Desiring God by John Piper
SITTING AT THE FEET OF A SUFFERING SAINT
I have never been the same since sitting at the feet of Richard Wurmbrand. It was literally at his feet. He took off his shoes and sat in a chair on the slightly raised platform at Grace Baptist Church in south Minneapolis. (I learned later it had to do with damage to his feet during the torture he had received in a Romanian prison.) Before him—and below him—sat about a dozen pastors. He spoke of suffering. Again and again he said that Jesus “chose” suffering. He chose it. It did not merely happen to him. He chose it: “No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord” (John 10:18). He asked us if we would choose suffering for the sake of Christ.
Wurmbrand died in 2001. But his impact continues. His devotional book,
Reaching Toward the Heights, introduces him like this:
Richard Wurmbrand is an evangelical Lutheran pastor of Jewish origin
who was born in 1909 in Romania. When the Communists seized his
native land in 1945, he became the leader in the underground church.
In 1948 he and his wife, Sabina, were arrested, and he served fourteen
years in Red Prisons, including three years in solitary confinement in a
subterranean cell, never seeing the sun, the stars, or flowers. He saw no
one except his guards and torturers. Christian friends in Norway purchased
his freedom for $10,000 in 1964.1
HOW BEAUTIFUL IS SACRIFICE?
One of the stories he tells is about a Cistercian abbot who was interviewed on Italian television. The interviewer was especially interested in the Cistercian tradition of living in silence and solitude. So he asked the abbot, “And what if you were to realize at the end of your life that atheism is true—that there is no God? Tell me, what if that were true?”
The Abbot replied, “Holiness, silence, and sacrifice are beautiful in themselves, even without promise of reward. I still will have used my life well.”
Few glimpses into the meaning of life have had a greater impact on my contemplations about suffering. The first impact of the abbot’s response was a superficial, romantic surge of glory. But then something stuck. It did not sit well. Something was wrong. At first I could not figure it out. Then I turned to the great Christian sufferer, the apostle Paul, and was stunned by the gulf between him and the abbot.
Paul’s answer to the interviewer’s question was utterly contrary to the
abbot’s answer. The interviewer had asked, “What if your way of life turns out to be based on a falsehood, and there is no God?” The abbot’s answer in essence was, “It was a good and noble life anyway.” Paul gave his answer in 1
Corinthians 15:19: “If in this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all
people most to be pitied.” This is the exact opposite of the abbot’s answer.
Why did Paul not agree with the monk? Why didn’t Paul say, “Even if
Christ is not raised from the dead, and even if there is no God, a life of love and labor and sacrifice and suffering is a good life”? Why didn’t he say that “even without the reward of resurrection, we are not to be pitied”? Why did he say instead, “If our hope in Christ proves false in the end, we are to be pitied more than anyone”?
1. Richard Wurmbrand, Reaching Toward the Heights (Bartlesville, Okla.: Living Sacrifice, 1992), back cover.
DOES LIFE GO BETTER WITH CHRIST?
This is an utterly crucial question for the Christian church, especially in prosperous, comfortable lands like America and Western Europe. How many times do we hear Christian testimonies to the effect that becoming a Christian has made life easier? I once heard the quarterback of a professional football team say that after he prayed to receive Christ, he felt good about the game again and was proud of their eight-and-eight record because he was able to go out every Sunday and give it his best.
It seems that most Christians in the prosperous West describe the benefits
of Christianity in terms that would make it a good life, even if there were no
God and no resurrection. Think of all the psychological benefits and relational benefits. And of course these are true and biblical: The fruit of the Holy Spirit is love, joy, and peace. So if we get love, joy, and peace from believing these things, then is it not a good life to live, even if it turns out to be based on a falsehood? Why should we be pitied?
What’s wrong with Paul, then? Was he not living the abundant life? Why
would he say that if there is no resurrection, we are of all men most to be pitied? It does not seem to be pitiable to live your threescore and ten in a joyful and satisfying delusion, if that delusion makes no difference whatever for the future. If delusion can turn emptiness and meaninglessness into happiness, then why not be deluded?
The answer seems to be that the Christian life for Paul was not the socalled
good life of prosperity and ease. Instead, it was a life of freely chosen suffering beyond anything we ordinarily experience. Paul’s belief in God and his confidence in resurrection and his hope in eternal fellowship with Christ did not produce a life of comfort and ease that would have been satisfying even without resurrection. No, what his hope produced was a life of chosen suffering. Yes, he knew joy unspeakable. But it was a “rejoicing in hope” (Romans 12:12, NASB). And that hope freed him to embrace sufferings that he never would have chosen apart from the hope of his own resurrection and the resurrection of those for whom he suffered. If there is no resurrection, Paul’s sacrificial choices, by his own testimony, were pitiable.
Yes, there was joy and a sense of great significance in his suffering. But the
joy was there only because of the joyful hope beyond suffering. This is the point of Romans 5:3–4: “We exult in our afflictions, knowing that affliction produces endurance, and endurance produces proven genuineness, and genuineness produces hope” (author’s translation). So there is joy in affliction. But the joy comes because of the hope that affliction itself is helping to secure and increase. So if there is no hope, Paul is a fool to embrace this affliction and an even bigger fool to rejoice in it. But there is hope. And so Paul chooses a way of life that would be foolish and pitiable without the hope of joy beyond the grave. He answers Richard Wurmbrand’s question, Yes. He chooses suffering.
IS THERE A DIFFERENCE BETWEEN CONFLICT AND CANCER?
Let’s take a brief detour for a moment. Someone may ask at this point, “What
about suffering I do not choose? Like cancer. Or the death of my child in a car accident? Or a severe depression? Is this chapter about any of that?” My answer is that most of this chapter is about the suffering Christians accept as part of a choice to be openly Christian in risky situations. And all situations are risky, one way or the other.
The most significant difference between sickness and persecution is that
persecution is an intentional hostility from someone because we are known to be Christians, but sickness is not. Therefore, in some situations, to choose to be public Christians is to choose a way of life that accepts suffering, if God wills (1 Peter 4:19). But suffering may result from living as a Christian even when there is no intentional hostility from unbelievers. For example, a Christian may go to a disease-ridden village to minister, and then contract the disease. This is suffering as a Christian, but it is not persecution. It is a choice to suffer, if God wills, but not from the hostility of others.
But then, when you stop to think about it, all of life, if it is lived earnestly
by faith in the pursuit of God’s glory and the salvation of others, is like the
Christian who goes to the disease-ridden village. The suffering that comes is
part of the price of living where you are in obedience to the call of God. In
choosing to follow Christ in the way He directs, we choose all that this path
includes under His sovereign providence. Thus, all suffering that comes in the path of obedience is suffering with Christ and for Christ—whether it is cancer or conflict. And it is “chosen”—that is, we willingly take the path of obedience where the suffering befalls us, and we do not murmur against God. We may pray—as Paul did—that the suffering be removed (2 Corinthians 12:8); but if God wills, we embrace it in the end as part of the cost of discipleship in the path of obedience on the way to heaven.
ALL SUFFERING IN A CHRISTIAN CALLING IS WITH CHRIST AND FOR CHRIST
All experiences of suffering in the path of Christian obedience, whether from
persecution or sickness or accident, have this in common: They all threaten our faith in the goodness of God and tempt us to leave the path of obedience.
