How to Endure Suffering

sufferingTake a look at the first verse of the hymn “In Christ Alone.”

In Christ alone my hope is found;
He is my light, my strength, my song;
This cornerstone, this solid ground,
Firm through the fiercest drought and storm.
What heights of love, what depths of peace,
When fears are stilled, when strivings cease!
My comforter, my all in all—
Here in the love of Christ I stand.

We sing these words because we know they are true, but also because we know they strengthen us. We need words of encouragement like these when suffering overtakes us. Because if we’re honest, suffering has a unique way of revealing how weak we can be.

One of the most discouraging aspects of the Christian life a person can face is suffering, especially the kind that takes the form of persecution for your faith. Like nothing else, suffering can drain your courage and strength. Pressure to minimize or deny something that is true about Jesus and his gospel feels like denying him completely—because it really is a betrayal. When suffering for the gospel comes, whether it be pressure to hide the gospel, to keep it private, to modify it to fit the spirit of the age, or to outright deny it, we need strength to overcome the temptation to give in and give up on Jesus.

To endure suffering, Christians should treasure the gospel, share in the hardships it brings, meditate on “portraits” of faithfulness, and above all remember Jesus Christ and his chosen ones. To gain this eternal perspective, start by adopting Paul’s trustworthy saying on suffering.

Treasure the Gospel Message

Be strengthened by Christ’s grace (v. 1)

No one ever found the strength to suffer for anything without first treasuring that thing. For your strength to withstand suffering, you must treasure something outside you, something bigger than you. As Paul attempts to encourage Timothy, he points him away from his natural characteristics (weak, timid, ashamed, youngish) to Christ and his grace. Why? Because even though it may seem strange, grace is the most powerful change agent, and Christ’s grace is the most pure and powerful form of grace. His grace strengthens the soul, even to the point where the Christian can endure unimaginable suffering. It is so important that we remind ourselves of grace every time we hear biblical encouragements to do something. Because if you don’t start with Christ’s grace you’ll try to find strength in yourself. As proud sinners we’re all prone to do this.

Here’s how we try to strengthen ourselves when suffering arrives. The most pertinent example right now regards the 2016 U.S. presidential election last week. If you’ve been listening you know there are a ton of people who are genuinely afraid for their families and the future of our country because of who won. They are also deeply ashamed of what America has done. Maybe you’re one of them. My point in bringing it up is not to legitimize or delegitimize your feelings. Instead I want to ask how you deal with your fear and shame about the election results. Or if you’re fine with it, how do you respond to family, friends, and neighbors who are in mourning or panic mode? One response to fear is to fight. “Be strong. Now is the time to rise up, resist, and protest—using violence if necessary. It’s either fight or flight. Don’t be a coward!” And when it comes to election shame, a lot of people are deflecting and blame-shifting by judging the other side. “It’s amazing how stupid people are for not seeing things my way, which is the right way.” When we strengthen oursdaffy-duck-despicableelves this way it fills us with hate and pride. How is that? It’s ironic, if you respond this way you become the very thing you despise, whether or not the thing you despise is actually despicable. (I feel like Daffy Duck using that word—“you’re despicable!”)

My friends, don’t you see this kind of strength will get us nowhere. First of all it’s unsustainable. It will wear you down as it eats away at your soul and as the miseries of life happen. Secondly, if you disagree, then I wonder if you haven’t yet realized how ugly it makes us look and how destructive it is to us. Christ’s grace gives a totally different kind of strength. With Christ’s grace your attempt to be courageous is not misshaped into an appeal to demonize others which may even lead to violence. Rather your fear is redirected into a healthy fear of God, giving you a courage empowered by God’s love for others and not yourself. Similarly, with Christ’s grace your attempt to conquer your shame is not transformed into an elitist disdain for others. Rather your shame is erased by a grace you cannot and did not earn, giving you a self-image empowered by beautiful humility and not arrogant pride. Christ’s grace both humbles and exalts the undeserving, and accepts and loves the unworthy. What does this have to do with suffering? When you look for strength in anything other than God’s grace, it will eventually collapse under the weight of suffering. With Christ’s grace you have a supernatural strength (the power of God!) to endure suffering. That’s the kind of strength only the gospel gives. Christ’s grace is one reason why the gospel is worthy treasuring and sharing.

