In the past few months our world has seen children left without parents, homes destroyed, and whole villages devastated. We have witnessed suffering on a massive scale.
Suffering has many faces, yet the suffering experienced by a believer differs from that experienced by an unbeliever. One of the great mysteries of “God’s love and wonderful plan for our lives” is the special calling of suffering that God extends whereby we become more identified with Jesus and more conformed to His image.
As believers we experience internal and external suffering. The inner life of the believer is a “sanctuary of suffering” where we become conformed to the likeness of Christ. The Bible beckons us to reckon ourselves dead to the life of the flesh, which is always at enmity with the leading of God’s Spirit. Paul describes this as entering into the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings whereby we identify with His death and experience the blessings of the new life we have in Him (Phil. 3:10).
External suffering comes in the “clash of the cultures” when our Christian faith is either dismissed or despised by others who do not share our devotion to Christ. Paul went so far as to say that he rejoiced in such sufferings because they were for the good of the church and fulfilled the purposes of Christ in the world. He reported to the Colossians that he was doing his share to “fill up what still is lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions” (Col. 1:24). What was lacking was not the satisfactory payment for sin. The death of Christ was sufficient for all people for all time. What afflictions remain are those foretold by Jesus and His apostles that the church would experience in taking a stand with Jesus. With the tribulations we may righteously lament comes the promise of blessing and glory in the end (1 Pet. 1:6–7).
All believers enter the “sanctuary of suffering” during our lives here on earth. That we can experience deep joy in the midst of our suffering defies human logic. Yet such joy is possible. Why? Because we have hope. We anticipate a future of eternal fellowship, of worship instead of suffering, and of a great sanctuary filled with singing and with no hint of lament.
“There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign forever and ever” (Rev. 22:5).