Suffering As A Christian

By Martin Girard

In his first epistle, Peter took up the subject of suffering. He referred to the sufferings of Christ for us (1 Pet. 2:21), and what it means for someone to suffer as a Christian (4:16). Suffering can be experienced for a number of causes. Physical illness and infirmity can lead to pain. Somebody reading this magazine may well be confined to bed and undergoing suffering from which there seems to be no relief. Such experiences are not to be minimized or regarded as trivial, for they are not. But the purpose of this article is to focus on one specific form of suffering which Peter mentioned. He cautioned his readers not to suffer for a wrong reason: for murder, theft, evil-doing, or even being a busybody. Indeed, one ought to expect unpleasant consequences from engaging in such wrong things. Sin should make us ashamed. “Yet if any man suffer as a Christian, let him not be ashamed” (4:16 KJV, emphasis added). Rather, “let him glorify God” when such an experience arises.

Suffering as a Christian has continued in every generation since Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4). Before that time, in the Old Testament era, God’s believing people suffered at the hands of enemies as well. Today, all over the world, we can find examples of Christians suffering. In some countries where a militant and aggressive religion prevails, Christian believers experience brutal persecution. But in other places where Christians are free to meet openly for worship, we can also discover instances of persecution.

Examples could be given of Christians who have been taken to court for acting according to conscience and refusing to submit to humanistic laws. Faced with losing their job or having to pay a fine for failing to promote same-sex relationships, some believers have been made to “pay the price” for their biblical beliefs. While there is no merit in suffering for evil doing, one who has to suffer “for well doing” according to the will of God can bring glory to Him. In fact, Peter moved on immediately from this statement to consider how Christ suffered for our sins (3:17-18).

Reasons For Persecution
Actually there may be no reasons for persecution! The writer of the longest psalm had many persecutors and enemies, but he declared, “Princes have persecuted me without a cause” (Ps. 119:157,161). There was no valid reason why they should persecute him. However, the next words spoken are revealing: “But my heart standeth in awe of Thy Word.” Perhaps this explains why he had been caused to suffer. Satan detects – and hates – any sign of faithfulness to the Word of God. Evidently the “princes” referred to were proud of their own authority and rejected the truth of God. The psalmist’s respect for God and His Word provoked their derision, ridicule, mockery and scorn.

In the New Testament we find a number of reasons why believers may suffer. The Lord Jesus pointed out to His disciples that if He experienced persecution, they could expect to face it too (Jn. 15:20). The way in which the Lord Jesus responded to opposition teaches us how we should respond. Actually, Peter told us that the way in which Christ reacted provides us with an example we should follow (1 Pet. 2:21-23). Since He was hated without a cause it ought not to surprise us if we experience the same. Paul affirmed, “All that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution” (2 Tim. 3:12). A godly life therefore can provoke opposition. We may find we are persecuted “for righteousness’ sake” – in other words, for actually doing the right thing (Mt. 5:10)! Preaching the message of the cross, which is a “right” thing to do, can also arouse the hatred of men, for man in his pride finds the message offensive and prefers some kind of “works” in which he can glory. Paul referred to this in Galatians, where he made it very clear that some preferred to preach circumcision* in order to avoid the persecution associated with the cross (5:11, 6:12).

The message of the Bible is never popular. Jesus spoke of tribulation or persecution arising “because of the Word” (Mt. 13:21). There will always be the temptation to give people what they want to hear, but that will never do. Early believers who were beaten and commanded not to speak in the name of Jesus “departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for His name” (Acts 5:41). Their love for the Master lessened the pain. They remembered what He had suffered for them and gladly accepted the beating for His sake. Persecution, therefore, may come to us for the Lord’s sake, for faithfulness to the truth or for living a godly life.

Something To Remember
Those who suffer in the cause of Christ must remember that there is a divine purpose in it. Although we may not be aware of that purpose now, one day we will understand. At the present time it is certainly true that “tribulation worketh patience” (Rom. 5:3). The trials we experience can be used by God to develop both patience and a spirit of perseverance in us. For this reason we must accept God’s wise and loving dealings with us and be “patient in tribulation” (12:12), like the Thessalonian believers (2 Th. 1:4). Paul actually took pleasure “in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake” (2 Cor. 12:10) for he knew that when he was conscious of human weakness he could draw upon the greater divine strength.