Entrust the “good deposit” to faithful teachers (v. 2; 2 Tim 1:14)

Every church member must be able to identify people who are qualified to lead in stewarding the gospel. Ministry leaders and ordained officers are particularly responsible to treasure the gospel and hold it in trust for others. Why is this duty, this calling, of utmost importance? Because the gospel is not our own. It does not belong to a church, or a denomination, or to Christians of the past, or even to the apostles. It belongs to God. Jesus owns the rights to the gospel, and he passed it down to his chosen stewards in trust. Because it belongs to God, no one but God has the right to change it, to claim authorship of it, or to definitively explain it apart from the Bible. Christians receive it as stewards receive the owner’s estate to manage.

If you don’t have a strong grasp of what the gospel is—the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ for our salvation—if you haven’t digested it, internalized it, believed it with all your heart, and felt your heart begin to treasure it, then you’re not yet equipped to endure suffering for it. If you know your love for the gospel hasn’t yet reached that level, then you need to go deeper into the gospel. Start by learning the basics through evangelism training so you can recognize the genuine gospel, can spot counterfeits, and can teach the gospel to others. For the Christian, to know the gospel is to love it. It’s the hidden treasure found in the field. It’s the discovered pearl of great price. When it becomes your treasure, then identify faithful people who may be entrusted with the gospel and can teach it to others. What do such faithful people look like? This passage gives us several meaningful portraits and two names as examples of who to look for. You may also look at these as who God calls you to imitate.

Meditate on Faithful Examples

Paul lists three distinct portraits that all reflect the call for Christians to be wholeheartedly devoted to serving Christ. They are the soldier, the athlete, and the farmer. The Bible says in verse 7 we should pause and think very carefully about these to gain understanding on how to endure suffering. So we will.

Meaningful portraits (vv. 3-7)

The first portrait is a good soldier (vv. 3-4). When a soldier enlists in the military he signs up for a particular job. He is now singularly devoted to that assigned task. And when that soldier deploys he should avoid being distracted by civilian life with its everyday matters. A good soldier does not get entangled in such things because they keep him from obeying his orders and pleasing his enlisting officer. Here Paul calls Timothy to be a good soldier, to shun everything that distracts him from his calling as a pastor, preacher, and Christian in order to pay intense attention to Christ. John Calvin put it this way: gospel ministers must identify all things that “are inconsistent within their office, that, freed from those things, they may follow Christ.”

Some have used this verse to make a distinction between sacred “offices” as worthy and secular jobs as unworthy of Christians. Paul does not view secular activities as being unspiritual or out of bounds for the Christian. Don’t forget that Paul supported himself by making and selling tents. Rather all of life is to be lived according to the gospel regardless of the vocational “office” God calls a believer to—whether that office be elder, deacon, teacher, husband, wife, employer, employee, leader, or servant. In fact, it is possible for any Christian, including church leaders entrusted with the gospel, to get entangled in not just “worldly” things but also “spiritual” things that distract from the assigned task. It is true that non-gospel activities and pursuits can actually be helpful as a recreational outlet, but only if they do not entangle and thereby distract from fighting Christ’s battles. Here is the biblical principle that governs this distinction: while everything is permissible, not everything is beneficial (1 Cor 6:12; 10:23). Wisdom and counsel will know the difference.

Here’s a quick thought experiment. When you get that nagging feeling to do something you know God is tugging at you to do (for example: pray, reading the Bible, call a particular person to check up on them, participate in some kind of fellowship or service activity), and you don’t really want to heed God’s call in that moment—what is it you’d rather be doing? That’s an entanglement. That’s your distraction. It is fine for a soldier to play cards until his commander blows the whistle. But a good soldier doesn’t protest that he’s in the middle of a game and holding good cards! So ask God for the wisdom to recognize entanglements, and ask wise Christian friends if they see you living like a good soldier of Christ—one with wholehearted devotion and eager to please God.

