December 28, 2008

Suffering is a Gift

A couple years ago I read a book by Greg Harris called The Cup and the Glory: Lessons on Suffering and the Glory of God. (Kress Christian Publications, 2006) It explained how suffering is a gift from God. That was a new idea for me. While I believe that He is sovereign and controls whatever happens to us, and that He uses all things for good in my life, I’d never thought of Him handing suffering to me gift-wrapped.

The main verse for this is Philippians 1:29. It says, “For to you it has been granted on behalf of Christ, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake.”

In this verse, the word “granted” is from the noun for “grace” which means a gift from God. It also can be thought of as a revelation of Jesus Christ that changes us into His image. That is, when I see more of His love, I become more loving; when I see more of His compassion, I become more compassionate. Also, whatever quality God wants developed in me, such growth requires being put into situations where love and compassion, etc. must be demonstrated. This is how Christ changes me by grace. He shows me more of what He is like, and gives me many opportunities to act like He acts.

It only follows that if I am going to grow to be more like my Savior, I will also need to see how He responded to suffering. That means that He must also put me in stressful situations that give me opportunities to be like Him in what I have seen.

The book talked about the sufferings of this present time in comparison to the glory that will be mine in heaven. Frankly, that is too much ‘pie in the sky’ for me. I know great glory is coming when I step into eternity, but I cannot guess or imagine what that will be like. While this truth has some motivation, and the taste of enjoyed fellowship with the Lord also motivates me, my pragmatic nature still wants to know the present value of suffering. If God is giving me a gift, what could help me open it more willingly, even open it with thanksgiving?

2 Timothy 2:12 says, “If we endure, we shall also reign with Him.” This is about persevering here and now, then later ruling with Him in His eternal kingdom. My experience says that this reward of reigning with Him is partly fulfilled before eternity, even in this life.

When I suffer anything with Christlike attitudes and actions, I’ve conquered something. I’ve become a ruler over negative emotions, or complaining, or any number of other previous and human responses to suffering. If I’ve stopped feeling sorry for myself, I’ve grown to be more like Jesus. That alone is a victory.

In other words, if suffering produces in me the Spirit of Christ, then I am putting my foot on the neck of my biggest enemy — my own sinful selfishness. If I am free from the usual responses, free from the fretting and complaining, free even from the pain of it, I am also thinking more about God and others and less about me. The pressures have not disappeared, but my usual responses have, and that means I am a winner.

As I write these thoughts, I can see how suffering is a gift. Whatever gives freedom from sin and turns my heart toward the One who gives me that freedom cannot be called anything else.

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