By Bruce A. Little, PhD
Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary
Wake Forest, NC
A casual review of Church history or regular attendance at a Christian prayer time will leave no doubt of the fact that Christians suffer. In fact, most, if not all, who read this will have some firsthand experience of some form of suffering. Of course, it is not only Christians who suffer in this world as the world is filled with suffering. Nevertheless, the subject before us is the matter of why Christians in particular suffer. This is not a question about why God allows Christians to suffer, or why Christians suffer at all. Nor, are we looking at the question of Christians suffering when disciplined by the Lord (see Heb. 12:3-17). Each of these questions deserves its own answer, but the inquiry here seeks an answer to a different question. The subject before us looks into the different categories of Christian suffering. This is not about identifying some particular suffering experience, such as battling cancer, but rather considering the broad categories into which the particular acts of suffering can be placed. The reason for doing this is to see if some of the promises in the Bible regarding suffering apply only to certain categories of suffering. I will argue that there are three such categories: (1) Christians may suffer when they live righteously for God; (2) Often, Christians suffer simply because they are part of the human race living in a fallen world; (3) Christians might suffer when they behave as evildoers.
The Bible does not hide the fact that Christians suffer because they are Christians. Paul reminds Timothy that those who live godly lives will suffer persecution (see 2 Tim. 3:12). Jesus suffered and we know that the servant is not greater than his Lord (see John 13:16). Even the great chapter in the Bible recording the lives of those who lived by faith, tells not only of their great exploits for God (see Heb.11:1-34), but also the terrible suffering some endured for their faith (see Heb. 11:35-40). Therefore, it is no great surprise that Christians have, and continue, to go through difficult times because of doing the Father’s will. Jesus, in His Sermon on the Mount, taught one was blessed when he suffered for His righteousness’ sake (see Matt. 5:11). Paul speaks of our consolation when we suffer for Christ (see 2 Cor. 1:3-7). Peter mentions how the trial of our faith is more precious than gold that perishes (see 1 Pet. 1:6-7). Later, Peter says that if we are reproached for the name of Christ, we are blessed (3:14). James writes, “My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience” (see Jas. 1:2-3, NKJV).
All these verses clearly refer to suffering for righteousness’ sake. Consequently, we should consider the blessings associated with suffering for righteousness’ sakes to apply only to that category of suffering. That is, the promise of blessing when one suffers for righteousness’ sake has no application when Christians suffer for wrongdoing or simply because they live in a fallen world. Most of the texts mentioned above only affirm a blessedness, but do not indicate in what form that blessedness takes. However, as those who walk by faith and not by sight, we take God at His Word and leave the work of blessing to Him as He sees fit.
Another verse deserving attention regarding this matter of suffering for righteousness’ sake is Romans 8:28 (NKJV): “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.” This verse may very well be the most oft quoted verse in times of difficulty. It is quoted when a Christian has a heart attack, it is quoted when a loved one dies, or there is a terrible accident. Inevitably, the verse one will hear as justification for that claim is Romans 8:28. But, does this verse really teach that “all things” in every situation work together for good to them that love God? I will argue that, when taken in the context of the entire chapter, the “all things” pertain only to those things that happen as a direct result of our living boldly for Christ.
My investigation begins with the first 17 verses of Romans 8. Clearly, the subject is walking in the Spirit and not according to the flesh. Verse 17 speaks of suffering with Jesus that we may also be glorified with Him. At this point, the Apostle launches into a discussion of suffering, which is to be understood from verse 17 as suffering resulting from living for Jesus. He tells us how that the suffering in this world is not worthy to be compared to the glory that will be revealed in us in that day (see v. 18). From there Paul speaks about how even creation is waiting for that day (see vv. 19-25). Then he speaks of how the Spirit prays for us when we do not know how to pray for ourselves (see vv. 26-27). The context indicates that it is when we suffer for righteousness’ sake and we do not know what to pray, that the Spirit prays for us according to the Father’s will. Paul goes on to say that we know that God is working “all things” together for good to those who love Him. So, even though we may not know how to pray, we can still know that when we suffer for righteousness, God is at work on our behalf. The text goes on to give reasons why we should be assured that God is working for our well-being (see vv. 29-35). He actually names some of the particular kinds of suffering Christians were enduring (see v. 35) and then says that this suffering has resulted from living for the Lord—“For Your sake we are killed all day long” (v. 36, NKJV). The conclusion is that the “all things” refers to sufferings particular to living righteously and not just any kind of suffering. As the chapter closes, Paul concludes by arguing that we should never shrink back from suffering for righteousness’ sake because nothing can separate us “from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (v. 39 NKJV). Therefore, I conclude that Romans 8:28 should only be applied to suffering that comes to us because of righteous living. For all those Christians who live righteously, when persecution comes, they can know that God is at work. They can know that He is working on their behalf, and as a result, they will be blessed. In the midst of the suffering, they can know the comfort, grace, and mercy of the heavenly Father.