The second portrait is a disciplined athlete (v. 5). This portrait is of an Olympic athlete competing in the games. The Olympics were a very important event to the Greeks, and they paid careful attention to whether the athletes kept the rules of competition. The Greeks required an athlete to be a citizen of his nation and possess a good reputation. If an athlete broke a rule during a contest, he was disqualified. If he was later found to have broken a rule after receiving the victor’s crown, it was taken from him. Moreover, there were athletic rules that even regulated training. An athlete could not cheat before the competition. So what does the athlete portrait show us about Christian living? Your duty is not depicted as one of leisure or spectator activity, but as fierce competition. To obtain the victor’s crown and not become disqualified, rigorous training is necessary, even required (cf. 1 Cor 9:24-27). Thus Timothy and all other Christians who want to be entrusted with the gospel must not expect to serve Christ casually. Disqualification can occur in the Christian life at any time, not just when serving in ministry. Notice in this imagery that competing according to the rules involves suffering. Just as an athlete must be willing to suffer to win the prize, the Christian must be willing to suffer for Christ. Mark this well: without the willingness to suffer for Jesus, you will not obtain the goal God sets before you.

This is not salvation by keeping the rules. Remember where we started: we find strength to endure suffering by his grace not by our own performance. In this passage Paul makes a distinction between Christian service and Christian life. Once we distinguish the two, it becomes clear the Bible teaches rewards (i.e., “crowns”) for Christian service. These crowns are awarded based on the faithfulness of the person and the quality of his works (1 Cor 3:10-15; 2 Tim 4:7-8). Salvation unto life is absolutely by grace, yet we must not deny what else the Bible teaches—that God gives heavenly rewards to Christians who discipline themselves like athletes competing for first place.

Paul’s final portrait is a hardworking farmer harvesting his crop (v. 6). Contrast his work compared to the soldier’s and athlete’s. Being a soldier or athlete can be exciting—you might end up being a war hero or a member of the 2016 Chicago Cubs! Their reward is honor and glory. In comparison the farmer’s task is downright prosaic. No farmer ever appeared on the cover of Glamour magazine. Yet farming can be back-breaking work and it requires patience (Jas 5:7). Why does he do it? For the hope of the harvest (Dt 20:6; Prov 27:18). Farming is hard, but the disappointments are framed by the many rewards. So also the longsuffering and unselfish Christian understands the blessing of suffering for Jesus’ sake, looking forward in hope to the first share of his crop. The Christian’s harvest is the enjoyment of seeing the gospel produce redemptive change in the lives of those who believe (Rom 1:13; Phil 1:22, 24). But this is not the only harvest for the Christian. Holiness is also a harvest of righteousness (2 Cor 9:10; Jas 3:18). Holiness requires strenuous effort, even suffering, for the Christian. When it comes to becoming more like Jesus, the saying is true: no pain, no gain.

So how can we make use of these portraits to begin imitating them? Grow wise by paying attention to the ways of the world. To people in their vocations. To famous people, now and in the past, regarding how they succeeded and failed in life. Read and contemplate biographies, especially those about Christians. Observe the natural world like the ancients did—with an eye toward gaining wisdom. Watch and think about animals, plants, the vast universe out there, the microscopic world right here. Get outside and work with your hands, preferably with other people, and give thought to the way the world usually works. Imitate King Solomon who collected proverbs about life under the sun. And as you observe, meditate on what you find. How do these relate to you as a Christian? This is the practice of wisdom informed by faith.

The Apostle Paul (vv. 9-10)

After the portraits of the solder, the athlete, and the farmer, Paul explains how he endures his own suffering. His strength comes from the gospel because he knows his own suffering leads to the salvation of others. What he means is that salvation does not come to the elect apart from apostolic preaching. Yet it is for preaching that Paul is suffering in chains awaiting execution. Paul says he endured “everything” for the sake of the elect (cf. 2 Cor 11:23-12:10) precisely because he knows that God will, through his ministry, save some of them (Rom 8:29-30; Eph 1:11). You might be thinking, “I don’t get it. How does this help get me through suffering?” Don’t you see what Paul is saying to you? Christians serve God with a confidence that through their laborious suffering God will save his chosen people. Your suffering is God’s ordained means that others might receive eternal glory! If you understand that you’ll never wallow in your suffering again. You’ll never suffer in vain if you channel your pain, sorrow, fear, and disappointment through the gospel for the sake of other people. How do you do that?

