Over the past few weeks, I’ve spoken with fellow Christians who are fearful of COVID-19 and its potential consequences. They imagine the worst-case scenario. Billions of people will die. The global economy will collapse. Never mind the luxuries we’ve always enjoyed. Citizens of first-world nations will struggle to put food on the table. Life as we’ve known it will never be the same.
I’ve also spoken with believers who have no fear at all because they assume everything we’re experiencing now will soon be a distant memory. The virus will subside. The economy will recover. People will soon return to work, school, sporting events, and retail stores. Life as we’ve known it will continue. We’re just passing through a brief anomaly.
If you want to know what I think will happen, my answer is quite simple. I don’t know. I can’t predict the future.
If you want to know what I hope will happen, my answer is slightly more complicated. The short version is, I want God’s will.
I believe God is sovereign. Through Isaiah, God says, “I declare the end from the beginning, and from long ago what is not yet done, saying: my plan will take place, and I will do all my will” (Isa 46:10). The author of Psalm 135 says, “The Lord does whatever he pleases in heaven and on earth, in the seas and all the depths” (Ps 135:6). Absolutely everything is within the sphere of God’s control.
I also believe God providentially works out his sovereign will in a way that (1) glorifies him and (2) benefits his redeemed people. As the book of Romans says, “We know that all things work together for the good of those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Ro 8:28). No matter what we face—affliction or distress or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword (Ro 8:35)—our sovereign God providentially works out all things for the good of those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.
You’ll notice Paul’s list in Romans 8 doesn’t include a single positive event. He doesn’t mention birthday parties, family milestones, or joyful celebrations. Instead, he summarizes his list with this quotation from Psalm 44: “Because of you—that is, God—we are being put to death all day long; we are counted as sheep to be slaughtered” (Ro 8:36). Even so, the result is ultimately positive for God’s people.
In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:37-39)
We may suffer affliction or distress or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword, but in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us (Ro 8:35, 37).
Charles Spurgeon once said, “I venture to say that the greatest earthly blessing that God can give to any of us is health, with the exception of sickness. Sickness has frequently been of more use to the saints of God than health.”
Today, I don’t want to make predictions. I don’t know what the future holds. I won’t talk about fear. I suspect you’ve already heard that sermon. I would rather address our theology of suffering. Do we even have one? If so, what is it?
Those who imagine the worst-case scenario could be right. They shouldn’t let fear overcome them, but perhaps COVID-19 will permanently disrupt the world, destroying our once-comfortable, seemingly predictable lives. If we recover from the coronavirus, maybe something else lies in wait that has the potential to utterly devastate the world we’ve always known. It’s possible, and I want us to begin by meditating on that possibility.
What if we lost our health, wealth, or both?
Despite the false teachings of charlatans who preach the prosperity gospel, the Bible never guarantees us health or wealth. The opposite is true. Time and time again, Scripture teaches us to expect hardship. Paul tells the Philippians, “For it has been granted to you on Christ’s behalf not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him” (Php 1:29). Peter writes, “Rejoice as you share in the sufferings of Christ” (1Pe 4:13). Paul says to Timothy, “Don’t be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord. Instead, share in suffering for the gospel” (2Ti 1:8).
Similarly, Jesus discourages would-be disciples from following him unless they first consider the cost.
“If anyone wants to follow after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of me will save it. For what does it benefit someone if he gains the whole world, and yet loses or forfeits himself?” (Luke 9:23-25)
I remember studying that passage years ago and thinking to myself, Lord, I don’t understand. I believe I’m following you, and I continually struggle against my sinful flesh, but am I really bearing a cross? I know I’ve sacrificed many worldly pleasures, but have I really lost my life? For those of us who have always known and enjoyed modern, first-world comforts, we can hardly grasp the kind of discipleship the Bible describes.
Can you imagine, for instance, fearing for your life because you are a Christian? Can you imagine being imprisoned for years or beaten nearly to death multiple times because you’re a believer? Can you imagine enduring these things, then finding yourself able to say, “I take pleasure in weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and in difficulties, for the sake of Christ”? (2Co 12:10).
Before you answer my questions, I want you to remember Jesus’s Parable of the Sower.
