Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler. However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name. 1 Peter 4:12-16
While I was at the Exodus Freedom Conference last month, I attended a workshop for ministry leaders led by Jeff Buchanan. The workshop was entitled Moving Forward into a Culture of Discipleship, and Jeff’s purpose was to equip ministry leaders in the work of growing grace-saturated disciples of Christ within both our ministries and the Church at large. Part of what he taught has particularly stuck with me the last couple of weeks and I wanted to share a few points that I have been able to put into immediate practice both in ministry and in my own life.
Jeff stressed the fact that, as believers, we must learn about and embrace a theology of suffering. So many today seek a life of comfort and ease and happiness. Televangelists preach a prosperity gospel that is anything but biblical. Some teach that if we do God’s will, then God will bless us with material prosperity and physical well-being. I find that thought interesting considering that even the Son of Man had no place to lay His head. If Jesus was homeless and suffered horrendously on our behalf, the idea of comfort and ease should be foreign to his followers as well.
But what do we do with the equally true concepts that God loves us and desires what’s best for us but also allows suffering and tremendous pain in our lives? To 21st Century Americans, pain and hardship do not equal good. All pain is bad pain and personal happiness is the ultimate goal. The passage at the beginning of this post flies in the face of American entitlement and once again shows that, sometimes, pursuing the American Dream requires us to pursue the exact opposite of the Christian life.
Peter addresses two types of suffering in 1 Peter 4: suffering brought upon ourselves by our own poor decisions, and suffering on behalf of Christ and his Gospel. How do we know the difference? There can be two types of physical pain: destructive pain like the pain that is caused by illness and injury, and growth pain caused by exercise and rehabilitation. Pain caused by illness or injury can be destructive for the rest of your life if you do not also experience the temporary pain of physical rehabilitation. Growth pain usually alleviates destructive pain, at least partially if not completely.
In this workshop, Jeff included two very helpful bullet pointed lists that help us determine what pain is good, growth oriented pain, and what pain is destructive in our lives.
The Pain in your Life is Growth Pain if you are:
• Becoming more vulnerable in your relationships with God and with other people
• Humbly recognizing your own character flaws and are allowing God to correct them
• Taking relational risks; stepping out, learning to trust, revealing your true self to people
• Relearning healthy and godly relational skills and boundaries
• Dealing with the emotional wounds and trauma of your past
• Overcoming passivity and learning how to stand up for Truth and righteousness
• Overcoming destructive patterns that you have become dependent upon and are learning to depend on God
• Dealing with grief and loss in an expressive and productive way.
The Pain in Your Life is Destructive Pain if you are:
• Refusing to face character issues
• Choosing wrong relationships and unsafe people
• Repeating destructive patterns and not assuming responsibility
• Harboring unforgiveness
• Living with a false perception or romanticized ideals
• Living in a state of self-pity
So what causes pain in your life? Are you suffering because of the sinful choices of others and your suffering is beyond your control? Are you suffering because you stood up for what is right and are now experiencing persecution for it? Or are you suffering because of your own choices? There is good news for each situation!
If you are suffering due to the sins of others, God is clear in Scripture that He is close to the brokenhearted (Psalm 34:18) and deals justly with the sinner (Romans 12:19). If you are suffering on behalf of Christ, Scripture tells us to take joy in sharing in his suffering because we will also share in His glory! And if you are suffering because of your own foolish choices, there is repentance and forgiveness in the cross and the time spent in destructive pain can be redeemed through growth pain.
Whatever kind of suffering you may be currently experiencing, don’t waste it! Allow God to use it for your good and his glory. Cling to him. Grow in your faith. Share what you’ve learned with others. Be a testimony of his grace to a suffering world. When you suffer for the right reasons, don’t deny the pain, but make sure you acknowledge the accompanying grace and peace and joy of Christ. If you’ve lived your life in destructive pain and are now experience growth pain, don’t give up on the healing process. See the difference in the two types of pain and take comfort in the fact that this season of growth pain will prevent you from experiencing a lifetime of destructive pain. Keep your eternal perspective.