This article was originally posted several months ago, but its message is one that so many people are confused about that I felt I should offer it again now.
The word of God has much to say about suffering. It’s a subject with which everyone has had some personal experience, and therefore, a subject of much discussion in Christian circles. One group of Christians believes that those who live for the Lord shouldn’t have to suffer anything at all in this life. And then there are the Christians on the other end of the spectrum who believe that everything Christians suffer is either from God Himself, or deliberately allowed by Him as a part of working His perfect plan in our lives. Actually, if we look carefully at the Word of God, we find that both of those groups are mistaken.
The problem seems to arise from failure in many Christian circles to realize that, according to the Word, there are three different types of suffering that befall the believer. Each of these kinds of suffering needs to be understood and dealt with in a different way. When Jesus said that a would-be disciple must take up his cross and follow Him, He wasn’t referring to accepting any bad thing that happens in life as a cross that we must obediently carry.
If illness, loss of income, physical or mental handicaps, drunken, abusive spouses, or rebellious children are the crosses we carry for the Lord, then every human being alive, whether he’s born again or not, is carrying a cross for Jesus – because every one of us has had to deal with one or several of those problems during our lifetimes. These kinds of things befall all people. But the key word here is “befall.” These things fall on us – we do not choose to pick them up and make them part of our lives.
Jesus makes it clear that the cross He requires must be willfully and deliberately picked up by each of us individually – even as His was. It must be the same cross – the cross of dying to sin, the world, and our flesh. Then, and only then, will we be able to live the life of a disciple by his resurrection power. So suffering cannot all be lumped together as a cross we carry Jesus.
Now that we have determined what is and is not a cross for Christ, we need to take a look at the three different kinds of suffering that the Word of God shows us may take place in a Christian’s life. For the purposes of this article, let’s refer to these three types simply as A, B, and C.
Suffering Type A:
This suffering results from our own sin or foolishness. Galatians. 6:7 says, “Be not deceived: God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.” Psalm 107:17 says, “Fools because of their transgressions, and because of their iniquities were afflicted.” And Proverbs adds to this truth in chapter 18, verse 7, saying, “A fool’s mouth is his destruction, and his lips are the snare of his soul.” The verse 21 of that same chapter adds, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.” Going a little farther into Proverbs, to chapter 19, verse 15, we find this: “Slothfulness casteth into a deep sleep, and an idle soul shall suffer hunger.” Now, these verses give us just a few examples of the fact that God’s Word says when we disobey Him, or remain ignorant of His ways, we will suffer.
This suffering is not God’s will at all. He has not deliberately allowed it; rather we have caused it.
Now let’s take a little side trip here to consider this word “allow,” as it is used in reference to God. Most of the time when Christians say God has “allowed” something, they mean that He has deliberately considered whether or not to let the thing take place in His child’s life and has decided that He wants it to happen. In reference to that idea, this article will refer to that concept as “deliberately allowing.” However, there is the fact (so often missed by Bible readers) that God is required to “allow” some things to happen in the earth even though He does not want them to happen. He has not considered whether to let those thing happen and decided in the affirmative. He is simply bound by His own Covenant and His own word of promise to let man do what he chooses by his free will to do, and to let the devil do what man has legally allowed him to do. Many people get uncomfortable – even angry – when faced with the idea that God doesn’t always get His way in all things. But it is God Himself who says that He does not.
Many times throughout the Old and New Testaments, God verifies that He did not want something to happen to His people, but because they would not follow the dictates of His Covenant (which would have protected them) He must stand back and let those things happen. We will mention only three examples in this article, but any reader who truly wants to get to the truth about this issue can do further personal study on the subject and find others.
Example 1: Ezekiel 22: 29-31. Israel has been guilty of horrible actions, and God says according to His Covenant, they deserve wrath and punishment. But He says that He does not want to pour out that punishment, and He searches the entire nation for just one man who will stand and intercede for Israel and open up the way for God to pour out mercy instead. But He says He cannot find one man to pray, so He has no choice but to allow the wrath and punishment that Israel has justly earned. God does not get what He wants.
Example 2: Matthew 23:37: Jesus weeps over Jerusalem because He (and the Father) have desired that the people will come to Jesus and allow Him to “gather them under His wings as a mother hen,” but they refuse. He does not get his own way.
Example 3: 1 Peter 3:9: God is not willing that any should die unsaved. But he does not get His way.
Now, some people think that these facts interfere with God’s sovereignty. Not so at all. It was God’s sovereignty that allowed Him to decide to make a Covenant with man, which would govern exactly how He would deal with His people, and what would be required of them and of Him. He is the one who made the sovereign decision to bind Himself to that Covenant, both by the Covenant itself and by His solemn promise that He would never break it. He used His sovereignty to willingly put Himself in a position of having to keep His own word. He will never go back on it or change it even one “jot or on tittle.”
So now let’s get back to Suffering Type A, that which comes as a result of our own sin or foolishness. It is part of the “law of sin and death,” that is in eternal motion in God’s universe. (Romans 8). Oh, yes, we can attempt to save face by trying to convince ourselves and others that we are suffering because God is “taking us through something to mature us.” But that’s a lie, and clinging to it will only work to keep us in a state of immaturity. If I don’t have a good relationship with my boss at work because I’m late too often, or always have a negative attitude, it sounds more pious to say, “I’m being persecuted at work because I’m a Christian.” Or to claim, “God is testing me with all this persecution to see how faithful I will be.”
If I’m a student who’s being disciplined severely at school because I haven’t been diligent in my work, or I’ve acted outside of the accepted conduct rules, it’s much easier on my conscience to tell myself, “I’m just misunderstood by all these authorities at school. I guess that’s just a cross I have to carry.”
