The Christian Experience of Suffering (1)
Anyone who in these days accommodates his teaching to the assumption that the Christian life is arduous is faced with the preliminary objection that he is fundamentally out of tune with the believer’s experience. Many contemporary Christians would insist that they live lives of unmixed blessedness, without conflict, failure or pain.
There is, of course, a measure of truth in this. As the Beautitudes teach, blessedness is the key-note of the Christian life. Paul exhorts us to rejoice in the Lord always, and portrays joy as one of the immediate fruits of justification by faith (Romans 5: 2,11). And there are countless suggestions in the New Testament that the typical expression of the Christian spirit is thanksgiving, praise, and doxology.
But there is another side to the truth. The blessed man, according to our Lord, mourns and hungers and is persecuted (Matthew 5: 4, 6, 10). The world hates the Church. Satan assaults it. The Christian life is a race, a battle, an agonising. The Christian is a soldier, needing armour, having to be constantly watchful, and bound to endure hardness. He is constantly being assailed by sin. In relation to the world, he is a cross-bearer; and in relation to God he is a child, needing correction and painful discipline. In sum, it is by such tribulation that we shall enter the Kingdom of God (Acts 14: 22), and a ministry which fails to reckon with this is inadequate to the exigencies of the Christian situation.
My purpose is simply to examine three passages of the New Testament which deal explicitly with this subject. The first of these is 2 Corinthians 12: 7-10:
And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure. For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for three: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, than am I strong.
We need not engage ourselves in the endless and unimportant discussions as to the precise nature of the thorn in the flesh. It is sufficient for our purposes to know that it was a painful and humiliating irritant, something which weakened or hindered the Apostle, and which, in itself, was an evil: a messenger of Satan. From a practical point of view, Paul himself makes the best identification – ‘infirmities, reproaches, necessities, persecutions, distresses,’ (verse 10) – there are the forms which the thorn in the flesh commonly assumes.
The first lesson of this passage is that it may be very difficult for the Christian to accept pain and humiliation. It was certainly difficult for Paul: ‘For this thing I besought the Lord thrice that it might depart from me.’ His instinctive reaction was to desire its removal. Much needless anxiety is caused by the assumption that it is implicit in saintliness to accept pain, whether mental or physical, without fear and without reluctance, on the grounds that it is the Lord’s will. To be submissive is, indeed imperative. But even Paul attained to contentment only through prayer and struggle. The native sensibilities of the Christian, as of others, cause her to shrink from humiliation and pain.
Secondly, Paul suggests that it may sometimes be our duty to cease praying for the removal of a particular difficulty. Despite the earnestness of a thrice-repeated prayer, and despite the compassion of the incarnate glorified Lord to whom it was addressed, his request was not granted. He was simply told, ‘My grace is sufficient for thee.’ This implies that the Lord may sometimes make it clear to us that, far from entertaining any hope of deliverance, any hope of emergence out of a particular difficulty, we are to accept it as something to which we must adjust ourselves for the rest of our lives: a permanent factor in our existence. There are surely many prayers that certain weaknesses and sorrows and irritants should be removed to which this teaching is directly relevant.
The passage teaches, thirdly, that there is always a reason for the presence of sorrow in our lives. God’s allocation of pain is not whimsical or arbitrary. It is never a matter of mere sovereignty. Scripture witness to this abounds: ‘the Lord does not afflict willingly,’ (Lamentations 3:33); our human fathers, according to the Epistle to the Hebrews, corrected us after their own pleasure, after their own whim, but God corrects His children for their profit (Hebrews 12:10). If, like those addressed in Peter’s first Epistle, we ‘are in heaviness because of manifold temptations,’ this is because there is a ‘necessity’ for it (1 Peter 1:6). Providence, in short, is always intelligent and purposive.
Paul had come to understand not only the general, but the particular reason for the thorn in the flesh in his own case. He was in danger of spiritual pride, the sin of glorying in his own abilities, in his own knowledge, privileges and outstanding success. The thorn – a humiliating disability – was given as a counter-poise, to enforce a sense of dependence and an acknowledgement of weakness. To silence the clamorous, ‘You can be proud of yourself,’ there had to be another voice, equally insistent ‘You ought to be ashamed of yourself.’