The second category is suffering that results simply because Christians live in a fallen world. After the fall, things changed on this planet and pain and suffering settled in on creation. There are convulsions of nature, as seen in earthquakes, tornadoes, and the like. As part of this world, Christians and non-Christians alike are touched by these things. Moreover, evil men do bad things that have negative consequences in varying scope and intensity. Christians are often affected by this. We do not escape the brokenness of this world just because we are Christians. Moreover, when we make poor choices, negative consequences for others and us may follow. Furthermore, Christians and non-Christians suffer heart attacks, fight cancer, and lose children to dreadful diseases. The difference is not that Christians are exempt from the suffering of this world that is horribly out of joint, but rather in how they endure their suffering. As with Paul and his thorn in the flesh, God is able to give sufficient grace to sustain in the suffering. It is often the exhibition of this sustaining grace that gives witness to the world of the reality of the Christian’s faith in God. How often the suffering saint lying in a hospital has been a testimony of God’s grace. However, this suffering is not for righteousness’ sake. Therefore, we should not apply the promises that pertain to suffering for righteousness’ sake to such situations. What we should do is seek the face of God fervently in prayer for deliverance as He sees fit and then lean on His grace to sustain us through it all. If it comes in the form of healing, then give God thanks. If it is an abundance of grace, then rejoice in Him. If it means restoration in some way, then testify to God’s providential work. This is applies to those who suffer directly and those close to them who suffer indirectly. God’s grace (whatever form it takes) can be a wonderful occasion to witness to the world. Who knows but that through that testimony some might come to faith in Jesus.
The third category of suffering is that which comes to us because we are involved in wrongdoing. If we continue in sin, the disciplining hand of God will be unpleasant (but profitable) for us (see Heb.12:6-13). In that case, if we confess our sin and turn from it, then the discipline will work the peaceable fruit of righteousness in our lives. On the other hand, and more to the point, maybe we break the civil laws of the state and suffer as an evildoer (see 1 Pet. 4:15). Peter simply says do not suffer as an evildoer. The reason Paul tells us is clear, civil authorities are God’s ministers to bring judgment on those who practice evil (see Rom. 13:1-4). When a Christian suffers as an evildoer, he or she should not complain but take his or her punishment. Here, there is no promise that all things are working together for good. He or she should confess his or her sin so that he or she might serve his or her punishment with a God fearing attitude and be a testimony of repentance and grace as well as God’s forgiveness. He or she should be a witness for Jesus where he is and under all conditions whatever his punishment might be. In the event some should come to the Savior, it would still be wrong to quote Romans 8:28 to suggest that the good consequences excuses the bad behavior.
Every time we suffer, it is important to know why we are suffering. Undoubtedly, some times, it may not be clear to others, but it should be clear to us. Once we have determined why we are suffering, we should respond accordingly. If we are suffering for righteousness’ sake, then we may rejoice. If our suffering comes from the brokenness of this world, may we find comfort in the sufficiency of His grace as we bring our prayers to His throne. Should it be that we suffer as an evildoer, then we need to confess and repent of our sin and accept our punishment as an obedient Christian. Let us all be careful about which verses from the Bible we quote in order to encourage others or ourselves when faced with suffering. Different promises for and responsibilities in suffering attend different categories of suffering. May we exercise discernment when applying promises in situations of suffering. The fact is, in all three categories, God can clearly be at work in our lives, as well as in circumstances beyond ourselves. Yet, only when we suffer for righteousness’ sake should we apply the promise of blessing. In all other suffering we must yield to the grace of God, assured that it is always sufficient.