Suffering and Redemption

It would be tempting to think that yet another article on suffering at this time is nothing more than jumping on the bandwagon of the current situation; but that is not altogether the case. Yes, we are facing a crisis of global proportions that is full of uncertainty; but it is neither the first, nor (to date) the worst of its kind. What it does represent, however, is yet another of those many examples in world history of God’s using a megaphone (to borrow C.S. Lewis’ imagery) to get our attention.

As was noted in a social media post not that long ago, the three great axioms that have defined humanity in our 21st Century world – ‘fear of death, desire for control, and love of money’ – have all been turned against us: ‘Our Dagons have fallen!’

Like it or not, this global pandemic has simply reminded us of our frailty, our mortality and our foolishness as a race. But also, for the Christian church, we are reminded of the way in which we too – at least in those parts of the world that have been Westernised – have been subtly sucked into the lie of the ages. Our quest for what Francis Schaeffer described as ‘personal peace and affluence’ has been exploded – at least temporarily.

Many things could be said about suffering as a feature of life in a fallen world – many of them probably directed towards those of our fellow-human beings who are still in a fallen condition. But it is fascinating to see how much Scripture focuses on suffering in a way that is intended to educate the elect and deepen our experience of salvation in Christ. Christopher Ash, in his excellent commentary on Job in Crossway’s Preaching the Word series, describes this as ‘undeserved and redemptive suffering’ manifest in the life of this man of God in patriarchal times.

Such language at the very least sounds provocative; but could equally be construed as bordering on the heretical – were it not for the fact that the Bible repeatedly homes in on God’s sovereign use of suffering in the lives of his saints as an integral part of their salvation.

We instinctively balk at the idea of suffering in the experience of any person as somehow having redemptive value. And, yes, it is absolutely right to respond in this way. There is a once-for-allness about the sufferings of Christ, in terms of who he was and all he did, that uniquely underpins our salvation in its totality. It is forensic, we contribute nothing to what he accomplished and it is unassailable. However, the Bible’s references to suffering and salvation are not limited to Christ and his finished work on Calvary.

Paul is able to tell the Colossians, ‘Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh, I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church’ (Col 1.24). The apostle wasn’t for a moment suggesting there was something deficient in the sufferings the Saviour had to endure to secure salvation. Rather, he most likely had in mind the sufferings of the people of God are called to endure by virtue of their union with Christ (Ro 8.17). And, as Paul indicates in this verse, it is only as we are united with him in his sufferings, will we share with him in his glory. Indeed, the very wording of Jesus’ call to discipleship could not be clearer: ‘If anyone would follow after me…let him take up his cross…’ (Mk 8.34). In the words of John Piper, ‘it is an invitation to die.’ The Christian life in its very essence is a life of suffering – living out the life of heaven in a fallen world which is antagonistic to all the things of heaven. In that sense our suffering as believers is ‘redemptive’ not as the means by which we are saved, but as the means by which God works out through our life and experience what he has worked in us through our union with his Saviour-Son.

Peter and the author of Hebrews tease this thought out further in their references to suffering being like fire that burns off dross and refines precious metal (1Pe 1.6-7) and to life’s hardships as ‘discipline’ (He 12.7) designed to build us up towards maturity and usefulness in the faith. Again, these are redemptive in the sense that they are instrumental in aligning our life and experience more fully to what we actually are in our new life in Christ. They are a means towards our growth in grace and in maturity.

There is, however, at least one other reference to suffering that falls into the category of seeing its having a redemptive function – only this time as a means to bringing others to faith and repentance. We find it on the lips of Paul as he anticipates his own impending death.

Speaking to Timothy, he says, ‘I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory’ (2Ti 2.10). What does he mean by this? As he reflects on the countless sufferings he has endured as part of his apostolic calling and as he prepares himself for the martyrdom he must face, he bears this burden joyfully as a testimony to those who are elect, but not yet saved. As the root of the word ‘martyr’ indicates, he will bear witness not only through the words he proclaims, but through the pains he endures in his service of the gospel.

The bottom line in this – for all Christ’s followers in every manifestation of suffering we are called to endure – is that the way we suffer will speak for itself to the watching world. More than this, in ways that will almost certainly surprise us, the difficulties we endure and the way we endure them will be a means in God’s hand to bringing his chosen ones to faith and repentance.

When I was pastoring a church in London, we had a Chinese lady in our congregation who had come to faith in Communist China. When she told the story of her conversion, she said that it was through observing a neighbour in her apartment block who was a Christian. Every day he was tormented and ridiculed for his faith by all around him. But, as this lady watched the way he suffered for his faith, she was persuaded that the Christ who he unflinchingly professed must be worth believing in. His suffering had a redemptive purpose woven through it: the means of bringing others to faith in Christ.

Mark Johnston