“The saints all passed through many temptations and trials to profit by them. There is no state so holy, no place so secret that temptations and trials will not come.”
Thomas à Kempis
Perhaps you have had the experience, as I often have, of coming across something in the Bible that causes you to pause and wonder. You’re reading down the page when you are arrested by a fresh insight from a passage you’ve read dozens of times; or an unexpected paradox ties up your logic in knots; or a shocking event causes you to wonder, “How could this be in there?!”
Such was my experience as I was reading through Philippians. I stopped rather abruptly, as one who stubs their toe, while reading Philippians 1:29, in which Paul writes: “For he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well…”
Excuse me? Did I miss something? Did Paul really place “suffering” and “graciously granted” in the same sentence? That same root word (grant, give, bestow upon) is used throughout the New Testament to describe Jesus’ healing of the blind, God’s generosity and forgiveness toward many, the canceling of debts, and the way Christians are called to forgive one another. Paul takes this word and implies that the same generosity that forgives sins and cancels debts can grant suffering to those who follow Christ. How can this be?
Though I can’t address all the questions relating to human suffering here, I do observe that several New Testament writers articulate an understanding of suffering as something that can be useful, beneficial, or bring about a good result, regardless of the source of that suffering. Peter expresses such a view when he states that when Christians suffer, they follow in the footsteps of Jesus (I Peter 2:21). In Philippians 3, Paul declares that he wants to share in Christ’s sufferings and even become like him in his death. In our suffering, we may more deeply identify with Christ’s sufferings on our behalf and in some sense participate in them.
Paul speaks out of this background when he states that some may be granted the privilege to suffer for Christ. He is not advocating that Christians should have a death-wish or be obsessed with being martyred. Rather, Paul affirms that seen in the light of Christ’s sufferings, our human sufferings can have a deeper purpose, even though on the surface they appear to be meaningless. When we place our lives in God’s service, as Paul did, there may well be times in which we experience trials or suffering as a consequence. In the midst of his hardships, Paul was able to see God’s purposes being worked out. May we also develop the eyes of faith to see God’s work unfolding throughout all the ups and downs of our lives, seeing God’s grace even in our trials.