“The seed sown on rocky ground — this is one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy. But he has no root and is short-lived. When distress or persecution comes because of the word, immediately he falls away.” (Matthew 13:20, 21)
According to Christ, many professing Christians would abandon the faith if faced with serious afflictions. If their wealth and livelihood were threatened, the worries of this age and the deceitfulness of wealth would choke the word out of many others (Mt 7:22). Christianity’s a pleasant religion for a lot of people as long as it doesn’t require too much sacrifice.
Think of the man who claims to be patient. He’s a model of serenity until he’s stuck in traffic on a morning when he’s already late to work.
Many Christians seem to read these Bible passages regarding suffering as though they’ve lost relevance over time. Sure, they apply to first-century believers, but we live in a drastically different time and place. If nothing else, we tend to slide these verses into our back pocket, thinking we’ll reach for them if we ever need them.
I fear we’ve grown apathetic. Perhaps we’re a little too comfortable when we can’t entertain even the possibility that we could suffer the same hardships as first-century believers, not to mention 21st-century believers in other parts of the world. Suffering Christians are not an exception. Historically, they are the rule. We are the exception, an exception the Bible does not guarantee.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not trying to incite fear. My point is this: God-fearing, Bible-believing disciples of Christ should live with a reasonable expectation of suffering. God has not promised us health and wealth.
Concerning health, consider the severe abuse endured by the apostles and early church. What did Christ say regarding Paul? “I will show him how much he must suffer for my name” (Ac 9:16). Concerning wealth, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven (Mt 19:23). The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and by craving it, some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs (1Ti 6:10).
Let me draw your attention back to Romans 8. Paul writes a beautiful passage about our adoption into God’s family. He says we are God’s children, and if children, also heirs — heirs of God and coheirs with Christ (Ro 8:16, 17). The ending, however, is striking. We are heirs of God and coheirs with Christ — if indeed we suffer with him. The apostle writes as though Christian suffering is to be expected.
We could also turn back to the Old Testament. Repeatedly, the Old Testament reminds us how the righteous suffer while the wicked prosper. This theme is prominent throughout many of the psalms as well as the books of wisdom. We cannot easily ignore this fact.
Granted, not every Christian will suffer the kind of trials biblical saints suffered, but I cannot escape the expectation of suffering which Scripture instills in its readers. Believers should never dismiss the possibility of God stripping us of everything we have—our job, money, possessions, health, comforts, or even family.
The question is, are we prepared to fall on the ground like Job, worship God though because of him we are being put to death all day long, and sincerely say, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will leave this life. The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord” (Ro 8:36; Job 1:21). Again, remember the Parable of the Sower. Two out of three groups who initially received God’s word were quick to throw it away when circumstances turned against them.
I suppose that’s one of the reasons the church suffers. God uses affliction to refine the church. It separates the chaff from the wheat and the goats from the sheep. False disciples abandon the faith when Christianity fails to give them what their flesh wants much like those people who turned back from Christ and refused to follow him any further because he stopped feeding them physical bread (Jn 6:66).
Meanwhile, God matures genuine disciples through the same hardships. James writes:
Consider it a great joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you experience various trials, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking nothing. (James 1:2-4)
Peter tells Christians:
You were called to this, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. He did not commit sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth; when he was insulted, he did not insult in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten but entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. (1 Peter 2:21-23)
Neither James nor Peter are surprised at all by the suffering of believers. Christ our Lord and Master suffered. As his followers, how can we expect anything else for ourselves? Praise God for the material comforts and lack of persecution we’ve enjoyed, but we should never assume these things are permanent. The Bible gives us every reason to believe they’re not.
Previously, I said I want God’s will. I also admitted my statement is slightly complicated, so let me explain what I mean.
Just a few days ago, I heard a prayer that went something like this: “Lord, if it is your will, keep us safe from this virus and protect the nation from an economic recession. Amen.” I don’t find fault with that prayer. I’ve offered a similar prayer many times before, but my prayers have evolved over the years. Today, my prayer goes more like this: “Lord, I don’t want to get sick. I don’t want anyone to get sick. I don’t want us to lose our jobs or face a financial crisis. But if your wise, benevolent purpose necessitates our suffering—physically or financially—help us to suffer well.”
