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Suffering for the Gospel?

16 February, 2010

b picA close friend of mine has been having some difficult family problems lately. He told me through them he’s realized something: he used to think that suffering for the sake of the gospel was something that only applied to missionaries in far-off lands, those who were openly persecuted for being followers of Christ. Now he realizes that suffering for the gospel means something much closer to home for most of us. It means trusting in the Lord to be for us, and to do all things well for us, every day, despite appearances and even our own hearts.

Now, some of us might think that’s easy for him to say, and it’s somewhat condescending in light of the tremendous work that missionaries have been called to — except that my friend is a missionary. He’s been in the Philippines, in mainland China … suffering for the gospel from day to day isn’t an alternative to the suffering missionaries often face, but it’s all of us that are called in one way or another to suffer for the gospel, even though we’re not all called to be (full-time ministry) missionaries.

Suffering for the gospel in daily life doesn’t mean that everything we find difficult is gospel-suffering. There are many things we suffer that are the result of our sin and stubbornness, and there are many things we ‘suffer’ that we don’t find very difficult, even if others see it as suffering. If I fast with a twisted, pained expression so that others are impressed by how righteous I am, am I suffering? Jesus doesn’t think so (Matt 6:16). If I give ‘sacrificially’ simply in order to feel generous — or rather, generously self-satisfied — I’m not sacrificing anything but the truth of the gospel as it works itself out in my life. My point is that suffering is only truly for the sake of the gospel if it requires grace and faith, and because of this it can only be attributed to God’s merciful work in us by his Spirit. When we do something with no thought of reward for our ego or our wallet, when we act out of wholehearted trust, then we are doing it by grace through faith — we have our reward in heaven (Matt 6:1-4).

We can suffer because of our proclamation of the good news, and we can also suffer because of the fruit that good news bears in us in keeping with repentance. To follow Jesus, we take up our crosses (Mark 8:34). Serving my wife without holding it over her head, disciplining my children without self-righteousness, doing an honest day’s work without complaining or feelings of entitlement, learning without being puffed up, receiving praise (and criticism) with true humility, being resentful and discouraged when I’m called to endure something for longer than I think ‘reasonable’ — these are the kinds of things I struggle with all the time, and it’s because I struggle with trusting in God alone for all I stand in need of, body and soul, every single day.

That’s why suffering for the gospel is gospel-suffering. Because we can’t do it ourselves, and even when we make a start of it by God’s work within us, we never look to ourselves. We don’t look to our cross-bearing, but to Jesus’ cross-bearing. We don’t look to our suffering, but to Jesus’ suffering, and only then do we — like my friend — suffer with confidence and hope. ‘In this world you will have trouble,’ Jesus said. ‘But take heart! I have overcome the world’ (John 16:33).

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One Comment
  1. Donna Ellis Burrell permalink
    22 February, 2010 4:03 pm

    Very well put…I have been struggling with HOW to understand, respond, apply and share the “good news” of suffering for the gospel. It is a difficult concept to grasp and to explain to others. There is so much to learn about this subject and it does not seem to get as much attention as it needs, especially in times such as we have now. Thanks for the insights.

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