And if my body is sick because I won’t let go of unforgiveness and resentment, but continue to feed on bitterness, I can comfort myself by saying, “Well, I’m sure the Lord has some reason known only to Him for letting me go through this battle. He will get glory out of it.” (Now, that’s one of the biggest lies the devil ever told anyone, anywhere. There is not one single example in the entire Word of God where God received glory or honor of any kind because someone was sick. He never received any glory until the people were healed. But that’s another point entirely, so we can save it for another article.)
Do you see that these alibis for sin-induced suffering will only keep us in immaturity? Unless we see the problem for what it is, we will not come to repentance. It is the honesty and repentance that brings us to maturity and to His mercy, which will be able to alleviate the suffering. Instead of being content to just sit back and say, “Well all suffering is God’s will for a purpose in my life,” let’s go to prayer and find out just which kind of suffering we’re undergoing. Ask the Lord if there’s sin or foolishness at the root. God doesn’t play games; He’ll tell us quickly if there is, assuming our requests are sincere, and He’ll tell us exactly how to deal with it.
This type of suffering refers to the various evils in this world, resulting from sin in general and the resulting curse that is in operation everywhere. Some common examples are disease, birth defects, miscarriages, accidents, poverty, barren crops, destructive storms, violent attacks on our person, property, or nation, and so forth. All of these things are part of the curse of the broken law, according to Deuteronomy chapter 28. These are the things that Jesus bore for us, as our sacrificial substitute “Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us ….” (Gal. 3:13). Isaiah 53:4-5 in the Amplified Bible is very explicit: “Surely He has born our griefs – sickness, weakness, and distress – and carried our sorrows and pain. … But He was wounded for our transgressions; He was bruised for our guilt and iniquities; the chastisement needful to obtain peace and well-being for us was upon Him, and with the stripes that wounded Him we are healed and made whole.” Those words translate from the original Hebrew text exactly, rather than shortening the definitions as some translations do.
Jesus bore all of these things in our stead. I find the word chastisement most interesting. It has two distinct meanings: a) beating and physical punishment; and b) teaching and training. You can see from the literal translation of Isaiah 53 above that Jesus bore the physical punishment for us (as our substitute), and that leaves us with only the teaching and training to walk through, if we are truly in Him. The Lord never wills sickness and infirmity or calamity on us to teach us something. He put all of that (as part of the curse) on Jesus. Rather, He tells us that it is His Spirit and His Word which will teach and train us. (See Prov. 2:1-6; John 14:26; John 15:3; and 1 John 2:17.)
So if we are undergoing these kinds of suffering in our lives, we need to take a definite stand against them. We need to find the promises in the Word that pertain to our situation, take that Word to the Lord in prayer for deliverance from that suffering, and persistently bombard that evil thing with the Word of power and truth until it yields, and we are free. These things are never God’s will. We must see them as the evil things that they are and refuse to accept them in our lives. It does our dear Jesus a great dishonor for us to grasp and hold on to any of these things that He already so horribly suffered for us and put away.
Suffering Type C:
Type C is the suffering of persecution and harassment from the devil and the world because we are living as Christ. This is the only type of suffering that we are to accept and live with. Moreover, the Word even tells us to rejoice in it and glory in it. “Blessed are ye when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely for my sake. Rejoice and be exceeding glad; for great is your reward in Heaven ….” (Matt. 5:11). He later says in Matt. 10:16-25, “Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves; be ye therefore wise as serpents and harmless as doves. But beware of men: for they will deliver you up to councils, and they will scourge you in their synagogues; … and ye shall be hated of all men, for my name’s sake, but he that endureth to the end shall be saved. … It is enough for the disciple to be as his master, and the servant as his lord. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebub, how much more shall they call them of his household.” Then, of course, we have Jesus’ famous words from John 16:33: “These things I have spoken unto you that you might have peace. In the world you shall have tribulation; but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.”
So is it wrong to pray for deliverance from some of this type of persecution? Certainly not. If you have loved ones or fellow servants in the Kingdom who are being tortured in a foreign land because they have taken a stand for Christ, by all means, pray for their deliverance. God still delights in delivering His people. And He in no way indicates that we should not seek His help in overcoming the enemy and his tactics even in persecution.
But my point is that it is only this type of suffering – persecution for the Gospel’s sake – that is related to taking up our cross. It is received by choice. If we are not a Christian, or choose to be a Christian in name but still live like the world, we will not be persecuted in this manner. Only when we decide to be a true disciple, will we endure this kind of suffering. And the farther we walk away from the world and into the ways of Christ, the greater will be the persecution. But if it comes, we have this assurance: “For this is thankworthy, if a man for conscience toward God endure grief, suffering wrongfully. For what glory is it, if when ye be buffeted for your faults, ye shall take it patiently? But if, when ye do well, and suffer for it, ye take it patiently, this is acceptable with God. For even hereunto were ye called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example; that ye should follow His steps: Who did no sin, neither was guile found in His mouth: Who, when He was reviled, reviled not again; when He suffered, He threatened not; but committed Himself to Him that judgeth righteously ….” (1 Pet. 2:19-23.)
The key word here is “example.” Jesus is our example for how to endure the suffering of persecution. We must always respond in love as He did and trust ourselves to our Father God. But let us not get confused. The Word does not say He is our “example” for how to suffer the things that are part of the curse of the broken law: For that suffering He became our substitute, and there is a huge difference. If He has taken that suffering for us, then He intends us to walk free of those things as long as we walk in Him.