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Why did Paul not agree with the monk? Why didn’t Paul say, “Even if Christ is not raised from the dead, and even if there is no God, a life of love and labor and sacrifice and suffering is a good life”? Why didn’t he say that “even without the reward of resurrection, we are not to be pitied”? Why did he say instead, “If our hope in Christ proves false in the end, we are to be pitied more than anyone”?
1. Richard Wurmbrand, Reaching Toward the Heights (Bartlesville, Okla.: Living Sacrifice, 1992), back cover.
DOES LIFE GO BETTER CHRIST?
WITH This is an utterly crucial question for the Christian church, especially in prosperous, comfortable lands like America and Western Europe. How many times do we hear Christian testimonies to the effect that becoming a Christian has made life easier? I once heard the quarterback of a professional football team say that after he prayed to receive Christ, he felt good about the game again and was proud of their eight-and-eight record because he was able to go out every Sunday and give it his best.
It seems that most Christians in the prosperous West describe the benefits of Christianity in terms that would make it a good life, even if there were no God and no resurrection. Think of all the psychological benefits and relational benefits. And of course these are true and biblical: The fruit of the Holy Spirit is love, joy, and peace. So if we get love, joy, and peace from believing these things, then is it not a good life to live, even if it turns out to be based on a falsehood?
Why should we be pitied?
What’s wrong with Paul, then? Was he not living the abundant life? Why would he say that if there is no resurrection, we are of all men most to be pitied? It does not seem to be pitiable to live your threescore and ten in a joyful and satisfying delusion, if that delusion makes no difference whatever for the future. If delusion can turn emptiness and meaninglessness into happiness, then why not be deluded?
The answer seems to be that the Christian life for Paul was not the socalled good life of prosperity and ease. Instead, it was a life of freely chosen suffering beyond anything we ordinarily experience. Paul’s belief in God and his confidence in resurrection and his hope in eternal fellowship with Christ did not produce a life of comfort and ease that would have been satisfying even without resurrection. No, what his hope produced was a life of chosen suffering. Yes, he knew joy unspeakable. But it was a “rejoicing in hope” (Romans 12:12, NASB). And that hope freed him to embrace sufferings that he never would have chosen apart from the hope of his own resurrection and the resurrection of those for whom he suffered. If there is no resurrection, Paul’s sacrificial choices, by his own testimony, were pitiable.
Yes, there was joy and a sense of great significance in his suffering. But the joy was there only because of the joyful hope beyond suffering. This is the point of Romans 5:3–4: “We exult in our afflictions, knowing that affliction produces endurance, and endurance produces proven genuineness, and genuineness produces hope” (author’s translation). So there is joy in affliction. But the joy comes because of the hope that affliction itself is helping to secure and increase. So if there is no hope, Paul is a fool to embrace this affliction and an even bigger fool to rejoice in it. But there is hope. And so Paul chooses a way of life that would be foolish and pitiable without the hope of joy beyond the grave. He answers Richard Wurmbrand’s question, Yes. He chooses suffering.
IS THERE A DIFFERENCE BETWEEN
CONFLICT AND CANCER?
Let’s take a brief detour for a moment. Someone may ask at this point, “What about suffering I do not choose? Like cancer. Or the death of my child in a car accident? Or a severe depression? Is this chapter about any of that?” My answer is that most of this chapter is about the suffering Christians accept as part of a choice to be openly Christian in risky situations. And all situations are risky, one way or the other.
The most significant difference between sickness and persecution is that persecution is an intentional hostility from someone because we are known to be Christians, but sickness is not. Therefore, in some situations, to choose to be public Christians is to choose a way of life that accepts suffering, if God wills (1 Peter 4:19). But suffering may result from living as a Christian even when there is no intentional hostility from unbelievers. For example, a Christian may go to a disease-ridden village to minister, and then contract the disease. This is suffering as a Christian, but it is not persecution. It is a choice to suffer, if God wills, but not from the hostility of others.
But then, when you stop to think about it, all of life, if it is lived earnestly by faith in the pursuit of God’s glory and the salvation of others, is like the Christian who goes to the disease-ridden village. The suffering that comes is part of the price of living where you are in obedience to the call of God. In SU F F E R I N G choosing to follow Christ in the way He directs, we choose all that this path includes under His sovereign providence. Thus, all suffering that comes in the path of obedience is suffering with Christ and for Christ—whether it is cancer or conflict. And it is “chosen”—that is, we willingly take the path of obedience where the suffering befalls us, and we do not murmur against God. We may pray—as Paul did—that the suffering be removed (2 Corinthians 12:8); but if God wills, we embrace it in the end as part of the cost of discipleship in the path of obedience on the way to heaven.
ALL SUFFERING IN A CHRISTIAN CALLING
IS WITH CHRIST AND FOR CHRISTAll experiences of suffering in the path of Christian obedience, whether from persecution or sickness or accident, have this in common: They all threaten our faith in the goodness of God and tempt us to leave the path of obedience.
Therefore, every triumph of faith and all perseverance in obedience are testimonies to the goodness of God and the preciousness of Christ—whether the enemy is sickness, Satan, sin, or sabotage.
Therefore, all suffering, of every kind, that we endure in the path of our Christian calling is a suffering “with Christ” and “for Christ.” With Him in the sense that the suffering comes to us as we are walking with Him by faith and in the sense that it is endured in the strength He supplies through His sympathizing high-priestly ministry (Hebrews 4:15). For Him in the sense that the suffering tests and proves our allegiance to His goodness and power and in the sense that it reveals His worth as an all-sufficient compensation and prize.
