By Samuel Clough
“Don’t be intimidated in any way by your enemies. This will be a sign to them that they are going to be destroyed, but that you are going to be saved, even by God himself. For you have been given not only the privilege of trusting in Christ but also the privilege of suffering for him.” – Philippians 1:28–29 (NLT-SE)
Perseverance of believers in the face of suffering is one of the primary testimonies of the age to come and the truth of the gospel. Not only is it a testimony to unbelievers, it is also a great privilege. The privilege of believing, of coming into the understanding of Jesus, is one thing, but there is an additional privilege in suffering. That privilege is not just coming into an understanding of Jesus, but coming into real, physical participation with His life by living a life of a similar kind as His was. I wonder how many of us consider suffering to actually be a privilege? We do not because we do not understand the significance of suffering.
Not only is suffering a privilege, but it is at the very heart of Jesus’ exaltation and Paul is connecting the believers in Philippi to his description of Jesus’ exaltation in the first 11 verses of chapter 2. Paul’s encouragement to the church to embrace suffering is his logical conclusion to his own consideration of Jesus’ own sufferings which began in the first part of the chapter.
Because Jesus’ sufferings led to His exaltation, therefore he is encouraging the church as well to embrace her sufferings that she might follow her master, both in temporary suffering and in permanent reward from God. Paul is encouraging them to follow the divine pattern. Their reward in the age to come is dynamically connected to their suffering in this age, just as Jesus’ present exaltation as ruler over the universe was the result of His suffering.
Obeying God in blessing can be easy, and this is not to say that God does not release blessing or that all blessing is wrong. However, there is something unique about suffering. Suffering demonstrates the authenticity of love. Suffering is what disarms the powers and principalities because when a heart is unmoved by suffering then a fragrance of love arises that they are powerless against. When love arises in the midst of suffering, the powers are completely stripped of their powers over the one who is full of love in the mist of suffering.
When believers love during suffering, it demonstrates their love for God as a person rather than love for God merely as a benefactor. While God is our source, it is also critical that we understand these two kinds of love and suffering is the tool to demonstrate what kind of love we have. The test of suffering reveals that we love God for who He is and not what He does for us unless, tragically, we fail the test.
When we demonstrate that kind of love, it is a rebuke to the powers and principalities who live only for their own benefit and constantly seduce men to live in the same way. In many cases, it is the suffering of the church that breaks the drunken delusion of the age and confronts lost men with the reality of deception.
The world has no answer for a suffering church. The powers and principalities are stripped and exposed by a suffering church. A suffering church is the ultimate rebuke for this age and it is the ultimate sign of the age to come. When men begin to give their lives and lose their privileges for the sake of the age to come it is the witness that God will save them and a witness to men who live only for their own benefit and pleasure that they will be destroyed.
A persecutor can destroy the body, but he is powerless against those who willingly suffer for their master. Lost men may refuse to hear the words of the gospel, but they are incapable of ignoring the testimony of the suffering of the saints. How many have been converted not just from the words of a gospel witness, but from the demonstration of the gospel in a suffering man or woman? It is easy to reject words. It is another thing altogether to gaze at the one who willingly suffers, even unto death, for the unseen God.
When that kind of suffering takes place, the unseen God becomes visible in front of those witnessing the suffering. It is the ultimate testimony of Jesus. No more are ideas and concepts about God only ideas. Those ideas take on flesh and blood in the suffering saint before them. When lost men and women see the saint willingly giving their life for the salvation of the age to come, it confronts their empty and hollow lives that are relentlessly driven by their own desire for self preservation.
This kind of witness is demanding. It requires a church willing to lay down her life, but it is the call of Jesus. He calls us to take up our cross and follow Him and this is what that following looks like. It is willingness to suffer for the gospel. it is willingness to lose benefit in this life, even to the point of losing our own breath, in order to be a demonstration to this age that Jesus is worthy of love. Not only is He worthy of love in general, but He is worthy of this kind of love in particular.
God is looking for a people that He can trust with suffering because He wants to put the gospel on display. He wants to embarrass the powers and principalities. He wants a rebuke to lost men in this age so that their delusion might be shattered and they might have the opportunity to repent.
Let us set our hearts before Him and commit to take up this cross that His name might be made great. This is not a casual conflict, but a weighty battle. The powers are not intimidated us when we do not challenge them, but when we embrace suffering, we challenge them directly with truth. Grace is needed, but let us not back off from this, but let us embrace suffering as did our Lord.