At the beginning of the 20th century, something very significant took place within the church. After centuries of neglect, Christians in quite large numbers began to see the importance of the gifts of the Holy Spirit referred to in 1 Corinthians 12:8-10.
It is true that the use of these gifts had never actually died out. But they had been very neglected, and this began to change in a big way early in the 20th century.
Since then, the use of gifts of the Spirit by Christians has increased dramatically, especially among evangelicals. In fact, it would surely be right to say that today quite a large majority of evangelicals worldwide either use the gifts or accept their use as valid. What is more, the signs are that the percentage of evangelicals who take this position will continue to increase, and this is very good news.
Christians who use or approve of using the gifts of the Spirit listed in 1 Corinthians 12:8-10 are commonly called “charismatic Christians.” And churches of charismatic Christians are known as “charismatic churches.” The word “charismatic” comes from the Greek word charisma, meaning “gift,” which is used several times in 1 Corinthians 12 to refer to gifts of the Spirit.
Problems in charismatic churches
Although charismatic churches are absolutely right to stress the importance of gifts of the Spirit, it should be regarded as a fact that big problems often arise in these churches. Here are some of the main ones:
· The importance of the Bible is often downplayed.
· The so-called “prosperity gospel” is frequently taught.
· Various extreme views on supernatural healing are common.
· The importance of reasoning and the mind is often neglected.
· Too much stress is often placed on personal experience.
These are all serious errors that cause huge problems.
Downplaying the importance of hardship
There is, however, another major error that commonly occurs in charismatic churches. Many churches and church leaders are at fault for downplaying and underemphasizing the importance and role of hardship and suffering in the Christian life. And this is the error I want to focus on in this article.
Charismatic churches will usually place a lot of emphasis on joy and God blessing believers, and it is quite right that they do so. This is a thoroughly biblical emphasis.
However, the Bible contains many more paradoxes and tensions than we are used to in modern Western culture, and Christians today often get caught out by this. Just because Scripture teaches that blessing and joy is part of the normal Christian life, this in no way means that hardship should not also be a significant part. And as it happens, the Bible teaches in many places that Christians can typically expect to experience a considerable amount of suffering.
Suffering of Christians in the New Testament
In some New Testament examples of Christians suffering, it is true that the suffering is a result of personal sins. In 1 Corinthians 11:27-30, for example, we are told that sickness and even death has come to some of the Corinthian Christians because they have been abusing the Lord’s Supper.
However, in a large majority of New Testament references to suffering in the lives of Christians, there is no hint that anything is wrong in God’s sight. In fact, sometimes the hardship is actually seen as something positive. To put it simply, according to the New Testament, suffering is a significant part of the normal Christian life.
The following are some of the key passages:
In John Jesus tells His disciples:
“In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”
(Bible quotations in this article are from the English Standard Version.)
Importantly, there is no good reason for thinking that Jesus is saying here only that apostles, or apostles and some other early Christians, can expect to suffer tribulation. Nearly all of Jesus’ words in His Farewell Discourse of John 13-17 apply to believers down through the centuries. And in this verse He is apparently referring to normal Christian experience.
In Romans 5:3-4 Paul writes to the church in
“3 Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope . . .”
In this passage Paul is speaking about Christians in general. The “we” in v. 3 is not a reference just to apostles but to all believers, as the preceding context makes clear.
Importantly too, nothing in the letter to the Romans suggests that the church in
was undergoing a
particularly high level of persecution at the time of writing. So there is no
good reason for thinking that Paul’s reference to suffering here is directed
towards an unusual situation. Instead, it makes sense to think that he is implying
that suffering is part of typical Christian experience. Rome
Note also the value Paul places on suffering here. It is something that leads to endurance, character and hope in the lives of Christians.
In Romans 8:17-18 Paul says:
“. . . 17 and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. 18 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”
Again, Paul is referring to Christians in general in this passage, not just to apostles. And he is clearly implying that suffering is a significant part of normal Christian experience.
Note how in v. 17 he even says that being an heir of God, a fellow heir with Christ and glorification in heaven are conditional on suffering!
That is not to say that Paul is suggesting that suffering is a direct condition of salvation. He doesn’t mean that salvation is dependent on suffering in the same way that it is on faith in Christ. Nor does he mean, for example, that people who are converted just before they die will not be saved because they are not able to spend time suffering. But the reason he phrases things in the way he does is because he sees suffering as such a basic part of the normal Christian life.
In Philippians Paul tells the church in
“For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake . . .”
Paul is clear here that suffering for Christ is something that God has granted to the Philippians.
2 Timothy 3
In 2 Timothy Paul tells Timothy:
“Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted . . .”
In this verse Paul is explicit that every devout Christian will be persecuted. And persecution always involves suffering of some sort.
In Hebrews 12:7 the author states:
“It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline?”
And then a little later, at Hebrews , he says:
“For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant . . .”
In v. 7 the author tells his readers that God is treating them as His sons. And there is no doubt that God treats all Christians in this way.
Verse 7 also tells us that every son is disciplined by his father. So, given that God treats all Christians as sons, this means that He disciplines all of us.
Finally, v. 11 says that discipline is painful.
