I want you to understand something that you might not be aware of - every person in this room has problems. There is not one person in this room that is problem free. Everyone faces struggles and difficulties in life. Since that is true, understanding what the Bible has to say about suffering is a very practical issue. So, let's look at what Scripture says about the trials and sufferings of life:
Romans 5:3-4 (NKJV) And not only that, but we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; 4 and perseverance, character; and character, hope.
Notice what Paul says here about suffering, "we also glory in tribulation." The NIV says, "but we also rejoice in our sufferings." GWT says, "We also brag when we are suffering." The word "glory" is from the Greek word kauchaomai, which means: "to vaunt (in a good or a bad sense), boast, glory, joy, rejoice." And the word "tribulations" is from the Greek thlipsis, which means: "pressure (literally or figuratively) anguish, burdened, persecution, tribulation, trouble." This is a strong term and does not refer to minor inconveniences, but to real hardships. It was used in reference to squeezing olives for the oil, or squeezing grapes for the wine.
So, Paul is saying, "We rejoice in the problems and pressures of life." Does that sound strange to you? Before we go any further, we must ask, "Who is the 'we'?" Paul says, "we also glory in tribulation." Let's back up a few verses:
Romans 5:1-2 (NKJV) Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom also we have access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God.
Who is the first "we"? It's those who have been justified by faith - Christians! Who is the "we" that has access by faith into grace? Again, it is Christians. So, who is the "we" in verse 3? Take a guess? Yes, you're right, it's Christians. We could translate it this way: "Christians rejoice in suffering." How does that sound? Is it true of you?
Some have tried to interpret this, "We rejoice in the midst of suffering." That is, we rejoice in spite of our suffering. But it does not mean that we rejoice in spite of our suffering. Paul is saying, "We rejoice because of our suffering." Look at:
Romans 5:11 (NKJV) And not only that, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation.
Does this mean that we rejoice in spite of God? This construction in the Greek is the same as verse 3. Paul rejoiced because of God and he also rejoiced because of suffering, and he assumed that other believers participated with him in this rejoicing.
If this seems a little strange to you, let's remind ourselves that in the New Testament, suffering was the normal experience of a Christian and was viewed as a cause for rejoicing.
We see in this text an entirely different attitude from that which we see in the church today. We pity ourselves, and we pity others who are suffering. We moan, murmur, and complain when we suffer. This wasn't the case with Paul.
2 Corinthians 11:23-30 (NKJV) Are they ministers of Christ?; I speak as a fool; I am more: in labors more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequently, in deaths often. 24 From the Jews five times I received forty stripes minus one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been in the deep; 26 in journeys often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; 27 in weariness and toil, in sleeplessness often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness; 28 besides the other things, what comes upon me daily: my deep concern for all the churches. 29 Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to stumble, and I do not burn with indignation? 30 If I must boast, I will boast in the things which concern my infirmity.
The word "boast" used here in verse 30 is the same Greek word that Paul uses in Romans 5:3. Paul rejoices in his infirmities.
2 Corinthians 12:9-10 (NKJV) And He said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness." Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ's sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
Again, Paul says, "I rejoice in my infirmities." Then, just so we don't miss it, notice what he says, "I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses..." The word "pleasure" is from the Greek word eudokeo, which means: "to think well of, to be well pleased, have pleasure in."
Paul rejoiced in and found pleasure in suffering. How could this be? Maybe when Paul was stoned, it messed up his head, and he didn't know what he was saying. To tell you the truth, it would be nice to write Paul off as a head case who's not playing with a full deck because of all the beatings he received. But the problem is that Paul wasn't the only one with this view of suffering. This view was common among the New Testament saints.
Matthew 5:10-12 (NKJV) Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, For theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 "Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. 12 "Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
The persecuted are blessed, not cursed. Jesus says we are to rejoice when we suffer! There is a connection in the New Testament between suffering and joy. That may seem like a contradiction, but that is what the Scriptures teach. Notice what the basis of rejoicing is; it is our reward in heaven. When we are persecuted, we are to rejoice.
Mark 10:28-30 (NKJV) Then Peter began to say to Him, "See, we have left all and followed You." 29 So Jesus answered and said, "Assuredly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands, for My sake and the gospel's, 30 "who shall not receive a hundredfold now in this time; houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions; and in the age to come, eternal life.
Verse 30 lists the blessings of service, and notice that one of the blessings is "with persecutions." He is listing the blessings and he says, "With persecutions."
Acts 5:40 (NKJV) And they agreed with him, and when they had called for the apostles and beaten them, they commanded that they should not speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go.
When you are trying to share the gospel, and someone slams the door on you or makes fun of you, how do you feel? Do you get your feelings hurt, or get discouraged? These men were physically beaten. Please notice their response:
Acts 5:41-42 (NKJV) So they departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for His name. 42 And daily in the temple, and in every house, they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ.
