The Christian life is in many ways a hard one. We follow Jesus, who suffered greatly during His life on earth. And it is therefore not a surprise if we, His followers, also often have to suffer.
The Lord Himself has warned us to expect to expect suffering. In Luke 9:23-24, for example, He teaches:
‘If anyone wants to come after Me, he must deny himself and pick up his cross every day and follow Me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it. But whoever loses his life for My sake will save it.’
This picking up the cross seems plainly to imply hardship in what it means to follow Jesus. And we are told that we must do this every day. Similarly, losing our lives for His sake also implies some hardship and suffering.
In John Jesus is even more explicit:
‘In the world you will have suffering. But be brave. I have overcome the world.’
Although these words were originally directed to Jesus’ closest followers when He was on earth, they certainly apply to Christians of all ages too.
The rest of the New Testament continues the theme
If we move from the Gospels to consider other parts of the New Testament, the theme of suffering continues. We constantly find Christians experiencing hardship in various ways.
Persecution features prominently. It is clear that first century believers often suffered at the hands of various people. See, for example, Acts 4:1-22; 8:1; 9:1-2; 16:22-40; Romans 12:14; 2 Corinthians 11:23-25; Galatians 4:29; 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16; Hebrews 10:32-34; Revelation 1:9; 2:10, 13; 6:9-11.
In fact, persecution is such a trademark of what following Jesus involves that in 2 Timothy 3:12 Paul even tells us:
‘Everyone who wants to live a devout life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.’
Suffering is also one of the key means that God uses to purify us morally. In Romans 5:3-4, for example, Paul outlines how this works:
‘. . . but we also glory in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance character, and character hope.’
James 1:2-4 details a similar process. And 2 Corinthians -11; Hebrews 12:4-11; 1 Peter 1:6-7 also refer to the purifying effects of suffering. See too Job .
Suffering, then, is an unavoidable part of Christian experience. In fact, it is so characteristic of what following Jesus involves that in Revelation 1:9 John refers to:
‘. . . the suffering and kingdom and endurance that are in Jesus’.
If we are in Jesus, according to John, we will share in suffering and endurance.
And in Romans Paul speaks of Christians as:
‘. . . heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him’.
This is a striking statement about the necessity of suffering in the Christian life.
Suffering and joy together
The fact that suffering is a basic part of Christian experience does not, of course, mean that we should expect to have miserable lives. Our faith is full of tensions and paradoxes. And paradoxically joy is also a basic part of the normal Christian life. Suffering and joy are even found mentioned together in various biblical passages. See Psalm 94:19; Habakkuk 3:17-19; 2 Corinthians 6:10; 7:4; Colossians 1:24; 1 Thessalonians 1:6; James 1:2-4; 1 Peter 1:6.
Focusing on heaven
So, suffering does not mean the absence of joy. But suffering is still suffering nevertheless. Christians have to experience hardship.
As we suffer, however, we must not lose sight of what is coming our way after death. The joy, happiness, blessedness and experiences of feeling fantastic after we die will be so great that any sufferings we go through in this life are like a drop in the ocean in comparison.
In 2 Corinthians 4:17-18 Paul takes exactly this perspective:
‘For our momentary, light suffering is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond any comparison, as we look not at the things that are seen, but at the things that are unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.’
By any ordinary standard Paul’s sufferings were anything but momentary or light. In the same letter he gives some details of what he went through: 2 Corinthians 4:8-11; 6:4-10; -29. It is quite a list.
In reality, Paul suffered greatly. But he describes his sufferings as light and momentary, because he is viewing them in comparison with what awaits him after death. His life will be so wonderful then that all his sufferings here on this earth pale into insignificance by contrast.
In Romans Paul puts essentially the same point in a more straightforward way:
‘For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed to us.’
We could reasonably say that becoming a Christian is the ultimate bargain. It is the ultimate good deal. We lose our lives for Jesus’ sake for a few decades, and then we get millions and millions of years of great joy on into infinity. Never was there such a bargain.
A final word
If you are a Christian reading this who has known what it is to suffer greatly, be encouraged. You will receive your reward of everlasting joy that far outweighs your sufferings.
If you are a non-Christian reading this, make sure that you don’t miss out on sharing in the ultimate bargain. If you fail to accept the forgiveness that comes through faith in Jesus Christ, your destiny will not be everlasting joy but everlasting suffering instead. So grab hold of this bargain today with both hands.