in our place.

Suffering draws us closer to Jesus.

In our suffering, we are offered an opportunity to experience a kind of fellowship with Jesus that can be sweeter and deeper than at any other time in our lives. The apostle Paul spoke about this growth principle when he expressed the longing of his heart to know Jesus experientially: “that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death” (Phil. 3:10). Paul knew Christ, and was known by Christ, due to receiving his righteousness by faith at the moment of his conversion. He was confident he had been saved from the wrath to come, but he was not content with his relationship with Jesus. Paul wanted to be walk closer and closer to his Savior, in the fellowship of his sufferings. Fanny Crosby echoed this same longing in 1874, in her hymn Close to Thee.

Close to Thee, close to Thee,
Gladly will I toil and suffer,
Only let me walk with Thee.

Times of suffering typically send us looking for a compassionate, caring friend. Jesus is the Friend of all friends. Pain can bond us to our Savior if we will allow it to do its internal work.

Suffering shifts our heart’s affections.

Suffering always involves some form of loss and, therefore, it naturally loosens our grip on the temporal by forcing our focus onto the eternal. The apostle Paul testifies of this helpful comparison: “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom. 8:18). Without suffering we undoubtedly would think less about the eternal glories of heaven. In addition, physical, mental, and relational pain have the unique power to dethrone idols, and redirect the affections of our heart toward Christ. The anguish we feel exposes the insufficiency of what we hold to most dearly in this life, offering to us the opportunity to repent of disordered worship and renew our vows to Christ. Indeed this is one of the most important redemptive purposes of God in our suffering.

If by faith you have been united to Jesus in his death, burial, and resurrection, you can expect suffering to be a regular part of your life. Painful trials are not punitive for the Christian, since Jesus was already punished in our place. However, because our loving heavenly Father is eager to bless us more and more, he employs suffering to draw us closer and closer through more childlike faith and obedience. For the believer, the fiery blaze of suffering does not destroy. Instead it is a refining fire that carries with it the potential to purify our hearts, increase our love, and sanctify our lives in order to more clearly reflect the humility and love of Christ.

Take a moment to pray. Thank God for the good purposes he has for your suffering. Ask him to give you a teachable heart as you draw near to him.

[1] Fanny J. Crosby, “Close to Thee,” 1874.

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