Would you believe that suffering, as part of the Christian life, according to the Bible, is a gift from God?
In Philippians 1:29 is the word χαριζομαι (the text has the aor pass indicative: εχαριστη), which has to do with grace or to give graciously (BDAG 7893; Bibleworks 8). In addition, χαριζομαι was a common term used in honorific documents lauding officials and civic-minded persons for their beneficence. Who more than God, our gracious heavenly father, deserves such an honorific description, who desrves to be lauded for his beneficence?
So, with regard to suffering, in a sense it is part of God’s gracious favor towards us, that we suffer for him, whatever that may mean, be it through poverty, illness, disability, persecution, even imprisonment (as in the case of Paul) (the list could go on and on).
And to be sure, these things may not all happen here in the States necessarily (not yet at least) but they happen to Christians all over the world on a regular basis, especially in what are called “closed” countries (ie, most of the Middle East, most of Asia, and any other region of the world with a communist or totalitarian government).
Here is how Lightfoot reads Philippians 1:29:
God has granted the high privilege of suffering for Christ; this is the surest sign that he looks upon you with favor.
Suffering is the surest sign that God looks upon us with favor? This is hard to believe/hear isn’t it? That a sign of God’s favor is not necessarily or always blessing (mainly in the material or physical sense). One might be lead to ask, if I am not suffering in some fashion for following Jesus, am I really following Jesus? Do I have God’s favor?
I find this particularly interesting because thinking in many Christian circles seem to suggest the opposite: that suffering is somehow a curse, a sign of God’s punishment or judgement, not his blessing. This seems to be especially true in those circles that promote the health and wealth gospel (also known as Word of Faith). These folks see health and wealth as signs of God’s favor not suffering. In fact, they eschew suffering. This is contrary to the word of God. We should embrace suffering, for through it, we have God’s favor.
This is one of the reasons why preaching through Philippians has been challenging for me though I am not even out of the first chapter yet. The more I read it the more I become uncomfortable with the notion that people who follow Jesus with all of their hearts don’t suffer. Paul blatantly contradict that notion. Now, I hesitate to say any material or physical blessing is somehow wrong – it isn’t because God does bless his people. Some are gifted to be wealthy for the benefit of the larger body of Christ, but I would not say this is the norm or even to be expected by most. And who’s to say being wealthy isn’t aform of suffering since so much responsibility is required to maintain that wealth and or to handle that wealth in a responsible way? Make no mistake: not every rich person is happy – many suffer all sorts fo hardships, especially from friends and family who may not be wealthy and who want a chunk of that wealth.
Anyways, suffering for the Lord Jesus is a basic part of discipleship and is to be expected and embraced. It comes with the cost of following Jesus – and so Paul exhorts the Philippian believers to “live in manner worthy of the gospel,” “as citizens of heaven,” standing firm in the one Spirit, striving together in unity for the sake of the gospel so they won’t have to fear those who oppose them.