Persecution & Suffering: 25

Paul makes a clear statement in 2 Corinthians 12:7b-10: “Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.  Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me.  But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.   That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

Every person has their own areas of weakness. For example, I have never struggled with fear as many people do, but I have battled my entire life against pride (as well as selfishness and laziness). Evidently, pride was an issue for Paul as well. Paul recognized that his “thorn in the flesh,” although painful to endure, was a gift from God. It was God’s tool for helping deal with Paul’s pride. It showed Paul his inability to deal with it, his weakness.

As a result, Paul was able to rejoice in every “negative” thing that happened to him, knowing that God was using those things to refine his character and show the power of God in him. In fact Paul said he actually delighted in those things. Those areas of personal weakness and helplessness actually became the things he took pride in because of how they testified to God’s greatness in being able to use such a weak instrument.

Persecution & Suffering: 24

In 2 Corinthians 11:23-29 Paul says, “Are they servants of Christ? (I am out of my mind to talk like this.) I am more. I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again.  Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one.  Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers.  I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked.  Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches.  Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?”

This is an interesting passage. Paul clearly equates the degree of suffering one experiences in service to Christ as a measure of commitment to Him and service for Him. In other words, the more one suffers for the sake of Christ, the greater devotion is demonstrated and the more fully one belongs to Him. This explains why the early followers of Christ rejoiced greatly that they were counted worthy to suffer for His Name (Acts 5:41). What we sacrifice for Christ in terms of comfort and safety and honor and security and convenience is evidence of our love for Him.

It is of note, that the internal pressures and anguish arising from love and concern for the body of Christ, are considered, perhaps, an even greater burden than the litany of external challenges. This is an expression of the fact that it is easier to suffer oneself than to see loved ones suffer. It is easier for a man to suffer than to see his wife and children suffer. The more influential one becomes in Kingdom service, the greater the spiritual family that one serves. This opens them up to concern and compassion of a much wider nature.

Early in my ministry the Lord prepared me for this type of situation. I was in an area where telephones had not been available yet. I found myself at a place where there was one of the first telephones but the person who had just moved in did not know the number of the telephone. I was sharing with my host my deep concern for a team I had just trained and sent into a very dangerous situation. Suddenly the phone rang for the first time. The host answered it. The call was for me. I assumed it was the (Communist) government, letting me know I was under surveillance. I answered it and found the call was from the team I was concerned about. They had a satellite phone. The Lord miraculously gave them the number of the place I was staying. They were calling to tell me things were going well. As soon as they delivered the message, they hung up.

The message was clear. God was telling me that He was in control. The team belonged to Him and not to me. He had called them, not me. He alone would determine if they remained safe or if they were thrown into prison. He loved them more than I did. I needed to trust Him as a faithful Creator to do what was right and best.

Many times, I have gratefully looked back on that clear lesson. Many people whom I have led to the Lord, whom I have trained, whom I have challenged to go into difficult regions, have suffered. Many people, from many countries and to many countries have been martyred for their faith. They have been held captive for years. Many have been imprisoned for years. They have been tortured in horrible and unimaginable ways. They have had their children taken from them. They have had their homes confiscated. They have been fined. They have lived for years as fugitives, constantly on the run. The weight of all that suffering would have been unbearable for me if not for the Lord’s clear message to me many years ago. He is in control. We win in the end.

Persecution & Suffering: 23

In 2 Corinthians 6:3-10 Paul says, “We put no stumbling block in anyone’s path, so that our ministry will not be discredited.  Rather, as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses; in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger; in purity, understanding, patience and kindness; in the Holy Spirit and in sincere love; in truthful speech and in the power of God; with weapons of righteousness in the right hand and in the left; through glory and dishonor, bad report and good report; genuine, yet regarded as impostors;  known, yet regarded as unknown; dying, and yet we live on; beaten, and yet not killed;  sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything.”

Here, Paul is listing the ways he is encouraging faith in others and avoiding doing anything that might hinder people’s faith. Notice how many of these items are related either to suffering or to his response to suffering. He cites these items first, before more “positive” items. Then he highlights that both have a significant role by contrasting pairs of apparently good and bad situations, and closes by demonstrating the paradox of how God uses apparent negatives to bring about positive results. This is another example of the “upside down” Kingdom.

God brings good out of what His enemies intend for evil. He demonstrates His power in our weakness. He shows forth His hope and joy and love through us in circumstances the world would respond to with despair, grief and hate.

Persecution & Suffering: 22

In 2 Corinthians 4:16-18 Paul goes on, “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.   So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

This is perhaps the best news of all related to our suffering in this life, and a cause for us to be encouraged in the midst of trouble. Though our bodies are being battered and crushed, and our souls are being stretched and tormented, the results for our eternal selves are wonderful. We are being strengthened. We are gaining in eternal glory and honor. We are attaining eternal benefits for our temporary pressure.

This means we need to focus on the presently invisible but enduring blessings which are accrue to us through the temporary adversities we face. Delayed gratification is essential to the life of a disciple. It is necessary for our survival and is a defining characteristic of a follower of Christ.

Persecution & Suffering: 21

In 2 Corinthians 4:12-15 Paul continues, “So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.  It is written: ‘I believed; therefore I have spoken.’ Since we have that same spirit of faith, we also believe and therefore speak, because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus and present us with you to himself.  All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God.”