They rejoiced! And they kept on preaching. Their suffering caused them to rejoice. They didn't get hurt feelings or get depressed or mad at God, they rejoiced.
1 Peter 4:12-14 (NKJV) Beloved, do not think it strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened to you; 13 but rejoice to the extent that you partake of Christ's sufferings, that when His glory is revealed, you may also be glad with exceeding joy. 14 If you are reproached for the name of Christ, blessed are you, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. On their part He is blasphemed, but on your part He is glorified.
Again we see the idea of suffering and rejoicing. Suffering is not a curse, it is a blessing. Get that! It is the very essence of Christian experience. It is through suffering that we are brought to maturity in the faith.
1 Peter 5:10 (NKJV) But may the God of all grace, who called us to His eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after you have suffered a while, perfect, establish, strengthen, and settle you.
Evidently, suffering, in some way or degree, is essential to the formation of Christian character. Now, suffering may differ today (at least in America) in meaning from its meaning in the early days of the church. By that I mean it may not mean bodily torment, imprisonment, starvation, or a torturous death, but it will always be the price we pay when we live uncompromisingly for the gospel of Jesus Christ.
How can we have this attitude of rejoicing in suffering? The answer is found in our text:
Romans 5:3 (NKJV) And not only that, but we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance;
We rejoice in sufferings "knowing" - it is the knowledge of the effects of suffering that enables the Christian to rejoice in them. We rejoice, because we know that suffering produces perseverance. The word "perseverance" is from the Greek word hupomone, which means: "endurance". We rejoice because we know that trials and suffering produces endurance. Suffering does something, accomplishing something; it is of value in my life, and that is what causes the rejoicing.
Paul goes on to say that endurance produces character:
Romans 5:4 (NKJV) and perseverance, character; and character, hope.
The word "character" is from the Greek word dokime, which is a noun. The verb form is dokimazo, which means: "to be approved, to put to the test for the purpose of approving." Thus is means: "proven character". It is through the trials of life that we mature in Christian character.
Do suffering and trials always cause a believer to mature? Could suffering and trials have a negative effect on Christians? Sure they could. Look at:
Hebrews 3:12 (NKJV) Beware, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief in departing from the living God;
The author is writing to believers telling them to constantly be watching out lest there be found in them an evil heart of unbelief. Listen, believers, we ALL have the potential to doubt God, the capacity to unbelief. Have you ever doubted God? Be honest. We are capable of doubting God, and it is particularly under the pressures of stress and trouble that that latent capacity seems to rise to the surface and to seep into our hearts like a poisonous anesthetic robbing us or our spiritual sensitivity and hardening our hearts.
What would cause a believer to fall away from God? Trials!
Luke 8:11-13 (NKJV) "Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God. 12 "Those by the wayside are the ones who hear; then the devil comes and takes away the word out of their hearts, lest they should believe and be saved. 13 "But the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear, receive the word with joy; and these have no root, who believe for a while and in time of temptation fall away.
The word "temptation" here is from the Greek word peirasmos. It is the same word found in Hebrews 3:8, translated "trial". The words "fall away" are from the Greek word aphistemi, which is the same word found in Hebrews 3:12, translated "departing".
If we are going to mature from our trials and not fall away, we must have the right attitude - rejoicing. We can only rejoice in suffering when we know that God has a purpose in all we suffer. Our perspective is very important, especially when we face suffering. To many, suffering is a sign of a cruel god who enjoys seeing people suffer, or suffering results because a helpless god cannot relieve his people's afflictions. But to the person of faith, suffering and affliction are seen as the hand and purpose of an almighty and loving God moving His children toward maturity.
Without an understanding of God's sovereignty over our suffering, we cannot understand the meaning of our suffering. We must learn to think biblically. Your stability is related to the attitudes that you have. It is not related to your circumstances, it is related to how you think. We must understand that God is in control of all our pain and suffering.
God is sovereign, You understand that, don't you? I think you do, but do you understand that his sovereignty extends to all our suffering? It is biblically wrong to say that God merely permits suffering. Suffering is something that God is actively involved in. The Westminster Confession of Faith puts it this way:
God, from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass (chapter 3, section 1).
The Bible puts it this way:
Ephesians 1:11 (NKJV) In Him also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestined according to the purpose of Him who works all things according to the counsel of His will,
God doesn't permit, he ordains! When we say that God permits something to happen, we often mean that God, in his heart of hearts, doesn't want a thing to happen but will allow it for some reason. This is not biblical. God works all things according to the counsel of His will. Or, as the NIV puts it, "Him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will." God does not merely permit suffering, he planned it. All that comes to pass in our lives is according to the eternal plan of the all-wise, all - powerful, and all - loving great God and our father.
The sovereignty of God is absolute, irresistible, infinite. God does as He pleases, only as He pleases, always as He pleases; whatever takes place in time is but the outworking of that which He decreed in eternity. Is this too strong for you? If it is, you do not understand the God of the Bible.
