The Joy of Suffering

suffering

Have you ever considered the joy of suffering?  Can there be such a thing?  Is it possible for Christians to view suffering in such a light that suffering is in fact seen as a good thing?  I would like to say an emphatic yes to all of these things.  Let me share why.

Recently I have had an intense period of trial and suffering; this period of suffering has been going on for five weeks now and I am not sure how much longer it will go on for.  When I was first faced with the suffering forced upon me I reacted poorly.  I jumped quickly to the conclusion that this suffering was unjustified and unfair.  Why should I have to go through this?  The more and more I thought about it the more I attempted to rationalise the fact that I should not be suffering and it just is not fair.

So what changed?  Well, I happened to be (thanks to the providence of God) reading through Thomas A Kempis’ book ‘The Imitation of Christ‘,

IT IS good for us to have trials and troubles at times, for they often remind us that we are on probation and ought not to hope in any worldly thing. It is good for us sometimes to suffer contradiction, to be misjudged by men even though we do well and mean well. These things help us to be humble and shield us from vainglory. When to all outward appearances men give us no credit, when they do not think well of us, then we are more inclined to seek God Who sees our hearts. Therefore, a man ought to root himself so firmly in God that he will not need the consolations of men.
When a man of good will is afflicted, tempted, and tormented by evil thoughts, he realizes clearly that his greatest need is God, without Whom he can do no good. Saddened by his miseries and sufferings, he laments and prays. He wearies of living longer and wishes for death that he might be dissolved and be with Christ. Then he understands fully that perfect security and complete peace cannot be found on earth.

Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, 1996), 19.

Quotes like this – and I tell you there are many amazing quotes, I recommend anyone to read it (skip the section on communion on the end) – forced me to stop and reconsider the purpose and joy of suffering.  You know I knew that God worked all things together for the good of those who loved him (Rom. 8:28) but what I didn’t realise until now was that the very suffering that I was opposing is the thing that is bringing good.  I wrongly assumed that God would make the suffering end as a result of good.  But I think it really means that the suffering is the carrier of good.  I think this is what Paul is getting at when he says, “we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope”. (Rom 5:3-4)  You see the truth is, suffering is not a bad thing though it hurts and is a challenge to walk through and deal with, suffering is actually a good thing that should cause us to rejoice.  Paul’s rationale is that it brings endurance, endurance character and character hope.  I would like to add something to Paul’s reasoning.  Not only does it bring all those things, but suffering forces a response which easy living never could.  Suffering forces a Christian to rush to his Heavenly Father.  It creates a situation where the Christian must lean on Christ all the more, in fact, it creates the context in which Paul says, “In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me”. (Phil. 4:12–13)

 

I started by asking if you had considered the joy of suffering.  I tell you I had not, but now I have seen the joy of it.  The suffering I have gone through has forced me to run to Christ, to run to my Father in Heaven, to run to my Lord and my God.  And I tell you the truth, if this is the outcome of suffering, then I can definitely say there is true joy in suffering and I say with Paul “we rejoice in our sufferings”.  If what I have said is true, I would conclude by saying that it is far better to suffer in this life then have ease.  It is far better to live a life of burden and heartache then to live a life of peace and plenty.  Let us embrace suffering like children of the Most High God, because he is at work in all our suffering to mould and make us into the perfect image of his Son.

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The Sower or the Seed

Sower

Again he began to teach beside the sea. And a very large crowd gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat in it on the sea, and the whole crowd was beside the sea on the land. 2 And he was teaching them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them: 3 “Listen! Behold, a sower went out to sow. 4 And as he sowed, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured it. 5 Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and immediately it sprang up, since it had no depth of soil. 6 And when the sun rose, it was scorched, and since it had no root, it withered away. 7 Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. 8 And other seeds fell into good soil and produced grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.” 9 And he said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” (Mark 4:1-9, ESV)

The parable of the sower is one of those classic parables that is very well known in the church.  In fact, if you google, “sermons on the parable of the sower”, it comes up with 97,500 results!  At the moment for my personal devotions I am travelling through the book of Mark and when I came to the parable of the sower something really struck me.  As I read the parable I came to the traditional interpretation of the story; that is, Jesus is teaching us about the different growth stages for the preached word and we must ask what soil we are.  Insert a  spurring challenge to produce fruit and you have yourself a sermon on the parable of the sower.  I do want to state that I think this is one proper way of understanding the text and I do not want to deny this interpretation.  However, as I was reflecting on this parable – particularly its explanation by Jesus – I realized that there is another very important aspect of this story to hear.

As I looked at the parable and the explanation a question popped into my mind, “Who is the sower?”  All of a sudden it struck me, to the crowds who were listening to Jesus the traditional teaching of this parable makes sense.  But to the disciple, what was the teaching meant to be?  Does it make sense for Jesus to tell the disciples that they need to make sure they are the good soil?  As I pondered this question I came to the conclusion that the disciples were not being told to be a certain type of soil; but rather were being encouraged as sowers of the seed.

Now is when the wider context of this passage begins to become important.  Jesus has just (3:13-19) appointed the 12 apostles so he might send them out to preach (sow the seed!).  Shortly after this series of teaching (6:7-13) Jesus is going to send out the twelve disciples to proclaim that people should repent.  So the context of this parable is that Jesus is preparing the disciples to preach or rather be sowers of the seed.  Now if my conclusion is correct then this gives another layer of teaching for what Jesus is teaching to his disciples and those of us that are his followers.

If I am right in my conclusions then that means that the main application for followers of Christ is not only, ‘be good soil and bear fruit’ (though this is a valid teaching of Jesus found elsewhere as well), but rather it is a call to understand the implications of being a sower of the word.

Being a sower of the word means the following kind of applications:

  • You must sow the word indiscriminately (across all soils)
  • You must sow the word intentionally (the sower went out to sow)
  • You must sow the word but God must bring the growth
  • You must sow the word but only the good soil will bear good fruit

This is just a very brief idea of the kind of applications that come from this understanding of the text.  This understanding of the parable also addresses the relationship between our responsibility to evangelise (preach the word / sow the seed) and God’s sovereign work saving sinners.  The implications of this understanding abound!

Or maybe, I am just way off base and have let my pondering mind get the better of me.  You tell me what you think, have I missed the mark or is this a valid layer of interpretation?  Again, I am not saying we must do away with the traditional interpretation of the text, but rather I am asking for another layer of interpretation of the text.