Paul is saying the fact that he is able to endure great suffering provides an opportunity for his testimony of God’s sufficiency and trustworthiness. Just as God raised Jesus from the dead, and gives strength to Paul to endure difficulties, so He will preserve His people to present them complete to Himself for all eternity. This confidence creates an opportunity for overwhelming praise and thanksgiving to be given to God for His glory. This is all the more true as greater numbers of people witness God’s power in His people as they endure suffering and so should result in our thanksgiving for overwhelming circumstances.

Persecution & Suffering: 20

In 2 Corinthians 4:7-11 Paul writes, “But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.  We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.  We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.  For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body.”

We can see from this passage that apparently overwhelming difficulties are to be our constant companions all along the path we walk with Christ. This is not to be something that we need to demonstrate faithfulness in on one or two occasions. It is to be a constant state as long as we are in our earthly bodies. One reason for this is because that exhibits God’s power and is evidence of His greatness. His life is most clearly manifested to a watching world when we victoriously endure the greatest opposition. Impossible circumstances give opportunity to show forth His infinite power and greatness.

It is analogous to a turtle on a fencepost. If you are walking through the countryside and you see a turtle perched on a fencepost, you do not say, “My! What an amazing turtle.” Instead you immediately wonder who placed the turtle on the fencepost. In the same way, God’s people overcoming huge challenges and losses and sorrows serves to point people to our amazing God.

Persecution & Suffering: 19

In 2 Corinthians 1:3-7 it says, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in [any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.  For just as the sufferings of Christ are ours in abundance, so also our comfort is abundant through Christ.   But if we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; or if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which is effective in the patient enduring of the same sufferings which we also suffer; and our hope for you is firmly grounded, knowing that as you are sharers of our sufferings, so also you are sharers of our comfort.”

Very simply, this means that through our sufferings (and subsequent comfort from Christ) we are equipped to help others who are suffering. We have experienced, and will experience even more fully in the future, this same benefit through Christ. Ultimately, we will receive permanent and eternal comfort with Him in glory. Even in the present we experience comfort through the ministry of the Holy Spirit within us.

Therefore, both our sufferings and our comfort can result in comfort for others. Again, this is a reason for rejoicing. The only condition on others receiving this comfort is that they patiently endure. So we see again, that all these possible and intended benefits are conditional upon our appropriate response. That response is not to become bitter or angry or resentful or discouraged, but rather to patiently endure.

Persecution & Suffering: 18

In 2 Thessalonians 1:3-7 Paul says, “We ought always to thank God for you, brothers and sisters, and rightly so, because your faith is growing more and more, and the love all of you have for one another is increasing.  Therefore, among God’s churches we boast about your perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and trials you are enduring.  All this is evidence that God’s judgment is right, and as a result you will be counted worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are suffering.  God is just: He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you and give relief to you who are troubled, and to us as well. This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels.”

First, note that it is for God and His Kingdom that the Thessalonians are suffering. Secondly, the fact that they are persevering in their faith in the midst of the persecution demonstrates their increasing faith and love for one another. More than that, it shows God’s righteous judgment, as it foreshadows the punishment of His enemies and eternal comfort and reward of His people.

It is by our faith and hope that we can respond now to our difficulties in such a way that proves our confidence. That faith is also increased in us and in others who observe it when we act upon it. In this way we manifest His life within us and exhibit our worthiness to inherit the Kingdom He bestows upon us. (These are Paul’s words: “you will be counted worthy of the kingdom of God.”)

Persecution & Suffering: 17

In 1 Thessalonians 2:14-15 Paul says, “For you, brothers and sisters, became imitators of God’s churches in Judea, which are in Christ Jesus: You suffered from your own people the same things those churches suffered from the Jews who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and also drove us out. They displease God and are hostile to everyone.”

We see from this that one’s example in experiencing persecution and in responding to suffering are of value and encouragement for other followers of Christ who are undergoing the same. God’s people in the churches of Judea provided a model for the churches in Thessalonica in this regard.

Our suffering and our response to it, then, helps equip other believers. We can prepare them and support them in their future suffering by responding appropriately to our current suffering. We can give them solace and hope. Indeed, we can do this for all subsequent generations. Thus, our present suffering can have a cascading benefit for God’s people if we face it well.

Persecution & Suffering: 16

In 1 Thessalonians 1:6-10 Paul says, “You became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you welcomed the message in the midst of severe suffering with the joy given by the Holy Spirit.  And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia.  The Lord’s message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia—your faith in God has become known everywhere. Therefore we do not need to say anything about it, for they themselves report what kind of reception you gave us. They tell how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath.”

We can see from this passage that receiving the Lord and His message in the context of severe suffering, and doing so with joy, is how we imitate the Lord, and please Him. This is also how we set an example for other believers. Paul had done this for the Thessalonians and they had in turn done that for those in the provinces of Macedonia and Achaia.

Such perseverance through suffering is inextricably intertwined with one’s testimony of the gospel. It serves as irrefutable evidence of one’s sincerity in turning away from any other commitment to serve God alone. It also demonstrates that He alone is worthy, that He alone is worth any amount of suffering. It points toward our unshakeable hope for eternal reward in the Lord.