When Suffering is Good for You
The Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity| Rev. Rolf Preus| September 7, 2008| Ephesians 3:13-21
Therefore I ask that you do not lose heart at my tribulations for you, which is your glory. For this reason I bow my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, from whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named, that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with might through His Spirit in the inner man, that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the width and length and depth and height; to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge; that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to Him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us, to Him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen. Ephesians 3:13-21
There are times in the life of a Christian that it seems as if faith is going to be overwhelmed by sorrow. Death visits us and lays us low. When a loved one dies we don’t forget about God’s promise of eternal life but sometimes that promise is clouded by what we feel inside. We know that we may not base our faith on how we feel. Our feelings change from day and day and can be deceptive. Our faith is grounded in God’s unchanging word. God never changes, and his truth does not change. Still, when we face death up close and personal, our faith is put to the test.
Death is not the only loss that we face. Our faith is challenged whenever we face a serious loss. There is an assumption – an assumption of pride – that being a Christian ought to bring with it a certain amount of success. After all, if our faith in Jesus is true, if Jesus really is the only begotten Son of God and the Savior of the world, shouldn’t faithful Christians receive honor and glory in this world? Is this not God’s world? But if it is, why does God let his children suffer?
St. Paul had taught the word of God to the Christians in Ephesus and he was now languishing in jail for being faithful to the word of God. By the standards of this world Paul was not much of a success. His contemporaries despised him. The leaders of the Jews conspired against him. The Roman emperor, Nero, was raging against Christianity, and Paul felt his irrational hatred of the gospel, as he was jailed in Rome and eventually put to death. As the Ephesian Christians faced persecution and suffering, as they considered that their dear father in the faith was being abused in prison, as their faith was put to the test, St. Paul wrote this beautiful Epistle for their comfort and for ours as well.
Don’t lose heart when you face suffering as a Christian. Don’t lose heart when Christians whom you have loved, who have taught you God’s word, who have set for you a faithful example of the Christian faith and life, must suffer on account of that faith. Don’t be discouraged. In our text, the Apostle gives us three reasons why we must not lose heart and become discouraged when we see how Christians must suffer.
First, there is for the Christian a direct connection between suffering and glory.
Second, God remains our loving Father even when we suffer.
Third, the Holy Spirit shows us God’s true love in the suffering of Christ.
There is for the Christian a direct connection between suffering and glory. St. Paul writes in Romans 8:29 that God has predestined his children “to be conformed to the image of His Son.” Just think! As Jesus is now confirmed in everlasting glory, so, too, will his dear Christians be! Yes, but Jesus did not enter into glory without first going through suffering. The Epistle to the Hebrews tells us to look “unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrew 12:2) St. Paul also writes in Romans chapter 8, “And if children, then heirs – heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him, that we may also be glorified together.” As it was for Jesus, so it is for us. As he suffered, so do his disciples. As he is glorified, so will we be. But we cannot do it our way. For Jesus, the route to glory was through suffering. It must be so for us as well.
But note the difference between Christ’s suffering and our own. When the Bible says that Christ suffered for us it means that he suffered in our place the punishment for our sins, as the prophet wrote: “And the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” He took our sins away by suffering for us. He made us pure and holy and righteous by becoming the sacrifice to take away all of our guilt. This is what it means that Christ suffered for us.
When we suffer as Christians, we don’t earn anything by it. Christ alone has already earned every spiritual and heavenly gift that could possibly be earned. When we suffer, we are being conformed to Christ’s image. We are learning to live under the cross, that is, under the shelter of grace that his cross provides for us. This is why the Apostle Paul could write to the Christians in Ephesus, “Therefore I ask that you do not lose heart at my tribulations for you, which is your glory.” It is as if he were saying, “You think you should lose heart and be ashamed of the fact that I, your pastor and teacher, am stuck in jail. But you ought to regard this as I do, as a great honor, for God is treating me as he treated his beloved Son.”
Jesus suffered. His people will suffer. Jesus is glorified. His people will share in that glory. There is for the Christian a direct connection between suffering and glory. It is the connection of Christ’s suffering and glory.