Jesus Christ (v. 8)

Remember Jesus! False teachers (such as Hymenaeus and Philetus; cf. 2 Tim 2:17) always distort the truth about Christ and the gospel. To remember Jesus Christ is to remember and hold fast to the truth about Christ, and to remember him with affection as your Lord and Savior, not just a figurehead or example. Suffering and death did not defeat Jesus Christ. Rather he was resurrected—risen from the dead! Jesus is the God-man, fully divine (risen from the dead) and fully human (the son of David), two natures in one person forever, who died to reveal God’s wrath upon sinners and who lives to forgive everyone who repents and believes in him. This is good news for believers who suffer because we no longer need to be afraid of suffering. Suffering didn’t defeat Jesus and it cannot defeat Christians either. Do you understand why Christ’s resurrection is central to the gospel (Rom 6:4-10; 1 Cor 15:12-22)? Paul sets before Timothy in embryonic form the principle of humiliation before exaltation, death as the gateway to life, and suffering the path to glory. Jesus Christ is the best encouragement to your suffering. Therefore John Stott advises, “when you are tempted to avoid pain, humiliation, suffering or death in your ministry, remember Jesus Christ and think again!” Thankfully the Bible instructs and equips you to think like this. One such way is by giving us gospel summaries.

Adopt a Trustworthy Saying

This is one of Paul’s five “trustworthy sayings.” This saying, likely part of an early hymn, had become popular and widely affirmed in the early church. It is “trustworthy” because we can “take it to the bank.” You might say it has been “entrusted” to us for use as a “tried and true” gospel summary.

The path of suffering (vv. 11-12a)

The first part of the saying speaks of dying and enduring with Christ. Death and endurance are parallel to each other. Since Paul offers the saying as a summary of his encouragement to Timothy, we can reasonably conclude it is about enduring suffering for the sake of the gospel. So “if we have died with him” and “if we endure” refer to Christians who have died with Christ in their conversion from spiritual death to life, and thereafter continue to suffer with Christ and for God’s chosen ones. Notice the saying is in the first person plural, and Paul has already enjoined Timothy to share in his suffering as Paul shares in Christ’s suffering. Thus the dying and enduring is communal, corporate, congregational. In other words, we die and endure together in union with Christ’s suffering and death. But in Christ this dying and enduring leads to life and a king’s reward. What can we conclude? For the Christian, the path of suffering and death always leads to eternal glory. You can count on it. The saying is trustworthy. It’s not a proverb, it’s a gospel promise. Put your trust in it.

The path of giving in and giving up (vv. 12b-13)

It’s tempting to neglect the second part of the saying. Can’t I just focus on the first part since it’s more encouraging? No, because if you neglect the last part you lose the fullness of the gospel and become like the false teachers who gave up parts of the gospel they didn’t like. God forbid we think we’re smarter than the Bible in our expression of the gospel. Remember the gospel is given to us in trust. We must not corrupt Christ’s treasure. In the second part of the saying, “if we deny him” and “if we are faithless” are parallel to each other. This is a warning against apostasy first and foremost, but also a warning to not give in and give up when you begin to feel intense pressure in suffering. There is also beautiful encouragement embedded between the lines in this second part. If you don’t deny Christ, if you endure in faithfulness by his grace, you can be sure he will never deny you because he is faithful (Lk 12:8-9). While Timothy, you, and I are prone to weakness and wavering, Jesus is strong and he never changes. If we are faithless Jesus cannot respond in kind because he cannot deny himself. He is the Faithful One.

He who is the Savior from your suffering is also the Faithful One who will not deny himself by turning faithless. So we fear God and endure suffering, choosing the path of suffering, empowered by his gospel grace, to enter into eternal glory. When you begin to view your suffering through the lens of the gospel, remembering Jesus Christ and his elect to whom God wants you to give gospel hope, your suffering may not decrease, but you’ll be able to endure it with humble and courageous strength.

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