Therefore, every triumph of faith and all perseverance in obedience are testimonies to the goodness of God and the preciousness of Christ—whether the enemy is sickness, Satan, sin, or sabotage.
Therefore, all suffering, of every kind, that we endure in the path of our
Christian calling is a suffering “with Christ” and “for Christ.” With Him in the
sense that the suffering comes to us as we are walking with Him by faith and in the sense that it is endured in the strength He supplies through His sympathizing high-priestly ministry (Hebrews 4:15). For Him in the sense that the suffering tests and proves our allegiance to His goodness and power and in the sense that it reveals His worth as an all-sufficient compensation and prize.
SATAN’S AND GOD’S DESIGN IN THE SAME SUFFERING
Not only that, but the suffering of sickness and the suffering of persecution also have this in common: They are both intended by Satan for the destruction of our faith and governed by God for the purifying of our faith.
Take first the case of persecution. In 1 Thessalonians 3:4–5, Paul describes
his concern for the faith of the Thessalonians in the face of persecution:
When we were with you, we kept telling you beforehand that we were
to suffer affliction, just as it has come to pass, and just as you know. For
this reason, when I could bear it no longer, I sent to learn about your
faith, for fear that somehow the tempter had tempted you and our
labor would be in vain.
What is plain here is that the design of the “tempter” in this affliction is to destroy faith.
But Satan is not the only designer in this affair. God rules over Satan and
gives him no more leash than can accomplish His ultimate purposes. Those purposes are the opposite of Satan’s, even in the very same experience of suffering. For example, the writer of Hebrews 12 shows his readers how not to lose heart in persecution because of God’s loving purposes in it:
Consider [Christ] who endured from sinners such hostility against
himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. In your struggle
against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your
blood. And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as
sons? “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be
weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
and chastises every son whom he receives” [Proverbs 3:11–12]. It is for
discipline that you have to endure.… For the moment all discipline
seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit
of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. (vv. 3–7, 11)
Here is suffering that is coming from “hostility from sinners.” This means
that Satan has a hand in it, just as he did in the suffering of Jesus (Luke 22:3).
Nevertheless, this very suffering is described as governed by God in such a way that it has the loving and fatherly design of purifying discipline. So Satan has one design for our suffering in persecution, and God has a different design for that very same experience.
But persecution is not unique in this. The same is true of sickness. Both the
design of Satan and the design of God are evident in 2 Corinthians 12:7–10:
To keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the
flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me—to keep me from exalting
myself! Concerning this I implored the Lord three times that it might
leave me. And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for
power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather
boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in
me. Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with
distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for
when I am weak, then I am strong. (NASB)
Here, Paul’s physical suffering—the thorn in the flesh—is called “a messenger
of Satan.” But the design of this suffering is “to keep [Paul] from exalting
[himself ],” which never would have been Satan’s design. So the point is that
Christ sovereignly accomplishes His loving, purifying purpose by overruling Satan’s destructive attempts. Satan is always aiming to destroy our faith, but Christ magnifies His own power in our weakness.
ARE SUFFERING FROM PERSECUTION AND SICKNESS DISTINGUISHABLE?
Another reason for not distinguishing sharply between persecution and sickness is that the pain from persecution and the pain from sickness are not always distinguishable. Decades after his torture for Christ in a Romanian prison, Richard Wurmbrand still suffered from the physical effects. Was he being “persecuted” as he endured the pain in his feet thirty years later? Or consider the apostle Paul. Among the sufferings that he listed as a “servant of Christ” was the fact that he was shipwrecked three times and spent a night and a day in the water. He also says his sufferings for Christ included “toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure” (2 Corinthians 11:27).
Suppose he got pneumonia from all this work and exposure. Would that
have been “persecution”? Paul did not make a distinction between being beaten by rods or having a boating accident or being cold while traveling between towns. For him any suffering that befell him while serving Christ was part of the “cost” of discipleship. When a missionary’s child gets diarrhea, we think of this as part of the price of faithfulness. But for any parent walking in the path of obedience to God’s calling, it is the same price. What turns sufferings into sufferings with and for Christ is not how intentional our enemies are, but how faithful we are. If we are Christ’s, then what befalls us is for His glory and for our good, whether it is caused by enzymes or by enemies.
IS GLUTTONY THE ALTERNATIVE TO RESURRECTION?
Now we turn from our brief detour to Paul’s amazing statement in 1 Corinthians 15:19 that the life he has chosen is pitiable if there is no resurrection. In other words, Christianity as Paul understands it is not the best way to maximize pleasure if this life is all there is. Paul tells us the best way to maximize our pleasures in this life: “If the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die’” (1 Corinthians 15:32). He does not mean something as naïve as sheer Epicureanism or debauchery. That is not the best way to maximize your pleasures, as anyone knows who has followed the path of alcoholism and gluttony. Drunks and gluttons are to be pitied just like Christians if there is no resurrection.
But what he does mean by the phrase “Let us eat and drink” is that without
the hope of resurrection, one should pursue ordinary pleasures and avoid extraordinary suffering. This is the life Paul has rejected as a Christian. Thus, if the dead are not raised, and if there is no God and no heaven, he would not have pummeled his body the way he did. He would not have turned down wages for his tentmaking the way he did. He would not have walked into five whippings of thirty-nine lashes. He would not have endured three beatings with rods. He would not have risked his life in deserts and rivers and cities and seas and at the hands of robbers and angry mobs. He would not have accepted sleepless nights and cold and exposure. He would not have endured so long with backsliding and hypocritical Christians (2 Corinthians 11:23–29). Instead, he would have
simply lived the good life of comfort and ease as a respectable Jew with the prerogatives of Roman citizenship.
When Paul says, “If the dead are not raised, let us eat and drink,” he does
not mean “Let’s all become lechers.” He means there is a normal, simple, comfortable, ordinary life of human delights that we may enjoy with no troubling thoughts of heaven of hell or sin or holiness or God—if there is no resurrection from the dead. And what stunned me about this train of thought is that many of the professing Christians seem to aim at just this—and call it Christianity.
Paul did not see his relation to Christ as the key to maximizing his physical
comforts and pleasures in this life. No, Paul’s relation to Christ was a call to
choose suffering—a suffering that was beyond what would make atheism
“meaningful” or “beautiful” or “heroic.” It was a suffering that would have been utterly foolish and pitiable to choose if there is no resurrection into the joyful presence of Christ.
AN ALMOST UNBELIEVABLE INDICTMENT OF WESTERN CHRISTIANITY
This was the thing I finally saw in pondering Wurmbrand’s story about the
Cistercian abbot. In Paul’s radically different viewpoint I saw an almost unbelievable indictment of Western Christianity. Am I overstating this? Judge for yourself. How many Christians do you know who could say, “The lifestyle I have chosen as a Christian would be utterly foolish and pitiable if there is no resurrection”? How many Christians are there who could say, “The suffering I have freely chosen to embrace for Christ would be a pitiable life if there is no resurrection”? As I see it, these are shocking questions.
