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Thursday, August 06, 2015

Understanding Suffering Through the Life of St. Paul

After having taught the book of Acts, I have learned a lot about the Apostle Paul. One very important aspect of his life was suffering. St. Paul suffered a lot. 
1 Corinthians 11 gives the list of Paul's experiences as an Apostle: 
23 Are they servants of Christ? (I am out of my mind to talk like this.) I am more. I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. 24 Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, 26 I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city,in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. 27 I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. 28 Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. 29 Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?30 If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.  (NIV)

And in 2 Corinthians 6:4-5 he writes:
 "Rather, as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses; in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger;" (NIV)

As I studied Acts, I realized that Paul had a different perspective on suffering than most of us. Let's first be clear, Paul suffered for the cause of the Gospel. Most of us when we suffer, is because of an external circumstance that we face or some other struggle unrelated to the Gospel. However, suffering is suffering and we can't diminish the fact that we all experience it.

How did Paul face suffering? In studying Acts, I noticed that Paul trusted the sovereignty of God in his life. He knew clearly what God had called him to do. Paul understood that God was sovereign and His will would be fulfilled in his life in spite of suffering or any other circumstance. God protected Paul on many occassions, especially from death but he still experienced many sufferings (eventually he suffered death under Emperor Nero). Paul trusted God's sovereign will. It is interesting as well, that Paul did not question God during his sufferings. He did ask God to remove a certain "thorn" he had but God denied his request. God's grace was sufficient. Yet, I didn't find any instance where Paul questioned God's goodness, his plan or his sovereignty. 

In my life I have had my share of suffering, and yet in many of those occassions I found myself questioning God. I often asked why He allowed it to happen. Yet, we all need to trust God's sovereignty. Nothing that happens in our lives will be outside of God's sovereign will. God will fulfill His will in our lives in spite of suffering.

Paul also never avoided suffering, he welcomed suffering. This was perhaps the most "shocking" for me. Scripture is clear that trials will come to our lives (James 1) and many come in the form of suffering. Many of us don't like them, but they are part of our growth (there are many specific "lessons" we learn from them) as Christians. Paul stated in Philippians 3:10 that he wanted to partake of the sufferings of Christ even "becoming like him in his death." Why? It is because in the midst of suffering he had fellowship with Christ.

Nothing we suffer is beyond what our Lord suffered. Paul knew that. In that suffering, Christ grace is evident and we share a closeness that can only be experienced through it. Most of us want to avoid suffering, but we ought to expect it (in Acts 14:22 Paul said that we would experience many hardships to enter the kingdom of God). We need to understand that in our suffering God's grace will abound and we share in Christ's suffering. The suffering we experience now does not compare to the glory that awaits us.

Paul understood that "his" life in the body was not to he protected from suffering but to given to God for his service. He wasn't concerned about saving his life. His concern was finishing the task God gave him (to preach the Gospel to both Jews and Gentiles). In Acts 20:24 he said, "However, I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace." This verse has always challenged me. I have not gotten to the point where my life doesn't matter because I am more interested in fulfilling God's calling for my life.

This is exactly what our Lord said a disciple of His does (see Matthew 16:25; Mark 8:35). A follower of Christ loses his life for Him. As His disciples, our concern should not be how to save our lives, protecting it from suffering or any other threat. Our concern should be to give our life for what He has called us. We are all called to serve Him and nothing that we do should take priority over His calling for our lives.

If you are experiencing suffering, you are not alone. Christ is with you. He is your comforter. He will sustain you. You are sharing in his suffering and united in fellowship with Him. Your future is secure. Your destiny is secured. There is a life that awaits you that surpasses all the suffering you experience in this planet. It's a promise for you. Read Romans 8:18-23.

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