This suggests that, for the Christian, suffering is always connected with sin. Its immediate concern is always with indwelling sin – either to draw our attention to a particular phase of it, or to deter us from a certain expression of it. Like every others means of sanctification, it is, under one aspect, negative – purifying and mortifying. And it follows from this that it is wise for the Christian, immediately he becomes conscious of the voice of God in a given providence, to ask of it its peculiar message. To what sin is it pointing? Against which sin is it giving warning?
It is easy, however, to push this point of view to a one-sided extreme where it suggests that the man who suffers most must be the man who sins most. This is manifestly false. Indeed, precisely the reverse is true: ‘Behold, these are the ungodly who prosper in the world; they increase in riches. Verily, I have cleansed my heart in vain, and washed my hands to no purpose. For all the day long have I been plagued, and chastened every morning’ (Psalm 73: 12-14). Can we find any explanation which will do justice to both facts – the connection of chastisement with sin, and the pre-eminent suffering of the most saintly?
The solution lies, I think, in the fact that the Lord has a different and individual purpose for each Christian. If there were in view only the salvation of the believer, there might well be an exact correspondence between sin and correction. But the divine purpose refers not only to salvation, but to service also, and the discipline to which we are subjected must correspond to the strenuousness and the peril of this latter. If the Lord subjects Paul and Peter and Luther and Bunyan to a discipline which is conspicuously severe, the reason may not be that they are pre-eminent sinners, but that it is His purpose to place them in the most perilous positions on the Christian front. Those not called to this phase of the conflict must for ever remain strangers to the special pains which are taken with men of apostolic stature.
This suggests several reflections. It silences the hasty inference that those of our fellow-believers who are dogged by hardship and disappointment bring this upon themselves by a peculiar perverseness. It suggests indeed the contrary – that they may well be those chosen to eminent usefulness. And it suggests that we may well be anxious when this factor is perceptibly anxious from our lives. If providence is gentler, if the world is more tolerant, if Satan is less aggressive, is it because we are being withdrawn from the front-line of Christian usefulness? And is this itself due to our having failed an earlier test? Are we being denied the privilege of contending with the horses because we are inadequate or unfaithful when contending with the foot-men (Jer. 12:5)? And being spared the horrors of the swelling of Jordan because of our failure in the land of peace?
The fourth lesson of this passage is the sufficiency of God’s grace: ‘My grace is sufficient for thee.’ The definition of grace suggested in the context should be noted. The prevalent conception of grace is as something sentimental and static – mere favour or benevolence. Here, however, grace is dynamic. It is defined in terms of power. In verse nine, ‘my grace’ is parallel to both ‘my strength’ and to ‘the power of Christ.’ What we are invited to rely on here is the power of God, mercifully and sovereignly operative in the sphere of human need – omnipotence acting redemptively. And the sufficiency promised is not simply that, by grace, we shall be able to bear privation and sorrow, but that grace will more than compensate for the disadvantages of our weakness. Forced by the knowledge of our own impotence to depend on omnipotence we shall accomplish more than would ever have been possible if we had been permitted to retain the illusion of personal competence. Acknowledged weakness and felt need are indispensible conditions for the operation of grace.
There is one final lesson in this passage: it is not enough to be reconciled to the thorn in the flesh – we must glory in it. ‘I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake.’ As we saw, it is no mean achievement even to submit to, to accept without complaint, the vicissitudes of providence. But the New Testament points us to a still higher standard: ‘We glory in tribulations’ (Romans 5:3); ‘Blessed are ye when men shall revile you and persecute you...Rejoice and be exceeding glad’ (Matthew 5: 11,12). We are enjoined to rejoice while suffering, and to rejoice on account of suffering, and even to exult in suffering. The reason for this is not some morbid delight in suffering for its own sake, but the conviction that disciplinary affliction and humiliating weakness furnish the grace of God with its ideal context. We are to grasp them as occasions of greater usefulness; and to give thanks for them because, persuading us of helplessness, they induce a sense of complete dependence on a grace which is all-competent. This is the sequence upon which Paul sets his seal: ‘Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.’
This is a slightly edited version of an article which was first published in May 1968.