CHRISTIANITY: A LIFE OF CHOSEN SUFFERING
“If in this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be
pitied” (1 Corinthians 15:19). The Christian life for Paul was a life of chosen
sacrifice on earth, that he might gain the joy of fellowship with Christ in the age to come. Here is how he put it:
Whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 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.… I share
his sufferings…that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection
from the dead. (Philippians 3:7–8, 10–11)
I say it again: The call of Christ is a call to live a life of sacrifice and loss and
suffering—a life that would be foolish to live if there were no resurrection from the dead. This is a conscious choice for Paul. Listen to his protest: “If the dead are not raised.… Why am I in danger every hour? I protest, brothers, by my pride in you, which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die every day!” (1 Corinthians 15:29–31). This is what Paul has chosen. He “protests” because he does not have to live this way. He chooses it: “In danger every hour!” “Dying every day!” This is why he says he should be pitied if there is no resurrection from the dead. He chose a path that leads to trouble and pain virtually every day of his life. “I die every day.”
WHY? WHY DOES HE DO IT?
This is not normal. Human beings flee suffering. We move to safer neighborhoods. We choose milder climates. We buy air conditioners. We take aspirin. We come out of the rain. We avoid dark streets. We purify our water. We do not normally choose a way of life that would put us in “danger every hour.” Paul’s life is out of sync with ordinary human choices. Virtually no advertising slogans lure us into daily dying.
So what is driving the apostle Paul to “share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings” (2 Corinthians 1:5) and to be a “fool for Christ’s sake” (1 Corinthians 4:10)? Why would he make choices that expose him to “hunger and thirst…[being] poorly dressed…buffeted…homeless…reviled…persecuted… slandered…like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things” (1 Corinthians 4:11–13)?
“I WILL SHOW HIM HOW MUCH HE MUST SUFFER”
Perhaps it was simple obedience to Christ’s commission expressed in Acts
9:15–16. When Jesus sent Ananias to open Paul’s eyes after he was blinded on the road to Damascus, He said, “Go, for [Paul] is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” In other words, suffering was simply part of Paul’s apostolic calling. To be faithful to his calling, he had to embrace what Christ has given him: much suffering.
“Gave” is the right word. Because when writing to the Philippians, Paul,
incredibly, calls suffering a gift, just like faith is a gift: “To you it has been
granted (echaristh-e = freely given) for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in Him,
but also to suffer for His sake” (Philippians 1:29, NASB). But this would mean
that the “gift” given to him as part of his apostleship is not viewed by Paul as
limited to apostles. It is “granted” to the Philippian believers, the whole church.
Others have made the same strange discovery that suffering is a gift to be
embraced. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn spoke of his time in prison, with all its pain,
as a gift:
It was granted to me to carry away from my prison years on my bent
back, which nearly broke beneath its load, this essential experience:
how a human being becomes evil and how good. In the intoxication of
youthful successes I had felt myself to be infallible, and I was therefore
cruel. In the surfeit of power I was a murderer and an oppressor. In my
most evil moments I was convinced that I was doing good, and I was
well supplied with systematic arguments. It was only when I lay there
on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of
good. Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good
and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between
political parties either—but right through every human heart—and
through all human hearts.… That is why I turn back to the years of my
imprisonment and say, sometimes to the astonishment of those about
me: “Bless you, prison!” I…have served enough time there. I nourished
my soul there, and I say without hesitation: “Bless you, prison, for having
been in my life!”2
Solzhenitsyn agrees with the apostle Paul that suffering is—or can be—a
gift not just for apostles, but for every Christian.
TO SHOW HE WAS SIMPLY A CHRISTIAN
Which raises the question: Did Paul, then, embrace his suffering because it
would confirm that he was simply a faithful disciple of Jesus? Jesus had said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it” (Luke 9:23–24). So there is no true Christianity without cross-bearing and a daily dying—which sounds very much like Paul’s “I die every day” (1 Corinthians 15:31). Moreover, Jesus had told His disciples, “A servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:20). So something would be amiss if Paul did not share in the sufferings of Jesus. Jesus gave His disciples an ominous image of their ministry: “Behold, I am sending you out as lambs in the midst of wolves” (Luke 10:3). And so He promised them, “You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and some of you they will put to death. You will be hated by all for my name’s sake” (Luke 21:16–17; cf. Matthew 24:9).
Evidently, Paul did not consider these promises of suffering as limited to the original twelve apostles, because he passed them on to his churches. For example, he strengthened all his converts by telling them, “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). And he encouraged the suffering Thessalonian believers by exhorting them not to be “moved by these afflictions. For you yourselves know that we are destined for this” (1 Thessa-lonians 3:3). And when he wrote to Timothy, he made it a general principle: “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12).
2. Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago: 1918-1956. An Experiment in Literary Investigation, vol. 2, trans. Thomas P. Whitney (New York: HarperCollins, 1975; Boulder: Westview, 1997), 615–7.
When he spoke of his sufferings, he did not treat them as unique, but
said to the churches, “Be imitators of me” (1 Corinthians 4:16). So it would be understandable if Paul embraced a life of suffering because it would simply confirm that he was a Christian. “If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.”
WEANING CHRISTIANS OFF THE BREAST OF SELF-RELIANCE
Since he believed that suffering was part of faithful Christian living, Paul probed into why this might be so. His own experience of suffering drove him deep into the ways of God’s love for His children. For example, he learned that God uses our suffering to wean us from self-reliance and cast us on Himself alone. After suffering in Asia, Paul says:
We do not want you to be ignorant, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength
that we despaired even of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received
the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but
on God who raises the dead. (2 Corinthians 1:8–9)
This is God’s universal purpose for all Christian suffering: more contentment
in God and less satisfaction in self and the world. I have never heard anyone
say, “The really deep lessons of life have come through times of ease and
comfort.” But I have heard strong saints say, “Every significant advance I have ever made in grasping the depths of God’s love and growing deep with Him has come through suffering.”
Malcolm Muggeridge, the Christian journalist who died in 1990, spoke for
almost all serious biblical Christians who have lived long enough to wake up
from the dreamworld of painlessness when he said:
Contrary to what might be expected, I look back on experiences that
at the time seemed especially desolating and painful, with particular
satisfaction. Indeed, I can say with complete truthfulness that everything
I have learned in my seventy-five years in this world, everything
that has truly enhanced and enlightened my existence, has been
through affliction and not through happiness, whether pursued or
attained. In other words, if it ever were to be possible to eliminate
affliction from our earthly existence by means of some drug or other
medical mumbo jumbo…the result would not be to make life delectable,
but to make it too banal or trivial to be endurable. This of
course is what the cross [of Christ] signifies, and it is the cross more
than anything else, that has called me inexorably to Christ.3
Samuel Rutherford said that when he was cast into the cellars of affliction,
he remembered that the great King always kept his wine there.4 Charles
Spurgeon said that “they who dive in the sea of affliction bring up rare pearls.”5
TO MAGNIFY CHRIST AS A SUPERIOR SATISFACTION
The pearl of greatest price is the glory of Christ. Thus, Paul stresses that in our sufferings the glory of Christ’s all-sufficient grace is magnified. If we rely on Him in our calamity and He sustains our “rejoicing in hope,” then He is shown to be the all-satisfying God of grace and strength that He is. If we hold fast to Him “when all around our soul gives way,” then we show that He is more to be desired than all we have lost. Christ said to the suffering apostle, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Paul responded to this: “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9–10). So suffering clearly is designed by God not only as a way to wean Christians off of self and onto grace, but also as a way to spotlight that grace and make it shine. That is precisely
3. Malcom Muggeridge, Homemade, July 1990.
4. Letters of Samuel Rutherford.
5. Charles Spurgeon, “The Golden Key of Prayer,” in The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit (Banner of Truth) (Sermon #619), 12 March 1865.
what faith does; it magnifies Christ’s future grace.