Can you detect the difference? The first prayer hardly recognizes the possibility that our suffering could be God’s will. Naturally, we don’t want to suffer, but believers need to embrace a theology of suffering wherein we accept that God uses pain and hardships for the good of his people.
Consider the apostle Paul’s testimony:
So that I would not exalt myself, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to torment me so that I would not exalt myself. Concerning this, I pleaded with the Lord three times that it would leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is perfected in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:7-9)
We can only speculate about the thorn in Paul’s flesh, but we can be certain it caused him great difficulty. He pleaded with the Lord three times. “Lord, please take this thorn away from me. Relieve me, Lord. Please.” But God replied, “No, Paul, you need this thorn.”
“Therefore,” Paul says, “I will most gladly boast all the more about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may reside in me” (2Co 12:9).
Paul articulates what I mean when I talk about a theology of suffering. I’m not suggesting we should be masochists seeking or enjoying pain. I only want believers to accept suffering as a tool God uses to grow and perfect us.
John Newton, the author of “Amazing Grace”, wrote a second, lesser-known hymn I wish the church would sing more often.
I asked the Lord that I might grow In faith and love and ev’ry grace, Might more of His salvation know, And seek more earnestly His face.
’Twas He who taught me thus to pray, And He, I trust, has answered prayer, But it has been in such a way As almost drove me to despair.
I hoped that in some favored hour At once He’d answer my request And, by His love’s constraining pow’r, Subdue my sins and give me rest.
Instead of this, He made me feel The hidden evils of my heart And let the angry pow’rs of hell Assault my soul in ev’ry part.
Yea, more with His own hand He seemed Intent to aggravate my woe, Crossed all the fair designs I schemed, Humbled my heart and laid me low.
“Lord, why is this,” I trembling cried; “Wilt Thou pursue Thy worm to death?” “’Tis in this way,” the Lord replied, “I answer prayer for grace and faith.”
“These inward trials I employ From self and pride to set thee free And break thy schemes of earthly joy That thou may’st find thy all in Me.”
Depending on the day, I would argue Newton’s hymn is even more powerful than Horatio Spafford’s “It Is Well With My Soul”.
When peace, like a river, attendeth my way, When sorrows like sea billows roll; Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say, It is well, it is well with my soul.
I want all of us to be healthy and prosperous. I want peace and comfort for us. To be candid, though, there is something I want more. I want us to have spiritual health. I want the peace of Christ in our hearts. Ultimately, I want everyone to know Christ and be saved.
When I think of my infant daughter, for instance, I earnestly pray for her. “God, keep her safe. Keep her well. Provide for her.” Then, I often pray, “Give her just what she needs to know, love, trust, and obey you. If that is poverty, unpopularity, or something even worse— My heart will shatter as her father, but may your will be done. My baby girl’s soul means far more to me than anything and everything this world can offer her.”
I’ll give you two more verses to consider. Highlight them in your Bible. Write them down. Meditate on them.
The first is found in Romans 8: “Those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Ro 8:29). Conformity to the image or likeness of Christ is the explicit purpose of our salvation. God does not save us to merely go to heaven. He redeems us to be conformed to the image of his Son.
The second verse is found in Hebrews 5: “Christ learned obedience from what he suffered (Heb 5:8). Jesus was never disobedient, of course, but he experienced the fullness of obedience to God only through his suffering.
Put these two biblical concepts together. God saves us to become like Christ who learned obedience through suffering.
As professing Christians, we must have a theology of suffering. If we claim to want salvation and follow Christ, we must be willing to suffer, acknowledging that our sovereign God sometimes providentially leads us into terrible hardship for our spiritual good. Furthermore, we should want not suffering necessarily, but whatever God deems best for us—pleasure or pain.
I want to know Christ. I want to know him better and better each day. I want to destroy the sin that remains in me. I want to be holy. I want to please God. I want to honor and glorify him with everything I think, say, and do. While I know God saves and sanctifies people in times of prosperity, I also know suffering can be a powerful catalyst.
I want God’s will.