When we were with you, we kept telling you beforehand that we were to suffer affliction, just as it has come to pass, and just as you know. For this reason, when I could bear it no longer, I sent to learn about your faith, for fear that somehow the tempter had tempted you and our labor would be in vain.
What is plain here is that the design of the “tempter” in this affliction is to destroy faith.
But Satan is not the only designer in this affair. God rules over Satan and gives him no more leash than can accomplish His ultimate purposes. Those purposes are the opposite of Satan’s, even in the very same experience of suffering.
For example, the writer of Hebrews 12 shows his readers how not to lose heart
in persecution because of God’s loving purposes in it:
Consider [Christ] who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons? “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives” [Proverbs 3:11–12]. It is for discipline that you have to endure.… For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. (vv. 3–7, 11) Here is suffering that is coming from “hostility from sinners.” This means that Satan has a hand in it, just as he did in the suffering of Jesus (Luke 22:3).
Nevertheless, this very suffering is described as governed by God in such a way that it has the loving and fatherly design of purifying discipline. So Satan has one design for our suffering in persecution, and God has a different design for that very same experience.
But persecution is not unique in this. The same is true of sickness. Both the SU F F E R I N G
design of Satan and the design of God are evident in 2 Corinthians 12:7–10:
To keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me—to keep me from exalting myself! Concerning this I implored the Lord three times that it might leave me. And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong. (NASB) Here, Paul’s physical suffering—the thorn in the flesh—is called “a messenger of Satan.” But the design of this suffering is “to keep [Paul] from exalting [himself ],” which never would have been Satan’s design. So the point is that Christ sovereignly accomplishes His loving, purifying purpose by overruling Satan’s destructive attempts. Satan is always aiming to destroy our faith, but Christ magnifies His own power in our weakness.
ARE SUFFERING FROM PERSECUTION
AND SICKNESS DISTINGUISHABLE?
Another reason for not distinguishing sharply between persecution and sickness is that the pain from persecution and the pain from sickness are not always distinguishable. Decades after his torture for Christ in a Romanian prison, Richard Wurmbrand still suffered from the physical effects. Was he being “persecuted” as he endured the pain in his feet thirty years later? Or consider the apostle Paul. Among the sufferings that he listed as a “servant of Christ” was the fact that he was shipwrecked three times and spent a night and a day in the water. He also says his sufferings for Christ included “toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure” (2 Corinthians 11:27).
Suppose he got pneumonia from all this work and exposure. Would that
have been “persecution”? Paul did not make a distinction between being beaten by rods or having a boating accident or being cold while traveling between towns. For him any suffering that befell him while serving Christ was part of the “cost” of discipleship. When a missionary’s child gets diarrhea, we think of this as part of the price of faithfulness. But for any parent walking in the path of obedience to God’s calling, it is the same price. What turns sufferings into sufferings with and for Christ is not how intentional our enemies are, but how faithful we are. If we are Christ’s, then what befalls us is for His glory and for our good, whether it is caused by enzymes or by enemies.
IS GLUTTONY ALTERNATIVE RESURRECTION?
THE TO Now we turn from our brief detour to Paul’s amazing statement in 1 Corinthians 15:19 that the life he has chosen is pitiable if there is no resurrection. In other words, Christianity as Paul understands it is not the best way to maximize pleasure if this life is all there is. Paul tells us the best way to maximize our pleasures in this life: “If the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die’” (1 Corinthians 15:32). He does not mean something as naïve as sheer Epicureanism or debauchery. That is not the best way to maximize your pleasures, as anyone knows who has followed the path of alcoholism and gluttony.
Drunks and gluttons are to be pitied just like Christians if there is no resurrection.
But what he does mean by the phrase “Let us eat and drink” is that without the hope of resurrection, one should pursue ordinary pleasures and avoid extraordinary suffering. This is the life Paul has rejected as a Christian. Thus, if the dead are not raised, and if there is no God and no heaven, he would not have pummeled his body the way he did. He would not have turned down wages for his tentmaking the way he did. He would not have walked into five whippings of thirty-nine lashes. He would not have endured three beatings with rods. He would not have risked his life in deserts and rivers and cities and seas and at the hands of robbers and angry mobs. He would not have accepted sleepless nights and cold and exposure. He would not have endured so long with backsliding and hypocritical Christians (2 Corinthians 11:23–29). Instead, he would have SU F F E R I N G simply lived the good life of comfort and ease as a respectable Jew with the prerogatives of Roman citizenship.
When Paul says, “If the dead are not raised, let us eat and drink,” he does not mean “Let’s all become lechers.” He means there is a normal, simple, comfortable, ordinary life of human delights that we may enjoy with no troubling thoughts of heaven of hell or sin or holiness or God—if there is no resurrection from the dead. And what stunned me about this train of thought is that many of the professing Christians seem to aim at just this—and call it Christianity.
Paul did not see his relation to Christ as the key to maximizing his physical comforts and pleasures in this life. No, Paul’s relation to Christ was a call to choose suffering—a suffering that was beyond what would make atheism “meaningful” or “beautiful” or “heroic.” It was a suffering that would have been utterly foolish and pitiable to choose if there is no resurrection into the joyful presence of Christ.