The deep things of life in God are discovered in suffering. So it was with
Jesus Himself: “Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered” (Hebrews 5:8). The same book where we read this also tells us that Jesus never sinned (4:15). So “learning obedience” does not mean switching from disobedience to obedience. It means growing deeper and deeper with God in the experience of obedience. It means experiencing depths of yieldedness to God that would not have been otherwise demanded.
THE UNSPEAKABLE WORDS OF CHRISTIAN SUFFERING
As Paul contemplated the path of his Master, he was moved to follow. But just at this point I have been astonished by Paul’s words. When he describes the relationship between Christ’s sufferings and his own, he speaks what seems unspeakable. He says to the Colossian church, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up (antanapl-er-o) what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions (huster-emata) for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Colossians 1:24). This may be the most powerful motive for Paul’s choosing a life of suffering. These words have filled me with longing for the church of Jesus Christ. Oh, that we would embrace the necessary suffering appointed for the advancement of Christ’s kingdom in the world!
HOW CAN WE COMPLETE THE SUFFERINGS OF CHRIST?
What does Paul mean that he “fills what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ”?
Is this a belittling of the all-sufficient, atoning worth of the death of Jesus? Did not Jesus Himself say as He died, “It is finished” (John 19:30)? Is it not true that “by a single offering [Christ] has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified” (Hebrews 10:14)? And that “he entered once for all into the holy places…by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption” (Hebrews 9:12)? Paul knew and taught that the afflictions of Christ were a complete and sufficient ground for our justification. We are “justified by his blood” (Romans 5:9). Paul taught that Christ chose suffering and was “obedient to the point of death” (Philippians 2:8). That obedient suffering, as the climax of a
perfect life of righteousness (Matthew 3:15), was the all-sufficient ground of our righteousness before God. “As by [Adam’s] disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the obedience of [Christ] the many will be made righteous” (Romans 5:19). So Paul does not mean that his sufferings complete the atoning worth of Jesus’ afflictions.
There is a better interpretation. Paul’s sufferings complete Christ’s afflictions not by adding anything to their worth, but by extending them to the people they were meant to save. What is lacking in the afflictions of Christ is not that they are deficient in worth, as though they could not sufficiently cover the sins of all who believe. What is lacking is that the infinite value of Christ’s afflictions is not known and trusted in the world. These afflictions and what they mean are still hidden to most peoples. And God’s intention is that the mystery be revealed to all the nations. So the afflictions of Christ are “lacking” in the sense that they are not seen and known and loved among the nations. They must be carried by the ministers of the Word. And those ministers of the Word “complete” what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ by extending them to others.
EPAPHRODITUS IS THE KEY
There is a strong confirmation of this interpretation in the use of similar words in Philippians 2:30. There was a man named Epaphroditus in the church at Philippi. When the church there gathered support for Paul (perhaps money or supplies or books), they decided to send them to Paul in Rome by the hand of Epaphroditus. In his travels with this supply, Epaphroditus almost lost his life. He was sick to the point of death, but God spared him (Philippians 2:27).
So Paul tells the church in Philippi to honor Epaphroditus when he comes
back (v. 29), and he explains his reason with words very similar to Colossians 1:24. He says, “He nearly died for the work of Christ, risking his life to complete [antanapl-er-e, a similar word to the one in Colossians 1:24] what was lacking [ta huster-emata, same words as in Colossians 1:24] in your service to me.” In the Greek original, the phrase “complete what is lacking in your service to me” is almost identical with “complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions.”
In what sense, then, was the service of the Philippians to Paul “lacking,”
and in what sense did Epaphroditus “fill up” what was lacking in their service? A hundred years ago commentator Marvin Vincent explained it like this:
The gift to Paul was a gift of the church as a body. It was a sacrificial
offering of love. What was lacking, and what would have been grateful
to Paul and to the church alike, was the church’s presentation of this
offering in person. This was impossible, and Paul represents
Epaphroditus as supplying this lack by his affectionate and zealous
I think that is exactly what the same words mean in Colossians 1:24. Christ
has prepared a love offering for the world by suffering and dying for sinners. It is full and lacking in nothing—except one thing, a personal presentation by Christ Himself to the nations of the world. God’s answer to this lack is to call the people of Christ (people like Paul) to make a personal presentation of the afflictions of Christ to the world.
In doing this, we “fill up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions.” We finish
what they were designed for, namely, a personal presentation to the people who do not know about their infinite worth.
FILLING AFFLICTIONS WITH AFFLICTIONS
But the most amazing thing about Colossians 1:24 is how Paul fills up what is
lacking in Christ’s afflictions. He says that it is his own sufferings that fill up
Christ’s afflictions. “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions.” This means, then, that Paul exhibits the sufferings of Christ by suffering himself for those he is trying to win. In his sufferings they see Christ’s sufferings. Here is the astounding upshot: God intends for the afflictions of Christ to be presented to the world through the afflictions of His people. God really means for the body of Christ, the church, to experience some of the suffering He experienced so that when we proclaim the Cross as the
6. Marvin Vincent, Epistle to the Philippians and to Philemon, I. C. C. (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1897), 78.
way to life, people will see the marks of the Cross in us and feel the love of the Cross from us. Our calling is to make the afflictions of Christ real for people by the afflictions we experience in bringing them the message of salvation.
Since Christ is no longer on the earth, He wants His body, the church, to
reveal His suffering in its suffering. Since we are His body, our sufferings are His sufferings. Romanian pastor Josef Tson put it like this: “I am an extension of Jesus Christ. When I was beaten in Romania, He suffered in my body. It is not my suffering: I only had the honor to share His sufferings.”7 Therefore, our sufferings testify to the kind of love Christ has for the world.
“I BEAR ON MY BODY THE MARKS OF JESUS”
This is why Paul spoke of his scars as the “marks of Jesus.” In his wounds people could see Christ’s wounds: “I bear on my body the marks of Jesus” (Galatians 6:17). The point of bearing the marks of Jesus is that Jesus might be seen and His love might work powerfully in those who see.
[We are] always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life
of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are
always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus
also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us,
but life in you. (2 Corinthians 4:10–12)
“THE BLOOD OF THE MARTYRS IS SEED”
The history of the expansion of Christianity has proved that “the blood of the martyrs is seed”8—the seed of new life in Christ spreading through the world. For almost three hundred years, Christianity grew in soil that was wet with the blood of the martyrs. In his History of Christian Missions, Stephen Neil mentions the sufferings of the early Christians as one of the six main reasons the church grew so rapidly:
7. Josef Tson, “A Theology of Maryrdom,” an undated booklet of the Romanian Missionary Society, 1415
Hill Avenue, Wheaton, IL 60187, p. 4.
