A guy from New York rented a car after landing at the Dallas airport and set out across Texas to a meeting. Suddenly a truck pulling a horse trailer swerved and collided with him. He waited over a month before trying to collect damages from his insurance company. When he did call, the lawyer said: “You cannot claim injuries now; and according to the police report, at the time of the accident, you said you were not hurt.”
The New Yorker responded: “Now you listen to me. I was lying on the road in agonywhen I heard someone say the horse had a broken leg. The next thing I know a Texas Ranger pulls out his gun and shoots the horse. What was I supposed to say when he asked me: ‘Are you okay?’”
Maybe you feel your problems are a pretext for getting shot. But though they seem to have little other value, the Bible promises more: faith “redeems” suffering as it recognizes the good purposes of God and produces in us joy in the midst of the pain. Philippians 1.12-14 reminds us that God works even suffering for good.
[Read Philippians 1.12-14. Pray.]
Jacob (whose name God changed to Israel) had twelve sons: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Zebulun, Issachar, Dan, Gad, Asher, Naphtali, Benjamin, and Joseph. We call these the twelve tribes of Israel; their descendants are the Jewish people. Now Israel especially favored Joseph, and (as we might expect) the brothers resented the preferential treatment. So they kidnapped him, sold him into slavery, and convinced their dad that he had been killed by a fierce animal.
Joseph ends up a slave in the royal household of Egypt, where, over time, he rises in power and influence to run the government’s Department of Agriculture and Economics. When a severe famine develops, Joseph’s brothers must travel to Egypt to buy food. There they meet Joseph, but do not recognize him. They simply bow before this governor from whom they must beg for food if they are to survive. And when Joseph finally reveals himself, the brothers fear he will kill them in revenge. Joseph, however, responds from faith.
Genesis 45.4-8: “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years, and there are yet five years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. And God sent me before you to preserve for you
a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God.”
Instead of blaming his brothers for cruelty, he sees God’s hand in his every circumstance. By faith, Joseph accepts his hurt and pain, not as the triumph of evil, but as the mysterious and glorious plan of the sovereign God who does all things according to the counsel of his will, for the good of his people.
The brothers go back to Canaan, get their father, Israel, and return to Egypt, where the whole clan lives for the next 17 years. But when Israel dies, the brothers fear that Joseph withheld revenge out of respect for their father, but now will destroy them.
Genesis 50.15-18: When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “It may be that Joseph will hate us and pay us back for all the evil that we did to him.” So they sent a message to Joseph, saying, “Your father gave this command before he died, ‘Say to Joseph, Please forgive the transgression of your brothers and their sin, because they did evil to you.’ And now, please forgive the transgression of the servants of the God of your father”…. His brothers also came and fell down before him and said, “Behold, we are your servants.” Joseph’s response is one of the more famous verses in the whole of the Bible.
Genesis 50.19-20: Joseph said to them, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.”
By faith, Joseph accepts his hurt and pain, not as the triumph of evil, but as the mysterious and glorious plan of the sovereign God who does all things according to the counsel of his will, for the good of his people. Joseph’s faith “redeems” his suffering.
We are fallen creatures living in a fallen world; we will experience sin and suffering, injustice and hurt, death and disease. We can try to avoid it, but none can fully succeed. How will we respond when our dreams of comfort and ease are shattered?
Some become bitter; they question God’s care and control; they get angry and give up hope. Such a choice hardens our hearts and drive us away from God. But there is an alternative. We can, with Joseph, trust God’s hand in our affairs, and accept affliction as something which God uses for good to draw us closer rather than drive us away.
Like Joseph, Paul did that very thing, and his testimony teaches us how to see God’s good work in circumstances we might prefer to avoid. Let’s look at three truths which can change our hearts and give us hope.
1. Because of Suffering, God’s Gospel is Advanced (Philippians 1.12)
The Bible gives many different reasons why God brings trials and troubles into people’s lives.
