I had dinner on a night this last week with two brothers. As we talked about the church and about the many aberrations of which the church in America is prone, the topic of suffering came up. One brother reacted to the idea heard in some quarters of the church that suffering is God's plan for believers. God does not cause his children to suffer he said nor should we give thanks for our suffering as if it was a blessing of God - we can give thanks in our suffering, but not for it, was his thought.
I pondered that for several days. It seemed logical, but it also seemed somehow skewed. God would not cause suffering for those he loves, would he? But then I thought of the film we are watching in Bible class at school, The Hiding Place. If God does not cause suffering neither does he always save his people from suffering. And further, the ten Boom's, Betsy and Corrie, found that, in fact, there was a blessing in the suffering.
Is that biblical - that suffering is appointed by God for his children and a blessing? It happened that I was reading through Philippians during the time of my musing, and the answer that seemed to shout out to me was YES. God not only allows suffering but gives suffering to us as a gift (Phil. 1:29), and it is a gift we may rejoice in - that is the overall tone of Paul's message to the Philippians.
I recalled that for Paul this was no theoretical theological idea. It was real. It was his experience as he was writing this letter. He was in jail. He did not know if he would be released or executed. Not only so, but the Philippians themselves were going through similar kinds of persecution. Suffering was a reality. Death for Christ and because of their faith was a distinct possibility. In fact, Paul did die for Christ.
Was that bad? No, not in Paul's mind. He actually expects and desires the suffering that will come as he presses forward to have all he can of Christ (Phil. 3:10). It was as if he himself was completing the sufferings of Christ for this lost world.
How foreign is that to our thinking these days in America? Wow! We are the communion of the comfortable, avoiding suffering, even suffering for Christ, as much as we can. The tragedy is that in avoiding suffering we must walk further and further from the Lord, for suffering is what he is about when it comes to the lost world. God is a suffering God. And it was not something that just happened to God. It was his choice to suffer for us.
I have a choice, don't? I can sit back with the comfortable, or I can join Christ in his suffering. Which is better? Paul's answer is that nothing compares to knowing Christ deeply and fully, and that must be also to know his suffering.