8. Tertullian, Apologeticus, c. 50.
Because of their dangerous situation vis-á-vis the law, Christians were
almost bound to meet in secret.… Every Christian knew that sooner or
later he might have to testify to his faith at the cost of his life.… When
persecution did break out, martyrdom could be attended by the utmost
possible publicity. The Roman public was hard and cruel, but it was not
altogether without compassion; and there is no doubt that the attitude
of the martyrs, and particularly of the young women who suffered along
with the men, made a deep impression.… In the earlier records what we
find is calm, dignified, decorous behaviour; cool courage in the face of
torment, courtesy towards enemies, and a joyful acceptance of suffering
as the way appointed by the Lord to lead to his heavenly kingdom.
There are a number of well-authenticated cases of conversion of pagans
in the very moment of witnessing the condemnation and death of
Christians; there must have been far more who received impressions
that in the course of time would be turned into a living faith.9
“HOW CAN I BLASPHEME MY KING WHO SAVED ME?”
One example of such a powerful witness through suffering was the martyrdom of Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna who died in A.D. 155. His student Irenaeus said that Polycarp had been a student of the apostle John. We know he was very old when he died because when the proconsul commanded him to recant and curse Christ, he said, “Eighty and six years have I served him and he hath done me no wrong; how then can I blaspheme my king who saved me?”10
During one season of persecution, a frenzied crowd in Smyrna cried out for
a search to be made for Polycarp. He had moved to a town just outside the city, and three days before his death he had a dream from which he concluded, “I must needs be burned alive.” So when the search was finally made, instead of fleeing, he said, “The will of God be done.” The ancient account of the martyrdom gives the following record:
9. Stephen Neil, A History of Christian Missions (Harmondworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1964), 43–4.
10. Quoted in “The Martyrdom of Polycarp,” in Documents of the Christian Church, ed. Henry Bettenson (London: Oxford University Press, 1967), 10.
So, hearing of their arrival, he came down and talked with them, while all
that were present marveled at his age and constancy, and that there was so
much ado about the arrest of such an old man. Then he ordered that
something should be served for them to eat and drink, at that late hour,
as much as they wanted. And he besought them that they should grant
him an hour that he might pray freely. They gave him leave, and he stood
and prayed, being so filled with the grace of God that for two hours he
could not hold his peace, while they that heard him were amazed, and the
men repented that they had come after so venerable an old man.11
When he was finally taken away and condemned to be burned, they tried
to nail his hands to the stake, but he pled against it and said, “Let me be as I am. He that granted me to endure the fire will grant me also to remain at the pyre unmoved without being secured with nails.”12 When his body seemed not to be consumed by the fire, an executioner drove a dagger into his body. The ancient account concludes: “All the multitude marveled at the great difference between the unbelievers and the elect.”13 In large measure, this is what explains the triumph of Christianity in the early centuries. They triumphed by their suffering. It did not just accompany their witness; it was the capstone of their witness. “They have conquered [Satan] by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death” (Revelation 12:11).
NOT TILL THE NUMBER OF MARTYRS IS COMPLETE
It is not a fluke of history that the church expands and is strengthened by suffering and martyrdom. This is the way God means it to be. One of the most powerful evidences that God intends to complete His saving purposes in the world by means of suffering is found in the book of Revelation. The setting is a vision of heaven where the souls of the martyrs cry out, “How long, O Lord?” In other words, when will history be complete and Your purposes of salvation
11. Ibid., 9–10.
12. Ibid., 11.
13. Ibid., 12.
and judgment be accomplished? The answer is ominous for all of us who want to be a part of the completion of the great commission: “They were…told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been” (Revelation 6:11).
What this means is that God has planned to complete His purposes by
appointing a certain number of martyrs. When that number is complete, then the end will come. George Otis Jr. shocked many at the second Lausanne Congress of World Evangelization in Manila in 1989 when he asked, “Is our failure to thrive in Muslim countries owing to the absence of martyrs? Can a covert church grow in strength? Does a young church need martyr models?” Fittingly, he concludes his book The Last of the Giants with a chapter titled “Risky Safety.” In it he writes:
Should the Church in politically or socially trying circumstances
remain covert to avoid potential eradication by forces hostile to
Christianity? Or would more open confrontation with prevailing spiritual
ignorance and deprivation—even if it produced Christian martyrs—
be more likely to lead to evangelistic breakthroughs? Islamic
fundamentalists claim that their spiritual revolution is fueled by the
blood of martyrs. Is it conceivable that Christianity’s failure to thrive in
the Muslim world is due to the notable absence of Christian martyrs?
And can the Muslim community take seriously the claims of a Church
in hiding?… The question is not whether it is wise at times to keep
worship and witness discreet, but rather how long this may continue
before we are guilty of “hiding our light under a bushel.… The record
shows that from Jerusalem and Damascus to Ephesus and Rome, the
apostles were beaten, stoned, conspired against and imprisoned for their witness. Invitations were rare, and never the basis for their missions.”14
14. George Otis Jr., The Last of the Giants: Lifting the Veil on Islam and the End Times (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Chosen, 1991), 261, 263.
Otis would no doubt agree with Gregory the Great (pope from 590 to
604), when he said, “The death of the martyrs blossoms in the lives of the faithful.”15
THE BLOOD FLOWED FROM OUR WOUNDS LIKE A FOUNTAIN
There are countless examples in our own day of choosing to suffer for the purpose of Colossians 1:24—to fill up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions by presenting them to others through suffering.16 In late 1995, as I was working on the second edition of this book, a missionary letter describing such suffering came to my attention. I quickly e-mailed the missionary in Africa to confirm the facts. He spoke personally with Dansa, the man in question, and got his permission for me to quote this story in Dansa’s words from the letter:
Around 1980 there was a time of severe persecution from the local officials
of the communist government in my area of Wolayta. At the time, I
was working in a government office, but I was also serving as the leader of
the Christian youth association for all the churches in my area. The communist officials repeatedly came to me to ask for my help in teaching the doctrines of the revolution among the youth. Many other Christians were giving in because the pressure was very great, but I could only say no.
At first, their approach was positive: they offered me promotions
and pay increases. But then the imprisonments began. The first two
were fairly short. The third time lasted an entire year. During this time
communist cadres would regularly come to brainwash the nine of us
believers (six men and three women—one of whom would later
become my wife) who were being held together. But when one of the
cadres converted to Christ, we were beaten and forced to haul water
15. Quoted in Tson, “A Theology of Martyrdom,” 1.
16. See the examples in John Piper, Let the Nations Be Glad: The Supremacy of God in Missions, 2nd ed., revised and expanded (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2003), chapter 3. See almost any of the books by Richard Wurmbrand; for example, Tortured for Christ or If that Were Christ, Would You Give Him Your Blanket? or Victorious Faith. Other sources include Called to Suffer, Called to Triumph by Herbert Schlossberg and God Reigns in China by Leslie Lyall.
from long distances and carry heavy stones to clear farm land.
The worst time came during a two-week period in which the
prison official would wake us early while it was still dark when no one
would see and force us to walk on our bare knees over a distance up to
1 1/2 kilometers on the gravel road of the town. It would take us about
three hours. After the first day, the blood flowed from our wounds like
a fountain, but we felt nothing.