• Hebrews 12.11 (for example) warns that we sometimes suffer under God’s discipline—he mercifully afflicts us to turn from the misery of sin to the joy of holiness.
• Romans 5 (on the other hand) mentions neither sin nor correction, but the spiritual maturity developed by difficulties: “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts….”
• Sometimes God allows pain in our lives to teach us sympathy: 2Corinthians 1.4: “God…comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.”
• Peter provides a different reason for suffering: troubles serve to test and prove our faith: “You have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1Peter 1.6-7).
• God also uses affliction to protect us from pride. In 2Corinthians 12, Paul explains that he suffers a “thorn in the flesh” because he was tempted by the “surpassing greatness of the revelations” of Jesus given him.
• And our text presents another reason: suffering can position us to advance the Gospel.
Let’s put ourselves in Paul’s sandals. More than anything he wanted to testify to the grace of God in the Gospel (Acts 20.24). And God wanted the gospel preached among Rome’s most influential people. But how would the gospel be heard by the elite of Rome’s military, the handpicked troops who guard the emperor, the Imperial Guard?
God places Paul under house arrest, not locked away in a cell, but chained on a short leash to a guard, day in and day out, 24-7, for 2 years. Each shift brought another man into Paul’s home, chained to him in turn, watching his response to imprisonment, and hearing his testimony.
I do not know that I would have been faithful like Paul. I might have felt angry with God for letting me rot in jail. Focused too much on myself, I fear that I would grumble and make the guards think: his God does not take very good care of him.
But Paul does not complain against God’s ways nor imagine that God messed up or quit loving him. He trusts that a sovereign God placed him perfectly. Paul looks to his right and left, and sees, not chains, but souls who need Jesus! So he preaches! Sure, he recognized that the enemy orchestrated his imprisonment to squelch the spread of the Gospel, but what they meant for evil, God meant for good!
What situation in your life robs your joy and embitters you against God? None of us is in jail, but we can just as easily doubt that we are where God wants us. Maybe, figuratively, you are chained to a desk at work? Do you imagine that such a circumstance prevents you from ministry in the Kingdom? Many people pass your desk every day to whom you can speak a word of grace. William Carey, the great missionary to China, spent years repairing shoes. Instead of bemoaning God’s plan, he posted a map of the world on the wall prayed the Gospel into foreign lands. Eventually God sent him there.
Maybe you are chained by fear, or feel so discouraged by circumstances that you cannot imagine being useful in God’s work. None of us faces a situation as difficult as Paul; and what has happened to him served to advance the Gospel. Let us, by faith, refuse to allow our sufferings to dictate our response, but instead, trust God to let us share in his ministry.
2. Because of Suffering, People are Converted (Philippians 1.13)
According to Greek mythology, the siege lasted ten years without success. The design and construction of Troy made it impenetrable. So the Greeks built a wooden horse with a hollow belly in which they hid a handful of armed men. The rest of the army then sailed out of sight. The Trojans believed the horse a sign of surrender, and pulled it inside the very walls which the Greek army could not enter with all their might and power. Under cover of night, the soldiers climbed out of the hollow horse, killed a few guards, and opened the gates to their returning army.
Verse 13 makes suffering a Trojan Horse carrying the Gospel where, otherwise, we have no power to go.
I am not exactly sure why this is true, but it seems connected to the fact that our Lord is a suffering Savior. We know this, in part, from the preposition. The ESV misses this; it says, “my imprisonment is for Christ,” but the Greek phrase is evn Cristw/| [en Christo] “in Christ.” Yes, Paul is imprisoned because he preaches Jesus, it is for Christ. But the preposition adds a nuance: he shares in the suffering of Jesus. Paul says something similar in Colossians 1.24: “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….”
Because he believes God, Paul knows his suffering is not wasted; it is not a mistake; God’s love has not failed. Instead, it is sharing in the work of Christ. Jesus redeemed his people through suffering; and God converts through the sharing in that suffering by his people. Not that the sufferings of Christ lack anything in atoning sufficiency; but (as John Piper writes), “They are lacking in that they are not known and felt by people who were not at the cross” (Let The Nations Be Glad, 94).