Second, God remains our loving Father even when we suffer. Paul was in jail. He wouldn’t leave it alive. The powers of this world saw little of importance in him. He was just a rabble-rousing preacher from a radical sect of the Jews. Paul was nothing. He would die and that would be it. There was nobody to save him. Well, that’s the way it appeared to be. But listen to what Paul said, “For this reason I bow my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, from whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named.” There in jail he called on the power of the Almighty God and Father of Jesus Christ. He appealed to the authority of the Father from whom every human father, indeed every human authority, gains its power to govern. If we know Jesus, we know God the Father and we may, as the Catechism tells us, “with all boldness and confidence ask as dear children ask their dear Father.” There can be nothing that will avail against the power of our God. He kills and he makes alive. The Ruler over the whole universe, the One who keeps and destroys nations, is the one who hears the humble prayers of his suffering children. And when they are alone, suffering, dying, with nobody to help them, God the Father is there and hears their cry and never leaves them. It takes a stubborn faith to believe that, but it is true.
Do you want proof? Then listen to the prayer of Jesus from the cross, “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” Here is Jesus, moments after crying out as the forsaken one, as the suffering servant, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” Even as he is bearing the sin of the world, God is his dear Father. Even as we are bearing the shame of suffering, often alone, often without relief, we remain the precious children of God through our Lord Jesus Christ.
“If you were really God’s children, God would help you.” “God would take better care of you. God would give you a better life.” That’s the claim. And so we have religious entrepreneurs selling a “Health and Wealth Gospel” that has no place for suffering. They teach people that God wants them rich and healthy. You’re not rich and healthy? That’s because you haven’t made God first in your life! In the name of empowering Christians to live victorious lives they place Christians under the burden of false promises. They promise health and wealth but they don’t know what health and wealth are all about. God is our Father, our loving and gracious and generous Father, even when we are poor, sick, and lonely. God remains our loving Father even when we suffer.
Third, the Holy Spirit shows us God’s true love in the suffering of Christ. The true love of God can never be seen in gaining the things of this world that are here today and gone tomorrow. St. Paul speaks of the “riches” of God’s glory. He is talking about the riches the Holy Spirit gives us. They are unseen. They are grasped by faith. He goes on to describe how the Holy Spirit strengthens us in what he calls “the inner man” that Christ would live in our hearts through faith and that through this same faith we would be rooted and grounded in God’s love. How wide is God’s love? How long, how deep, how high is God’s love? Words cannot express it. It surpasses any human knowledge. Yet it is ours. As our suffering humbles us, God, through suffering, drives us to the power we don’t have. That power is from the Holy Spirit. He prepares in our hearts room for Christ who then takes up his home in us. In our weakness, the Holy Spirit shows us the love of God in Christ. God’s true love is found only in Christ. Christ is found only in his suffering. This is what we need to know in our suffering. Only his suffering for us can make any sense out of our own.
On Calvary was a loneliness and sorrow that words cannot describe. Jesus endured being forsaken by God. He became the Sacrifice, the payment to God for the redemption of the world. There God in the flesh bought you by his blood. And he bought you so that you could know God’s love, so that you could be free from the futile life of living only for yourself and for the things of this world. That is love. He who suffered knows your suffering. True love is not letting us take over as our own gods. What a hell we’d make for ourselves if we could actually do that! True love is God showing us, even if through our pain, that we aren’t in charge of our lives. We cannot be. The height, width, length, and depth of God’s love are revealed on Calvary. This love is given to us every Sunday as we are gathered by the God who baptized us and gave us his name.
What do you suffer, dear Christian? What pain? What loss? What shame? Whatever you suffer, three things I can tell you. First, the suffering of every Christian – like the suffering of his Savior, Jesus – ends in the glory of heaven where no pain or death can ever enter. Second, God remains your loving Father even when you suffer and it seems that you are all alone. Third, as you continue to receive the words of the Holy Spirit, he will show you God’s true love in the suffering of Christ. You will know true wealth and nobody will ever take it away from you. Amen.