On another occasion one particularly brutal prison official forced
us to lie on our backs under the blazing sun for six straight hours. I
don’t know why I said it, but when we finished I told him, “You caused
the sun’s rays to strike us, but God will strike you.” A short time later,
the official contracted severe diabetes and died.
When the communist government fell several years later, the head
official invited us to preach in the jail. At that time, twelve prisoners
being held for murder received Christ. We have continued to minister
in the prison, and there are now 170 believers. Most of the prison officials
have also believed.
Only God can sort out all the influences that led to this remarkable time of
harvest among the prison inmates and officials. But surely it would be naïve to think that the suffering of Dansa was not part of the compelling presentation of the reality of Christ in the lives of those who believed.
“THANK YOU, NATASHA, WHEREVER YOU ARE”
One of the most moving and incredible accounts of suffering filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions is found in Sergei Kourdakov’s autobiography, The Persecutor. Kourdakov was commissioned by the Russian secret police to raid prayer gatherings and persecute believers with extraordinary brutality. But the afflictions of one believer changed his life:
I saw Victor Matveyev reach and grab for a young girl [Natasha Zhdanova] who was trying to escape to another room. She was a
beautiful young girl. What a waste to be a Believer. Victor caught her,
picked her above his head, and held her high in the air for a second.
She was pleading, “Don’t, please don’t. Dear God, help us!” Victor
threw her so hard she hit the wall at the same height she was thrown,
then dropped to the floor, semiconscious, moaning. Victor turned
and laughed and exclaimed, “I’ll bet the idea of God went flying out
of her head.”
On a later raid, Sergei was shocked to see Natasha again.
I quickly surveyed the room and saw a sight I couldn’t believe! There
she was, the same girl! It couldn’t be. But it was. Only three nights
before, she had been at the other meeting and had been viciously
thrown across the room. It was the first time I really got a good look at
her. She was more beautiful than I had first remembered—a very beautiful
girl with long, flowing, blond hair, large blue eyes, and smooth
skin, one of the most naturally beautiful girls I have ever seen.…
I picked her up and flung her on a table facedown. Two of us
stripped her clothes off. One of my men held her down and I began to
beat her again and again. My hands began to sting under the blows.
Her skin started to blister. I continued to beat her, until pieces of
bloody flesh came off on my hand. She moaned but fought desperately
not to cry. To suppress her cries, she bit her lower lip until it was bitten
through and blood ran down her chin.
At last she gave in and began sobbing. When I was so exhausted I
couldn’t raise my arm for even one more blow, and her backside was a
mass of raw flesh, I pushed her off the table, and she collapsed on the
To Sergei’s shock, he later encountered her at yet another prayer meeting.
But this time something was different:
There she was again—Natasha Zhdanova!
Several of the guys saw her too. Alex Gulyaev moved toward Natasha, hatred filling his face, his club raised above his head.
Then something I never expected to see suddenly happened. Without warning, Victor jumped between Natasha and Alex, facing Alex head-on.
“Get out of my way,” Alex shouted angrily.
Victor’s feet didn’t move. He raised his club and said menacingly, “Alex, I’m telling you, don’t touch her! No one touches her!”
I listened in amazement. Incredibly, one of my most brutal men was protecting one of the Believers! “Get back!” he shouted to Alex. “Get back or I’ll let you have it.” He shielded Natasha, who was cowering on the floor.
Angered, Alex shouted, “You want her for yourself, don’t you?”
“No,” Victor shouted back. “She has something we don’t have!
Nobody touches her! Nobody!”
…For one of the first times in my life, I was deeply moved…
Natasha did have something! She had been beaten horribly. She had
been warned and threatened. She had gone through unbelievable suffering,
but here she was again. Even Victor had been moved and recognized
it. She had something we didn’t have. I wanted to run after her
and ask, “What is it?” I wanted to talk to her, but she was gone. This
heroic Christian girl who had suffered so much at our hands somehow
touched and troubled me very much.
The Lord later opened Sergei’s heart to the glorious good news of Jesus
Christ. As he later reflected on Natasha, whom he never saw again, he
And, finally, to Natasha, whom I beat terribly and who was willing to
be beaten a third time for her faith, I want to say, Natasha, largely
because of you, my life is now changed and I am a fellow Believer in
Christ with you. I have a new life before me. God has forgiven me; I
hope you can also.
Thank you, Natasha, wherever you are.
I will never, never forget you.17
DEMOTED FOR CHRIST AND FOR SALVATION
Josef Tson has thought deeply about the issue of suffering for Christ as a way to show Christ to the world. He was the pastor of the Second Baptist Church of Oradea, Romania, until 1981, when he was exiled by the government. In his book, Suffering, Martyrdom and Rewards in Heaven, he writes in the conclusion: “Suffering and martyrdom have to be seen as part of God’s plan; they are His instruments by which He achieves His purposes in history and by which He will accomplish His final purpose with man.” I have heard Tson interpret Colossians 1:24 by saying that Christ’s suffering is for propitiation; our suffering is for propagation. He points out that not only Colossians 1:24, but also 2 Timothy 2:10, makes suffering the means of evangelism: “I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus.” According to Tson, Paul is saying:
If I had remained a pastor in Antioch, in that affluent and peaceful city,
in that wonderful church with so many prophets and such great blessings,
nobody in Asia Minor or Europe would have been saved. In order
for them to be saved, I have had to accept being beaten with rods,
scourged, stoned, treated as the scum of the earth, becoming a walking
death. But when I walk like this, wounded and bleeding, people see the
love of God, people hear the message of the cross, and they are saved. If
we stay in the safety of our affluent churches and we do not accept the
cross, others may not be saved. How many are not saved because we
don’t accept the cross?18
17. Sergei Kourdakov, The Persecutor (Carmel, N.Y.: Fleming H. Revell, 1973), 192, 194, 195, 199, 200, 251.
18. Tson, “A Theology of Martyrdom,” 2.
He illustrates how the very suffering of Christians is what often provides the
means of fruitful evangelism:
I had a man in an important position whom I baptized come to me
and ask, “Now what shall I do? They will convene three or four thousand
people to expose me and mock me. They will give me five minutes
to defend myself. How should I do it?”
“Brother,” I told him, “defending yourself is the only thing you
shouldn’t do. This is your unique chance to tell them who you were
before, and what Jesus made of you; who Jesus is, and what he is for
His face shone and he said, “Brother Josef, I know what I am going
to do.” And he did it well—so well that afterwards he was severely
demoted. He lost almost half of his salary. But he kept coming to me
after that saying, “Brother Joseph, you know I cannot walk in that factory
now without someone coming up to me. Wherever I go, somebody
pulls me in a corner, looks around to see that nobody sees him
talking to me, and then whispers, ‘Give me the address of your church,’
or ‘Tell me more about Jesus,’ or ‘Do you have a Bible for me?’”
Every kind of suffering can become a ministry for other people’s
CHOOSING TO SUFFER FOR THE SAKE OF NATIONS
I conclude, then, that when Paul said, “If in this life only we have hoped in
Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied,” he meant that Christianity means choosing and embracing a life of suffering for Christ that would be pitiable if Christ proved false. Christianity is not a life that one would embrace as abundant and satisfying without the hope of fellowship with Christ in the resurrection. And what we have seen is that this embracing of suffering is not just an accompaniment of our witness to Christ; it is the visible expression of it. Our
19. Ibid., 3.
sufferings make Christ’s sufferings known so that people can see the kind of love Christ offers. We complete Christ’s afflictions by providing what they do not have, namely, a personal, vivid presentation to those who do not see Christ suffer in person.