In Daniel 3 we have the account of three faithful men who were cast into a burning, fiery furnace because of their refusal to engage in idolatry. Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, was astounded to see not three but four men in that furnace, walking about freely and unharmed by the intense heat of the fire. The Lord Himself, who was with His children in their trial, brought them safely out. The record of their experience can encourage us greatly. Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ, not even persecution (Rom. 8:35)! Paul, who suffered much, could write of being “persecuted, but not forsaken” (2 Cor. 4:9). Those who hurt the Lord’s people hurt Him too, as Saul discovered while on his way to arrest believers in Damascus (Acts 9:4-5). Any who face severe sufferings for Christ’s sake can discover a super-abundant consolation (2 Cor. 1:5). The experience of the three Israelites in the furnace confirms to us that “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (Ps. 46:1, emphasis added).

Some other facts ought not to be forgotten. The Lord will deliver the righteous from all their troubles as He delivered David (34:6,17). We ought not to forget that the death of a believer can be the means He uses to provide deliverance. Paul’s writings assure us that our present sufferings cannot compare with the glory that lies before us (Rom. 8:18). Although he suffered as an evil-doer would, Paul’s eye was on the future and he looked forward to reigning with Christ (2 Tim. 2:9,12). He knew, humanly speaking, that he deserved none of this grace because he was guilty of persecuting believers unto death (Acts 22:4) and, for this reason, was not fit to be called an apostle (1 Cor. 15:9). But in mercy the Lord saved him, and He can still do the same. Some of those who persecute God’s children today may yet repent and humbly turn to Christ. If they refuse, then they will, of course, face His judgment.

Responding To Persecution
I think when we experience persecution it is wise to pause and ask the Lord what He may be saying. On one occasion, at least, the disciples were told by the Lord Jesus to interpret persecution as a sign that they should move from the town where they were hated to another (Mt. 10:23). By contrast, Paul often simply endured suffering and stayed where he was (1 Cor. 4:12). Much wisdom is needed in order to know what the Lord wants us to do. There is certainly nothing wrong in praying for deliverance like David did: “O LORD my God, in Thee do I put my trust: save me from all them that persecute me, and deliver me” (Ps. 7:1). In desperate need Hezekiah turned to God and cried, “O LORD, I am oppressed; undertake for me” (Isa. 38:14). We are certainly invited to call upon Him in our need, for we read, “Call upon Me in the day of trouble: I will deliver thee, and thou shalt glorify Me” (Ps. 50:15). Troubles and suffering must not cause us to doubt. Rather, we need to maintain our trust in the Lord.

Something else, however, needs to be considered. Remember how the Lord Jesus prayed for His enemies as He was nailed to the cross. Instead of blaming them or pointing to their hatred, He said, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Lk. 23:34). How amazing! The Lord Jesus knew what they did not know. He had come to be the Sin-bearer, and in His sacrifice He was making provision for their forgiveness if only they would believe. His purpose for His people is that they should have the same spirit of compassion. “Love your enemies,” He declared, “bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you” (Mt. 5:44). The flesh within us would treat them as they have treated us, but the Saviour points us to a higher way. Romans 12:14 confirms this: “Bless them which persecute you; bless, and curse not.” Notice how Paul repeated the exhortation just in case we have missed it the first time! “Yes, I mean it!” he, in a sense, declared. “Those who have cursed you are to be blessed, not cursed!”

Naturally, suffering is one of the last things we would choose. It is, however, a privilege! Paul rejoiced in it (Col. 1:24) and could speak of being “exceeding joyful in all our tribulation” (2 Cor. 7:4). Of course, we must not go out of our way to seek persecution by provoking other people, but if it should come our way we must remember that we are in good company. The prophets of old suffered for their faithfulness. Think of the words of the Lord Jesus in Matthew 5:10-12: “Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.”

A Vast Subject
The many verses quoted in this article have proved, without question, that this subject is vast. As followers of the Lord Jesus, who was rejected in this world, we should not expect popularity. Rather, we should expect the kind of treatment He received at the hands of men.

Our responsibility is to “relieve the oppressed” (Isa. 1:17). We ought not to make life more difficult for anyone by our unhelpful remarks. Job charged his three “friends” with persecuting him (Job 19:22) rather than comforting him.

In many countries today laws are being passed that flatly contradict God’s Word. By remaining faithful to God and to Scripture, those living in such countries may well find they are treading a pathway of suffering. May the Lord strengthen us for whatever lies ahead and give us the grace to remain faithful to Him. Let us also continue to support and pray for those who suffer for Him.

* Galatians contrasts circumcision, the law and efforts of the flesh with faith, grace and the Spirit’s work.