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Even though I am not as far along as Paul was in his passionate love for the church, I thank God that there have been key points in my life when God has rescued me from the pit of cynicism. I recall the days when I was finishing college and starting seminary. The mood in the late sixties was inhospitable to the local church. I can remember walking the streets of Pasadena on Sunday mornings in the fall of 1968, wondering if there was any future for the church—like a fish doubting the worth of water or a bird wondering about the reason for wind and air. It was a precious work of grace that God rescued me from that folly and gave me a home with the people of God at Lake Avenue Church for three years and let me see in the heart of Ray Ortlund, my pastor, a man who exuded the spirit of Paul when he looked out on his flock and said, “My joy, my crown of exultation.” Ten years later there was another moment of crisis as I stood at my writing table late at night in October of 1979. The issue was: Would I remain a professor at Bethel College teaching biblical studies, or would I resign and look for a pastorate? One of the things God was doing in those days was giving me a deeper love for the church—the gathered, growing, ministering body of people that meet week in and week out and move into the likeness of Christ. Teaching had its joys. It is a great calling. But that night another passion triumphed, and over the next months, God led me to Bethlehem Baptist Church.
As I write these words, it has been more than twenty-two years. If I allow
SU F F E R I N G
myself, the tears come fairly easily when I think about what these people mean to me. They know, I hope, that my great passion is to “gain Christ.” And unless I am mistaken, they also know that I live for the “furtherance and joy” of their faith (Philippians 1:25, KJV). It is the aim of my writing and preaching to show that these two aims are one. I gain more of Christ in one converted sinner and growing saint than in a hundred ordinary chores. To say that Christ is my joy and Bethlehem is my joy is not double-talk.
IF JOY SUFFERING IS ADMIRABLE, PURSUE ITIN It should not surprise us, even though it is utterly unnatural, that Paul should say in Colossians 1:24, “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions.” In other words, when I fill up Christ’s afflictions by making a personal presentation of them to you in my own afflictions and pain, I rejoice. I rejoice.
Christian Hedonism simply says that this is a good and admirable thing that Paul is doing and that we should go and do likewise. To treat this magnificent spiritual event of joy in suffering as something small or incidental or not to be pursued is close to blasphemy. I say this carefully. When the Holy Spirit Himself does such a great thing, and thus magnifies the all-sufficiency of Christ in suffering, it is close to blasphemy to say, “It is permissible to experience suffering for others, but not to pursue the joy.” The Christ-exalting miracle is not just the suffering, but the joy in the suffering. And we are meant to pursue it. In 1 Thessalonians 1:6–7 Paul says, “You…received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia.” Notice two crucial things: First, joy in tribulation is the work of the Holy Spirit; second, it is an example for others to follow.
Beware of those who belittle the miracles of the Spirit of God by saying that they are good gifts, but not good goals.
REJOICE PERSECUTION—YOUR REWARD IS GREAT!
IN Christian Hedonism says that there are different ways to rejoice in suffering as a Christian. All of them are to be pursued as an expression of the all-sufficient,
all-satisfying grace of God. One way is expressed by Jesus in Mathew 5:11–12:
“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven” (cf. Luke 6:22–23). One way of rejoicing in suffering comes from fixing our minds firmly on the greatness of the reward that will come to us in the resurrection. The effect of this kind of focus is to make our present pain seem small in comparison to what is coming: “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18; cf. 2 Corinthians 4:16–18). In making the suffering tolerable, rejoicing over our reward will also make love possible, as we saw in chapter 4. “Love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great” (Luke 6:35). Be generous with the poor “and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. You will be repaid at the resurrection of the just” (Luke 14:14)
REJOICE AFFLICTION—IT DEEPENS ASSURANCE!
IN Another way of rejoicing in suffering comes from the effects of suffering on our assurance of hope. Joy in affliction is rooted in the hope of resurrection, but our experience of suffering also deepens the root of that hope. For example, Paul says, “We exult in our afflictions, knowing that affliction produces endurance, and endurance produces proven genuineness, and genuineness produces hope” (Romans 5:3–4, author’s translation). Here, Paul’s joy is not merely rooted in his great reward, but in the effect of suffering to solidify his hope in that reward.
Afflictions produce endurance, and endurance produces a sense that our faith is real and genuine, and that strengthens our hope that we will indeed gain Christ.
Richard Wurmbrand describes how one may survive the moments of excruciating pain of torture for Christ:
you will see that you will overcome this moment of crisis. If you have overcome this one moment of crisis, it gives you an intense inner joy.
You feel that Christ has been with you in that decisive moment.20 The “intense joy” comes from the sense that you have endured with the help of Christ. You have been proven in the fire and have come through as genuine. You did not recant. Christ is real in your life. He is for you the allsatisfying God He claims to be. This is what the apostles seemed to experience when, according to Acts 5:41, after being beaten, “they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name.” The joy came from the thought that their faith was regarded by God as real and ready to be proved in the fire of affliction.
REJOICE SUFFERING WITH CHRIST—IN IT LEADS TO GLORY!
Another way of rejoicing in suffering is kindled by the truth that our joy itself is a proven pathway to glory. Joy in suffering comes not only (1) from focusing on our reward and (2) from the solidifying effect of suffering on our sense of genuineness, but also (3) from the promise that joy in suffering will secure eternal joy in the future. The apostle Peter expresses it like this: “Rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed” (1 Peter 4:13). Joy now in suffering is the appointed pathway to the final rejoicing at the revelation of Christ. Peter is calling us to pursue joy now in suffering (he commands it!) so that we will be found among those who rejoice exceedingly at the coming of Christ.
