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
One of our daughters recently asked why it seems our family suffers more than other people she knows who do not follow the Lord. “Sometimes,” she said, “it seems life would be easier if we were not Christians.” It can feel like that sometimes, can’t it? Though our primary identity is that we are saints, and we continue to wrestle against the power of indwelling sin, we also endure a lot of suffering in this world. In fact, Jesus predicted that all who follow him will suffer: “In the world you will have tribulation.” But he also urges us to “take heart” since he has already “overcome the world” (Jn. 16:33).
First Peter 2:21, above, makes it clear that suffering is part of our calling as Christ followers. The context of this particular admonition is suffering for righteousness’ sake; that is, persecution for doing right in the face of unfair or evil treatment. However, the same truth serves as an umbrella principle over all forms of suffering we endure. Simply put, 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. But, unlike the person who does not know Jesus, we groan with hope. We groan, while we wait for 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 makes “all things new” (Rev. 21:5). Until then, suffering is guaranteed.
Don’t misunderstand me, and do not forget. Your primary identity as a Christian is an exalted and victorious one. You are a saint. You are united with Christ in his death and resurrection. You have been given his righteousness in exchange for your sin. That is your position or standing before God. You are set apart by God (Eph. 1:1), adopted into his family (Eph. 1:5), an object of God’s love and grace (Eph. 1:6); chosen by the Father, redeemed by the Son, and sealed by the Spirit (Eph. 1:4, 7, 13-14). This world is not your home, but your “citizenship is in heaven” (Phil. 3:20). Positionally, you are already seated in the heavens and possess every spiritual blessing (Eph. 1:2). Make no mistake. Your eternal inheritance is more glorious than you can imagine. Still you live in a world of pain, anguish, and loss. Suffering is common to all human beings; however, its expectation is more sure for Christians, due to our union with the suffering Savior. Though he now sits at God’s right hand, our victorious, risen and ascended Savior still has his scars. You must never forget that!
Yet the suffering you experience is unlike Jesus’s in one very significant way: his suffering atoned for sin; yours could never. Jesus alone is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (Jn. 1:29). Jesus—and only Jesus—could be the “once for all” sacrifice foreshadowed by Old Testament law (Heb. 7:27; 9:12; 1 Pet. 3:18). He alone is the sinless God-man, the one mediator between God and man (1 Tim. 2:5). He alone is Savior (Acts 4:12). Your suffering could never atone for your sin and, therefore, can never save you. But that is good news, since that is not its purpose! As a redeemed sinner, you don’t have to atone for your sin, because Jesus already did. Instead, your suffering has a sanctifying purpose; it is meant to deepen your relationship with Jesus, that you may “know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death” (Phil. 3:10). As we follow his example, pain bonds us to our Savior as we allow it to do its inner, sanctifying, faith-building work.
Reflect. Do you ever struggle with thinking you suffer more than those who do not know God? Do you ever find yourself repeating the prophet’s words: “Why does the way of the wicked prosper?” (Jer. 12:1).
Pray. Take one of your current heartaches to the Lord. Ask him to use the pain to draw you closer to Jesus.
Act. Read Psalm 37. Take comfort in the many ways the psalmist assures you of the Lord’s attentive care for you and his safekeeping.