When I go overseas to Africa or elsewhere, one of the universal factors I see is trials and suffering. A pastor friend of mine once talked about when he went to teach some pastors in Africa, and when asked what they wanted to learn about, they wanted to be taught how to stand up under suffering and difficulty. My pastor friend at that point felt unqualified to speak on that subject. And this is what got me thinking.
I’ve been in church my entire life. I’ve heard sermons on Christ’s suffering, and lots of sermons on how God will carry you through suffering. But the attitude towards suffering by the preacher, and until the last few years by myself as well, was that suffering was an arms length transaction. That it was not normal or God’s will or something that we should consider as an integral part of our faith.
But then I started noticing some passages in the bible that rarely if ever get preached on, and a lot of things began to make sense to me. The first idea that I had to put away was that Christ did all the hard work and therefore my work is easy. On the contrary, although Jesus provided his own life for our salvation, he also provided the example by which we should live. He became the perfect imitation of God the Father so that we by imitation of Jesus would imitate the Father. Essentially we imitate the Father through transitive property. In the book of John it says, “44Then Jesus cried out and said, “He who believes in Me, believes not in Me but in Him who sent Me. 45And he who sees Me sees Him who sent Me. 46I have come as a light into the world, that whoever believes in Me should not abide in darkness. 47And if anyone hears My words and does not believe, I do not judge him; for I did not come to judge the world but to save the world. 48He who rejects Me, and does not receive My words, has that which judges him—the word that I have spoken will judge him in the last day. 49For I have not spoken on My own authority; but the Father who sent Me gave Me a command, what I should say and what I should speak. 50And I know that His command is everlasting life. Therefore, whatever I speak, just as the Father has told Me, so I speak.”
Ok, so Jesus is the perfect imitation of the Father, but how did he become this. It’s easy to say Jesus was born as God, but he was also born as man, so something had to happen along the way. After all, the fall from perfection for man came through Adam by a choice that he made, so Jesus’ perfect imitation of the Father had to come as a choice as well. But when did this happen?
The thing that got me thinking about this were some verses in the book of Hebrews that I’d never known about until recently. I’d read them of course, but never paid attention I guess. I’d certainly never heard anyone preach on them. The first verse is Hebrews 2:10 “For it was fitting for Him, (speaking of God the Father) for whom are all things and by whom are all things, in bringing many sons to glory, to make the captain of their salvation perfect through sufferings.” The second verse is in the same chapter, verse 17. “Therefore, in all things He had to be made like His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. 18For in that He Himself has suffered, being tempted, He is able to aid those who are tempted.”
Ok, so wait a second. How could Jesus, being perfect, be perfected? I mean, he’s already perfect, right? The answer to that comes in the book of Matthew, right at the beginning of Jesus ministry.
“Matthew 4:1 “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 And when He had fasted forty days and forty nights, afterward He was hungry. 3 Now when the tempter came to Him, he said, “If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.” 4 But He answered and said, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.’ ” 5 Then the devil took Him up into the holy city, set Him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6 and said to Him, “If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down. For it is written: ‘He shall give His angels charge over you,’ and, ‘In their hands they shall bear you up,
Lest you dash your foot against a stone.’ ”
7 Jesus said to him, “It is written again, ‘You shall not [a]tempt the Lord your God.’ ” 8 Again, the devil took Him up on an exceedingly high mountain, and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. 9 And he said to Him, “All these things I will give You if You will fall down and worship me.” 10 Then Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only you shall serve.’ ” 11 Then the devil left Him, and behold, angels came and ministered to Him.
So how many times have we read this and not really thought about it? Jesus and the devil were out in the desert and Jesus proved he knew the scripture better than the devil did. Right? But I never asked the deeper questions about it, like; What was the point of all this? or If Jesus was God and perfect then what was the point of tempting him? Or “Why did Jesus fast for 40 days?”
There are all kinds of conclusions I’ve come up with, but I’m only going to touch on a few here. The first is that, just as Adam had to make a choice, and one that he ultimately failed, it was at this point that Jesus had to make a choice. Jesus being born both God and man, he had the choice of will to go down either path. It was at this point, while under the self-imposed suffering of fasting and the temptation of the devil, that he made the choice to become the perfect imitation of the Father. After all, it doesn’t do any good for the devil to tempt someone with something for which they have no desire. But where Adam failed, Jesus succeeded and so became the perfect sacrifice for our sins.
Which leads to my second point and the one that more directly applies to us. And that is that perfection that is not tested through trial is not perfection. If Jesus himself was not perfected without suffering, how much more must we, who were born in a fallen state, suffer trials and affliction in order to imitate Christ?
Am I suggesting that we need to seek out trials and afflictions and be sad and mope about all the time in order to be a better imitator of Christ? No. There is a season and a time for everything. Our problem is that we have largely told ourselves that suffering is not part of the Christian walk. This is a lie. Not only is trials and suffering a part of the Christian walk, it is essential to gaining wisdom, to denying self, and to being effective in ministry. I looked for a good verse to illustrate this, but they were frankly too numerous to pick just one. Some notable places to look though are in the book of 1st Peter and the first chapter of James. The early apostles had a much better understanding of suffering, and in very few cases did they ask that those trials be removed, but rather that they would grow and gain wisdom from them. This is exactly what I find when I go to the hard places in the world. Pastors don’t ask us to pray that their trials would be removed, but rather that they would be given the strength and the faith to stand up under trial. They understand that every trial is an opportunity to be more like Christ, that the miraculous salvation that he gave would then be played out to the lost nations and peoples around them. They understand that when they stand up under trials and persecution, the lost people around them see that God has done a work in them. They become imitators of Christ in his suffering and in so doing, they become the face of Christ to the nations around them.
James chapter 1 says, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds. Because the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, lacking nothing.” Lacking NOTHING it says. Immediately after this it says, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him.” So when we go through trial, we are not told to ask that the trial end, because as it says above, “perseverance must finish its work,” but rather, that we are to ask for wisdom. This is the choice we have, to avoid suffering (though in practice this is not really possible), or to use the suffering and trials that come as an opportunity to gain wisdom, become more like Christ, and to fulfill the purpose for which we were placed on this earth. The only thing worse than having to bear a trial is to bear a trial for which I learn nothing.
I know this is not an easy message today, but it is an essential one for the Christian walk. For those who feel they are trying to stand up under a weight they feel they can’t bear, first of all, understand that it is not for nothing. Ask God for wisdom, both in dealing with it but also in what is to be learned from it. Also understand that you’re not alone. There is nothing you’re going through the Christ didn’t also suffer through. I’d like to finish with a story about the apostle Paul. This is one of the only passages I can think of where someone asks that a trial be removed. The apostle Paul says that he had a “thorn in his side”. Now what this was we don’t know. It could have been a recurring sin he had to deal with, it could have been a sickness, it could have been something else. The point is that it was something that tormented him. Paul asked God on several occasions to remove it from him, but the answer Paul received was different from what he asked for. The answer Paul got was, “My grace is sufficient for you, because my strength is made perfect in your weakness.” It is Paul’s acceptance of this answer that is even more telling, because he understands what it means, and his reply is this; “Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”