The startling implication of this is that the saving purposes of Christ among
the nations and in our neighborhoods will not be accomplished unless
Christians choose to suffer. At the extreme end of this suffering, the number of martyrs is not yet complete (Revelation 6:11). Without them, the final frontiers of world evangelization will not be crossed. Less extreme is the simple costliness in time and convenience and money and effort to replace excessive and addictive leisure with acts of servant love: “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).
BUT IS THIS CHRISTIAN HEDONISM?
I have titled this chapter “Suffering: The Sacrifice of Christian Hedonism,” even though on page 243 I quoted David Livingstone as saying that the sufferings of his missionary service were not a “sacrifice.” This is not a contradiction to or disagreement with Livingstone. Words are like that. Context is almost everything. When he says suffering is not a sacrifice, he means the blessings outweigh the losses. When I say that suffering is a sacrifice, I mean that there are losses— great losses. When you realize that I agree with Livingstone, it simply implies that I see the blessings as massive.
But I am going to retain the use of the word sacrifice. The pain is too great,
the losses too real, to pretend that we can talk only in terms of no sacrifice. We must simply keep our definitions clear.
My answer is: Yes, this is Christian Hedonism. The entire New Testament
treats suffering in a Christian Hedonist context.
Was Paul pursuing deep and lasting joy when he chose suffering—so much
suffering that his life would have been utterly foolish and pitiable if there were no resurrection from the dead? The question virtually answers itself. If it is the resurrection alone that makes Paul’s painful life choices not pitiable, but
praise-worthy (and possible!), then it is precisely his hope and quest for that resurrection that sustains and empowers his suffering. This is in fact exactly what he says: He counts all ordinary human privileges as loss “that I may know [Christ] and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:10–11). His aim is to so live—and suffer—that he is assured of resurrection from the dead.
GIVING ALL TO GAIN CHRIST
Why? Because resurrection meant full, bodily, eternal fellowship with Christ. That was the center of Paul’s hope: “I count [all things] as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ” (Philippians 3:8). Gaining Christ was Paul’s great passion and goal in all he did: “To live is Christ and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). Gain! Gain! This is the goal of his life and suffering. Paul desired “to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better” (Philippians 1:23). “Far better” is not an altruistic motive. It is a Christian Hedonist motive. Paul wanted what would bring the deepest and most lasting satisfaction to his life, namely, being with Christ in glory.
But not alone with Christ in glory!
No one who knows and loves Christ can be content to come to Him alone.
The apex of His glory if this: “You were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9). If this is the summit of Christ’s glorious mercy, then those who count it their infinite gain cannot live for private pleasures. The pleasures at Christ’s right hand are public pleasures, shared pleasures, communal pleasures. When Paul said that he counted everything as loss in order to gain Christ, his losses were all for the sake of bringing others with him to Christ: “If I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all (Philippians 2:17). The pouring out of his life in sufferings was, to be sure, “that he might gain Christ,” but it was also that he might gain the faith of the nations that magnifies the mercy of Christ.
MY JOY, MY CROWN OF EXULTATION!
This is why Paul describes the people he had won to faith as his joy: “My brothers, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm thus in the Lord, my beloved” (Philippians 4:1). “What is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? For you are our glory and joy” (1 Thessalonians 2:19–20). The church was his joy because, in their joy in Christ, his joy in Christ was greater. More of Christ’s mercy was magnified in multiplied converts to the Cross. So when Paul chose suffering in the cause of world evangelization and said that his aim was to “gain Christ,” he meant that his own personal enjoyment of fellowship with Christ would be eternally greater because of the great assembly of the redeemed enjoying Christ with him.
Even though I am not as far along as Paul was in his passionate love for the
church, I thank God that there have been key points in my life when God has rescued me from the pit of cynicism. I recall the days when I was finishing college and starting seminary. The mood in the late sixties was inhospitable to the local church. I can remember walking the streets of Pasadena on Sunday mornings in the fall of 1968, wondering if there was any future for the church—like a fish doubting the worth of water or a bird wondering about the reason for wind and air. It was a precious work of grace that God rescued me from that folly and gave me a home with the people of God at Lake Avenue Church for three years and let me see in the heart of Ray Ortlund, my pastor, a man who exuded the spirit of Paul when he looked out on his flock and said, “My joy, my crown of exultation.”
Ten years later there was another moment of crisis as I stood at my writing
table late at night in October of 1979. The issue was: Would I remain a professor at Bethel College teaching biblical studies, or would I resign and look for a pastorate? One of the things God was doing in those days was giving me a deeper love for the church—the gathered, growing, ministering body of people that meet week in and week out and move into the likeness of Christ. Teaching had its joys. It is a great calling. But that night another passion triumphed, and over the next months, God led me to Bethlehem Baptist Church.
As I write these words, it has been more than twenty-two years. If I allow
myself, the tears come fairly easily when I think about what these people mean to me. They know, I hope, that my great passion is to “gain Christ.” And unless I am mistaken, they also know that I live for the “furtherance and joy” of their faith (Philippians 1:25, KJV). It is the aim of my writing and preaching to show that these two aims are one. I gain more of Christ in one converted sinner and growing saint than in a hundred ordinary chores. To say that Christ is my joy and Bethlehem is my joy is not double-talk.
IF JOY IN SUFFERING IS ADMIRABLE, PURSUE IT
It should not surprise us, even though it is utterly unnatural, that Paul should say in Colossians 1:24, “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions.” In other words, when I fill up Christ’s afflictions by making a personal presentation of them to you in my own afflictions and pain, I rejoice. I rejoice.
Christian Hedonism simply says that this is a good and admirable thing
that Paul is doing and that we should go and do likewise. To treat this magnificent spiritual event of joy in suffering as something small or incidental or not to be pursued is close to blasphemy. I say this carefully. When the Holy Spirit Himself does such a great thing, and thus magnifies the all-sufficiency of Christ in suffering, it is close to blasphemy to say, “It is permissible to experience suffering for others, but not to pursue the joy.” The Christ-exalting miracle is not just the suffering, but the joy in the suffering. And we are meant to pursue it. In 1 Thessalonians 1:6–7 Paul says, “You…received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia.” Notice two crucial things: First, joy in tribulation is the work of the Holy Spirit; second, it is an example for others to follow. Beware of those who belittle the miracles of the Spirit of God by saying that they are good gifts, but not good goals.
REJOICE IN PERSECUTION—YOUR REWARD IS GREAT!
Christian Hedonism says that there are different ways to rejoice in suffering as a Christian. All of them are to be pursued as an expression of the all-sufficient,
all-satisfying grace of God. One way is expressed by Jesus in Mathew 5:11–12: “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven” (cf. Luke 6:22–23). One way of rejoicing in suffering comes from fixing our minds firmly on the greatness of the reward that will come to us in the resurrection. The effect of this kind of focus is to make our present pain seem small in comparison to what is coming: “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18; cf. 2 Corinthians 4:16–18). In making the suffering tolerable, rejoicing over our reward will also make love possible, as we saw in chapter 4. “Love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great” (Luke 6:35). Be generous with the poor “and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. You will be repaid at the resurrection of the just” (Luke 14:14)
REJOICE IN AFFLICTION—IT DEEPENS ASSURANCE!
