Why Christians also suffer

There is no question that the Bible predicts, and Jesus predicted, that the followers of Jesus would experience trouble, heartache, and even persecution. Why?

Jesus asked his followers to have the same willingness to serve God that he had. Not a seeking of pain or death, but a seeking of doing God's will, no matter whether it costs us our life or not. The world in imperfect, and anyone who follows Jesus' footsteps is promised a trajectory of obstacles and pain, along with amazing joys and privileges. The concept is presented to believers as (a) voluntary on their part, not obligatory, and (b) reasonable, not fanatical. (See Romans 12:1,2) The Christian life is spoken of there as "sacrifice".

Is "sacrifice" suicide?

One writer to our questions column stated that Jesus "committed suicide". We disagree. God asked Jesus to lay down his life, not as a suicide (which means murder by ones self) but as a voluntary sacrifice -- that is, a person who was willing to be unjustly killed by another, if there is no way to avoid it without compromising something that is more important than life itself. And that distinction is important as a guideline for Christians who wish to faithfully follow Jesus' footsteps: the goal is to do the heavenly Father's will, not embark on a particular plan of "pain for its own sake."

"Church" history is full of a kind of "martyrs", who really were suicides, mistakenly thinking that if they could get someone to kill them they would be sure to "go to heaven". Lots of groups today seek persecution and even commit suicide as part of their imagined "faithfulness". As one wag put it, when he investigated Christianity he found that there was a difference between fervor and fever! *See footnote for a discussion of the destiny of suicides

The concept of "living sacrifice" presented in scripture, would be analogous to a parent or even a stranger who risks his life to save a drowning child. We don't say they sinned by committing suicide, we hold them up as heroes because they sacrificed their lives for another. If a soldier loses his own life in the rescue of some of his buddies, we don't think of it as suicide, but as sacrifice. It's an uncommon form of bravery, and extremely rare when, as with us, the person who someone gives their life for is totally unworthy, a "sinner" (See Romans 5:7-8)

But Biblical suffering is not a pain fetish, a monastic seeking of pain in order to be "holy". In point of fact, Jesus 3 times asked God if the full weight of his "cup" would pass from him. It is difficult to be sure what he meant -- but perhaps there was something he viewed as unbearable that he wanted to avoid going through if possible. Still, he ended his requests with "nevertheless not my will, but Thine, be done." (see Matthew 26:38-39)

If God could have prevented this, but did not, or if God were to have put us here in this damaged and evil world, born with the tendency to do things that he disapproved of, and led into bad things by bad men and bad spirit beings -- and then punished us eternally for doing what we were inclined to do through no fault of our own .... IF that was the picture, as the institutional church has been saying for 1500+ years, then indeed Christianity would be something to scoff at, and Christian virtue would be a fairy tale, or worse.

However, the more we probe the Bible the more we find that God has indeed placed mankind under this situation of pain and trouble temporarily, because he has a very good plan in place that will make it all more than worth it. The lessons learned, and the fruitage gained, will be to the maximum possible benefit for everyone who has ever lived. Just one glimpse of the end of the matter is contained in Revelation 21:1-4. Pain is not the goal -- the wiping away of tears is the goal. The cross, for Christians, and ordinary human suffering, for the rest of the world, is a necessary part of every person's education, in God's revealed plan.

The Bible explains why we're here, where we're headed, and that everyone who has ever lived will gain tremendously from whatever their tragic story has been in this life. The end result of what God has done will be glorious, and God is patiently allowing people to misunderstand him while the work is yet incomplete. So even God has had to suffer in this "6-day" period of human sin.

Specific reasons why Christians must suffer

Here are some Biblical classes of suffering that Christians experience:

  1. Christians suffer because they are fallen human beings in a fallen world. 1 Corinthians 10:13 states our temptations are common with other people;
  2. Christians suffer because they, alone in the world, are currently on trial for life. "Judgment must begin at the house of God" - 1 Peter 4:17. "God deals us as with sons" -- therefore, we are scourged. Hebrews 12:7. We are alive, we are children of God, and therfore we are going to have to undergo some suffering because God is working in us to learn to "will and to do His good pleasure." Philippians 2:13
  3. Christians suffer, not only because their sins need correcting, but also because God wants to develop spiritual fruitage. We are like branches in a vine, and that means God will prune away those things that he sees need to be removed. (See John 15) This pruning feels like punishment for sin, but in reality it is God's hand as the potter in our life, challenging our priorities and our use of time. He wants to prepare us for the great mansions he is preparing for us.
  4. Christians suffer, as part of the "filling up of the sacrifices of Christ that are left behind." Colossians 1:24. The idea here is that Christ suffered as a sympathetic high priest on behalf of the sins of the church -- and we are privileged to share in some small way as part of his body. By serving his people, many of whom are unappreciative and unworthy, we share in what He did. And the whole process helps to prepare his Body for its future actions.
  5. Christians suffer, as a test of their faithfulness to God. 1 Peter 4:16 We are asked not to think it strange, but are asked to view it as the crucible in which the master silversmith purges us of our weakness, selfishness, and wastefulness. We will come forth as gold, refined in the fire. Revelation 3:18-19

*As to those of the world of mankind who commit suicide, there will be no special penalty imposed. All be resurrected, whether they died at their own hand or from some other vicissitude. (Acts 24:15) The "church" (the institutional church, that is) has imposed all sorts of finger-pointing and holier-than-thou pronouncements on people who simply found their lives to be unbearable and thus ended them. This is part of the mess that human beings have been asked by God himself to struggle with, because he loves us and will make it all beautiful in His time. (See Romans 8:18-39)