Discipleship 101: Suffering and Trials for Discipleship
March 23, 2017 | by: Dale Thiele | 0 Comments
Posted in: Pastoral Encouragement
This is part five of a multi-part series exploring discipleship in the local church. Jesus declares in his final, “great” commission that his followers are to “go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19). The mission of the church is to make disciples. As followers of Christ, we are to be disciples and to be making disciples. What is involved in discipleship? What does discipleship look like in our individual lives and for our church?
I have spent the last month exploring discipleship for a Christian. We have seen that the goal of discipleship is “Christ formed in you” (Gal. 4:19). The process of discipleship involves both learning and modeling by example. Success is not measured by quantities but rather by the quality of contrition and joy. Last week I spent some time considering the necessity of relationships for discipleship. I ended by considering what the New Testament says about relationships for the sake of growing in the midst of hardships. More needs to be said about the necessity of relationships, but I want to dwell a little while here on the role of hardships in our discipleship.
The natural human inclination is to avoid pain. Our nervous system is made in such a way that our hand will recoil from pain or heat even before our brain has the opportunity to process a threat. This is God’s grace toward us in how we are made.
The presence of pain and suffering in the world are a result of the Fall. Before sin entered the Garden of Eden, the world was a peaceful paradise. And the promises of future glory in heaven include the absence of pain and suffering. God has not destined his people for pain.
Since we are inclined to avoid pain and Scripture teaches us that we are not destined for pain, we are prone to see no good purpose for pain. Is this not why we complain about discomforts, inconveniences, and hardships? Would it surprise you to find in Scripture that God has purposed for you to suffer? Yes, the God who will wipe away every tear, in whose presence there is no pain or death, this God has a purpose for your pain.
Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:5, “He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.” The NAS and NIV make the verse more explicit by stating God has prepared (fashioned) us “for this very purpose.” What purpose is Paul speaking about? Suffering. Pain. Groaning. And how all of that will be “swallowed up by life” (2 Cor. 5:4). God has prepared us for this suffering.
Why would God not merely “allow” suffering but purpose suffering? How does this impact our understanding of the discipleship process? How we answer these kinds of questions deeply impacts how we respond to pain and how we grow in hardships.
Let me give three brief answers. God purposes suffering in our lives because:
1. Suffering weans us from the love of this world. Paul begins this section on suffering in 2 Corinthians by stating, “we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (4:7). The “jars of clay” Paul speaks about is our bodies. We are weak, feeble, and mortal. The things of this life and world are “wasting away” (4:16) and “transient” (4:18). When life is comfortable, we easily forget what is “wasting away” and “transient.” Suffering has a unique way of awakening us to these realities. And therefore “we groan” (5:2). Groaning for Paul is not complaining. Groaning is to feel the weight of the pain (Paul is not saying pain is good…just that God has good purposes for pain) and to hope for something better.
2. Suffering reveals the sinfulness of sin. Let’s not forget why suffering is in the world in the first place. Let’s not forget, either, the hope of the Gospel, that Christ redeems us from the futility of suffering. Paul recalls these truths in saying “Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day” (4:16). Not all pain and suffering is a direct result of specific sin in our lives, but all pain and suffering is a result of sin. If success in discipleship is brokenness over sin, then suffering serves discipleship in that it highlights how wretched sin is, thus inspiring such brokenness. As long as we believe sin is fun, we will not be broken over it. Suffering reveals how much sin is not fun.
3. Suffering leads us to delight in and long for all that God has for us in Christ. This is the hopeful perspective of Paul throughout this passage. “For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (4:17). Having been weaned from loving this world, our affections are turned to something greater: all that God has for us in Christ. And God has given his Spirit as a “guarantee” of that greatness to come (5:5). We get to enjoy his presence now and are assured of future glory because of the Spirit.
This perspective on suffering, that God has good purposes for your pain, leads James to exhort the church to “count it all joy, my brothers and sisters, when you meet trials of various kinds” (1:2). Suffering is one of the tools God uses for your discipleship success. Count it as joy.