Everyone, to a lesser or greater extent, suffers in this world. And that is because when Adam sinned, he brought the judgment of God – death – upon the whole human race for his transgression (Gen. 2:17; Rom. 5:12). And with death came suffering. There is much good in this life, and life itself is a blessing and a gift from God, but the pains and sorrows we endure now are the unwelcome reminders that we live under death’s curse. I believe no one who really considers this sad state of our existence as mortals can honestly say this is way things are supposed to be. No, God created us for life, not for death. But our sin has brought this terrible judgment upon us.
And so all people suffer in this world; in the words of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, all mankind are “made liable to all miseries in this life.” And Christians are not exempt from these miseries common to all: disease, human cruelty, the horrors of war, deprivation, and every other cause of pain and grief. Christians share in these sufferings along with the rest of the world.
But there is suffering that is unique to Christians. And I think it is helpful to see that our suffering as believers is not limited to those things that usually come to mind when we think of Christian suffering, namely, persecution, martyrdom, dying on the mission field, and so on. Rather, all believers in Christ suffer in certain ways simply because we belong to him who suffered in this world. Peter writes of suffering for righteousness’ sake: “For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps” (1 Peter 2:21).
In what ways do Christians suffer, just because we are Christ’s disciples? Jesus’ words in the beatitudes are instructive here. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). What is it to be poor in spirit but to die to selfish desires and ambitions, and to a self-centered life? That is a kind of suffering, the suffering of death to self which Jesus called carrying our cross. Next the Lord said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (v. 4). A believer grieves over his sin; he is pained when he loses a battle in the war against the flesh (our sinful nature). He also mourns over the sin and ungodliness in the world about him: “My eyes shed streams of tears, because people do not keep your law” (Psalm 119:136). Jesus also said, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (v.5). This meekness includes our submission to those over us, to which we are called as believers (Ephesians 5:22 – 6:9). This often means suffering, because those in authority can be unkind and unjust.
So there are many ways in which a Christian suffers in this life, even if he isn’t experiencing outright persecution for his faith. I remember being struck by something I read in seminary by one of my professors, Dr. Richard Gaffin, on the subject of Christian suffering (though it was in an article dealing with a larger theological question). He wrote:
Christian suffering ought not to be conceived of too narrowly… Suffering is a function of the futility/decay principle pervasively at work in the creation since the fall; suffering is everything that pertains to creaturely existence of this death-principle.
From this perspective, then, Christian suffering is literally all the ways in which this “weakness-existence” (Rom. 8:26) is borne, by faith, in the service of Christ – the mundane, “trivial” but often so easily exasperating and unsettling frustrations of daily living, as well as monumental testing and glaring persecution. Suffering with Christ is the totality of existence “in the mortal body” and within “this world in its present form [that] is passing away” (1 Cor. 7:31), endured for his sake. (“Theonomy and Eschatology,” in Theonomy – A Reformed Critique, p. 214)
So as Christians, suffering is a unavoidable part of our experience as a people who have been given the gift and promise of eternal life, but who are still living in this world cursed by sin and overshadowed by death. But the words of the Apostle Paul point us to the hope God has given us:
The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs – heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. For I consider the sufferings of this present time not worth comparing wit the glory that is to be revealed to us. (Romans 8:16 – 18)