This week, I finished my study of the Book of Acts. It’s been a poignant study during these current times and, although the story was familiar, the words jumped out at me brand new, as fresh and relevant as the day they were written.
For those unfamiliar, the Book of Acts follows the disciples after the Ascension, as they go out into the world and fulfill the words of Jesus: “…and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8b)
It’s a powerful book, one marked by the power of the Holy Spirit, equipping these men who, not days before had hidden from the authorities, fearing for their lives, to go out into the world and boldly proclaim the message of the Risen Savior. It contains passionate speeches, real-life applications…and suffering.
Lots and lots of suffering.
All of the disciples suffered for the cause of the cross; in fact, all of them, except for John, ended up dying for their faith, and even he finished out his life in exile on an island. In Acts, we see the disciples persecuted, beaten, and even martyred.
And then we come to Paul.
When we first meet Paul, formally known as Saul, he IS the persecution, zealously pursuing these new followers of “The Way.” Acts even records his presence at the stoning of Stephen: “And Saul was there, giving approval to his death.” (Acts 8:1).
But Paul soon met Jesus on the road to the Damascus and, as meeting Jesus usually does, it changed everything. He went from persecuting Christians to preaching to them, on fire for the gospel and spreading its message to both Jew and Gentile.
And suffering for it.
Think about it: even Paul’s conversion was painful. Immediately after encountering Jesus, Paul was struck blind for three days, “and he did not eat or drink anything.” (Acts 9:9). Once healed, he immediately began to preach in the synagogues in Damascus that Jesus was the Son of God, and the same Jews who were once his brothers, his peers, and his friends “conspired to kill him” (Acts 9:23), leading to a narrow escape in a basket through an opening in the city walls. After this, he tried to join the disciples but they resisted because they were still afraid of him (Acts 9:26).
Paul’s old friends had deserted him; his new brothers were distrustful. For awhile, Paul suffered alone, save for his faith.
During his time as a missionary, Paul traveled around Asia. In Pisidian Antioch, he was verbally assaulted and expelled from the region, the Jews shaking the dust from their feet in protest as they left, a major insult at the time. (See Acts 13: 13-52). In Iconium, a plan arose to stone Paul, so he fled to Lystra and Derbe….where he was stoned, dragged from the city, and left for dead. (See Acts 14:4-6 and 14:19). Outside of Philippi, he was arrested, stripped, beaten, and thrown in prison with his feet in stocks. (See Acts 16:23-24) In Jerusalem, “the violence of the mob was so great he [Paul] had to be carried by the soldiers;” (Acts 21:35). He was beaten and arrested again and, when the false charges he endured in front of the Sanhedrin failed to produce punishment, “the Jews formed a conspiracy and bound themselves with an oath not to eat or drink until they had killed Paul” (Acts 23:12). The same group of men he’d once called brothers, unable to persecute him under the law, now sought to murder him instead. For his own protection, he languished in prison for over two years (see Acts 24:27), neither guilty nor innocent, before being taken to Rome in chains, where he was shipwrecked along the way. The Book of Acts ends with him under house arrest in Rome, where he would eventually be executed for his faith.
Suffering. The Book of Acts–and Paul’s life–were full of it.
Though not much is known about Saul’s life before he became Paul, it’s pretty safe to wager that, had he not become a follower of Jesus, his life would have been marked with much less suffering. Reading through the account of his life, it’s easy to see Paul’s pain and trouble came as a result of his work for the gospel; the beatings and arrests, as well as the emotional and mental toll, all arose from his missionary work–the calling God placed on his life.
So now, a troubling question arises: does God call people to suffer?
There’s no doubt that this life we’re living is one of suffering and hardship. No one gets through this sinful, broken world unscathed. And, although all hardship looks different–some suffer physically, others mentally or emotionally–pain will always be a part of life this side of heaven. Jesus Himself endured it, and He told His followers to expect it (see John 16:33). But would the God of Heaven, merciful and full of life, actually call us to a mission of suffering?
To unpack this, I think we must first unpack society’s lies or misconceptions about suffering. In our culture, any and all suffering is bad. We live in a “if it feels good, do it” world so, in line with that thinking, if it feels bad it must be bad. Suffering is usually viewed in one or in a combination of the following ways:
Suffering is a result of sin.
Suffering is a sign of the lack of God.
Suffering is a sign of the lack of the goodness of God.
Viewing suffering as positive, beneficial to yourself, others, or God, is radical and countercultural. Who wants to serve a God who allows you to suffer? More than that, who wants to follow a God who calls you to suffer as He Himself did? (See Luke 14:27).
The answer to this question lives in the power of the gospel. Paul’s message was so powerful precisely because he suffered. During the course of his ministry, Paul suffered setback and setback, threat after threat, physical danger after physical danger–and yet he continued. His conviction to share the truth of the Risen Savior was stronger than any persecution or physical limitation he may have faced. If Paul’s message had been well received, his speeches lauded, his conversion celebrated, his message may have been lost to history as a “jumping on the bandwagon” type movement. Instead, we see the gospel flourishing in spite of these hardships.
Or, rather, because of them.
Yes, the Book of Acts is one filled with suffering…but it’s also one filled with the power of the Holy Spirit winning over the hearts and minds of thousands. For every instance of brutality, we see gentleness; every skeptic, a new believer; every riot, a swell of baptisms. Perhaps we need to view suffering the way people did during Paul’s time: rather than wonder what kind of God would allow His servant to suffer, they wondered what kind of God Paul had experienced to endure the suffering without wavering?
The power of Paul’s message lay in his steadfast and unshakable faith in the midst of great suffering. No one would be willing to endure what he endured for a lie; only someone who had come face to face with Risen Savior could withstand such pain…and keep on preaching.
So yes, God does call us to suffer. But it’s in His love that we find truth in our suffering that our culture will never understand: “…we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.” (Romans 5:3-5).
Paul himself wrote in “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” (Romans 8:18).
God doesn’t call us to suffer because we’re bad, nor does He call us to suffer because He’s not good. He calls us to suffer as a witness to His glory. When those in Christ suffer, their reactions and responses are in direct contrast to the despair and hopelessness found in those of the world. The world mourns; believers still find cause to rejoice. The world grows discouraged; believers cling to the hope of things to come. The world hoards supplies and cultivates selfishness; believers serve and share.
We are in a time of immense suffering. And while it’s okay for Christians to grieve the pain and mourn for what’s lost, we as believers should be singing out God’s truth all the louder, serving our neighbors in whatever ways we can, encouraging our friends and loved ones with a hope that nothing–not even COVID-19–can extinguish.
Like Paul, this is our call to suffering–and our time to shine for the glory of God.