Suffering is a part of every person’s life. Some of us complain about being mildly inconvenienced, but that is not really suffering. Others of us talk about physical pains ranging from hangnails to hernias, but even they may not be true suffering. True suffering has an element of anguish or frustration. There may also be an element of injustice. While much of life is spent striving, sometimes without result, a life of suffering involves toil or heartbreak on an extreme scale. The suffering may further involve a loss, without reward or hope, of loved ones, jobs, houses, and other things dear to us.
Some of us may be blessed to suffer for the sake of Christ’s gospel. We may experience the anguish of being persecuted or ridiculed because we proclaim that Jesus died on the cross for sinners in order to reconcile them to God. We may be chastised or hated for believing that Christ is the only way to God. We may be ostracized by friends or family because we stand with and for Christ.
When that occurs, we should rejoice, as Paul said he did in Colossians 1:24:
Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church,
Paul rejoiced in his suffering for the gospel because he understood it was for the sake of others. Believers must proclaim the truth of the gospel to the lost world. That is God’s means of bringing salvation to all those who are lost. Even when they reject it and persecute us for proclaiming it, God can use the message we declare to save them.
For example, in India today, there are Hindu families who are coming to Christ following the martyrdom of over 100 Christians at the hands of Hindus in 2008. The boldness that other Christians have shown in sharing the gospel after that tragedy has been used by God. Most of us will probably never have to give our life for our faith. But even if we should lose friends, jobs, or family ties because of the gospel, the sacrifice we make may be used by the Lord for the salvation of those very ones who persecute us.
Paul rejoiced in his suffering for the gospel because he saw it a continuation of Christ’s suffering. As Peter said, “But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.” (see I Peter 4:13) That attitude was in Paul, and it should be in each of us as well. Jesus promised that just as He was hated, so the world would hate us (see John 15:18-19). Jesus explained that believers in Him are not part of the world, but chosen out from the world. We are alien, foreigners, to the world, just as Christ was.
We take the message of a holy and merciful God into a sinful and vindictive world. As Christ brought salvation to the sinful world that rejected Him, so He calls us to bring the message of salvation to that same sinful world, though it rejects His truth. He suffered for their salvation, and we are called to suffer to bring them the message of salvation. Our calling is a continuation of His work.
Paul rejoiced in his suffering for the gospel because he knew it was for the benefit of the church, the body of Christ. When we suffer as Christians, we are not alone. We are united by our suffering. The entire Body of Christ is with us. “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.” (see I Corinthians 12:26)
Paul saw his own suffering as the means that God used to bring him into closer fellowship with Christ, saying “Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death.” (see Philippians 3:8-10).
We can rejoice in suffering, as Paul did. Our suffering may take the form of giving up an afternoon of leisure to speak about Christ to a stranger. It may take the form of being punished because we spoke about the gospel during our lunch hour. It may take the form of making a long unpleasant trip back home to share the gospel with a dying relative. It may take the form of death at the hand of some religious zealot. Whatever the form, let us remember “that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” (see Romans 8:18)