Blog Post

Rejoicing in Suffering

Many years ago, as part of our church’s search to find a new assistant pastor, my wife and I took the leading candidate and his wife to dinner so that we could all get to know one another better. At some point during our conversation, we began discussing the hobbies that we each enjoyed. In describing my love for intense forms of exercise (I can’t do anything moderately!), I told them rather matter-of-factly, “I love pain.” And I didn’t think anything about it at the time. I was just sharing something that was rather unique about myself.

Several years after this dinner conversation, the candidate—who had since become our assistant pastor—told me how intimidated he had felt when I had mentioned my love for pain that night. After all, only a crazy person would say something like this. No one, in their right mind, actually loves pain, do they?
While it certainly wasn’t my intention to intimidate anyone, it is nevertheless true that it can be quite overwhelming for most people to hear someone describing themselves as I did on that occasion. I may not have seen that in connection to my own comments, but I have seen it in the words that the apostle Paul writes about himself in Colossians 1:24: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings.” Surely we all find this statement to be a little overwhelming. Some of us may even be intimidated by it. How can Paul say this? How can suffering be something that anyone rejoices in, ever?

In answering this question, I need to point out that Paul isn’t saying that his sufferings are worth rejoicing in all by themselves. I mention this for at least three main reasons. First, Paul’s use of the word “now” in Colossians 1:24 suggests that he is rejoicing in the present time (the time of his writing) for those sufferings that he had previously experienced in the past. He seems to be looking at his sufferings after the fact and seeing how God had used those afflictions for good in his life and rejoicing in that rather than in the sufferings themselves. Second, and this confirms the first reason, the context of Colossians 1:24 and of Romans 5:3-5—which are the only two times that Paul explicitly speaks of rejoicing in suffering—both explain why it is that Paul is rejoicing in his suffering and why we should be too. Third, when I say that I love pain, I don’t mean that I love the pain itself. I love what it accomplishes in me when I push myself and refuse to give in to it. I know that I become stronger, faster, better than I was before. The pain is a means to an end. I want the end, and so I embrace the means to get there. And the same thing would appear to be true of the apostle Paul.

When Paul looks back at his sufferings, he sees that they have been used of the Lord for good both in his own life and in the lives of others. That is why he can rejoice in his own sufferings (Col. 1:24), and it is why he says that we can rejoice in ours too (Rom. 5:3-5). In what remains of this article, I will focus on those things that affliction is doing in our own lives to make it worth rejoicing in, and, in the next article, I will focus on the things that it does in the lives of others.

In regard to our own lives, Paul says that suffering is something that God uses for our good, to make us more like Christ. We see this in Romans 8:28-29, for example. Here, the Lord promises to work all things—even difficult things—“together for good” in verse 28 and then defines what He means by “good” in verse 29. The conjunction “for” (which could also be translated “because”) at the beginning of verse 29 confirms that this is what He is doing. Why are all things being worked together for our good? “Because” God has predestined us “to be conformed to the image of his Son.” Everything that happens to us, therefore, is being used by God to that end, namely, to make us more and more like Christ. That is surely one reason why Paul can rejoice in his sufferings.

We see a hint of this, and even more, in Romans 5:3-5 when Paul says that “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” Suffering is not only being used for our good here, but it is also said to be the means by which God ensures that we will be with Him in heaven when we die. It produces endurance and, ultimately, hope—the kind of hope that will necessarily come to pass (i.e., it “does not put us to shame”).

Interestingly, the same word which is translated “produces” in Romans 5:3 also occurs in another passage that deals with God’s use of affliction to ensure that His people will be with Him in heaven. In 2 Corinthians 4:17, Paul says, “For this light momentary affliction is preparing [or producing] for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.” Not only is our suffering “light and momentary” when compared with the “eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison,” but it is being used of God to accomplish or to ensure that eternal weight of glory as well.

The 17th century Scottish minister Samuel Rutherford put it this way: “Grace withers without adversity.” Just as our muscles grow and are strengthened by resistance and pain and they wither without these things, so the same can be said of saving grace. It grows stronger in difficulty and atrophies in the absence of it. Grace, as Rutherford also said, really does grow best in winter weather. It is not like most of the agricultural produce in our world that grows best when the sun is shining and the temperatures are mild. Saving grace grows best in the coldest and harshest of seasons. And that too is why Paul can rejoice in his sufferings.

But Paul isn’t saying that Christians must always suffer in order for us to grow in grace and become more and more like Christ. Surely God knows the proper quantities and proportions and the right balance between winter and summer that is required to bring the necessary growth in our lives. Human muscles may require resistance and pain in order to be strengthened; but they also require rest as well. God is altogether wise and good. He is as drastic as necessary but as gentle as possible. He is not like earthly parents who discipline their children as it may seem best to them. He disciplines us for our good (see Heb. 12:10). Surely that is yet another reason why Paul can rejoice in his sufferings. He knows that they are temporary. They remain in our experience only as long as is absolutely necessary to accomplish the ends God has in mind, namely, to make us more like Christ and to ensure that we will be in heaven with Him. And because these are the ends that every Christian wants, we can all embrace the means to get there as well.