Psalms 115:3 (NKJV) But our God is in heaven; He does whatever He pleases.
How could He do whatever He pleases if He is not sovereign? If God was merely to permit suffering, he would not be doing what he pleased. God lovingly and faithfully uses suffering to develop personal righteousness, maturity, and our walk with Him.
Hebrews 12:5-6 (NKJV) And you have forgotten the exhortation which speaks to you as to sons: "My son, do not despise the chastening of the LORD, Nor be discouraged when you are rebuked by Him; 6 For whom the LORD loves He chastens, And scourges every son whom He receives."
The word "chastening" is the Greek word paideia, which means: "tutorage; education or training; by implication disciplinary correction." God uses suffering and pain in our lives to train us.
Suffering helps us mature in Christian character. One of the ways that it accomplishes this is by forcing us to be dependant upon God, instead of ourselves.
2 Corinthians 1:9 (NKJV) Yes, we had the sentence of death in ourselves, that we should not trust in ourselves but in God who raises the dead,
Many men and women have testified that God taught them this lesson, that they are dependant upon him, by taking away all the things they had mistakenly depended on.
While attempting to rescue a fellow soldier, Bob Wieland lost both his legs in Vietnam. He had dreamed of being a professional baseball player after the war, but that dream was gone forever. Many men in this situation are overcome with bitterness, but Bob wasn't. He said, "I lost my legs, not my heart", and he continued his quest for athletic achievement. He walks on his hands now and has completed a three year Walk Across America.
On Thursday, November 6, 1986, Bob Wieland finally crossed the finish line. He was the New York City Marathon's 19,413th and final finisher; and the first to run a marathon with his arms instead of his legs! He recorded what race officials said was the slowest time in marathon history: four days, two hours, 48 minutes, 17 seconds. But he was greeted like a champion by race director, Fred Lebow, who had written Wieland off as a dropout.
Wieland said, "Success is not based on where you start, it's where you finish, and I finished. The first step was the most difficult, after that, we were on our way home. The joy has been the journey." Wieland started Sunday at 8:23 a.m., more than two hours before the main body of runners. But, moving at an average speed of about one mile an hour, his lead soon vanished; Wieland runs in a sitting position, using his muscular arms like crutches to lift his torso and swing it forward. He sits on a 15 pound saddle and covers his clenched fists with pads he calls "size 1 running shoes."
Wieland has also participated in the Race Across America on a custom-made bicycle, and in the Hawaii Ironman Triathlon. He can bench press an amazing 507 pounds. How does he do it? In his words, "I do the best I can to apply the Word of God to my life, because I know it works." Bob Wieland has learned to rejoice in suffering. That's the kind of strength Jesus offers to those who are dependant upon him. No matter what happens, if we are dependant on him, he'll get us through. He will give you the strength to face whatever comes your way.
Are you facing challenges right now that are bigger than you are? Are you in a battle that you don't have the strength to win on your own? You don't have to face it alone. God will be your strength. In fact, trying to live your life in your own strength, without God's help, is a recipe for disaster.
Isaiah 50:11 (GWT) But all of you light fires and arm yourselves with flaming torches. So walk in your own light and among the torches you have lit. This is what you will receive from me: You will be tormented.
Trying to live life in your own strength, according to your own light, is futile. It leads only to sorrow.
We suffer to bring about continued dependence on the grace and power of God. Suffering is designed to cause us to walk by God's ability, power, and provision; rather than by our own. It causes us to turn from our resources to His resources.
When we are in the midst of suffering, we must remember that in this ultimate sense, all is right with the world. Things are operating as they should. Not one thing happens in our lives that God had not planned to happen.
When we are in the midst of a severe trial, it can be very difficult to rejoice. When we are hurting, we tend to be rather consumed with ourselves and find it difficult to say with much sincerity, "I sure am glad this disaster in my life is going to lead to my maturity in Christian character." But as we remember that God is sovereign in suffering and has a purpose in it, we will be able to rejoice.
The question is not: "Will times of adversity come into your life?" The question is: "How will you respond when they do?" The proper response is:
Philippians 4:4 (NKJV) Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, rejoice!
We are commanded to rejoice. There should be no event, and there should be no circumstances in life that should diminish the Christian's joy.
We ought to be happier about our trials than we are about the good times, because the trials are much more refining, aren't they? You might not want to hear this, but the trials are much more spiritually productive than the good times. They're much more likely to stripe off your self-centeredness. They're much more likely to convince you that you're not in control of everything and break your pride. They're much more likely to humble you. They're much more likely to make you dependent. They're much more likely to enhance your prayer life. They're much more likely to give you sympathy with the pain of others. And all that is good.
We can rejoice in our suffering and trials as we understand that God uses them to develop Christian character.