Another way of rejoicing in suffering comes from the effects of suffering on our assurance of hope. Joy in affliction is rooted in the hope of resurrection, but our experience of suffering also deepens the root of that hope. For example, Paul says, “We exult in our afflictions, knowing that affliction produces endurance, and endurance produces proven genuineness, and genuineness produces hope” (Romans 5:3–4, author’s translation). Here, Paul’s joy is not merely rooted in his great reward, but in the effect of suffering to solidify his hope in that reward. Afflictions produce endurance, and endurance produces a sense that our faith is real and genuine, and that strengthens our hope that we will indeed gain Christ.
Richard Wurmbrand describes how one may survive the moments of excruciating pain of torture for Christ:
You have been so much tortured, nothing counts any more. If nothing
counts any more, my survival doesn’t count either. If nothing counts
any more, the fact that I should not have pain also does not count.
Draw this last conclusion at the stage at which you have arrived and
you will see that you will overcome this moment of crisis. If you have
overcome this one moment of crisis, it gives you an intense inner joy.
You feel that Christ has been with you in that decisive moment.20
The “intense joy” comes from the sense that you have endured with the
help of Christ. You have been proven in the fire and have come through as
genuine. You did not recant. Christ is real in your life. He is for you the all satisfying God He claims to be. This is what the apostles seemed to experience when, according to Acts 5:41, after being beaten, “they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name.” The joy came from the thought that their faith was regarded by God as real and ready to be proved in the fire of affliction.
REJOICE IN SUFFERING WITH CHRIST—IT LEADS TO GLORY!
Another way of rejoicing in suffering is kindled by the truth that our joy itself is a proven pathway to glory. Joy in suffering comes not only (1) from focusing on our reward and (2) from the solidifying effect of suffering on our sense of genuineness, but also (3) from the promise that joy in suffering will secure eternal joy in the future. The apostle Peter expresses it like this: “Rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed” (1 Peter 4:13). Joy now in suffering is the appointed pathway to the final rejoicing at the revelation of Christ. Peter is calling us to pursue joy now in suffering (he commands it!) so that we will be found among those who rejoice exceedingly at the coming of Christ.
REJOICE IN SUFFERING FOR OTHERS—THEY SEE CHRIST!
The fourth way of rejoicing in suffering we have seen already. It comes from
realizing that through our suffering others are seeing the worth of Christ and
standing firm because of our faith in the fire. Paul says to the Thessalonians,
20. Richard Wurmbrand, “Preparing for the Underground Church,” Epiphany Journal 5, no. 4 (Summer 1985): 50.
“Now we live, if you are standing fast in the Lord. For what thanksgiving can we return to God for you, for all the joy that we feel for your sake before our God?” (1 Thessalonians 3:8–9). This is the joy of Colossians 1:24, “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake.” When we suffer to show others the love of Christ and the worth of Christ, it is because every new convert that stands firm in faith is a new, unique prism for refracting the all-satisfying glory of Christ. The joy we feel in them is not a different joy than we feel in Christ. The glory of Christ is our “great gain.” For this we will suffer the loss of anything and everything. And everyone who sees in our suffering the superior worth of Christ, and believes, is another image and evidence of the great worth—and therefore another reason to rejoice.
THE HAPPIEST PEOPLE IN THE WORLD
The Calvary road with Jesus is not a joyless road. It is a painful one, but it is a profoundly happy one. When we choose the fleeting pleasures of comfort and security over the sacrifices and sufferings of missions and evangelism and ministry and love, we choose against joy. We reject the spring whose waters never fail (Isaiah 58:11). The happiest people in the world are the people who experience the mystery of “Christ in them, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27), satisfying their deep longings and freeing them to extend the afflictions of Christ through their own sufferings to the world.
God is calling us to live for the sake of Christ and to do that through suffering. Christ chose suffering; it didn’t just happen to Him. He chose it as the way to create and perfect the church. Now He calls us to choose suffering. That is, He calls us to take up our cross and follow Him on the Calvary road and deny ourselves and make sacrifices for the sake of ministering to the church and presenting His sufferings to the world.
Brother Andrew, who heads a ministry called Open Doors and who is most
famous for his 1967 book, God’s Smuggler, describes Christ’s call in the mid-
1990s like this:
There’s not one door in the world closed where you want to witness for
Jesus.… Show me a closed door and I will tell you how you can get in.
I won’t however, promise you a way to get out.…
Jesus didn’t say, “Go if the doors are open,” because they weren’t.
He didn’t say, “Go if you have an invitation or a red carpet treatment.”
He said, “Go,” because people need his Word.…
We need a new approach to missions—an aggressive, experimental,
evangelical, no-holds-barred approach…a pioneering spirit…
I’m afraid we’ll have to go through a deep valley of need and
threatening situations, blood baths; but we’ll get there.
God will take away what hinders us if we mean business. If we say,
“Lord, at any cost…”—and people should never pray that unless they
truly want God to take them at their word—he will answer. Which is
scary. But we have to go through the process. This is how it has worked
in the Bible for the last two thousand years.
So we face potentially hard times, and we have to go through
that.… We play church and we play Christianity. And we aren’t even
aware we are lukewarm.… We should have to pay a price for our faith.
Read 2 Timothy 3:12: “Indeed, all who want to live a godly life in Christ
Jesus will be persecuted.” The church has been much purified in countries
where there was a lot of pressure.… All I can say is to be ready.21
NOT TO PROVE OUR POWER, BUT HIS PRECIOUSNESS
The answer to this call is a radical step of Christian Hedonism. We do not
choose suffering simply because we are told to, but because the One who tells us to describes it as the path to everlasting joy. He beckons us into the obedience of suffering not to demonstrate the strength of our devotion to duty or to reveal the vigor of our moral resolve or to prove the heights of our tolerance for pain, but rather to manifest, in childlike faith, the infinite preciousness of His all satisfying promises. Moses “[chose] rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin…for he was looking to the
21. Brother Andrew, “God’s Smuggler Confesses,” an interview with Michael Maudlin, in Christianity Today
(11 December 1995): 46.
reward” (Hebrews 11:25–26). Therefore, his obedience glorified the God of
grace, not the resolve to suffer.
THE ESSENCE OF CHRISTIAN HEDONISM
This is the essence of Christian Hedonism. In the pursuit of joy through suffering, we magnify the all-satisfying worth of the Source of our joy. God Himself shines as the brightness at the end of our tunnel of pain. If we do not communicate that He is the goal and the ground of our joy in suffering, then the very meaning of our suffering will be lost. The meaning is this: God is gain. God is gain. God is gain.
The chief end of man is to glorify God. And it is truer in suffering than
anywhere else that God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him. My prayer, therefore, is that the Holy Spirit would pour out on His people around the world a passion for the supremacy of God in all things. And I pray that He would make it plain that the pursuit of joy in God, whatever the pain, is a powerful testimony to God’s supreme and all-satisfying worth. And so may it come to pass as we “fill up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions” that all the peoples of the world will see the love of Christ and magnify His grace in the gladness of faith.