Voluntary & Involuntary Suffering

I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings…

Philippians 3:10

If we want to know the power of the resurrection of Christ then we must chose to participate in His sufferings. This means that to the extent that we are willing to voluntarily suffer, is the extent to which we’ll operate in power and authority in that area of our life. This is a Kingdom principle.

When we empathize with and serve people, we will often find ourselves suffering with them in different ways. This is a kind of voluntary suffering. When we fast and contend in prayer for a breakthrough, this is a kind of voluntary suffering. When we sacrifice for others, this is a kind of voluntary suffering. When we stand for truth in the face of people mocking and slandering us, this is a kind of voluntary suffering. When we participate in the sufferings of Christ in this way, we will find that our ministry and our prayers will carry more resurrection power with them.

It’s not that we are “paying the price” for greater power. It’s that Jesus already paid the price on the cross so that sons and daughters of the Kingdom would be able to operate in greater resurrection power. Romans 8:11 says, “…the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you…” Jesus already paid the price, so our job is to identify with Him in His sufferings. The result is resurrection power.

Voluntary suffering is different than involuntary suffering. In this world full of sin and brokenness, we will automatically face involuntary suffering (accidents, illnesses, financial issues, relational issues, hardship, etc). Involuntary suffering is useful too but just in a different way. While voluntary suffering produces power, involuntary suffering produces perseverance, character, and hope. Romans 5:3-4 says, “…we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.”

James put the same idea this way:

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. 

James 1:2-4

So one way to look at it is that while voluntary suffering empowers the gifts of the Spirit, involuntary suffering (handled well) empowers the fruit of the Spirit. Voluntary suffering God uses to make us more effective. Involuntary suffering God uses to make us more solid.

Comfort and Mystery

“I, even I, am he who comforts you.
    Who are you that you fear mere mortals,
    human beings who are but grass,
that you forget the Lord your Maker,
    who stretches out the heavens
    and who lays the foundations of the earth…

Isaiah 51:12-13

So often we comfort ourselves by using the tool of “comparison.” We feel like we are struggling financially and so we compare ourselves to someone with less and say, “At least I’m not that poor.” We feel like our career has stalled and so we compare ourselves to someone who got fired and say, “At least I have a job.” This is often how we comfort ourselves when we are facing a hard time.

But using comparison to bring comfort has an ugly side to it. When you are the one completely broke, when you are the one who lost their job, when you are the one with a terminal illness, comparison only leads to more despair. Far from bringing comfort, comparison brings feelings of deep pain and hopelessness.

God makes it clear that He alone is our comforter. We need to take our pain to Him and let His presence exchange our sorrow with joy. Psalm 16:11 says, “…you will fill me with joy in your presence…” It’s in the presence of “the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles“(2 Corinthians 1:3-4) where we find comfort and a lasting joy that can’t be taken from us by hard circumstances. Comparison can never do this!

The Lord recently revealed something to me in regard to mystery. We humans tend to be hypocrites when it comes to what mystery we’re comfortable accepting. We ask questions regarding the mysteries of pain and suffering but never ask the same questions about our blessing and provision. We don’t wrestle through why we were born into a country with freedoms, a strong economy, job opportunities, clean water and sanitation. We know it is a mystery as to why we were born here and others were born into countries with none of these things. Yet, we accept this mystery often without a second thought.

However, we love to ask “why me” when we get an illness, or have a financial crisis, or troubled relationships. We embrace the mystery of blessing just fine but can’t bear to embrace the mystery of suffering. If the answer to the question “why was I born into a middle-class family in the one of the greatest countries in the world” is above my pay grade, then certainly why my friend got cancer is above my pay grade. Both are mysteries and both are beyond my understanding. To accept one as mystery and demand answers for the other is hypocrisy.

The healthy response to suffering in our life is to take our grief and our pain to the Lord. We take it to Him and allow Him to comfort us. When we think we have to make sense of it and figure it all out, we step out of our role as trusting sons and daughters of the Father. Embracing mystery and trusting the Lord with things that are beyond our understanding is a part of living in a broken and fallen world.

