But I wish you to understand, brethren, that the things which happened unto me have served rather unto the furtherance of the gospel; So that my bonds in Christ are manifest in all the palace, and in all other places; And many of the brethren in the Lord, becoming confident by my bonds, are much more bold to speak the word without fear. —Philippians 1:12-14
For the past week I have been reading the epistle to the Philippians every day while asking the Lord to show me something new from this portion of His Word, and He has done exactly that. I love Philippians. For a long time it has been my go-to for verses about joy. But upon this reading, I see another theme: that of suffering. This theme is evident through words like suffer, bonds, the things which happened, adversaries, conflict, death, offered, sacrifice, affliction, and even palace and Caesar’s household. All told, there are 24 words in these 4 chapters that speak of suffering. Compare that to the 16 uses of joy and rejoice. The conclusion then, is that suffering is a natural part of the Christian life, but we can have joy in the midst of it.
So, if we are called to suffer, what is the purpose? Does God simply delight in giving His children a hard time, or is there a reason for it all? Of course there is! The passage at the top shows us a two-fold reason for suffering.
1. That unbelievers might come to salvation.
Paul wrote this letter from prison. He was there because he refused to be silent about the redeeming work of Christ. As a result, he had many opportunities to talk with the residents of the royal palace, and many of them came to know the Lord as their Savior, hinted at in verse 22 of chapter 4. Paul presented the gospel to the soldiers who guarded him in the prison, to the royal family, and even to Caesar himself. It is almost certain that he never would have had an audience with any of these people had he not been arrested and thrown in prison. But God loved and cared for them as much as for anyone, so He sent Paul to give them the good news of salvation—as a prisoner. The dungeon was still a dungeon, with rats, darkness, dampness, putrid smells, vile food, and more. But none of this moved Paul or discouraged him from serving God with joy.
2. That believers might be more bold to speak the Word without fear.
Not only did Paul reach unbelievers with the truth of the gospel, but he also encouraged his fellow believers by his testimony. When they saw that Paul continued preaching, living by faith, and rejoicing in the Lord in the midst of his harsh circumstance, they too became more bold to speak of Christ in their own situations. They had less reason to fear arrest and imprisonment because they understood that God could use them anywhere and in any circumstance for the furtherance of the gospel. Physical comfort is of little importance when your eyes are filled with the sight of heaven. As Paul said later in that same chapter, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” His whole purpose for living was to tell others about his wonderful Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. What could they do to him? Torture him? They tortured Christ too. Kill him? That would have been gain to Paul, for then his suffering would be over and he would be forever in the presence of the One who died for him. He also understood that he would not die until God was finished with him here on this earth. Man has no power but what God gives him. It seems harsh to think of God actually orchestrating our suffering, but it is true. His ways are so much higher than ours.
Let’s Get Personal
There is a third purpose for suffering. Not only does suffering draw the lost to Christ and strengthen the hearts of the saved, but it also changes the one going through the trial. I’m going to draw this in and get personal now. I like to think of myself as a rock: rough, dirty, and badly misshapen. Suffering is a tumbler. When God places me in the tumbler of suffering and begins to turn the handle, it hurts excruciatingly. I am tossed like a ship in a storm at sea while sharp blades cut away at my rough edges. But when His perfect work is finished, He will pull me out and present me to the Father as a smooth, polished stone, beautiful and fit to be set as a jewel in His crown.
His perfect work will be finished someday. Suffering is temporary, but glory is eternal. And unlike the rock, which goes alone into the tumbler, I am never alone, for my Lord goes with me through all my suffering, at times holding my hand and at times carrying me. Whatever I need He is there to provide.
Life is hard. Period. Life is full of suffering, but it is also full of joy. Understanding that suffering has a multi-faceted purpose makes it that much easier to bear. The joy of the Lord is my strength. Returning to the key verse in Philippians, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” even in the tumbler of suffering.