How should we respond to suffering? Maybe you’re suffering somehow, and you’re sick of it. I’ve had heel pain for the last few months, and though I will admit to being very inconsistent in treating it, I’m frustrated with it. I want it to be healed. I am not rejoicing in this suffering.
Rejoicing? If you’re wondering why I mention that concept, it is because so often Christians talk about rejoicing in suffering. Frankly, it seems to me that we sound odd when we talk about suffering that way. Even something small, like heel pain doesn’t seem anything close to the kind of thing we should be rejoicing about, let alone the plethora of major reasons for suffering. So why do we talk about rejoicing in suffering? In this post, we continue our study of Colossians, looking at a verse that describes that very concept.
A couple months ago we started studying the New Testament letter to the Colossians. The writer of the letter is one of Jesus’ earliest followers, the great missionary and teacher, Paul. Paul wrote numerous letters to groups of Christians around the Roman Empire, and some of those letters are collected in the New Testament. The ancient ruins of the town of Colosse are located in modern-day Turkey, but at the time Paul wrote it was a medium-sized town where perhaps 4 years earlier some people had become Christians.
Paul has heard some news about these Christians, and he is concerned. So he writes the letter to help steer them in the right direction. If you scan back through the blog, you’ll see that we have studied verses 1-23, learning how Paul presents Jesus as completely God, and how we can have reconciliation with God through Jesus. If you’d like, open a Bible and read chapter 1 verse 23. There Paul says that he became servant of the gospel. What does he mean? You can be a servant of God, or a servant of people, but a servant of the Gospel? The Gospel is an inanimate object. It’s just an idea. We Christians believe it is a true idea! But it is an idea, a concept. How can a person serve an idea? Paul explains himself.
Please read the passage that we’re studying on the blog this week: Colossians 1:24-2:5. As I studied this passage, I found two major themes Paul communicates to us. They’re different enough that we’re going to study one this week, and the other next week. This week we begin the first theme, which will develop over the week, by focusing on what Paul says about the idea of being a servant of the gospel.
Today we look at verse 24 where Paul writes that he rejoices in what he suffered for them. There it is, another Christian talking about rejoicing in suffering. Is something wrong with Christians for taking this view of suffering? Let’s see if we can understand why Paul might say something so counterintuitive.
We begin by trying to answer, what did he suffer for them? It is unlikely that Paul suffered anything specifically because of the Christians in the city of Colosse. He didn’t start the church. We read in chapter 1 verse 7 that it seems his missionary associate Epaphras started the church. It is likely that Paul is speaking here about his apostolic mission, and the sufferings he encountered, which if you remember the series through the book of Acts from last year, were constant. Also Paul is likely writing this letter while on house arrest in Rome. He knew suffering. There is a sense in which Paul suffered for the mission of the Kingdom, and therefore he suffered for the whole church. His really was a suffering on their behalf.
What is amazing is that he rejoices in his suffering. It is so easy to get fixated on our suffering and all we can think about is getting it over and done with. Or get stuck in a victim mentality, a “poor me” pity party. Paul shows us a different way. Paul transcends his suffering, seeing how his suffering has led to greater things. And that causes him to rejoice. I’m not saying that all suffering has some greater purpose. Not all does.
Some suffering occurs because we made a bad choice, and we’re facing natural consequences. Actually we can rejoice in that suffering, if we have a humble teachable attitude, desiring to learn from our mistakes.
Some suffering is perpetrated against us, and some is just part and parcel of our broken world. It can be hard to rejoice in the face of that kind of suffering because it appears to have no meaning. To that apparent lack of meaning, we should ask, “Does the suffering we’re facing have actually have meaning that I am not aware of?” Rather than simply fixate on trying to eradicate the suffering, we should observe it, face it.
Paul is an example of one who suffered physically, because of his activity as servant of the Gospel. As a result of his preaching and teaching about Jesus, he was beaten numerous times, to the point where the perpetrators left him for dead. In Colossians 1, then, Paul is providing meaning to the suffering, meaning that enables him to rejoice. He does not see his suffering as pointless or predetermined. Instead, he owns the fact that his free choice to follow the way of Jesus has led to suffering, but the suffering was worth it because of the greater good it accomplished for so many people who now were a part of the family of God. For that, he rejoiced.
When we face the suffering that seems to have no meaning or purpose, I urge you not to just explain it away by saying, “Well, God has a reason,” or “God is in control.” While those kinds of epithets sound spiritual and give the appearance of trust in God, they do not face the suffering. There are other faithful ways to respond to suffering.
One faithful way is the example of Paul. Paul is showing us that we can learn to rejoice in the Lord, even amid difficult circumstances. I’m not saying it is easy, but that it is a good goal, an attainable goal.
Another faithful response to suffering is lament. Lament is holy complaint, demonstrated often in the Psalms, in which the suffering calls out to God, asking for him to intervene, even to wake up, because it appears God is asleep. I include a psalm of lament in every Wednesday prayer guide for Faith Church, because we need to learn to lament.
Finally, another faithful response to suffering is to seek appropriate means to stop the suffering. Suffering in and of itself is not automatically honoring to God. When Paul was beaten for proclaiming the Gospel, the beating was unjust and sinful. It should not have occurred at all. When Paul says he rejoiced in the suffering, he was not indicating that God approved of the beatings. There are many cases of injustice that lead to suffering and we Christians should be on the vanguard seeking to eradicate suffering. This approach also applies to suffering that is not in the category of injustice, such as natural disaster, illnesses of all kinds, or relational brokenness. We should seek to right all of them, using appropriate means. Suffering in and of itself is not unmitigated good.