What mystery in your own life is the Lord asking you to trust Him with?

What do you need to take to the Lord to receive His comfort?

Faith Testing

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.

James 1: 2-4

There is something that happens to us when we face trials. If we don’t give up, we get stronger. It is a testing of our faith to pray for something or someone over and over and not see the answer we want. Our faith is being tested. We know that this testing will build in us a perseverance–an endurance–that will make us mature and complete. When we feel like nothing is happening visibly, we can be sure something is happening in us. God is giving us gifts that we can’t see yet, but they are there.

It’s like training for a marathon. Someone could come back from run after run and be discouraged because they feel so badly. Their legs are sore and their body feels weak. If they didn’t realize that this is the natural process of a body getting stronger, if they didn’t realize this is how runners build endurance, then it could be discouraging.

But if they don’t give up, they will find that they’re able to run longer and longer distances. The thing that feels painful and discouraging actually becomes the source of strength. It is the training runs, day after day, that are the foundation of running a complete race on race day. The painful training runs are what ensures that a person lacks nothing on race day.

The testing of our faith does the same thing. But the testing can’t do its work–it can’t accomplish its intended goal–if we give up. If after a few runs a person stops running, the pain never accomplishes the goal of giving them endurance. If we quit after a little testing of our faith, we don’t allow the testing to give us the gift of persevering faith. We don’t allow it to increase our maturity.

Scripture says of Jesus, “For the joy set before him he endured the cross…”(Hebrews 12:2). And so when we find joy in our trials, we are imitating Jesus. We are identifying with His suffering. And the apostle Paul talks about our participation in the sufferings of Christ. He said:

I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.

Philippians 3:10-11

When we face trials of many kinds it is a way we participate in the sufferings of Jesus. And when we participate in His sufferings, we make available to us the opportunity to know Christ and the power of His resurrection.

Suffering for the Lord?

The apostle Paul embodies what it means to suffer for Christ. He’s the one who wrote, “I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings” (Philippians 3:10). He also wrote, “Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory” (Romans 8:17). And also, “Now I rejoice in what I am suffering for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church” (Colossians 1:24).

Is there any doubt that part of the Christian life involves suffering? It’s one of the main ways that we identify with Christ. It was Jesus Himself who said, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). Paul even encourages his protege Timothy, “Join with me in suffering, like a good soldier of Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 2:3).

A few different times Paul gives his churches his resume of suffering to show that he is a worthy apostle to follow. To the Corinthians he wrote:

“I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches.”

(2 Corinthians 11:23-28)

What is conspicuously absent in this list of suffering is physical illness. Paul seems to be physically worn down from persecution, sleeplessness, hunger, thirst, physical danger and travel. But if Paul listed so many different forms of suffering for Christ, one would think he would list at least one physical sickness or illness. But we don’t see a single one. Not that Paul never got sick, but Paul doesn’t seem to believe that sickness is a way to “suffer for the Lord.”

Sickness, in other words, is not from God but from the enemy. While it may honor God for us to endure persecution, it does not bring him honor for us to suffer from sickness. The way we handle ourselves while sick will definitely bring him honor, but sickness itself does not.

This is in line with what we see in Jesus. Jesus was the perfect representation of what the Father is like. “The Son is the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15). “For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form” (Colossians 2:9). Jesus suffered in many ways while on the earth. Yet, we have no indication or record of Him ever being sick. This reaffirms the truth that sickness is not from God but is a product of a broken world and sometimes the result of a direct assault from the enemy.

In other words, sickness is not God’s will. It is not what God wants for us. If Jesus is the perfect picture of the will of God, and not only did He never get sick but healed every person who came to Him for healing, then we have in Jesus a pretty clear idea of how God feels about sickness.

As followers of Jesus we have to stop saying things like, “I’m not sure why God gave me this illness, but…” Friend, God did not give you that sickness. That sickness is a result of the brokenness of our world. Or, it may be that your illness is a direct attack on your life from the enemy. But that illness you are going through is not from God. Do not receive it as such! Believe, instead, that God wants you free from it! Do not passively receive it as the will of God. It’s not! Persevere in your fight against it!