It is clear from these verses, then, that we should expect some degree of suffering and hardship to come to every believer.
In James 1:2-4 James writes:
“2 Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, 3 for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. 4 And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”
Like Paul in Romans 5:3-4 that we looked at above, James clearly sees the hardship involved in trials as something that works towards the moral improvement of Christians. And he obviously thinks that believers can commonly expect to suffer in this way.
1 Peter 4
In 1 Peter Peter tells his readers:
“Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.”
In this verse Peter is clear that suffering is not a strange thing for Christians to experience.
In Revelation 1:9 John speaks about himself in this way:
“I, John, your brother and partner in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus . . .”
Notice how John refers to “the tribulation . . . and the patient endurance that are in Jesus.” This quite strongly implies that suffering is a part of the normal Christian life.
In Revelation 21:4 John says this about those who reach heaven:
“He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
It is Christians who will get to heaven. So this verse implies that while here on earth, weeping, mourning, crying and pain are common Christian experiences.
The combined weight of the passages we have just looked at proves beyond doubt that hardship is a significant part of normal Christian experience. And there are dozens – maybe even hundreds – of other passages from the Old and New Testaments that point in the same direction. Some of these will be referred to in the rest of the article.
Types of hardship
As far as the types of hardships experienced by Christians are concerned, the Bible refers to various different ones.
Persecution figures prominently. See, e.g., Matthew 5:10-12; Acts 8:1-3; Hebrews 10:32-34; 1 Peter 2:19-23; Revelation 2:10.
Material poverty also features. See, e.g., Luke 6:20; 2 Corinthians 6:10; 8:1-2; Philippians 4:12; James 1:9; 2:5; Revelation 2:9.
And there are many passages in which the type of hardship is not defined, including numerous references to endurance. See, e.g., Luke 21:19; Romans 15:5; 2 Corinthians 1:5-7; 6:4; Philippians 3:10; Revelation 14:12.
Why do Christians suffer in the will of God?
It is clear, then, that Christians who are doing the will of God can expect to suffer hardship of various kinds. But this raises a question. Why?
It is outside the scope of this article to discuss this issue in any detail. Nevertheless, I will make a few brief comments.
First, hardship is a consequence of living in a fallen world. Ever since sin entered our world, it has been under a curse. And it is inevitable that everyone who lives here will suffer to a greater or lesser extent.
Second, one of the main ways in which God purifies us morally is by leading us through sufferings. We have already seen how Romans 5:3-4 and James 1:2-4 teach along these lines. Other passages that do so include Job 23:10; 2 Corinthians 4:8-11 and 1 Peter 1:6-7.
Third, if we are engaged, as we should be, in conflict with evil spirits, this is bound to involve at least some hardship. In Ephesians Paul refers to Christians “wrestling” with demonic powers, and it would be unrealistic to expect this to happen without any pain.
Finally, suffering in the life of a Christian can lead to increased spiritual strength. In 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 Paul speaks of his gladness in experiencing sufferings, since these weaken him in a non-spiritual sense, thereby enabling him to be strong spiritually. And many other Christians have also testified to forms of weakness leading to greater spiritual strength.
Suffering and joy
I have already noted that the joy of Christians is a major biblical theme. And I have noted too that Scripture contains more paradoxes than we are used to in modern Western culture.
So it needs to be stated clearly that the suffering in normal Christian experience in no way means that joy should not also be a significant part of that experience. In fact, in some biblical passages the themes of joy and suffering are found together. 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; and 1 Peter 1:6.
Given that hardship is a basic part of the normal Christian life, it is important that Christian leaders don’t neglect to teach their flocks on this topic.
Too often in charismatic churches this teaching is underemphasized, and when it is, problems arise. Christians who encounter troubles in their lives that are not quickly resolved can be told, or at least led to believe, that their sufferings must be because of some unconfessed sin. It is true that sin sometimes is the cause of suffering. However, often it isn’t, and in such cases it is very damaging for the person in question to be criticized, when what they really need is encouragement.
The same thing can happen to whole churches. Corporate hardships arise, and if it is taught that a successful church should not be a suffering church, a feeling of disillusionment can set in among a congregation. Sometimes, however, I am sure that the corporate sufferings which arise are actually because a church is making spiritual progress. Something that should be a reason for optimism can, through poor teaching, become a cause of discouragement.
Long-term absence of hardship is usually a bad sign
As well as recognizing that hardships experienced by Christians don’t have to mean that anything is wrong, there is the other side of the coin to consider too. As we have seen, suffering is a part of the normal Christian life as it is found in the New Testament. Therefore, if a believer has no significant suffering in their life for a considerable period of time, it may well be that something is seriously wrong with their Christian walk.
In fact, I would even suggest that church leaders should encourage any Christian who has insignificant hardship to ask God if something might have gone wrong. If a Christian has little joy in their life, something is probably not right. And the same is surely true of hardship.
The charismatic movement has been, and is, a real force for God’s work in the world. The stress on the importance of gifts of the Holy Spirit is quite right, as is the emphasis on joy and blessing.
However, many charismatic churches would be much stronger if the importance of hardship were included prominently in teaching on what the normal Christian life involves. Too often this is downplayed, and many Christians and churches are weaker as a result.