“Now we live, if you are standing fast in the Lord. For what thanksgiving can we return to God for you, for all the joy that we feel for your sake before our God?” (1 Thessalonians 3:8–9). This is the joy of Colossians 1:24, “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake.” When we suffer to show others the love of Christ and the worth of Christ, it is because every new convert that stands firm in faith is a new, unique prism for refracting the all-satisfying glory of Christ. The joy we feel in them is not a different joy than we feel in Christ. The glory of Christ is our “great gain.” For this we will suffer the loss of anything and everything. And everyone who sees in our suffering the superior worth of Christ, and believes, is another image and evidence of the great worth—and therefore another reason to rejoice.
THE HAPPIEST PEOPLE WORLDIN THE The Calvary road with Jesus is not a joyless road. It is a painful one, but it is a profoundly happy one. When we choose the fleeting pleasures of comfort and security over the sacrifices and sufferings of missions and evangelism and ministry and love, we choose against joy. We reject the spring whose waters never fail (Isaiah 58:11). The happiest people in the world are the people who experience the mystery of “Christ in them, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27), satisfying their deep longings and freeing them to extend the afflictions of Christ through their own sufferings to the world.
God is calling us to live for the sake of Christ and to do that through suffering. Christ chose suffering; it didn’t just happen to Him. He chose it as the way to create and perfect the church. Now He calls us to choose suffering. That is, He calls us to take up our cross and follow Him on the Calvary road and deny ourselves and make sacrifices for the sake of ministering to the church and presenting His sufferings to the world.
Brother Andrew, who heads a ministry called Open Doors and who is most
famous for his 1967 book, God’s Smuggler, describes Christ’s call in the mids like this:
I won’t however, promise you a way to get out.… Jesus didn’t say, “Go if the doors are open,” because they weren’t.
He didn’t say, “Go if you have an invitation or a red carpet treatment.” He said, “Go,” because people need his Word.… We need a new approach to missions—an aggressive, experimental, evangelical, no-holds-barred approach…a pioneering spirit… I’m afraid we’ll have to go through a deep valley of need and threatening situations, blood baths; but we’ll get there.
God will take away what hinders us if we mean business. If we say, “Lord, at any cost...”—and people should never pray that unless they truly want God to take them at their word—he will answer. Which is scary. But we have to go through the process. This is how it has worked in the Bible for the last two thousand years.
So we face potentially hard times, and we have to go through that.… We play church and we play Christianity. And we aren’t even aware we are lukewarm.… We should have to pay a price for our faith.
Read 2 Timothy 3:12: “Indeed, all who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” The church has been much purified in countries where there was a lot of pressure.… All I can say is to be ready.21
NOT PROVE OUR POWER, HIS PRECIOUSNESSTO BUT The answer to this call is a radical step of Christian Hedonism. We do not choose suffering simply because we are told to, but because the One who tells us to describes it as the path to everlasting joy. He beckons us into the obedience of suffering not to demonstrate the strength of our devotion to duty or to reveal the vigor of our moral resolve or to prove the heights of our tolerance for pain, but rather to manifest, in childlike faith, the infinite preciousness of His allsatisfying promises. Moses “[chose] rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin…for he was looking to the
21. Brother Andrew, “God’s Smuggler Confesses,” an interview with Michael Maudlin, in Christianity Today (11 December 1995): 46.
reward” (Hebrews 11:25–26). Therefore, his obedience glorified the God of grace, not the resolve to suffer.
THE ESSENCE CHRISTIAN HEDONISMOF This is the essence of Christian Hedonism. In the pursuit of joy through suffering, we magnify the all-satisfying worth of the Source of our joy. God Himself shines as the brightness at the end of our tunnel of pain. If we do not communicate that He is the goal and the ground of our joy in suffering, then the very meaning of our suffering will be lost. The meaning is this: God is gain. God is gain. God is gain.
The chief end of man is to glorify God. And it is truer in suffering than anywhere else that God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.
My prayer, therefore, is that the Holy Spirit would pour out on His people around the world a passion for the supremacy of God in all things. And I pray that He would make it plain that the pursuit of joy in God, whatever the pain, is a powerful testimony to God’s supreme and all-satisfying worth. And so may it come to pass as we “fill up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions” that all the peoples of the world will see the love of Christ and magnify His grace in the gladness of faith.
I wrote as I did, so that when I came I might not suffer pain from those who should have made me rejoice, for I felt sure of all of you, that my joy would be the joy of you all. (2 Corinthians 2:3) We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete. (1 John 1:4) When you are a starving man among starving people and you discover a banquet in the wilderness, you become a debtor to all. And the payment of that debt is delightful in proportion to the magnificence of the banquet.
I have felt like the lepers of Samaria. The Syrians surrounded the capital of Israel. Inside the besieged city, the fourth part of a kab of dove’s dung sold for five shekels, and women boiled their children for food. But outside the city, unknown to the people within, the Lord had sent the Syrians fleeing. And there in the wilderness was laid a banquet of salvation.
The lepers realized they had nothing to lose. So they ventured into the enemy camp and found that the enemy had gone but left all their provisions behind. At first they began to hoard the treasures for themselves. But then the
first rays of Christian Hedonism began to dawn on them: