The New Testament calls believers to counter-intuitive and unnatural activities. Love your enemies. Walk by faith not sight. Lay down your life. But perhaps one of the hardest is this: rejoice in suffering (Rom 5:3).
The world can appreciate heroism, random acts of kindness, and self-denial. But rejoicing in suffering sounds almost perverse, even to many believers.
But rejoicing in suffering doesn’t mean enjoying suffering. It’s purposefully bearing down under pain with joyful submission to God, understanding his purpose, and believing he will accomplish it through this perfect means.
The believers “rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name” obviously knew something extraordinary (Acts 5:41). They all had the same unnatural response to getting beaten, falsely accused, and threatened. Rejoicing made sense to them as the proper, logical response to the suffering they had endured. Why?
Because knowing what they knew from having watched Jesus suffer, they felt positively compelled to rejoice! Rejoicing in suffering is the direct result of good theology. So what did they know?
The apostles didn’t always have good theology. More than once, Peter opposed Jesus for embracing suffering, and Jesus rebuked that bad theology as satanic, explaining that the one who calls himself a son of God must suffer (Mark 8:31-33; John 18:10-11).
The devil came to Jesus with his bad theology: If you are the Son of God, why should you suffer? Doesn’t God promise his Son good things? Power? Life? Blessing?
But Jesus knew his Bible. He knew about Joseph in jail before God raised him to power in Egypt. He knew of David in the wilderness for years before God made him king. And Jesus knew the words of Psalm 22, which promised that after the cross “kingship belongs to the Lord, and he rules over the nations” (Ps 22:28).
Jesus understood, from the Scriptures, that suffering was the path of training and of God’s careful preparation for those whom he will raise up to be his children—stewards and heirs of his kingdom who work on his behalf according to his image. When we suffer we are taught to view it as affirmation that God considers us his sons, which is cause for rejoicing (Heb 12:3-11).
But what exactly is all this suffering preparing us for?
Jesus took on the imperfection of flesh, the likeness of sinful man, and the uncleanness of death—and then God “perfected” him by making him imperishable. Death is our shame, and Christ took that shame upon himself, for us. Then he earned glory. He became deathless. Pure. Beautiful. Eternal. Imperishable (Heb 2:9-10).
And the good news is that by sharing in the suffering of Christ, we too will share in his glory (Rom 6:4-5; Phil 3:7-11). How do we do this? Simply by imitating his example as we suffer. Jesus suffered “for the joy that was set before him” (Heb 12:2). His example prompts us to look ahead to glory as we suffer, and we show our faith in him by suffering in the same faith-filled manner he did (1 Pet 2:21-23; Rom 8:16-17).
The “full effect” of being faithful in suffering begins now, even as we endure many trials (Jas 1:2-4). By degrees, we are transformed more and more into the glory and image of God’s perfect Son—and this causes us not to lose heart, even in the hardest of times (2 Cor 3:18-4:1; Rom 8:29-39). God will succeed.
If faith connects us to the suffering of Christ, then it’s no wonder the New Testament places a high premium on it. Faith is truly the difference between life and death, and God will stop at nothing to protect and perfect yours.
How does God accomplish such faith through suffering? Suffering exposes the perishable qualities of this world and gradually lifts our focus off fading, broken, rotting things and forces us to wonder about the next life. It prepares us for the “weight” of glory that is coming, unseen and unfading (2 Cor 4:16-18).
Suffering isn’t always political; you don’t have to be thrown in jail or beaten for being a Christian to share in Christ’s sufferings. Christ suffered not only at the hands of the Roman governor and the Jewish leaders, but also at the tyranny of temptation (Heb 2:18). Paul suffered a “thorn in the flesh” in addition to all his persecutions (2 Cor 12:7). Cancer, unemployment, besetting sins, divorce, hunger, war—all these natural products of living in a sinful, fallen world can be turned into fruitful means of building your faith.
Suffering is, however, always spiritual: it always forces us to look at our faith and ask, “Do I really believe God is accomplishing something wonderful here?” Suffering tempts us to “curse God and die” (Job 2:9) because it causes us to question whether or not he’s really taking care of us.
But that’s when the spiritual muscle of faith starts working. We begin to say, “Yes, God, I do want to know you, I do want my faith to be strong, whatever it takes—even this”. We begin to want to “share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible [we] may attain the resurrection from the dead” (Phil 3:8-11).
After witnessing Christ’s own glory, Peter not only accepted the joyful and effective purpose of suffering, but he dug in and really figured out how it works. Here’s his advice for times of suffering, informed by the good theology he got from knowing Christ:
Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world. And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. (1 Pet 5:6-10)
With this plan—guaranteed and proven—how could you help but dance a little jig?
See how good theology helped Lee Carter find joy after the death of her husband in her book Letters to Emma, a memoir of grief and God's love.