Around AD 200, Tertullian said, “We multiply whenever we are mown down by you; the blood of Christians is seed” (Apologeticus, 50). 200 years later, Jerome noted, “The church of Christ has been founded by shedding its own blood, not that of others; by enduring outrage, not by inflicting it. Persecutions have made it grow; martyrdoms have crowned it” (Letter 82, §2).
The Savior suffered and died, and we witness both to his death for us and to his life in us, when we suffer and die. The church is not growing in America, the land of comfort and ease; it is growing in China and Africa, and other places where the saints are persecuted. Why? Because when we suffer in Christ, we witness to the suffering of Christ, and people are converted.
John Piper: “Suffering with joy proves to the world that our treasure is in heaven and not on earth, and that this treasure is greater than anything the world offers. The supremacy of God’s worth shines through the pain that his people gladly bear for his name” (Let The Nations Be Glad, 103.
3. Because of Suffering, Christians are Encouraged (Philippians 1.14)
The Roman emperor Licinius persecuted Christians around AD 320. In Armenia, his 12th Legion, nicknamed the “Thundering Legion,” had 40 men who proclaimed Jesus as Lord. To force them to deny their Savior, the men were sentenced to spend the night, naked, on a frozen lake. A warm tent, food, and a hot bath were available to anyone who turned from Jesus. If you had been there, in the descending darkness, you could have heard their song to the Savior: “O Lord, 40 wrestlers have come forth to fight. Grant that 40 wrestlers may gain the victory!” The song became softer as, during the night, one by one, they died. Only one soldier gave in, returning to the warmth and safety, where the centurion, with the execution squad, kept watch. Now the remaining few sang: “O Lord, 39 wrestlers have come forth to fight. Grant that 39 wrestlers may gain the victory!” But the Holy Spirit used their song, and faith, to touch the centurion. Proclaiming himself a Christian, the centurion went to the ice and the soft song was heard again: “O Lord, 40 wrestlers have come forth to fight. Grant that 40 wrestlers may gain the victory!” Forty men won by dying.
Christians speak more boldly when we see others suffer for the faith. It should silence us; but it never does. So two groups watch those who suffer in Christ, to see if God is of greater worth than the comforts of the world. Those who do not know Christ, and those Christians who need the confirmation of suffering to embolden their witness.
How do we redeem suffering?
1) We must see greatness of the glory of God. Without that, nothing follows. A vision of God must fill your mind’s eye or the afflictions we suffer will captivate our thoughts and control our hearts.
2) We must be willing to be cheered. There are ample reasons to turn our backs on God and despair. Suffering is real and dangerous. John Piper correctly observes: “All experiences of suffering… threaten our faith in the goodness of God and tempt us to leave the path of obedience” (Desiring God, 257). But Paul refused accept defeat; he did not whine or complain. Instead, he chose joy by trusting that God placed him perfectly to do a good work. Will we allow faith in a suffering and sovereign Savior to give us great joy in the midst of our trials?
3) We must act. Paul advanced the gospel, and we have ministry to do. We must both rejoice and work, count it all joy and step out in faith, believe and do.
On January 9, 1985, Pastor Hristo Kulichev of Bulgaria was arrested for preaching in his church even though the state had appointed another man to pastor whom the congregation did not elect. His trial was a mockery of justice, and he was sentenced to eight months
imprisonment. While in jail, he made Christ known in every way he could. When he got out he wrote: “Both prisoners and jailers asked many questions, and it turned out that we had a more fruitful ministry there than we could have expected in church. God was better served by our presence in prison than if we had been free” (Quoted in Let The Nations Be Glad, 101-102).
Maybe our circumstances are God’s will to allow us to minister the gospel of grace for his glory and our joy. Think about that, Amen.