Suffering: A Different Question (Part Four)

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In Hebrews 13:12-14 we are called to suffer like Jesus did and bear the reproach he endured. But why are we called to this? Because “here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.” We are aliens and foreigners here. We have a home, a better home, in heaven! So now we can suffer here for a season, and then we shall enjoy the fruit of our labor for all of eternity! That is why John can say, “Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life (Jn. 12:25).

Martyn Lloyd-Jones has pointed out that “The great truth in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress is not that Christian endured great hardships on his way to the eternal city, but that Christian thought it to be worth his while to endure those hardships.”[i] We have a better life awaiting us in heaven.

It says in Acts 14:22, “that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” We may have to go through tribulations here on this earth but they are as nothing in light of the future that we have before us: a future before us in the kingdom of God. “He [God] who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Rom. 8:32). The God that spoke all things into existence, the God that created all things ex nihilo, out of nothing, says that he will freely give us all things. He will give us all things, but the thing we want and need the most is God himself.

Jonathan Edwards shares a very good insight:

 “If God be truly loved, he is loved as God; and to love him as God, is to love him as the supreme good. But he that loves God as the supreme good, is ready to make all other good give place to that; or, which is the same thing, he is willing to suffer all for the sake of this good.”[ii]

If we are to truly love God and see Him for who He is, no sacrifice, persecution, suffering will keep us from living for Him and His glory. God is the supreme good and if in obtaining the joy, pleasure, and delight, we incur some pain it is as nothing because of the surpassing worth of knowing God. As Detrick Bonhoeffer said, “Suffering means being cut off from God. Therefore, those who live in communion with him cannot really suffer.”[iii]

Thomas A. Kempis said in The Imitation of Christ,

“To many the saying, “Deny thyself, take up thy cross and follow Me,” (Mat 16:24) seems hard, but it will be much harder to hear that final word: “Depart from Me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire.” (Mat 25:41) Those who hear the word of the cross and follow it willingly now, need not fear that they will hear of eternal damnation on the day of judgment.”[iv]

There is both a positive and negative aspect of reward. The positive is something we receive and the negative is something we won’t receive. If we are found in Christ and live for Him, even through suffering we will prove faithful and thus receive the positive reward of heaven and we won’t receive the negative payment of hell.[v]

Therefore, through trials and tribulations we should be motivated to persevere both because of the joy we will ultimately have in heaven and the unimaginable agony that has been avoided in hell. Psalm 34:19-22 says,

“Many are the afflictions of the righteous,

       but the LORD delivers him out of them all.

He keeps all his bones;

       not one of them is broken.

Affliction will slay the wicked,

       and those who hate the righteous will be condemned.

The LORD redeems the life of his servants;

       none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned.”

Tom, one of the spiritual heroes of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, had just been greatly smote by Lagree. Lagree, the evil slave master, says,

“I’ll conquer ye, or kill ye!–one or t’ other. I’ll count every drop of blood there is in you, and take ’em, one by one, till ye give up!’” Then “Tom looked up to his master, and answered, ‘Mas’r, if you was sick, or in trouble, or dying, and I could save ye, I’d give ye my heart’s blood; and, if taking every drop of blood in this poor old body would save your precious soul, I’d give ’em freely, as the Lord gave his for me. O, Mas’r! don’t bring this great sin on your soul! It will hurt you more than ‘t will me! Do the worst you can, my troubles’ll be over soon; but, if ye don’t repent, yours won’t never end!’” (Uncle Tom’s Cabin, ch. Xl 299, italics mine).

We may suffer here now but we can rest assured that the suffering that we endure to escape the eternal wailing and gnashing of teeth will be well well worth it. John Bunyan who himself experienced tremendous suffering said, “The way to heaven is as up a ladder, and the way to hell is as down a hill. But I had rather go up the ladder to life, than down the hill to death.”[vi] Luther, who equally knew suffering, said, “I would rather be joyful in God’s grace and bear the brunt of this temporal uproar…” rather “…than be ground to powder under the wrath of God by the unbearable torments of the uproar that shall be everlasting!”[vii]

They that know God

“know that his displeasure and wrath are far more dreadful than all the temporal sufferings that can be in the way of duty, and more dreadful than the wrath and cruelty of men, or the worst that they can inflict. And therefore they have a spirit to suffer all that can be inflicted, rather than forsake God, and sin against him who can inflict upon them eternal wrath.”[viii]

That is why we are to not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul but rather we are to fear Him who is able to destroy both body and soul in hell (Matt. 10:28; Luke 12:4-5). We are to be motivated by not only the suffering we escape but also the unimaginable, uncontainable, joys and delights in heaven that are new and every increasing and heightening.

Scripture attests of the truth of John Piper’s words: “Radical sacrifice is created… when we treasure our future reward vastly more than we treasure the comforts and securities of ordinary earthly life.”[ix] We can be assured that “the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials” (2 Peter 2:9). So it is right to conclude this section with Peter’s words, “after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. To Him be the dominion forever and ever. Amen” (1 Peter 5:10-11).

[i] Iain H. Murray, D. M. Lloyd-Jones: The First Forty Years, 98.

[ii] Edwards, Charity and its Fruits, 257.

[iii]Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, 92. 

[iv] Thomas A. Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, book 2, chapter 12.

[v]For example, “Alexander the Coppersmith” did Paul “great harm.” Though we do not know the nature of that harm, we do know that Paul says, “The Lord will repay him according to his deeds” (2 Tim. 4:14). Paul, in contrast to Alexander, will be rescued from every evil deed and brought into God’s heavenly kingdom (v. 18). We can be reminded here that God says, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay” (Rom. 12:19; Deut. 32:35). And as Paul said gravely, “God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict [us]… They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord” (2 Thess. 1:5, 9 cf. Ps. 73; Is. 34 in contrast to 35; Acts 23:2-3). 

[vi] Bunyan, Pilgrim’s Progress, 189.

[vii] Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will, Trans.: James I. Packer and O.R. Johnston (Grand Rapids, MI: Fleming H. Revell A Division of Baker Book House, 1957), 90-91.

[viii] Edwards, Charity and its Fruits, 257.

[ix] Mark Dever, J. Ligon Duncun III, R. Albert Mohler Jr., C. J. Mahaney, Proclaiming A Christ-Centered Theology (Wheaton, Il: Crossway, 2009), 181.